February 16, 2010
Are parents doing right by their kids by allowing them to hide behind their lawyers in the Joe Loudon case?
P.J.’s older sister, Alexandra, 19, was also crying.
The Orinda brother and sister were devastated by the death, the night before, of their good friend and neighbor, Joe Loudon (pictured here a week before his death with his uncle, Thomas).
The popular, athletic 16-year-old collapsed at the May 23 party that P.J. and Alexandra were hosting—when their mother and stepfather were out of town. At this party, according to a lengthy story in the Los Angeles Times, teens came and went and paid a $5 entrance fee. Hard liquor, including Jello shots, flowed freely. Police would later learn that a sophomore with a fake ID had bought the alcohol, and that P.J. was with him.
Authorities and the media initially assumed that Joe had collapsed after binge drinking, but a coroner’s report show that he had consumed a small amount of beer, nothing near enough to cause a normal healthy young man to collapse and choke on his own vomit. Unfortunately, the exact cause of Joe’s death remains a mystery, confused by the fact that traces of an unusual drug were found in his system—but that this drug was administered post-mortem, to prepare his body for organ donation.
While Joe was rushed to Kaiser medical center in Walnut Creek, where he was later pronounced dead, P.J. and Alexandra Gabrielli were taken to the Orinda police station for questioning, and P.J. was booked into county jail. His parents bailed him out the next morning and brought him and Alexandra home.
Friends, who saw P.J. in the days and weeks after Joe’s death said the formerly quiet, easy-going Miramonte High student was “shattered.”
This whole case is a tragedy—for Joe Loudon, his parents, and his brothers, of course—but also for a P.J. and Alexandra Gabrielli.
These siblings are in trouble legally: Each faces misdemeanor counts of providing alcohol to minors. But it also sounds like they have suffered a tremendous amount of grief and remorse. As friends told the Los Angeles Times, it’s possible that Joe’s death will haunt them the rest of their lives.
So, given the amount of devastation this case has caused to so many, it’s pretty disconcerting to keep hearing about the evasive, self-protective actions of some of the grown-ups involved. The Los Angeles Times story, written by an Orinda writer who knows the Gabriellis, as well as Joe Loudon and his family, noted how the “threat of a wrongful-death lawsuit and criminal prosecution prompted some parents to hire lawyers, who advised kids not to speak” to authorities.
I myself have written before about Orinda parents “circling the wagons” and putting up a wall of silence in this case.
The latest incident of adults circling the wagons occurred just last week when P.J. and Alexandra Gabrielli were scheduled to be arraigned on misdemeanor charges of providing alcohol to a minor.
But they didn’t show up for their court appearance. Legally, people charged with misdemeanors can send their lawyers to appear in court on their behalf. And that’s what P.J. and Alexandra Gabrielli did. Their lawyer, Mary Carey, herself an Orinda parent, showed up instead to essentially handle this bit of dirty work. Carey entered "not guilty" pleas for them.
Who made the call that for these siblings not to appear? My guess is that Carey assured them an appearance wasn’t necessary, and even advised them against it. (I e-mailed Carey, asking her about this decision, but have not heard back.) Going to court would no doubt be uncomfortable for P.J. and Alexandra. I also bet that P.J. and Alexandra’s parents were happy with this advice, eager to spare their children—and themselves—the hurt and shame of a court appearance. P.J. and Alexandra were probably relieved to not have to go. Who knows? Maybe they had other things they needed to do, places they needed to be.
The decision for them to stay away from court didn’t sit well with the judge. After meeting with Carey and the prosecutor in chambers, the judge ordered P.J. and Alexandra Gabrielli to themselves appear in court at their next court hearing.
Good for the judge. The siblings’ failure to appear in court was wrenching for Joe’s mother, Marianne Payne. She came to their arraignment to hear the charges read against them, to hear them enter their pleas, and--if allowed--to address the court and her late son’s friends.
Here’s what Payne said about their non-appearance.
“I believe it is further indicative of their sense of entitlement to silence this matter,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I believe that these misdemeanor charges are very minor given the fact that a life was lost, and I believe that out of respect to my son and my family, that at a minimum they should have appeared to address them.”
Legally, the risk isn’t too dire for P.J. and Alexandra Gabrielli. My reading of the Business and Professions code, which they are charged with violating, shows that, at most, they each face several hundred dollars in fines and a certain number of hours of community service. No jail; no prison time.
But I also think that justice should be about more than who wins and who loses. It can also be about revealing the truth and leading victims, families, communities--and the defendants themselves--to healing. A big part of this healing comes from defendants stepping up, taking responsibility for their role in a crime, and accepting that they have to take in whatever pain and suffering they caused.
Are the adults around P.J. and Alexandra Gabrielli helping them to take responsibility for their role in this case? I’m not privy to what’s going on in their home with their parents, or in their conversations with their attorney. I don’t know what they told the police about the night of the party. But judging from their non-appearance at their arraignment, it looks like the adults involved need to show that they are truly looking out for the best long-term interests of these two young people.
In my e-mail to the siblings’ attorney, I stated that I may not be mother of the year. "But if your clients were my kids, I would have said, you will be in court."
I'd want my kids to show that they can behave like decent citizens of their community, and to show respect for the law and the family of their friend. I'd also worry that they would never really get past what happened--but that facing up to it in court would help.