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Finding the sliver of good in a tragedy

Published: Thursday, January 2, 2014 at 7:38 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 2, 2014 at 7:38 a.m.

No parent wants to admit their child is using drugs. No parent wants to accept that drugs contributed to their child’s death. And no parent wants to think that if only their child stuck with a friend, they might still be alive.

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Alyssa Byrne

But in the past year, Petaluma’s Kevin and Kim Byrne endured all three tragic scenarios.

“Sometimes I think we’re still dealing with it as if it happened yesterday,” Kevin Byrne said Monday afternoon. “We’re getting by, one day at a time, but it’s difficult.”

It’s been a year since Kevin Byrne said goodbye to his 19-year-old daughter Alyssa, as she headed off to the annual SnowGlobe music festival in South Lake Tahoe. Hours after ringing in the New Year and the end of the concert, Alyssa was nowhere to be found.

Her body was discovered days later in a nearby snow bank. An autopsy found she likely died of hypothermia, and a toxicology report revealed she had large amounts of methamphetamine and psychoactive drugs in her system. Her drug use, coupled with the location of her body, caused authorities to speculate that Alyssa Byrne tried to walk to her hotel to avoid the long lines at the shuttle bus after the concert concluded, and then became disoriented in the freezing temperatures.

While many parents would break down after such loss, the Byrnes instead spent the past year helping young adults fight substance abuse and reminding young people of how important a buddy can be when partying.

“At least a dozen kids have reached out to me since Alyssa died,” said Kevin Byrne. “They’ve asked for help with serious substance abuse problems. I’ve sat through many Narcotics Anonymous meetings with them. It’s incredible that this tragic circumstance has helped other people.”

After her death, Alyssa Byrne’s family started the “Always Buddy” program to stress the importance of young people sticking together when they are out. But the charity, which sold bracelets inscribed with the words “Always Buddy,” has been more work than they can handle. The Petaluma Educational Foundation agreed to administer the program and the Byrnes recently gave the foundation the $8,000 they raised selling bracelets this year.

Locally, Petaluma Police Lt. Tim Lyons said cases involving psychoactive drugs like ecstasy are rare, but he does hear about kids abusing pills. At least once a month the department receives calls about “Skittle parties” — where groups of young people pool all their prescription and illegal narcotic pills, drop them into a bowl and randomly take the first pill they grab.

“It’s very dangerous,” said Lyons. “You don’t know what you’re eating. It’s not a major problem, but we are seeing it. There is an epidemic of prescription drug abuse in the nation right now. These types of parties only fuel it. We get reports of one of these parties every few weeks.”

To this day, Kevin Byrne remains convinced his daughter did not know she was taking meth when she was at SnowGlobe.

“The kids who were up there with my daughter told me they thought they were buying one thing, and got something else,” said Byrne. “Kids need to know that just because they think they’re buying ecstasy, doesn’t mean they are. And even if they are getting pure X (ecstasy), it could still have a huge impact on their life. It could kill them. It could forever change the lives of the ones they love. I just want kids to remember that.”

Organizers of the popular outdoor SnowGlobe music festival, which ran from Dec. 29 to 31, changed some concert procedures in the wake of Alyssa Byrne’s death. Event producer Chad Donnelly said the festival has simplified its shuttle system and added twice as many buses as it offered last year. On-site heating tents stayed open longer, to keep concertgoers warm from the winter chill.

“We have worked tirelessly to afford fans a host of different options,” Donnelly said in an email.

Kevin Byrne said he tried to contact SnowGlobe producers to find out what changes were planned for this year’s event. After months of no response, he turned to local businesses in South Lake Tahoe. He connected with The Buttermuffin Smoke Shop, whose owners, Paul and Leandra Hale, volunteered to set up a warming station just outside the SnowGlobe concert. There, young people could stand under heaters, charge their cellphone and receive water — since dehydration is a common side effect of drugs like ecstasy.

“They also had volunteers driving the area after the concert let out each night, picking up kids,” said Byrne. “On the first night of the concert, volunteer drivers picked up at least 10 kids who were wandering through the snow.”

Large-scale events such as the three-day SnowGlobe concert often create a rave-like environment where drug use is rampant. Drugs like ecstasy, which induces euphoria and a boost of energy, are a popular choice for concertgoers. Oftentimes, these club drugs are cut with other, cheaper drugs to improve profits. Methamphetamine is a common choice, due to its low price and similar euphoric effects.

Donnelly said the event had a team of highly trained medical professionals on site to provide assistance to anyone who needs it.

“We are very clear with our patrons that the event does not support any illegal or unsafe behavior,” he said. “Patrons are searched as they enter the event and anyone found to have anything illegal are turned over to the police.”

But Byrne said that after speaking to young people who attended the concert with his daughter, he discovered that law enforcement does very little to curb drug use at the event.

“I have spoken to some of the officers who worked my daughter’s case last year, and they said no one is arrested for drugs or drug deals (at the event),” said Byrne. “Officers are there to be a visible presence and to handle crowd control. But it’s not like they are cracking down on drugs.”

Byrne said he received more than 50 calls from parents whose children wanted to go to SnowGlobe this year. Those who called asked for his advice.

“I’m not opposed to SnowGlobe,” he said. “But I think parents need to be aware what the event really is. It’s really a huge rave. Talk to your children about it. If they go, implore them to use the buddy system. It’s so important that people understand they need to stick together, whenever they are out.”

A memorial for Alyssa Byrne has been scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 4. Because she was an avid player, the event will be held on the lacrosse field at Casa Grande High School at 7 p.m.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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