“Alcohol ruined my life.” Those are the prophetic words of George Huguely in a letter he wrote to Yeardley Love, the woman he is convicted of murdering, a crime for which he will go to prison for a long time. By his own account, Huguely was drunk the night of the murder. Love also had been drinking. Earlier fights they had as a couple, recalled by friends in testimony, also involved alcohol. Consider this haunting question: Is it possible that if neither Huguely nor Love had been drinking that fateful night, she would be alive and he would not be headed for a couple of decades behind bars?
We don’t know when Huguely began drinking alcohol. In 2007 he was charged with underage possession. In 2008 he was arrested for public drunkenness in Lexington, Va. But Huguely is part of an alarming trend of binge drinking and alcohol abuse among young people. According to new research from the Mayo Clinic, of the roughly 40,000 young people in the United States between the ages of 15 and 20 who were hospitalized in 2008, 79 percent were drunk when they got to the hospital. Among all teens, 18 of every 10,000 underage males and 12 of every 10,000 underage females had consumed so much alcohol they required medical attention, either due to alcohol poisoning, an accident or both. The highest incidence of hospitalizations occurred in the Northeast and Midwest.
This is not news to college presidents, high school principals, and, most of all, police. They will tell you that underage drinking in the U.S. is an epidemic. Some blame the drinking age, which was raised from 18 to 21 in 1984. Some blame popular culture, especially films that glorify binge drinking and getting “black out” drunk. Some blame easy access to alcohol, and almost everybody blames parents.
Huguely, who was 22 at the time of the murder, grew up in Chevy Chase and went to high school in Bethesda at the Landon School. Love, also 22, was from Cockeysville, a suburb of Baltimore. Both were about to graduate from the University of Virginia, which has a reputation as a party school. Huguely has been painted as representative of wealth, of prep schools, of lacrosse, but that’s a broad brush. The truth is that he and Love were probably representative of their generation, which has a troubled relationship with alcohol.
“Today every kid has a driver’s license...and a $125 fake ID they got off the internet,” says Capt. Tom Didone of the Montgomery County Police, who oversees underage drinking enforcement. “Instead of sneaking around, they have open access to someone’s home and that’s where they drink.” He says the parents might be away, they might be there. He would like to see schools be required to adhere to a tough county-wide substance abuse policy, even for what happens off campus, and also have tough penalties for parents in whose homes underage drinking occurs. For a second violation of underage drinking at their home, he says, “I think parents should be required to go to an education program and also have to do community service.”
Didone said this would probably not go down too well with a lot of parents. He finds that too many of them condone drinking, think it’s a learning process, that the kids should be left alone or parents should “look the other way.” Baby Boomer parents in particular remember when the legal drinking age was 18. But back then “the access to money wasn’t as prevalent. Kids drank Boone’s Farm or six packs. The amount of alcohol and the consequences were radically different.”
“Parents ask ‘what’s the big deal?’” said Pat Burke, assistant chief of the Metropolitan Police Department. “Look at the sexual assaults and crime related to alcohol. On college campuses about 95 per cent of all crime and rapes are the result of alcohol consumption. Up to 50 per cent of violent crime is alcohol related.” He adds, “There’s been a huge proliferation in the use of fake IDs in recent years,” particularly among college students. And he says he’s also seen more heavy drinking among women. “The females are keeping up with the males now. The binge drinking numbers have skyrocketed, especially among women.”
Montgomery County has an alcohol task force which operated last year from Thanksgiving through the New Year. Officers raided and closed down 23 underage drinking parties and issued almost 300 citations to underage drinkers. Didone said they seized “a tremendous amount of alcohol. We’re talking massive binge drinking.” Some of the teens cited, according to Didone, had blood alcohol levels that were three times the legal limit. “These are future alcoholics.”
But he called the effort only the tip of the iceberg. “We couldn’t get to them all,” he said. “There are so few of us and so many kids out there. We can help parents be good parents but we can’t do their job.” And this was just home parties, not bars and stores, where he said Montgomery County has a rate of about 30 to 40 percent that will sell to minors. The task force will be reinstated next month, when the season begins for college spring breaks, school proms and graduations.
When an underage drinker is busted in Montgomery County, the penalties include taking an alcohol education course, and performing community service, if they are under 18. For those between 18 and 21, they go to District Court and can face penalties of $1,000 or more.
But none of this, Didone admits, has been enough of a deterrent. The drinking goes on. “Youths believe they are entitled. Every weekend we have an alcohol poisoning, an alcohol related sex offense, or a driving fatality...Even good kids make bad decisions.”
Underage drinkers in the District tend to go to bars, with the favorites being in Georgetown, Glover Park and Adams Morgan, and also nightclubs around the city. The punishment for selling to minors in DC includes arrest and fines of $1,000.
Any infraction brings the establishment to the attention of the Alcohol Beverage Control Board. Over the New Year holiday, a Georgetown bar, Third Edition, had its liquor license suspended and was forced to close for five days and pay a $3,000 fine as punishment for serving underage drinkers.
The board has a range of penalties it imposes for subsequent violations, including the revocation of a liquor license. According to Fred Moosally, the director of the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, there were 54 license suspensions in the District last year. (Not all of them were for selling alcohol to minors.)
Of course, not all teens binge or even drink. Burke said, “there are some kids out there who don’t drink or they don’t drink in excess.” Didone laments that “there is no champion for the sober student.” There is a trend on college campuses to offer the option of “sober dorms.” A number of schools have their own versions of Alcoholics Anonymous for students. Joining these programs is voluntary.
Didone is worried that the general community effort has lapsed. “Back in the 90s we had multiple coalitions among police and schools that focused on parents not to enable underage drinking. ” And today? “Now the coalitions are gone, and all those community groups have dissipated, and parents are back to hosting parties, facilitating and enabling and condoning it.”
A recent WUSA-TV story about a liquor store in DC selling alcohol to underage teens, and the raid of a Bethesda teen party, caused a backlash against the reporter, Andrea McCarren. Some parents objected to their children being cited by police. McCarren said she and her own children were harassed for the reports, and Montgomery County police parked a cruiser outside their home for a night.
The hard truth faced routinely by Didone and Burke are the numbers of teens who end up in peril due to alcohol abuse. “It causes kids to be in bad situations where they get injured and sometimes die,” said Didone. In Huguely’s case, the situation was murder. At his sentencing hearing Wednesday night, one of his defense lawyers, Rhonda Quagliana, said, “No person is the sum of the worst judgment he has ever made.”
It’s likely there are many parents in the Washington area, parents of teens and twenty-somethings, who watched the Charlottesville trial with some thought, some opinion, potentially even some dread. It can’t happen to us. Could it happen to us? It’s also likely they feel an overwhelming sadness. The president of UVA, Teresa Sullivan, said “a trial like this may bring a momentary sense of justice or retribution, but our judicial system can never restore to a family what it has lost.”