Drug Overdose as Internet Pals Watch
"I told u I was hardcore."
Those were the last coherent words Brandon Vedas, 21, typed into the computer in his Phoenix bedroom as he showed off for Internet pals watching on a Web cam by swallowing more and more prescription drugs.
Vedas died online as a crowd of virtual onlookers egged him to "eat more!" A chilling record of the Jan. 12 chat reads like an Internet version of the notorious 1964 Kew Gardens, Queens, stabbing of Kitty Genovese as her neighbors watched from their windows.
In Vedas' case, some did try to help — begging him to stop, to call 911, to get his mother from the next room. After he passed out, some tried frantically to figure out his location while others argued against getting involved.
But the technology that brought as many as a dozen chatters into the intimacy of Vedas' bedroom was unable to tell them where he was. Internet Relay Chat is anonymous, and no one in the drug users' chat group knew the last name of the young man who called himself Ripper.
Vedas was a casualty of a new epidemic: a surge in the recreational use of pharmaceuticals, even as the rate of illegal drug use holds steady or declines. The most recent survey by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says 11.1 million people used prescription drugs for fun in 2000, nearly half of whom were under 25.
In New York City, the number of people showing up in emergency rooms after taking too many legal narcotics jumped 47.6% from 2000 to 2001, the most recent year for which numbers are available.
"In 2001, for the first time, we had more emergency room mentions of prescription narcotic analgesics nationally than for heroin," said Dr. Westley Clark, director of the administration's Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.
In Internet discussion groups, users trade tips on how to fake symptoms to con a doctor into prescribing pain relievers, tranquilizers, stimulants and sedatives.
By his own account, bragging in the hour before he died, Vedas ingested large doses of Klonopin, Methadone, Restoril and Inderal, along with marijuana and 151-proof rum. All but the pot and the rum apparently were legally prescribed for him by a doctor and a psychiatric nurse, according to his angry and mystified family.
"It's the ideal situation — it's legal and it's free," said Vedas' brother Rich. "And most people assume that if a doctor is giving you something, it must be fine."
Vedas, who worked in computer support at the University of Phoenix, knew a lot about the dangers of mixing drugs. But he also bragged delusionally about his "high tolerance." His mother knew he had been prescribed pills for depression — but no one in the family knew he was mixing his medicine for fun, his brother said.
On the night of Jan. 12, Vedas urged chat pals to log onto his Web site and watch him go through his stash. "Bottoms up, fellas!" he crowed.
"Don't OD on us, Ripper," said one of the onlookers watching Vedas swallow pill after pill.
"That's not much," said a teenager from rural Oklahoma who calls himself Smoke2K. "Eat more. I wanna see if you survive or if you just black out."
In the macho atmosphere of the druggie chat room, Vedas seemed to have something to prove. "This is usual weekend behavior. U all said I was lying," he said.
He said it was safe and noted, "My mom is in the next room doing crozzwordz."
As he took more and more, Vedas' typing became disjointed. His chat pals cheered him on.
"Ripper — you should try to pass out in front of the cam," suggested one gleeful voyeur.
Vedas even tried to protect himself against disaster.
"In fase anything goe wrong," he said, typing his cell phone number. "Call if I look dead."
Soon, he did.
Soon, he was.
"I am online with 911. Is this the right choice?" asked one chatter. "NO NO NO NO NO," said another. "I talked my way out of it," came the reply. "I didn't give them any info."
In the end, there was nothing they could do.
Vedas' cell phone was off or not loud enough to rouse anyone else in the house. They looked up his Web site registry, but he had listed his home number as 555-1234.
And the online chatters didn't know his real name or location.
His mother found him at 1 p.m. the next day sprawled on his bed. The tech whiz's computer had shut down and locked itself automatically, so it wasn't until more than a week later that the family found out his death had had witnesses.
"It seems like the group mentality really contributed to it," said his brother, calling the transcript "disgusting."
"These people treat it like somehow it's not the real world," he said. "They forget it's not just words on a screen."