Leah's ecstasy death 'like horror film'

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The Independent Online
The parents of ecstasy victim Leah Betts yesterday told a packed coroner's court of the terrible moments when their daughter clawed at them in agony before collapsing into unconsciousness.

In the evidence to Chelmsford coroner's court, in Essex, Paul and Janet Betts relived the night of Leah's 18th birthday last November when she took the ecstasy tablet that was to kill her.

After hearing that "ecstasy poisoning" caused Leah to collapse and die, the coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death.

Their heads bowed, Mr Betts's arm protectively around his wife's shoulder, the couple sat quietly as Sarah Cargill, a long time friend of Leah's, described how the two girls had given up clubbing at Raquel's in Basildon, after an argument with a member of staff there. She said the two then preferred to stay in and though they had experimented with cannabis and amphetamines before, neither were regular drug users.

Miss Cargill explained that the girls had arranged to buy four tablets from a friend's new boyfriend. They were warned the pills were stronger than those they had tried before and on that Saturday night they had discussed whether to take a whole or just half a tablet. They both swallowed a whole tablet at 7.45pm and waited for guests to arrive.

"I felt different from how I had on previous occasions but I still felt fine," Miss Cargill said.

Leah had drunk only moderately during the evening and had spent most of the time chatting with friends. She only became ill towards the end of the night when she began drinking "glass after glass" of water.

Taking up the story, Mr and Mrs Betts came close to tears as they described how their daughter stopped breathing within minutes of being taken ill in the family bathroom where she had gone to drink water.

Mrs Betts said: "I went upstairs and found her leaning over the washbasin. I said, 'What's up Leah?'. She turned round and when I saw her eyes I knew there was something wrong. They were so big, they were enormous. It was like something out of a horror film."

As the couple carried Leah to her bedroom, she revealed to them how she had taken the drug as she had done twice before. She then became increasingly ill, complaining of numbness in the face and legs, and of a headache and feeling sick. "She was clawing and screaming at me to help her," Mrs Betts said.

The teenager slumped into a deeper state of collapse just as her mother was put through to ambulance control. The couple began artificial resuscitation after Leah stopped breathing. She was pronounced dead after showing no sign of recovery during five days of intensive care in Broomfield Hospital, Chelmsford.

Dr Alasdair Short, the consultant who treated her, said tests showed she had a much higher water level in her body than might have been expected and was effectively suffering from "water intoxication". The resulting pressure on the brain stopped the part which controls normal functions, such as breathing, from working properly.

One of Britain's leading ecstasy experts, Dr John Henry of the National Poisons Unit at Guy's Hospital, London, said several cases in recent years had showed that the impact of drinking too much water to counteract ecstasy's effects could be just as damaging as the dehydration often associated with the drug. He said in some people ecstasy reduced the kidney's ability to cope with water. Dr Paula Lannas, the Home Office pathologist, said that there were no safe levels of the drug.

Noting Leah's rapid deterioration took only a quarter of an hour. Coroner Dr Malcolm Weir concluded: "If she hadn't taken the ecstasy, she wouldn't have had the problem."

Recording a verdict of accidental death caused by non-dependant abuse of drugs, Dr Weir paid tribute to the "stoicism and strength of character" of Mr and Mrs Betts who have campaigned ceaselessly against the use of ecstasy since Leah's death. "I can only hope that all these efforts in bringing to a public forum all the dangers of ecstasy will be listened to by those people who expose themselves to this drug," he said.

"If it prevents one more fatality, Leah Betts's death will not have been in vain."

After the hearing, Mr Betts, a retired policeman, said the inquest was "the end of a chapter". But he and his wife, Leah's step-mother, would continue their campaign. "It's so pointless [young people] throwing their lives away for a couple of hours of fun," he said. "This verdict is a clear cut message... Nobody knows how this drug is going to affect you."