A slumber party turned tragic when the parents of 14-year-old Takeimi Rao found their daughter dead after drinking soda mixed with vodka with three friends on Saturday night.
Officials said that Takeimi's mother, Aleae Pennette, took the girls out for burgers for dinner on Saturday. At 2 a.m., Pennette woke up to find three of the girls throwing up, but she helped clean them up and put them back to bed.
Takeimi had not thrown up, cops said.
"She thought they had eaten something bad and were sick from the food," said Lt. Dennis O'Leary of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department.
But in the morning, Takeimi of Santa Rosa, Calif. was found passed out on her bedroom floor. Paramedics came to the house and pronounced Takeimi dead at the scene.
A cause of death has not been confirmed, but police believe she likely died from alcohol poisoning.
Takeimi's mother could not be reached for comment.
"Her parents are stellar people," said O'Leary. "They're devastated."
O'Leary said the family had been renting the house, and the vodka was in the owner's cabinet. They didn't want to throw it out, but it had likely been sitting in the kitchen for years, he said.
"This is a tragic lesson that we all need to learn from," said Susan Foster, vice president and director of policy research and analysis at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. "We as a society think about alcohol and other drug use just as behavioral issues—kids acting out or taking risks—and we don't think of it as a health problem. But from a science point of view, it is."
Research has shown that drinking alcohol during the teen years has a greater effect on the brain than drinking alcohol as an adult.
"The alcohol hijacks the rewards system effect, increasing probability that the teens will take more risks," said Foster. "It interferes with normal brain development and heightens the risk of addiction."
Just last month, Foster authored a report that found that nine out of 10 American addicts begin smoking, drinking or using drugs before the age of 18.
Research has also shows that teen drinking, even in moderate amounts, can elevate liver enzymes, which can lead to liver disease.
"The public health message here is so important," she said.
Much like the way society has learned about the dangers of smoking cigarettes over the years, and has taken steps to stop smoking, Foster said she hopes that American culture will come around to the idea that underage drinking poses real and definitive threats a person's health.
Alex Hamberis, residential director of R House, a teen substance abuse treatment center in Santa Rosa, said that the area, known for its wine vineyards, has sadly seen several teen deaths as a result of alcohol poisoning in the past.
"They drink these spirits and it hits their system and their livers can't possibly handle all of it," said Hamberis. "They go into toxic sickness and their liver can't process it."
"These kids are underage. It's corny to say, but it's true—they're too young to drink," continued Hamberis. "Parents need to say that and not be in denial."
"Adults have to wake up to this," he said. "We're losing our kids."