S E W I C K L E Y, Pa., April 12, 2002 -- Like many parents of teenagers, Don French was reluctant to let his only daughter go to a daylong concert with her friends. But when he finally gave in and let 16-year-old Brandy go, he never imagined how much he would regret the decision.
"She begged me forever," remembers French, who had been raising Brandy alone since her mother's death two years ago. He finally gave in when Brandy said she'd be with two of her older friends, 17-year old Michelle Maranuk and 18-year-old Paula Wilson, whom French knew and considered responsible.
He never considered that his daughter — an honor-roll student whom he describes as "a really good kid" — would try Ecstasy for the first time at the May 2001 concert..
After taking the drug, Brandy started getting "really sick," according to her friends. She became progressively ill as hours passed, but her friends did not seek medical help until she lost consciousness. By then it was too late. Brandy died later that night.
Now her father is taking the unusual step of suing her friends for wrongful death, vowing to make an example of what he says was their fatally bad judgment and failure to get his daughter medical attention in time to save her life.
"My daughter's life was just a phone call away," says French.
The First and Last Time
The night before the concert, Maranuk suggested the girls score some Ecstasy, a popular hallucinogenic that Brandy and Wilson had never tried.
Using Maranuk's contact, they got three pills for $20 each. Maranuk hid them in her bra as they walked past security into the concert. Once inside, they waited for Brandy to call her father, letting him know she was OK.
"As long as she was there, I thought she was fine," says French. "She was with her friends, she made it there, she was fine."
He never suspected his daughter was about to begin her first Ecstasy experience.
Maranuk told her two friends to only take half a pill, saving the other half for later. "They were dancing around," she says, "happy, exuberant. They wanted to take their other half."
A couple of hours later, at about 6:30 p.m., they did. Then, about 40 minutes later, as more friends joined their group, Brandy's happy mood took a downturn.
"She started getting really sick," says Maranuk. "She wasn't dancing or anything, she was just sitting there puking."
Maranuk thought it was just a common side effect of Ecstasy. But as the concert raged on, Brandy's condition got worse. She could hardly sit up. Some her friends helped her walk out of the concert and into the car of an acquaintance, 19-year-old Lewis Hopkins, who offered to take Brandy to his home, where she could sleep off her high.
By 9:45 p.m., they reached the Hopkins home, only a few miles away from Brandy's, where her father was unaware that his daughter was in serious trouble. They told Hopkins' mother that Brandy was drunk, and took her to a bed upstairs.
"She was half-asleep," says Maranuk. "Like more than half-asleep."
That's when Maranuk began to get worried. Still, no one called for medical help. By 10 p.m., everyone assumed Brandy was sleeping. Then, they heard a loud thud. Brandy had fallen on the floor, lodged between the bed and the wall.
Maranuk says she and her friends wanted to call 911, but claims that Hopkins' mother told them not to.
"'Don't call an ambulance. Not right now at least,'" Maranuk says she was told. "We were all so scared we didn't know what to do."
Some in the group later told investigators that despite their pleas to get medical help, the 55-year-old mother thought she could handle things. Rosalind Hopkins said she didn't know Brandy was on drugs or how sick she was.
Finally, by the time Brandy was unconscious, they decided to take her to a hospital. In the driveway, Brandy stopped breathing. Wilson tried performing CPR, and at that point they called an ambulance. By 12:51 a.m., nearly seven hours after Brandy had become seriously ill, she was taken to a hospital 10 minutes away.
French made it to the hospital in time for devastating news. "She was brain-dead," he says. "I lost my daughter."
Maranuk, too, was devastated, saying she had thoughts of suicide. "I knew her since I was a baby," she says. "And I didn't know how I was going to wake up and not talk to Brandy."
An Unusual Lawsuit
Brandy's death stunned her small community. How could a healthy teenage girl die from Ecstasy, a drug most teenagers assume is safe?
Visits to the emergency room for problems associated with Ecstasy increased nearly 700 percent from 1997 to 2000. Though Ecstasy-associated deaths are rare, Pittsburgh coroner Cyril Wecht says taking the drug is like playing Russian roulette, in that no one can predict the outcome. In Brandy's case, he believes, it didn't have to be fatal.
"It is my opinion, based upon a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that if help had been called … Brandy French would have survived," he says.
With that news, French's despair turned to outrage. Believing that he lost his daughter because of her friends' inaction, he decided to take an unusual step of filing a lawsuit. His suit, seeking damages of at least $275,000, names four of Brandy's friends who were at the Hopkins home, along with Rosalind Hopkins and the concert promoter, whom he believes should have provided better security.
The legal claim, says French's attorney, focuses on "the people who were around to see this, and the people who unfortunately did nothing to help out."
Though French recognizes that his daughter paid with her life for "making a stupid choice," he says, "I do not believe that she had to die."
A Pennsylvania jury will decide whether or not French is entitled to be compensated in his lawsuit. But he insists that it's not the money he's after.
"I don't want any other child to go through this," he says. "I don't want that to ever happen again."
Maranuk, who says she's emotionally ruined, says that no lawsuit can begin to teach the heartbreaking lesson she's already learned.
"It's a terrible drug," she says. "It takes lives. It took my best friend."