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Failing Sarah

The last 26 hours of Sarah Rinaldi’s life started off as a party. But it spiraled out of control. A lot of people had the chance to help, but who is ultimately responsible?

By BEN MONTGOMERY
Published August 19, 2006


TAMPA — The door to apartment 301 was open. Medical supplies littered the floor and paramedics were everywhere. Nick Palmer was crying on the couch when Andi Meade walked in.

“I told you you should have taken her to the hospital,” Andi said.

Rescuers wheeled Sarah Rinaldi out and carried her downstairs.

A mile away, at University Community Hospital, nurses cut Sarah’s clothes off and pumped drugs into her 95-pound body.  Just two months before Sarah’s 18th birthday, an ER doctor wrote: “Patient has expired.”

Cell phones started ringing across the plush suburbs of New Tampa and the questions swirled.

How was a 17-year-old allowed to drink so much at a night club?

Three witnesses say Sarah was wasted when she and her friend wrecked their car in Riverview, so why did sheriff’s deputies let her go without calling her parents?

And a few hours later, when her eyes rolled back into her head, when her breathing slowed, why didn’t one of the four friends who saw her dying call 911?

A new message popped onto Sarah’s MySpace page: i told you something like this was gonna happen and it did so f--- all of your little druggie friends ...

This is the story of Sarah Rinaldi’s last party.

The beginning of the end

It was 11:30 p.m. on June 29. The girls were excited and headed  to Club Prana, a hot spot in Ybor City, where the skirts are short and the line is deep.

Molly Preslar figured Julia Hultz and Sarah were high. She noticed distance in Sarah’s eyes.

That was nothing new. Sarah loved Xanax. Even her mother knew.

She was flying when the girls hit the four-floor nightclub a little after midnight. She and Julia, best friends, wore the same outfits — white spaghetti-strap tops and denim skirts.

Though she stood a tad over 5-feet tall, Sarah had no trouble buying drinks and would down at least five, Julia later told her friends. By the time they left at 3 a.m., they were so blitzed that Julia, 19, urinated on the ground in the parking garage, Molly said.

Molly pleaded with Julia to give up the car keys.

“You’re wasted,” she said.

She watched Julia try to drive her father’s Volkswagen Cabrio, stalling out several times as she left.

As the morning wore on, Molly called Julia’s cell again and again.

Finally, at 5:30, an answer. Julia said she had wrecked her car in Brandon. She said she couldn’t talk.

“There are, like, 10 cops around me,” she said.

Then the call went dead.

Losing control

Her room was all pink — bedspread, stuffed animals. A note attached to her mirror said: “Even fairy tale characters would be jelous (sic).”

On her bed was a legal pad filled with doodles of bunnies, letter games and a note that hints at a mother’s struggle to save her only child. You have to start going to school, it said.

From the time she could talk back, Sarah disliked authority. The horseback lessons lasted only a few months. She was always teacher when she played school with her grandma.

“She loved ordering me around,” Coralee Judge said.

Sarah parents divorced in 1998; she was 9. The two shared custody and Sarah lived with her father, president of Tampa’s century-old Rinaldi Printing Co., to age 14. When she moved to New Tampa to be with her mother, Julie Rinaldi, their relationship was strained.

“I would tell her that she was grounded and she’d laugh and walk out the front door,” Mrs. Rinaldi said, chain-smoking on the patio at her home in Pebble Creek, now decorated with flowers and sympathy cards.

By 14, Sarah was smoking pot. Her mom asked a neighbor to screw Sarah’s bedroom screen in place to stop her from sneaking out.

Sarah’s drug use grew so bad that in the summer of 2004, Mrs. Rinaldi moved her to Gulfport, Miss., and Sarah checked into rehab.

Months later, the two moved back to New Tampa for family support, but Sarah started using again. Last August, she and her friend, Julia Hultz, were charged with stealing a $500 Juicy Couture jacket from Neiman Marcus at International Plaza.

Sarah failed a court-ordered drug test and was put on probation, which meant giving clean urine samples for 90 days. She failed 60 days into the testing.

Mrs. Rinaldi thought she was clean when Sarah finished probation on June 19. She learned that Sarah had taken only the drugs she knew would be gone by the time she tested.

Sarah was good at tricking the system.

Though her mother dropped her off daily at the front doors of Wharton High, Sarah missed 22 of 45 days her final semester. Mrs. Rinaldi said maybe she was too much of a friend to Sarah. She thought it was a phase Sarah would grow out of.

“That’s where I was,” she said.

Sarah met Nick Palmer at a party three months before her death. In a short interview, he said, “She was a cool chick.”

The handsome 20-year-old impressed Sarah with meals at Red Lobster and Bennigan’s. He told her mother he was pre-med at the University of South Florida.

“I felt like she finally met a good guy,” Mrs. Rinaldi said.

On June 20, Sarah told her mother she was leaving.

“He can take better care of me than you can,” she said.

A wreck, and release

The Cabrio was stuck on Bloomingdale Avenue, south of Brandon, when Christopher Weed drove by at 3:51 a.m. Weed, 22, who had never met the girls, was on his way home after a night with friends and noticed the car had hit a concrete median and was missing a front tire.

Sarah and Julia stumbled out. They told Weed they were lost. They were 18 miles from Julia’s apartment.

Weed dialed 911 from his cell.

“I didn’t want anything bad to happen to them,” he recalled. “They were so wrecked out of their minds that they didn’t know what was going on.”

Before the deputies came, the girls tried to persuade Weed to help them escape.

“They started kissing each other and stuff,” Weed told the Times. “They told me they’d do anything for me if I’d take them home.”

A deputy arrived a few minutes later, spoke with Weed, then put Sarah and Julia in the back of his car.

“I told them, 'Sorry, you’re going to jail,’ ” Weed said.

The girls did not go to jail. Nor were the parents of Sarah, a minor, called. Nor was Sarah taken to detox at a juvenile center, as Sheriff’s Office procedures call for. Instead, one of the girls summoned Nick Palmer, and the deputies released them, sheriff’s spokesman J.D. Callaway confirmed.

When they arrived at Monticello of 42nd Street apartments at 6:15 a.m., Sarah was unconscious. She would be dead 15 hours later.

The dispatch log shows three deputies, each with about a year on job, responded to the wreck. The primary deputy was William Barnes, whose job evaluation notes that he “includes complete, factual information in his reports.” But a sheriff’s spokeswoman said Barnes filed no report on the incident, even though policy requires one if a vehicle needs towing. Two weeks into a Times investigation, a sheriff’s spokesman said an incident report was filed but was not available to the Times because it was part of Sarah’s death investigation.

Reached by phone, Barnes said he could not recall the incident. He told a reporter he would review the case and call back. When he did, he referred a reporter to his supervisor, who in turn referred questions to office spokeswoman Debbie Carter.

Carter said the detective investigating Sarah’s death is aware of the wreck. She suggested a deputy would not have cause to arrest an intoxicated person for DUI unless the deputy saw the person behind the wheel. If the person were to call, say, his cousin for a ride home, the deputy would likely release him.

But when it comes to intoxicated minors, the Sheriff’s Office has standard operating procedures that are clear: Juveniles under the influence of alcohol or drugs are to be transported to detox at the Juvenile Assessment Center in Tampa, where medical personnel “screen the child to determine if emergency treatment is needed.” If it is, the deputy must transport the child to a hospital. Similar policies are in place at the Tampa Police Department and the Polk and Pinellas sheriffs’ offices.

Even so, sheriff’s spokesman J.D. Callaway said the deputies “appropriately handled the situation.”

Asked if it was common practice to release intoxicated teens who had wrecked a car without notifying their parents, he said: “Because it is an active death investigation, I can’t get into a point-by-point discussion.”

Christopher Weed was shocked to learn what happened. “That’s astonishing,” he said. “Because they’re two little cute girls? There’s a difference in cutting someone a break and doing your job.”

Mrs. Rinaldi said deputies could have prevented Sarah’s death. “They did not follow procedure,” she said. “In my heart, I know that none of this would have happened if they had done their jobs.”

No safety in suburbia

Before it became Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, before it was lined by Panera Bread and Golf Etc. and Macaroni Grill, locals called County Road 581 “The Road To Nowhere.”

Kids raced cars. Hunters parked and chased deer into the woods.

That changed in the 1980s as builders opened massive neighborhoods northeast of Tampa. They had grand gatehouses, palm-lined roads and country clubs, and they were built around golf courses — the same courses where, at night, some teens of the suburbs came to sit under the stars and smoke pot and swap pills.

The problem seemed foreign to parents, as if social ills couldn’t seep through the gates. Some blamed inner-city kids for poisoning the suburbs and sparkling schools.

It was not outsiders supplying highs, though, and this was revealed one incident at a time — an Infiniti in a Pebble Creek pond, a drug bust, a mother’s words to Mrs. Rinaldi: My son is safer in Iraq than he is here.

Some parents here came to learn that although they inspected each report card and demanded their kids wear bicycle helmets, they failed to lock the medicine cabinets.

“We have a prescription drug epidemic and a false sense of security,” said Kim Lang, whose son drove a car into a pond while high. “We don’t want to believe it’s our children.”

Popular drugs like Xanax, OxyContin and Soma are a phone call away. MySpace.com is a clearinghouse of evidence, a place to brag and reminisce about highs. When parents start sniffing around MySpace, kids create fake pages for them to find.

Gary Nager, editor and publisher of the New Tampa Neighborhood News, where Mrs. Rinaldi works, has addressed the issue precariously because his columns are met with criticism. Some residents, he said, lament making problems public for fear it will affect property value.

After Sarah died, Nager wrote a front-page column.

“The fact is that there is a horrifying teen drug problem in this community and it’s not a problem that’s been brought to our area by kids who live someplace else,” he wrote. “It’s our 'good’ kids ... for whom we buy cell phones and iPods and who have more than 200 friends in their MySpace.com circles.

“I’ve never been more frightened, for my kids and yours.”

'She’s got alcohol poisoning’

In apartment 301, Andi Meade, who studies art at USF and tends bar, was sipping a beer and doing school work when Molly Preslar stopped by early June 30.

“Is Julia home?” Molly asked.

“I don’t think so,” Andi said.

Andi, 21, had known Julia since early this year, when they each rented a room in the apartment.

Molly reached Julia’s cell at 5:30 a.m. She was relieved to know the girls were surrounded by police. At least they would be safe, she thought.

A little after 6 a.m., though, Nick carried Sarah up three flights of stairs. He  put her on a futon. As Julia dragged in, she gave Andi a funny look.

Sarah’s face was pale. She was barely breathing. Andi pinched her arms and lifted her eyelids.

“She’s got alcohol poisoning,” Andi told Nick and Julia, she recalled.

“No, she’s all right,” Julia said.

“What did she take?” Andi asked.

“A bar and a half (of Xanax) and alcohol,” Julia said.

“People do not get like this from Xanax and alcohol,” Andi replied.

“She’ll be fine,” Nick said.

Andi walked outside and called Molly from the third-floor landing.

“Julia’s not listening to me. Get over here.”

When Molly arrived, Andi Googled alcohol poisoning and Xanax overdose.

“She had every symptom on the list,” Andi recalled.

“We need to get her to the hospital!” Molly said.

Julia flipped. “This is my best friend!” she shouted. “You don’t need to be here!”

“Your friend’s life is at stake,” Andi said.

“You just need to get out!” Nick shouted at Molly.

“No,” she said. “Something bad is going to happen.”

“Just go,” Nick said.

Molly looked at Nick and Julia. Then Sarah. “As soon as I walked out the door, I started crying,” she said a week later. “I just cried.”

She did not dial 911. She drove home and fell asleep.

Inside the apartment, Andi made a final attempt.

“This is what’s going to happen,’’ she said. “Your girl is going to fall asleep, and she’s not going to wake up.”

Then Andi walked into her bedroom and closed the door. Before long, she, too, fell asleep.

Help comes, too late

The call came just before 9:30 p.m.

Dispatcher: “What is the address of the emergency?”

Julia Hultz: “(...) apartment 301, and, um, the girl is not breathing.”

The physician’s notes on the ER report are spare: “EMS states that patient was with friends and drinking heavily on the night of 6/29. She was last seen alive this morning at 10 a.m. Approximately 1 hour prior to arrival patient was found by friends to be ­cyanotic and pulseless, apparently with vomitus in her mouth. EMS called approximately 30 minutes later (I have no information what transpired during that 1/2 hour) ...”

At 1:45 a.m. on July 1, the ER report declared her dead.

Back at 301, a deputy directed everyone outside where a detective took statements.

Andi told him about that morning. She slept until 2 p.m., then left in a rush to meet her father for lunch. She got a tattoo of a clover on her wrist then hung out with friends until she returned at 10 p.m. to find rescue vehicles in the parking lot and Nick on the couch in tears.

The detective questioned Nick and Julia.

Julia put on Sarah’s clothes and opened a beer.

Desperate for details

Sarah’s mother needed some kind of accounting of what had happened. How many people had failed Sarah?

Molly needed to talk. Her eyes were puffy when she showed up at Mrs. Rinaldi’s house. Molly said she tried to help and apologized for not pushing harder. Mrs. Rinaldi  thought she could forgive her.

A few days later, Andi agreed to meet Mrs. Rinaldi. It was raining outside Tampa Brickyard when they slipped into a booth in the back. Andi munched on chips as she recalled that morning. Mrs. Rinaldi blotted her eyes with a bar napkin.

Why hadn’t Andi called 911 herself?

“I think about that every day” she said. “But I can’t live my life thinking, 'What if?’ ... It wasn’t my situation.”

She looked at Mrs. Rinaldi.

“That was hard,” Andi said. “Sorry.”

Mrs. Rinaldi was silent.

“I love you,” Andi said as she grabbed her purse.

“Be good,” Mrs. Rinaldi said.

She still had questions, but Mrs. Rinaldi’s emotions were wearing so thin she couldn’t contact Julia or Nick.

By July 15, Julia Hultz was gone from apartment 301, and her parents’ 3,200-square-foot home in Hunter’s Green sat empty, a for sale sign in the lawn. She didn’t return calls. Reached by phone, her mother, Esther Lord, said a move from New Tampa to Dallas was planned because of a job transfer. She said Julia has used prescription drugs but wasn’t using them the day Sarah died.

“She has led an incredibly sheltered life,” Lord said. “She never even knew about any of these types of things until we moved to New Tampa and all this came crashing down.”

She questioned why deputies released the girls to Nick and why no one else dialed 911. She wondered why Sarah’s friends were blaming Julia when Sarah swallowed the pills.

“I don’t want to sound cold,” she said, “but ... are others responsible for what she does?”

Julia defended herself in an e-mail to a friend, which was given to the Times.

“i was f----- up and freaking out and my roommate was freaking out then molly shows up out of nowhere and starts freaking out too (...) me and nick stayed up til 11 am with sarah.. she woke up ... went ot the bathroom, ask for some water, drank it (...) and went back to sleep ... thats when we finally went to sleep, not until after we believed she was okay.”

She went on to say there were drugs in her room when the paramedics and deputies showed up.

“We didn’t put anything in (Sarah’s) purse ... when we called 911, we had weed and (Xanax) bars in the room just sitting on the counter ... they didn’t really look that hard thru my room. they said when they left that they were going to assume they were sarahs only because they could not prove that they were anyone elses ...”

When reached by phone, Nick Palmer spoke briefly of his relationship with Sarah. He did not show up for an interview the following day and has not returned messages since.

He is not enrolled in classes at USF, a university spokeswoman said. A search for a criminal record for Nick found no charges. He lives with his mother in a townhouse in Odessa.
 

Before Sarah died, Nick’s title on his MySpace page was “Doc.” After her death, her friends left messages on his page:

“you’re a piece of s---,” one wrote.

“see what f------ happend to her!!!!” wrote another. “she was 17 years old.”

Nick posted his version of the story on his MySpace page.

“i can still taste her vomit on my lips,” he wrote. “trust me no one is more hurt by it then me ... yall that want me dead  ... id almost prefer it that way..”

Epilogue

The Hillsborough County medical examiner ruled that Sarah died from an accidental overdose. Drugs found in her system were oxycodone (the generic name for OxyContin), alprazolam (Xanax) and dextromethorphan, a narcotic in cough medicine. Sheriff’s Detective Troy Morgan said his investigation is still open and he can’t talk about it. No charges have been filed.

Julie Rinaldi is trying to raise money for scholarships to pay for drug treatment for teenage girls.
Sarah would have turned 18 on Sept. 7. For her birthday, Mrs. Rinaldi is planning to spread her ashes on Anna Maria Island.

The reporting  of this story

The events and dialogue in the scene involving Club Prana were recreated from interviews with Molly Preslar and e-mails to a friend from Julia Hultz. The scene from the car wreck was recreated from a 911 tape, a dispatch report and other sheriff's documents, and interviews with Preslar and Chris Weed. The scene and dialogue at the apartment was drawn from interviews with Preslar, Andi Meade and others, a 911 recording and MySpace.com postings from Nick Palmer and Julia Hultz. Dialogue between Meade and Julie Rinaldi was witnessed by the reporter. Documents used include the medical examiner's toxicology report, a paramedic report and an emergency room report. Julia Hultz and Nick Palmer declined multiple requests to be interviewed. Club Prana management did not return calls for comment. Sarah's father, William S. Rinaldi declined to comment.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.