It looks like water, but it can kill

By LEANORA MINAI | St. Petersburg Times
Published : Jan 29, 2001

People are using GHB and related chemicals to get high. Michelle Benge drank a capful after a night of celebrating the new year. She never woke up.

On New Year’s Eve, Michelle Benge and her boyfriend paid $40 to attend an all-you-can-drink party at an Ybor City nightclub.

When they got home, they decided to continue the party by drinking a liquid that looks like water but packs a powerful punch.

Benge never woke up. Her boyfriend told police they drank gamma hydroxybutyrate, known as GHB, an intoxicant and date rape weapon.

Teenagers and young adults are gulping it and its cousin chemicals to get high. Whether it’s a swig from a water bottle on a dance floor or a shot to heighten libido, it is available and addictive. Emergency room visits are on the rise. And overdose deaths, though rare, are steady.

“I mean, it’s a floor stripper, and people are drinking it,” said Reta Newman, director of the Pinellas County Forensic Laboratory.

Once sold in health food stores, the odorless liquid was taken by bodybuilders who believed it stimulated growth hormones.

GHB is illegal now, except for industrial use. But under sneaky names, the chemical and its cousin solvents, which turn into GHB in the body, are sold through the Internet as ink jet cleaners and nutritional supplements. A capful might provide a buzz or induce sleep. A little more, mixed with alcohol, could mean a coma or death.

So far, more than 5,700 people nationwide have reported injuries or overdoses from GHB-related drugs, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, and at least 76 have died.

Over the past several years, seven people have died from GHB- related complications or overdoses in the Tampa Bay area, according to medical examiner’s offices covering Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.

Benge’s official cause of death has not been determined, but police detectives say GHB, alcohol and Ecstasy were a fatal combination for the St. Petersburg mother of two.

‘A fun, loving person’

Benge, 30, tended bar and danced at the Shangri La nightclub on North Dale Mabry in Tampa. But she dreamed of a life as a paramedic and looked forward to visits to Walt Disney World with her children, Sierra, 13, and Samuel, 12.

Benge was born in Dayton, Ohio. Her mother, Charlotte Sparks, was a homemaker. Her father worked for NCR Corp.

When she was 16 years old, Benge dropped out of school, had Sierra and got married. She moved to Florida with her husband and had Samuel. But their marriage soured and they split up.

Over the years, she tried to reconcile with her ex-husband and moved back to Ohio, but returned to Pinellas County.

Benge lived with her mother in Holiday or with Debbie Larkin, a friend of 12 years, in Oldsmar.

“She was a fun, loving person,” Larkin said. “She was caring. When she stayed with me, I had a few hard times myself. She pulled me out of them.”

Larkin hired Benge at a Pick Kwik store in Oldsmar. Their children played together, and Benge called Larkin “Mamasan.”

“She was like my kid,” said Larkin, 42.

Family and friends recall Benge’s generosity. She adopted Misty, a gray kitten, from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or SPCA. On a road trip to Florida, Benge gave $10 to a homeless man outside a gas station. Another time, she took a gold cross from her chest and gave it to a little girl dying of cancer.

“She pinned it to her and said, ‘You need it more than I do,’ ” Benge’s mother said.

About 1 1/2 years ago, Benge met Ronald “Chance” Thompson, her boyfriend. They lived together at Mallard Pointe Apartments in St. Petersburg.

On New Year’s Eve, Benge was depressed because her children, who live in Ohio with their father, did not visit over the holidays. Going out would cheer her up, her boyfriend suggested.

In Ybor, they drank a lot, and Thompson told police Benge took two Ecstasy pills.

When they returned to St. Petersburg at 6:30 a.m. New Year’s Day, Benge took a bath and swallowed a capful of GHB – a central nervous system depressant – before going to bed at 10 a.m., her boyfriend told police.

Twelve hours later, her boyfriend woke up and tried to wake Benge, too.

“He shook her several times,” said Dan Bates, a police spokesman. Thompson tried CPR, but there was no response.

St. Petersburg police and paramedics were called to the apartment at 10:37 p.m. Shortly after, Benge was pronounced dead.

Homicide detectives are investigating, but they do not suspect foul play. In some cases, the supplier of a drug can be charged with a crime.

Benge’s boyfriend has not told detectives where they got the GHB, police said.

“He can’t provide us with any specific individual,” said homicide Sgt. Mike Puetz. “He provides us with theories.”

Thompson agreed to an interview with the St. Petersburg Times last weekend. He even suggested a headline for the story: “Death of An Angel.” But Thompson did not show.

“I can’t talk about it right now,” he said later. “It upsets me.”

He referred questions to an attorney, Roger Futerman. But Futerman did not return a telephone message.

Problem in this area

The potency of GHB and its cousin industrial solvents, GBL or 1,4- BD, vary from batch to batch. People who pay $5 to $10 for a dose of someone’s home brew do not know what they’re getting. Results are unpredictable. When mixed with alcohol, heavy sedation, coma or death is not uncommon.

“It would be like quintupling the effects,” said Newman, director of the Pinellas forensic lab.

The lab has experienced a dramatic increase in liquids submitted for GHB testing, up 110 percent between 1999 and 2000.

“This is a problem in this county,” Newman said.

Detecting GHB is another problem, resulting in under-reported injuries and deaths. The chemical leaves the body four to eight hours after ingestion, experts say.

“If you don’t get a urine sample in that time, there’s no evidence of the drug in you,” Newman said.

Benge’s autopsy was done 27 hours after she drank GHB. The chemical may never be detected in toxicology reports.

Benge’s mother has heard varying accounts of what happened from her daughter’s boyfriend.

“Nothing he said makes sense,” Benge’s mother said.

She is left with an empty hole.

“A part of myself has died,” she said. “I see a blond girl with her back turned and take a double look, thinking it’s her.”

– Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.