By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun
Michael Thomas Truluck, 13, texted his family that he needed a ride home shortly before 6 p.m. Saturday. His mother said she saw nothing unusual in the request and sent her fiance to pick up Michael and two other boys, who had spent the afternoon together.
"I knew he was hanging out with a bunch of friends, and there was nothing unusual about that," Kristina Keys said. "He texted and asked for a ride home. We picked him and two friends up."
Keys said she had no idea that his Saturday afternoon, which usually included lunch at a fast-food restaurant and hoops at Double Rock Park in Parkville, involved drinking an alcohol-laced energy drink, which an unidentified adult purchased for the pre-teens. The drink, Four Loko, comes in a 23.5-ounce can that is 12 percent alcohol. The drink made her son ill, she said — his friends told her he had thrown up twice before getting in the car.
About 6:15 p.m., just as the family Jeep was making a left turn onto 8300 block of Harford Road, Michael said he was again feeling sick. He took off his seat belt, opened the front passenger door, fell out of the vehicle and was struck by a Ford Explorer driving north on Harford Road.
"I think he felt so sick that he was not thinking about anything," Keys said. "I don't think he was wearing a seat belt."
The eighth-grader at Parkville Middle School died that evening at Franklin Square Hospital. No one else was injured. Baltimore County police are awaiting the results of an autopsy and are continuing their investigation. No charges have been filed.
Mike Gimbel, who runs an anti-drug program at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, said alcoholic energy drinks have become increasingly popular with underage drinkers. Even children as young as Michael are putting their lives in danger and testing the many flavors.
"One drink can contain the equivalent of four beers," he said.
Phusion Projects of Chicago, which manufactures Four Loko, said on its website that the company exceeds federal labeling requirements and works to ensure its products remain out the hands of minors. The company also provides free educational materials and training.
"Our labels and marketing materials clearly state our message: If you're 21 or older and choose to drink, please drink responsibly. If you're under 21, respect the law and don't drink," according to the product's website.
"Four Loko cans feature seven different warnings about the product's alcohol content and the necessity of an ID for purchase," the site says.
Manufacturers have also agreed to cut down the caffeine, but not the alcohol, Gimbel said. The maker of Four Loko, Phusion, told the FDA in late 2010 that it had stopped adding caffeine entirely.
So to get the same boost, kids now drink it along with an energy strip that is equivalent to a cup of strong coffee, Gimbel said. About 2,000 high-school and college-age youths died of alcohol poisoning in 2010, he said.
"Kids are drinking and playing games, and it is resulting in many cases of alcohol poisoning," Gimbel said. "They don't understand how powerful this is. Their bodies cannot keep up, especially a 13-year-old. They get sick and pass out."
Michael Truluck's friends organized a candlelight vigil at the accident scene Sunday night. It drew dozens, and Keys said it provided her a measure of comfort.
"It meant a lot that so many people, kids and parents, came together for the vigil," she said. "Michael just made everyone so happy. He was so full of life. He loved football and the Marines."
She hopes others learn from her son's experience, but she fears many parents are, as she was, in denial. She said she wants to alert parents to the problem of underage drinking.
"This drink is illegal and way too powerful for kids," she said. "They all think they are invincible, but this shows them they are not."
She also urged parents to communicate with their children. "Know where they are and who their friends are," she said.
Gimbel plans to contact the middle school, which was closed Monday for the Presidents Day holiday, and offer his counseling services to students and their families. The school is also expected to have grief counselors available when it reopens.
"God bless this mother for being so open about what happened," he said. "We can learn from tragedies like this one. And, maybe, we can get after manufacturers who are making products that are super-high in alcohol."
Clarification: Kristina Keys says her son, Michael Thomas Truluck, had been wearing his seat belt before opening the Jeep's door, when he took it off.