It was the first night of Christmas vacation in 2008. 17-year-old Shelby Allen, a star athlete and honor student, had asked her parents for permission to spend the night at her friend Alyssa’s house.
Her mom, Debbie, who had a long career in law enforcement, had no reservations with Shelby’s request, despite being known around their California town as one of the “stricter moms.”
“We knew Alyssa. We knew her parents.” Debbie tells Good Housekeeping.
After Shelby and Alyssa returned from a late-night food run, another friend, “Jane,” invited them to her house. Jane told Shelby in a text message that she and her family were drinking.
Shelby had been caught drinking by her mother before, and ever since then, her mom had an especially keen eye on her daughter. However, this time she didn’t know her daughter was going to Jane’s house.
Throughout the night, Shelby sent texts and pictures of the stocked bar at Jane’s house, and even group photos with Jane’s parents to her friends. Yet, it was when Jane’s parents went to bed that things took a turn for the worse.
According to a statement made to the police, before Jane’s parents went to bed at 1:00 a.m., they warned the girls not to drink.
They didn’t listen. It was 1:08 a.m. when Shelby took her first shot of vodka. Her goal was to take 14 more by the end of the night.
“I honestly don’t know why she got that number in her head,” Alyssa admits to Good Housekeeping. “Maybe she saw someone do it at a party. We all told her it was a bad idea, but she was determined to make that her goal.”
Exactly 50 minutes later, Shelby reached her goal of 15 shots. Then she got sick.
Her friends took her to the bathroom where she became unresponsive. When Jane saw Shelby convulsing and gagging, she texted a guy friend for help, but when it proved too difficult for him to come over she told him, “nevermind.”
As Good Housekeeping reports, her friends propped her up on the toilet and continued to check on her throughout the night until they fell asleep themselves.
The next morning, Jane’s father was on his way to work, when he encountered his daughter before walking out the door. He asked how the night before went. Jane mentioned Shelby wasn’t feeling well, but didn’t seem too alarmed.
An hour later, Alyssa woke up and went to check on her friend. She found Shelby still slumped over the toilet seat with her face covered in blood and her neck bruised from resting on the toilet for so long, to the point it looked like someone had “strangled” her.
Alyssa yelled for one of Jane’s older sisters, who called her father to return home. When he saw the state Shelby was in, he called 911 immediately. When EMTs arrived at the house, they found a light pulse but were unable to revive Shelby.
At 9:40 a.m. on December 20, 2008, Shelby Allen was pronounced dead at the scene with a 0.33 blood alcohol level, an amount of alcohol in her system equivalent to an eight ounce water bottle.
Shelby’s mom, who lost a child to sudden infant death syndrome in 1987, remembers a moment she had with her daughter not long before she tragically passed away.
“Shortly before I lost Shelby, we watched Steel Magnolias together; Shelby, the daughter, dies in the movie, and I remember thinking as I watched my dear girl next to me, How could I be without her? I told my Shelby, ‘Don’t ever leave this world before I do; I couldn’t take it again.’ We sat there sobbing together, and she said, ‘Mom, don’t worry; I won’t!’”
Shelby’s father pieced together most of what happened that night through pictures and texts on his daughter’s cell phone, but when they came looking for more answers, those who were with Shelby that tragic night were silent. Shelby’s family believed the only way to get those answers was to go to the police.
However, because of a law in California described as social hosting, which states that those who choose to imbibe are responsible for the consequences, not those who provide the alcohol, Jane’s parents couldn’t have criminal charges brought against them.
As Debbie tells Good Housekeeping, she feels Jane should have called 911 the moment Shelby started convulsing.
Jane’s actions, however, were viewed as criminally negligent by Debbie’s lawyers and she was charged with involuntary manslaughter. Yet the judge assigned to the case acquitted the 16-year-old of all charges, citing Shelby’s “unwavering intent” to achieve a goal of 15 shots.
Now, Debbie has dedicated her life to educating kids on the dangers of binge drinking, and advocates for stricter underage drinking and social hosting laws. Shelby’s Rules are straight and to the point: if a person is passed out from drinking too much alcohol, try to wake them up, and if they don’t respond, call 911 and get an adult involved.
“Life gives you two choices when you suffer a tragedy: Give up or move on. I have a husband and another child to love and take care of. I must move on, for their sake if not mine.”
With Shelby in her heart, Debbie continues to be the voice her daughter no longer has to prove to other teenagers that it’s not just the “wild partiers” who can get themselves into trouble.