TRENTON, Maine — The thermometer read just 11 degrees Fahrenheit early Saturday morning when the emergency call came in about a party in the woods off Horse Farm Road.
A young man with a superficial stab wound had gone to Mount Desert Island Hospital for treatment, and hospital employees told police about an underage drinking party. When state police officials got there, they found two partygoers at a nearby residence and learned more about what was happening.
One girl and a few guys had gathered earlier at a makeshift shelter fashioned of fir boughs and tarps. There was a fire, and they were passing around bottles of vodka, according to Maine State Police Sgt. Alden Bustard, who was one of the first to arrive at the scene. Two of the partygoers had gotten into “some type of disagreement,” Bustard said, and had knife wounds.
After the fight the rest of the young people separated, he said. Two got lost in the dense woods. One made it out by himself.
The other was 20-year-old Benjamin Britt.
The police searched for the lost young man for hours in the cold. Then an officer found a boot, and they tracked Britt with the help of a K-9 dog.
By the time they found the former Mount Desert Island High School honors student who played the guitar, dreamed of heading to California and loved spending time with his family, he was dead — apparently of hypothermia, according to police.
But the cold weather did not tell the entire story, they said. The incident is under investigation, and charges eventually may be filed against whoever provided the young people with alcohol, said state police spokesman Stephen McCausland.
Underage drinking had claimed yet another victim, officials said.
“For police officers to tell you that your son froze to death is just beyond comprehension,” Benjamin’s mother, Brenda Britt, said Friday. “Our hearts are broken. Our lives will never be the same.”
‘Kids feel they’re invincible.’
Underage drinking cost Maine $234 million in 2007, according to a research paper distributed by the Maine Office of Substance Abuse. The 2008 Maine Youth Drug and Alcohol Use Survey reported that more than a quarter of Maine high school students had used alcohol in the past month and that 12.5 percent had binged in the past two weeks.
Underlying those numbers are countless incidences of fights, car crashes, risky sexual behavior, property crime, poisoning, injury and even fetal alcohol syndrome.
While numbers of sixth- to 12th-grade students who drink seem to be declining, high-risk drinking among 18- to 25-year-olds is now on the agency’s radar, said Guy Cousins, director of the Maine Office of Substance Abuse. Although it is legal to drink alcohol at age 21, younger legal drinkers are very vulnerable to problematic behaviors such as binge drinking, he said.
“Lowering the drinking age is not the answer,” Cousins said. “People talk about there not being as many problems when the drinking age was lower. There were a whole lot more. They just weren’t reported the same way they are now.”
Britt lived in Hancock County, which has had more than its share of underage alcohol-related tragedies in the last few years, including the 2005 death of Blaine Alley of Bar Harbor in a car crash in Town Hill, the September death by alcohol poisoning of a Winter Harbor teen and a 2008 high school party in an Eastbrook cabin that led to rape charges, although the defendant was acquitted this week.
Hancock County law enforcement has taken a “zero tolerance” approach to underage drinking. Anyone furnishing alcohol to minors is charged with a crime, and police work hard to bust drinking parties.
Even though officers can take heat from the public, Hancock County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Chris Thornton said he’d rather enforce the laws than ignore them. He sounded more than a little frustrated by the difficulties of combating underage drinking in a society which, he feels, largely enables the problem.
Many people feel that police should go easy on partying, he said, which can be seen as a coming-of-age ritual for youth in a rural state where sometimes it seems like the only thing to do.
“We’re not going to squash the problem [of underage drinking],” Thornton, who heads the Hancock County Underage Drinking Task Force, said in a phone interview Thursday. “It takes a tragedy in the community for people to open their eyes, but it opens them for a short time and then they go right back to their ways. Kids feel that they’re invincible.”
But Britt, who family and friends said marched to the beat of his own drummer and wanted to enroll in cosmetology school in Bangor, didn’t talk about feeling invincible before he went to the Trenton party. He just was happy that “the guys called him” to hang out, according to his best friend, Kelsey Erickson of Milford. Britt’s last Facebook update was a cheery message about planning to camp out that night.
“Everybody has this time when they experience alcohol,” Erickson said. “My advice is to stay close to each other. Don’t wander off. Make sure everybody’s OK — and take care of each other.”
What concerns people like Thornton is not so much the fact that teenagers go to parties. It’s that the consumption of alcohol seems to have changed over the years, as teens have more cash to buy more, and stronger, booze.
“Back in the day, you’d show up, there would be a 12-pack,” Thornton said. “Now they have a keg.”
Burt Barker, a counselor at Mount Desert Island High School, said that when adolescents consume alcohol “they go for the gusto.”
“Everyone who’s using is abusing with the intent of getting high,” he said.
The school has a rejuvenated Students Against Drunk Driving program, offers depression and substance abuse screenings to students and makes every student caught violating a substance abuse policy get evaluated. That is in addition to the incorporation of substance abuse education into the academic curriculum, and the school also benefits from a collaboration with the M.D.I. Alcohol & Drug Abuse Group, an area nonprofit that aims to educate about and prevent substance abuse.
“There’s some disconnect between hearing the message and discontinuing doing what they’re doing,” Barker said. “I honestly believe they have the knowledge. It tears me up to see kids at a funeral, and then a few months later, guess what? They got caught [for substance abuse].”
Alyssa Walcott, 17, of Tremont, went to Britt’s funeral on Tuesday. She said that she “isn’t really interested” in alcohol but is worried about the drinking she sees going on around her.
“There’s a lot of Smirnoff, or hard alcohol, a lot of rum and stuff. I’ve seen moonshine before,” she said.
Erickson said she feels that underage drinking is a problem and has had other friends who have been hurt in some way because of alcohol.
“I wish kids would be smarter,” she said. “At parties, you know how everybody’s like, ‘I’ll drink you under the table.’ Why can’t people take it easy? If you’re going to do it, be safe about it.”
That kind of harm reduction makes sense to Brenda Britt, who wishes that the kids at last weekend’s party had taken better care of each other. She also supports Hancock County’s tough law enforcement efforts against underage drinking — and offers a cautionary word to young people.
“If you’re going to go out, make sure you’re with people you can trust,” she said, “who will do everything possible to make sure you return safe to your family.”