Even before Notre Dame football recruit’s death, Fla. was cracking down on underage drinking

Monday, April 5, 2010

More alcohol agents in Fla. town where player died

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — Even before a Notre Dame football recruit died in a drunken fall from a hotel balcony, extra alcohol enforcement agents were on duty in this Panhandle town, just as they are every year for spring break, officials said Monday.

Matt James, 17, of Cincinnati, was the second teenager in two weeks to die. Police say the 6-foot-6, 290-pound offensive lineman was drunk and acting belligerent when he fell Friday night as he leaned over a fifth-floor railing to shake his finger at people in an adjoining room.

Brandon Kohler, a 19-year-old from Winder, Ga., died March 24 when he also fell from a fifth-floor balcony at another Panama City Beach hotel.

The Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco said it sends 18 agents — up from five the rest of the year — to Panama City Beach during spring break because of the high school and college students who go there.

Between March 11 and March 28, agents arrested 985 people in Panama City Beach for underage possession of an alcoholic beverage, spokeswoman Jennifer Meale said.

An autopsy showed James died of brain injuries. Whit Majors, an examiner with the medical examiner’s office, said Monday it would take up to three months to get toxicology tests completed that would show James’ blood-alcohol content.

Police said James was in Panama City Beach with six adults and 40 fellow students from St. Xavier High School.

Panama City Beach police officials did not return calls to The Associated Press on Monday, but Maj. David Humphreys told ABC’s Good Morning America that witnesses said James had broken items in the hotel room before he fell.

He said investigators have not determined where James got the alcohol or if someone bought it for him. Humphreys had said previously that criminal charges are possible if police learn who bought the alcohol.

Steve Specht, St. Xavier’s head coach, said James and the others were not on a school-sponsored trip.

“It was completely individual decisions,” he said, adding that there also was a “mix of kids,” not all football players.

Specht said there were no official chaperones, disputing the term that police used to describe the adults.

“I think 99 percent of the kids that go down there are completely alone, and I think there were some parents that were vacationing down there, but to say they were chaperones is just, is incredulous, and I’m sorry but that’s just ignorant,” Specht said. “A chaperone implies that kids are staying under the roof of someone who is constantly watching over them. I don’t understand that.”

Specht declined to discuss James’ alcohol use, saying “I think you trivialize the situation if you start focusing on that. A young man, a 17-year-old young man, lost his life.”

James originally planned to go to the University of Cincinnati, where Brian Kelly coached the last three years. When Kelly left for Notre Dame after the season, James reconsidered and chose the Fighting Irish over Cincinnati and Ohio State.

(This version CORRECTS city’s name to Panama City Beach instead of Panama City throughout.)

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