When Tracy Witkowski was told that her only child had been hospitalized for a drug overdose, her first question was, “Who’s Molly?”
Nurses at Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee told Tracy and her husband Paul that their son, 21-year-old Patrick Witkowski, had likely ingested a drug known as Molly while partying with friends at the Gorge Amphitheater during the Paradiso Festival last year.
Patrick was among 72 concert-goers who were taken to area hospitals during the two-day electronic dance music festival that began June 28, 2013, and attracted more than 25,000 attendees. Of those, roughly 50 were treated for alcohol and/or drug intoxication, according to the local fire district.
Patrick was the only one who died.
“It was like a slow-motion dream,” Tracy Witkowski said. “You never expect it to happen.”
In the first interview they’ve granted since their son’s death, Paul and Tracy sat down with KIRO Radio “On Assignment” to talk about his passing, the drug that killed him, and their constant struggle to understand how it could have happened.
Patrick Witkowski was raised in Des Moines, about 20 minutes south of Seattle, where his parents still live.
“He was known as the gentle giant. That’s what his nickname was,” said his mother, as she sat at their kitchen table on a Sunday afternoon in April. “He was always very kind; he never raised his voice around anybody. He was honest, he was compassionate.”
“He was such a big guy, and I think people felt safe around him,” said his dad, Paul.
Patrick enjoyed athletics, basketball in particular, and graduated from Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien. He went to college at Western Washington University his freshman year, but later transferred to Washington State University in Pullman and joined the Gamma Xi chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity.
He graduated with a degree in management information systems shortly before he died.
“He was smart and he studied hard, but he was also a fun guy to hang around. Everyone wanted to be around him,” said one of Patrick’s closest friends from college.
He and two other friends who were with Patrick when he died spoke about that day for the first time in an interview with KIRO Radio. They asked to have their names withheld because at least one confessed to also taking drugs at the Gorge.
“It could have been me,” one said. “It could have been me. It could have been any of my friends.”
Like many of his friends, Patrick enjoyed the electronic dance music scene and had been to shows in Seattle and Los Angeles. It was why he bought tickets for the Paradiso Festival almost a year in advance.
“It’s just electronic music with DJ’s and a light show. How harmful could that be?” his dad thought.
While they suspected their son and his friends would drink at the festival, Paul and Tracy said they had no idea there would be drug use.
“He was the responsible one,” Tracy said. “He was the one you never had to worry about.”
Patrick met friends in Vantage on the first day of the show and the group caravanned to the Gorge to set up their campground. Tracy said she exchanged several texts with her son that day, asking if he had everything he needed.
“He said, ‘Mom, we’re going to be alright. We have everything we need. I’ll talk to you tomorrow,'” she said.
It was the last time she heard from him.
The next morning, on Saturday, June 29, a Des Moines police officer knocked on her door.
“He said, ‘I’m looking for Patrick Witkowski’s parents,'” she recalled. “All he had was a piece of paper with a nurse’s name and number and asked me to call her as soon as possible.”
Tracy found out that her son had been taken by ambulance to Quincy Valley Medical Center, but was later airlifted to the trauma center at Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee, along with seven others from the Gorge who required more urgent care.
The nurse informed Tracy over the phone that Patrick had likely ingested Molly, a slang term for a drug marketed as pure ecstasy.
The nurse told her to get to Wenatchee as soon as possible.
“I literally asked her if he was going to die,” Tracy recalled. “She said, ‘Not right now.'”
By the time Paul and Tracy arrived in Wenatchee, their son had been induced into a coma. He had tubes coming out of nearly every hole in his body.
“He was bleeding everywhere you could imagine,” Paul said.
“He just looked very still,” Tracy said. “Really, to me, he didn’t even look like he was there.”
A nurse told them it was unlikely that Patrick would live much longer.
He died early Sunday morning.
Before long, reporters began showing up at the Witkowski’s home in Des Moines and the story was all over the news.
Headlines linked many of the hospitalizations, as well as Patrick’s death, to Molly after Grant County law enforcement officials said the drug was being sold in the Gorge campground and at the amphitheater.
However, according to a medical examiner report released months later, Patrick did not die from a Molly overdose. He died of multiple system organ failure from exposure to high heat and methamphetamine intoxication.
What Patrick and his friends thought was Molly, or pure ecstasy, was not.
One of Patrick’s friends, who admitted to buying and taking Molly at the Gorge, said he had no reason to believe the drug would be anything other than ecstasy.
He said he purchased one pill for $10, while Patrick bought his pills from a “kid wearing a basketball jersey and a hat.”
“I just got it from someone who looked like I could trust them, I guess. There’s no way in hell I would have taken that,” he said, had he known it contained methamphetamine or other drugs.
“As long as a drug dealer says it’s Molly, people are going to believe them because we’re dumb kids,” said another of Patrick’s friends.
“It’s almost never going to have ecstasy in it, and it’s extremely unlikely to be pure ecstasy,” said Caleb Banta-Green, a senior research scientist at the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.
Banta-Green said data from 2012 in King County showed that only one-quarter of drugs sold as Molly actually contained MDMA, or ecstasy. The other 75 percent were cut with drugs such as bath salts, methylone, or synthetic substances known as trifluoromethylphenylpiperazine, methylenedioxypyrovalerone, and benzylpiperazine, which are meant to mimic the effects of ecstasy, but are cheaper to manufacture.
“You don’t know what effect it’s going to have on you and you don’t know how strong it is,” he said. “And these aren’t getting manufactured in a nice pharmaceutical factory. These are getting manufactured in an illicit drug factory.”
Banta-Green said the drugs can have long-term psychiatric and physical effects on the user. They often lead to overheating and, in some cases, death.
When Patrick was first admitted to the hospital, his core body temperate was 109.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
“It’s deadly and people don’t know what they’re putting in their mouth,” said Tracy Witkowski, who has since researched the drug and encouraged other parents to do so as well.
“The one thing that we did not know, that we know now, is that this electronic dance music goes hand-in-hand with Molly,” she said.
One of Patrick’s friends said he knew Molly would be readily available at the festival.
“People walk around these campgrounds asking if people are looking for Molly,” he said. “If you don’t know what it is, it sounds like they’re looking for a person.”
Patrick’s death was not the first high-profile overdose at an electronic dance music event.
Two people died of Molly overdoses at the Electric Zoo festival on Randall’s Island in New York last year. As a result, the third day of the event was canceled.
In contrast, the Gorge, which is operated by Live Nation, did not cancel the second day of the Paradiso Festival, despite requests to do so from the local fire district and hospital, both of which were overwhelmed with patients and calls for service.
“I think money is too important,” Paul Witkowski said. “They don’t care about human life.”
The Gorge and Live Nation have ignored repeated requests for comment via email, by phone, and in person. To this day, no one from the Gorge or Live Nation has called Paul and Tracy about their son’s death, although the company issued a short statement on their website offering “sympathy” to those affected.
More than two months after Patrick died, and before it was ruled an accident, the Grant County Sheriff’s Office sent deputies to Paul and Tracy’s home to ask questions.
“They sat in our family room and they wanted some details about the day of the show,” Tracy said. “The thing that infuriated me the most was that they were uneducated about what happened at the Gorge. They told me they found out about the death on TV.”
Tracy said the deputies asked her what Molly was.
“They had no idea,” Paul said.
Paul and Tracy were also shocked to hear from Patrick’s friends about what they considered to be lax security at the Gorge, despite a post on the venue’s website that boasts tight security and a zero-tolerance policy for drugs.
“Everyone will be searched upon entry,” reads the post. “You will need to empty your pockets and have all items examined.”
That wasn’t the case, according to one of Patrick’s friends, who said security, both at the campground and inside the event, was almost non-existent.
“Considering the drug use that takes place there, I think that the security is extremely minimal,” he said. “And I’m sure the people that put on the shows are aware that that kind of culture is involved.”
At one point, the Witkowskis hired an attorney to look into whether there was any negligence related to their son’s death, but decided not to pursue a lawsuit.
“We’re not naive. We know that Patrick made the choice to take it,” Tracy said. “However, we feel there’s lot of responsibility with Grant County, the Gorge itself, and the promoters of these electronic dance music festivals. They should not be allowed to have that type of environment exist. As far as I’m concerned, they all have the blood on their hands.”
Paul and Tracy said they are concerned that others will be in danger when the Paradiso Festival returns to the Gorge on June 27.
“Now it’s next summer, people have forgotten and it’s time to start this up again,” Tracy said. “They probably hope it doesn’t repeat itself, but they’re going to go on with it like it never happened.”
They are not alone in their concern.
In letters obtained through public disclosure requests, KIRO Radio discovered warnings dating back nearly 15 years about a “dangerous” environment at the Gorge and the potential for loss of life.
They are warnings that Paul and Tracy now believe, if heeded, could have saved their son’s life.
Listen to Part 2 of this “On Assignment” series Wednesday at 6:18 a.m. on KIRO Radio, and read the story at MyNorthwest.com.
“KIRO Radio On Assignment” features in-depth, investigative reports on a variety of topics including government accountability, consumer advocacy and the criminal justice system. To send a KIRO Radio reporter “On Assignment,” email [email protected] or use our online form.