As her mother shares her last happy photo of Shakira — killed by an ecstasy tablet at 15 — we reveal why ever younger children are being sucked into Britain’s drug epidemic
RITA HOLE sits on a Newquay beach watching her 15-year-old daughter playing in the waves. She takes a photograph as Shakira laughs and dances on the sand — a little girl still in so many ways. It captures a perfect moment; one Rita will cherish, as it is her last image of her youngest daughter alive.
A few days later Shakira and a group of her friends buy a batch of blue triangular tablets. Chillingly, they bear a child-friendly Duplo logo — the Lego toddler’s building block — but they are deadly. According to her friends, Shakira took three of these ecstasy tablets which cost just £2 each. Twelve hours later she was dead; another teenage victim of a drug epidemic that has Britain’s schoolchildren in its grip.
The next photo Rita takes is heartbreaking. It shows Shakira unconscious in her hospital bed, surrounded by a mesh of tubes and wires, slowly dying as her body overheats and her internal organs collapse.
‘I watched the doctors fight to save her for 13 minutes,’ says Rita. ‘I could hear her bones breaking in her chest as they tried to revive her. But it didn’t work.
‘They turned off most of the machines as they could see it was too late. I cradled her head in my arms, telling her how much I loved her. I wanted her to know she wasn’t on her own, I was with her. I was willing her to live, pleading with everything I had.
‘It was 10.15am on Saturday when she died, drenched in my tears as I kissed her face.
‘No mother should have to lose her baby like this. It’s too much to bear.’
Shakira’s death is not an isolated case. She is just one tragic example of a growing trend. Drug deaths are rising, and the victims are getting younger. More schoolchildren than ever are gambling with their lives by taking illegal substances.
An NHS report published earlier this year into drug use among pupils reveals that more than one in ten 11-year-olds has taken recreational drugs, rising to more than a third of 15-year-olds.
Meanwhile, in 2016, almost a quarter of UK school pupils admitted to taking drugs — compared to 15 per cent in 2014. Almost half said they had bought them from a friend of the same age.
Last month, two drug dealers, Craig Banks, 40 and Dominic Evans, 21, were jailed by Liverpool Crown Court for selling ecstasy pills to schoolchildren through social media sites Facebook and Snapchat. Children then sold the drugs on to their classmates, seven of whom were hospitalised.
JUST this week, video footage emerged online of pupils as young as 12 snorting white powder at a school in Sunderland, while in other schools in the New Forest, Hampshire and Taunton, Somerset, teachers have resorted to sending in sniffer dogs to search for drugs.
At the same time, the number of children dying after taking drugs — primarily ecstasy or MDMA to give it its chemical name — has reached a record high.
Shakira died a week ago today, a few days after Reece Murphy, 16, died from taking MDMA after finishing his GCSEs in Dorchester, Dorset. On June 23, showjumper Hannah Bragg, 15, from Tavistock, Devon, died after taking the Class A substance while also out celebrating the end of her exams.
In May, Joshua Connolly-Teale, 16, died after taking ecstasy on a camping trip with friends in Rochdale, Greater Manchester during a break from revising for his exams. Luke Pennington, 14, died after taking the synthetic drug Spice during a sleepover in March at a friend’s house in Stockport, Cheshire.
The tragic list goes on — a roll call of promising, and so very young, lives wasted.
It is now 23 years since the family of A-level student Leah Betts released the harrowing image of her on a life- support machine as she lay dying after taking a single ecstasy tablet on her 18th birthday.
But as Shakira’s death shows, the drug is still killing youngsters as indiscriminately as ever, and if anything, it is stronger and more deadly than two decades ago.
And Rita, 47, has released the photo of her dying daughter to warn other teenagers.
On the day she died, Shakira, the youngest of Rita’s three daughters — she is also mum to Nikita, 21, and Jessica, 26 — had been excited as three of her friends were coming for a sleepover after school.
Before leaving for her job as a community carer for the elderly, Rita prepared the spare room of their semi in Camborne, Cornwall, and stocked the kitchen with food for teens.
Her words to her daughter as she left for work were: ‘ Be good’ and ‘look after each other.’ But soon after Rita returned from work at 10pm her world began to unravel.
‘Fifteen minutes later there was a knock at the door. It was one of Shakira’s friends.’
About 30 of them had been in the park where the tablets were taken. Whether it was planned, or they were approached by an opportunist dealer, police are yet to establish.
Shakira’s friend said she had fallen, complaining that she was in trouble — and was ‘going to die’.
Rita was horrified to learn her friends didn’t phone for help straight away. Unaware of the danger, and keen to capture the drama, they actually filmed her as she lay on the ground.
‘It was a woman who was walking past and saw what was going on who actually dialled 999.’
Rita and her partner Lee Butcher, 49, who works in a warehouse, ran to the park and found paramedics battling to save Shakira’s life after she suffered a cardiac arrest.
‘I was in a daze. I couldn’t process what was happening. But the police said I needed to go with them right away.
‘As we raced to the hospital in Truro with the blue flashing lights on, it started to sink in how serious things were.’
Soon after her arrival, Shakira suffered another cardiac arrest as her temperature soared way beyond normal body temperature of 37c.
‘ The doctor said it was the highest temperature he’d ever seen. They put ice packs all over her. She seemed a bit more stable after this so we took the photo of her, to show her how lucky she’d been, how the next time she was thinking about going out and doing something daft like this, to remember.’
But a few hours later, Shakira suffered her third and final cardiac arrest and quickly deteriorated. The next morning she was dead. It was not the first time Shakira, a Year 10 pupil at Camborne Academy, had taken ecstasy.
She had admitted to her mother having tried it once before, but promised she never would again.
Tragically she broke her promise. Using money given to her by her father, Sean Pellow, 47, from whom Rita is separated, for a shopping trip, she and her friends bought the pills from a man at the park.
After her death, doctors found one of these tablets in her pocket.
Police have since arrested and bailed two 17-year-olds for possession with intent to supply. There are no official figures for the exact number of children who have died after taking drugs, but according to the Office of National Statistics, eight people under 20 died after taking MDMA in 2000, compared with 18 in 2016.
Similarly, deaths involving cannabis over the same period have risen from nine to 27.
So what are the reasons for the rise? And what can be done to stop children, as Rita says, from playing Russian roulette with their lives?
Andrew Halls, 59, headteacher of King’s College School in Wimbledon, South-West London, is so concerned about the availability of drugs to children, he has sent a letter to parents warning them of their availability online.
Even a cursory internet search brings up pages of websites offering everything from MDMA to crack cocaine, and promising doorstep deliveries.
‘Drugs are now more available to young people than ever before and they can get them anonymously, says Mr Halls. ‘They can buy them online or through a mobile phone
number. They’ll be around on a moped quicker than Amazon.
‘ If you’ve just finished your GCSEs and go to a festival you might be given ecstasy by a dealer who will say, “You can have this for free, but you have to give me your mobile number”.
‘They will get a call the following week offering more. That’s a great concern for me.’
After sending his letter, Mr Halls was contacted by other concerned headteachers who also recognise the problem. ‘There’s a great deal of moral relativism about it,’ says Mr Halls. ‘The sheer availability now creates an environment of acceptance.’ He adds: ‘Twenty years ago, when I became a headmaster, drug dealers were demonised. Now the dealer is probably your mate who ordered it over the internet and who’s going to give it to eight other people. The “real” supplier could be someone in a Shanghai lab.’ Fiona Spargo-Mabbs’s 16-year- old son Daniel died in January 2014 after taking MDMA at an illegal rave in South London. She now runs a foundation to help educate children about the dangers of drugs. She is concerned about the decline in drug awareness education in schools. ‘Teenagers think they’re invulnerable and we have to educate them about the dangers of these drugs. MDMA in particular has got stronger. ‘The time spent by schools teaching personal, social, health and economic education — which covers drug awareness — has dropped by at least a third in recent years and at the same time, there’s more accessibility, normalisation and glamorisation of drugs.’ Mark Byrne, of drugs charity Addaction, agrees: ‘ The drug landscape has definitely changed: 17-year- olds used to buy them when they went clubbing and in social settings. Now 15-year- olds would find it hard to get into a club but it’s still easy for them to get hold of drugs.’
Many recent drugs deaths have been caused by MDMA, which was developed in Germany in 1912. It works as a releasing agent for serotonin, the chemical in the brain associated with feelings of happiness.
AFTER peaking in popularity the Nineties, it fell out of favour, partly due to the Leah Betts campaign, and as ‘rave’ parties waned in popularity.
Sales were also affected by the rise of legal highs — psychoactive substances that mimic ‘traditional’ illegal drugs.
Then there was a dwindling supply of the oil-rich chemical safrole, an integral part of ecstasy manufacturing, but synthetic replacements have now been found and most disturbingly of all, the drug is being discovered by a new generation naive to its risks.
And the product is stronger than ever. In the Nineties, the average MDMA content was between 50 and 80mg. Now it’s closer to 125mg, while some ‘ super pills’ are as a high as 340mg.
Not only is it stronger, it is cheaper, at £2 to £3 a pill compared to £20 in the Nineties.
And, cynically, manufacturers make them appealing to teenagers — and seemingly innocuous — by stamping them with familiar logos such as ‘ Purple Ninja Turtles’ or Coca-Cola bottles. Sarah Lush, the mother of reece Murphy, the teenager who died earlier this month after taking ecstasy in Dorchester, also released a powerful photograph of her son on a life support machine.
Single mother Sarah, 38, who works in a restaurant, says: ‘He was my only child and he had so many memories to make, that’s what breaks my heart.
‘Now I’m planning his funeral. Before this, drugs weren’t on my radar. I guess he took it because his friends were, because he was young and curious.
‘It’s just not sunk in yet, my body isn’t letting me accept it. I can’t believe he’s not here any more.’
For Sarah and rita, only memories remain. rita shows me her youngest daughter’s violin and guitar. She wanted to be a musician, she says.
A teddy bear sits on her bed. Her walls are covered with pictures of New York. She had dreamed of visiting the city.
‘I always told her she was amazing,’ rita says. ‘That she could do anything she put her mind to. She wanted to travel, she could speak Dutch, French and Turkish. We were due to go on holiday together to Turkey soon. She was going to turn 16 in four months time and we were planning a big party.’
Her final warning is heartbreaking. ‘To any child thinking about taking ecstasy, please, please do not do it. You think you are going to have fun, but these drugs are so strong, they could kill you.
‘Just look at what happened to my Shakira. Her dreams are now never going to come true.’
Tragedy: In the space of a few days Shakira’s mother took these two starkly contrasting pictures of her daughter, who later died in hospital