Sacramento sheriff investigates death of radio station contestant
Jennifer Strange of Rancho Cordova, 28, competed in a radio station's contest to see how much water she could drink without going to the bathroom. She died of water intoxication, the coroner's office said Saturday.
by JULIET WILLIAMS
SACRAMENTO - Homicide detectives are investigating the death of a 28-year-old mother of three who died after taking part in a radio station's water-drinking contest.
The Sacramento County Sheriff's Department decided to pursue the investigation Wednesday after listening to a tape of the Jan. 12 morning radio show obtained by The Sacramento Bee, sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Tim Curran said.
On the tape, disc jockeys on KDND-FM's "Morning Rave" show joke about the possible dangers of consuming too much water, at one point even alluding to a Northern California college student who died during a similar hazing stunt in 2005.
During the show, a listener calls in to warn the DJs that the stunt is dangerous and says someone could die.
"Yeah, we're aware of that," one of them says.
Another DJ laughs: "Yeah, they signed releases, so we're not responsible. We're OK."
"And if they get to the point where they have to throw up, then they're going to throw up, and they're out of the contest before they die, so that's good, right?" another one says.
Jennifer Lea Strange was one of about 18 contestants who tried to win a Nintendo Wii gaming console by determining how much water they could drink without going to the bathroom. The show's DJs called the contest "Hold your Wee for a Wii."
"Hey Carter, is anybody dying in there?" a DJ asks during the show. "We got a guy who's just about to die," the other responds, and all the DJs laugh.
"I like that we laugh about that," another says.
"Make sure he signs the release. ... Get the insurance on that, please."
Strange took part in the contest during the morning in the radio station's studio and was found dead that afternoon. The Sacramento County coroner said preliminary autopsy findings indicate she died of water intoxication.
Other contestants said Strange may have ingested up to two gallons of water. Several hours into the contest, Strange was interviewed on the air and complained that her head hurt.
"They keep telling me that it's the water. That it will tell my head to hurt and then it will make me puke," she says.
"Who told you that? The intern?" a DJ asks.
"Yeah," Strange responds. "It hurts, but it makes you feel lightheaded."
"This is what it feels like when you're drowning," one of the DJs says. "There's a lot of water inside you."
Eventually, Strange gave in and decided to accept the second-place prize, tickets to a Justin Timberlake concert. She commented that she looked pregnant, and a female DJ agreed.
"Oh, my gosh, look at that belly. That's full of water," a male DJ said. "Come on over, Jennifer, you OK?" the DJ asks. "You going to pass out right now? Too much water?"
Strange tells the talk show hosts that she could "probably drink more if you guys could pick me up."
On Tuesday, KDND's parent company, Entercom/Sacramento, fired 10 employees connected to the contest, including three morning disc jockeys. The company also took the morning show off the air.
Station spokesman Charles Sipkins said Wednesday that the company had not yet heard from the sheriff's department.
"We will, of course, cooperate with their investigation," Sipkins said.
He added that the station also is examining the circumstances surrounding Strange's death.
"We're trying to do everything we can to deal with it in a respectful and responsible way," he said.
Curran said sheriff's investigators will be interviewing all radio station employees who were involved in the contest and everyone who was working there on the day of the contest. He said the investigation will take several weeks.
Lucy Davidson, who placed first in the radio station contest, told Larry King Live on CNN Wednesday that she was very sick after participating.
"I was barely able to make it home. My head was as big as probably three basketballs. It was very, very painful," Davidson said.
In a prepared statement last weekend, Strange's husband, William, described his wife's generous nature and outgoing personality.
"Friday, Jennifer was just her bright, usual self," he said. "She was trying to win something for her family that she thought we would enjoy."
On Wednesday, attorneys for the Strange family said they planned to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the radio station on behalf of her husband and three children. Details of the suit were to be announced Thursday.
Water contest lawsuit
Attorney says radio station, disc jockeys, perhaps others are responsible for the death of young mom
Attorney Roger Dreyer, representing the family of Jennifer Lea Strange, declared Thursday that a lawsuit will be filed in her death.
Published 12:00 am PST Friday, January 19, 2007
Accusing "Morning Rave" staff at KDND radio of pushing an irresponsible, ill-advised contest, Sacramento attorney Roger Dreyer said Thursday that he plans to sue the station and its fired disc jockeys for the wrongful death of Jennifer Lea Strange.
Strange died last Friday after participating in a "Hold Your Wee for a Wii" contest. Strange downed nearly two gallons of water during the contest in which the winner abstained from using the bathroom for as long as possible.
Strange placed second in the competition as she began to feel ill. Hours later, her mother found Strange dead in her Rancho Cordova home, possibly due to water intoxication, coroner's officials have said.
Dreyer said Strange's death has left her husband, Billy Strange, waking up every morning hoping he is in a nightmare. It left her 3-year-old son asking his grandmother when his mother will be back.
"They are just rocked in a way that you don't anticipate," Dreyer said in an interview with The Bee.
Dreyer drew a wide circle around who may be named in the suit in a Thursday press conference at his office. He said the disc jockeys and radio employees responsible for the contest would be named in the suit. Also, companies associated with the contest's prizes -- Nintendo and promoters for the Justin Timberlake concert -- might be named if they had a role in the promotion, he said.
San Francisco attorney James Goldberg, who is representing KDND (107.9 The End), referred calls Thursday to spokesman Charles Sipkins, who declined to comment. Attempts to reach 10 employees who worked on the "Morning Rave" -- but were fired Tuesday -- were unsuccessful.
The lawsuit announcement comes after Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness on Wednesday assigned homicide detectives to investigate the case after audio of last Friday's contest was obtained by The Bee.
In the recording, on-air hosts discuss the danger of "water poisoning" and joke about contestants dying. Strange is on air speaking slowly and complaining of a headache and feeling light-headed.
Dreyer said the on-air banter will be central in the case.
"When she is hurting, when she is having problems, literally when her brain is shutting down from a loss of electrolytes, they have the information," Dreyer said.
"They know. ... They basically say, 'Get in your car and go home.' And (they) let her die."
Dreyer said it's unclear how much thought radio executives put into the promotion, but he hopes to determine that in coming days.
"Everything that we've found in our research indicates that they just didn't pay attention to ... the potential consequence of this contest," he said.
Dreyer did not name the dollar amount that will be sought in the lawsuit. Steve Clark, a Bay Area attorney and legal commentator, said the award would be based on Strange's lost income and her family's loss of her care and comfort.
"You lose a parent in a nut-case thing like this, you're talking seven figures," he said.
Clark said experts may be called who specialize in looking at the amount of time a mother spent caring for her kids, cleaning her home and supporting her husband to arrive at an amount.
On the flip side, Clark said, defense attorneys would spend this phase of a trial attempting to discredit the dead person, digging up dirt and airing it to the jury.
Considering the money at stake, Clark said he does not doubt the case will go to trial.
"There's going to be a certain segment of society that says you assume a risk," he said.
"It's like when you go sky diving, you assume the risk that your chute is not going to open."
The debate over Strange's culpability in her own death -- and the radio station's responsibility -- continued Thursday on blogs and national television shows.
Dreyer said Strange's family is not following the controversy as they mourn a dedicated wife and mother of a 10-year-old, a 3-year-old and an 11-month-old.
However, he said, the family does want to see that dangerous radio stunts are curbed.
"One of the motivating factors for Jennifer's family contacting me is they don't want to see it happen again," Dreyer said.
Jennifer Lea Strange and her husband, William, are pictured with their children: Keegan Sims, 10, Ryland Strange, 3, and Jorie Strange, 11 months. Jennifer Strange died Friday after a water-drinking contest.