Friends commemorate victim of intoxication

Nelson, Jacob

Kelsey Betzelberger remembers Matthew S. Sunshine, the SESP freshman who died from alcohol poisoning on June 10, as “the little brother you loved to hate.”

Little is known about exactly what happened at the Foster House party Sunshine attended the night before he was found incapacitated in his dorm room. Evanston police reported that students helped him back to his Foster House room after the party and checked on him throughout the night. But Sunshine, 19, was found unresponsive when a student checked on him at 11:45 a.m. the following morning. He was pronounced dead by the Cook County medical examiner at 3:45 p.m.

An autopsy performed the next day by the Cook County medical examiner confirmed that Sunshine died of alcohol intoxication.

“As far as we know right now it was accidental death,” said Commander Tom Guenther of the Evanston Police Department. “Based on the preliminary investigation of his unfortunate demise, all we can say is that it was alcohol-related.” The last student death at Northwestern was the May 2006 suicide of graduate student Hyuk Jin Choi in Lake Michigan.

Sunshine was raised in Cold Spring Harbor, a small town about 35 miles east of New York City, and graduated from Cold Spring Harbor Junior/Senior High School in 2007.

One of Sunshine’s closest friends, Betzelberger describes Sunshine as quiet and difficult to get to know well. “He was the typical nerd,” she said. She spoke highly of his argumentation skills, explaining she could never win a fight with him. “He was going to be the best freaking lawyer in the country,” she said.

Betzelberger, a vocal performance and religion double major, met Sunshine in Jones Residential College, an arts-themed dorm, at the beginning of the 2007-2008 academic year. They lived in the same suite until Sunshine transferred to Foster House midway through the year.

“When he was with me in my suite he didn’t drink a lot,” she said. “Then when he moved up north no one knew anymore.” Quiet as he was, Sunshine managed to attract attention to himself, often for unconventional acts of kindness. On Valentine’s Day, he handed out roses and chocolates to the girls he knew.

“He would end his night to walk a girl home,” Betzelberger said. “He was the kid who everybody knew.”

Sunshine spoke with pride of his close relationship with his sister as well as his ties to Judaism. “He talked about being Jewish all the time,” Betzelberger said of Sunshine, who, though he was not a member of the fraternity, often spent time at Alpha Epsilon Pi.

Another subject Sunshine enjoyed talking about, however, was his penchant for drinking and his threshold for alcohol. “He talked big,” Betzelberger said. “I don’t think he actually drank as much as he said he did.”

Betzelberger believes Sunshine discussed drinking to win favor and acceptance from people he didn’t know. “He was a big victim to peer pressure,” she said. “He would say how many he had, like 12 to 14 drinks, I think that was him trying to be cool.”

“I wish we had a program where people could anonymously call and say, ‘Hey, my friend’s eyes rolled back in his head,'” admits Betzelberger. “People do not call the police. It discourages people from getting help for their friends.”

Prevention, Education, Evaluation and Recovery Executive Director Kate Mahoney agreed that peer pressure can cause fatal binge drinking. “Sometimes it’s just people involved in situations where there’s pressure from some kind of initiation or rites of passage,” she said. PEER is a substance abuse prevention and recovery service located at 906 Davis St. “It’s hard for people to recognize the difference from how you get from casual drinking to something that can be so deadly.”

Asked about the quantities of alcohol that can be fatal, Mahoney said that deadly doses are caused by both the amount and the speed in which they are imbibed. “Alcohol is quite easy to overdose on,” she said.

Mahoney also stressed the difficulty in determining when someone is dangerously drunk, especially when those around have been drinking themselves. Young people also forget how many drinks they have had. “Sometimes people may seem very intoxicated and people don’t realize how dangerous it is to leave them alone,” Mahoney explained.

A candlelight memorial vigil for Sunshine was held at The Rock on June 12. More than 60 students gathered to remember Sunshine and his closest friends spoke at the vigil. The group also painted a sun on The Rock to honor Sunshine’s memory.

“I don’t think people knew him very well, and that’s as much his fault as it is ours,” Betzelberger said. “That’s what drives me nuts.”

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