Telling Joey's stories so students don't live it

Older brother's death at a fraternity party leads Laguna woman to travel the U.S. speaking to campuses about the dangers of bingeing on alcohol and drugs. Now she wants to reach a younger crowd.

November 17, 2011|By Cindy Frazier
  • Erica Upshaw created and runs "Keep Friendship Alive," which was inspired by her older brother Joey's death from a drug overdose. Upshaw travels the country speaking to middle school, high school and college audiences. For more information, go to
Erica Upshaw created and runs "Keep Friendship… (KEVIN CHANG, Coastline…)

When Laguna Beach resident Erica Upshaw was rear-ended on South Coast Highway at Nyes Place in a seven-car pileup Sept. 22, she woke up in the hospital saying "Joey."

She was lucky to be alive and calling out her dead brother's name after a drunk driver, who died days later at the hospital, hit her Mini Cooper at 50 mph.

The driver of the car, Lee Henry Vuille, 73, was believed at first to be suffering from a diabetic condition, but later tests revealed his blood alcohol level to be higher than the legal limit, according to Laguna Beach police Lt. Jason Kravetz.

Unrelated to the Laguna crash, Joey Upshaw died in 2000 after a drinking and drug binge during a fraternity house party at The Ohio State University.

Since 2006, Erica has devoted her life to speaking to students about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, and how friends can save each other.


Erica said that she and Joey, her older brother and best friend, both liked to party. Both were good students and popular at school, each joining a sorority or fraternity. They grew up in Dayton, Ohio.

Joey was studying civil engineering and known for being a very funny drunk, she said.

"He took GHB [known as a date rape drug] after a long night of drinking, and he died that night," Erica said. "His fraternity brothers put him to bed to sleep it off, and he never woke up. Two hours after he took the drug they called for help.

"When his lips turned blue they were afraid of getting into trouble. They were drunk and scared. Joey was to blame, too. It was a collective disaster. They didn't act in time."

Six years later, at administrators' request, the formerly shy student used the voice she found while giving her brother's eulogy to sway Ohio State students from the hard partying and binge drinking that was taking a toll there.

In the intervening years, she had become a successful photographer's representative, living in places like Chicago and New York, where she met her husband, Darren Austin. But she felt something was missing.

"I knew I had to do something," she said.

When Ohio State beckoned, she created the presentation "Keep Friendship Alive," a subtle reference to the need for inebriated students to act to save each other from drug and alcohol overdose. The presentation — with an emphasis on "partying smart" — worked, and she started receiving invitations to speak at schools all over the country.

Coastline Pilot Articles Coastline Pilot Articles