It was the first night of Christmas vacation 2008 — one of the biggest teen party nights of the year. Seventeen-year-old Shelby Allen, an athlete, honors student, and avid shopper, begged for her older sister Tera’s permission to borrow her VW Beetle for the occasion; she even offered to “detail” it.
“I told Tera it sounded like a pretty good deal to me,” Debbie Allen, the girls’ mom, remembers with a smile. Debbie had no qualms about giving her daughter permission to head out and spend the night at her best friend Alyssa’s house. “We knew Alyssa; we knew her parents,” explains the soft-spoken 55-year-old mom.
Though Debbie’s manner may be unassuming, she’s always been known as one of the stricter parents in her neighborhood, thanks to her tough-as-nails career in law enforcement. At 21, she was a correctional officer in a men’s state prison; 10 years later, she worked as a bodyguard for California’s governor and his family before leaving the capital to raise her family in rural Redding, California. “A safe place to raise kids,” say Debbie and her husband, Steve, of the area, known for its lakes, caverns, hills, and fields with grazing horses.
It’s a place with a small-town vibe, where a teenage girl won’t get away with much, especially if everyone knows her mom is a former cop and her dad is a labor rep for most of the public employees who live there.
“Shelby had been busted [for trying to drink] before; her mom caught her on her way to a beer-pong party,” says Alyssa. Shelby disappeared from the social scene for about a month after that: Debbie grounded her younger daughter and afterward kept a watchful eye on her, always checking where she was going and whom she’d be with.
“The second I knew I was going to be a mother, my whole life changed,” explains Debbie. “Everything I did from that point on was with my children in mind, my kids coming first. I wanted to give them all the precious love I felt for them, and when they became teens, that meant being a vigilant mom, one who kept things safe.”
Despite Debbie’s efforts, Shelby continued to sneak around a bit, Alyssa admits, but “she wasn’t this wild party girl. Shelby partied like most of us did. She didn’t stand out as a troubled or moody kid. She was curious about alcohol — curious about how much she could drink until she passed out, just like many other teens. You just drink until you’re out, and then you sleep it off.” Alyssa pauses, then adds, “Shelby was full of energy and curiosity; her motto was ‘Dig life!’ We all just wanted to have as much fun as we could — and to see how much we could get away with.”
On that December night, after stopping for tacos, Shelby got a call on her cell from another pal, Jane (not her real name), who invited Alyssa and Shelby over to her house. Both of her older sisters were home, Jane explained, and she let the two girls know that she was drinking and everyone else was, too, says Alyssa.
By the time Shelby and Alyssa arrived, after midnight, the family had been drinking together, Jane included. Shelby chronicled the night on her cell phone: “Just family. It’s nice though. Nothing like a [family’s last name omitted] party.)” she texted to a friend. She also snapped a photo of the full bar at the house (You can see her in the mirror, taking the picture), and there’s another photo from that night of Shelby, casually dressed in a T-shirt, her blond hair loose, with Jane’s father partly visible. His arm is around her slim shoulders, and the two are smiling widely. The holiday vacation had begun.
A Final Party
According to statements to the police, Jane’s parents and her older sisters headed upstairs to bed around 1:00 a.m. Before retiring, Jane’s father admonished the guests not to drink. (He later explained to police that he was concerned the girls were thinking of drinking, and he felt compelled to tell them not to.) He then left them seated around the open bar.
That was when the drinking really got under way. Shelby’s drink of choice was vodka, and her goal that night was to down 15 shots of it. “I honestly don’t know why she got that number in her head,” says Alyssa. “Maybe she saw someone do it at a party. Shelby was an athlete [she played volleyball and was on the cross-country track team]; she had a competitive spirit. We all told her it was a bad idea, but she was determined to make that her goal.” She started downing the shots at 1:08 a.m. When the first bottle of vodka ran dry, the girls found more. Shelby took a photo of the second frosted bottle and then tracked her progress in texts to friends.
Shelby’s drink of choice was vodka, and her goal that night was to down 15 shots of it. She started downing the shots at 1:08 a.m. When the first bottle of vodka ran dry, the girls found more.