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Father of Molly victim speaks to students about its dangers

To save others at risk, a father relives his daughter’s death

Boston Police Superintendent Robert Merner spoke to resident assistants at Wheelock College about the dangers of MDMA, also known as Molly.
Boston Police Superintendent Robert Merner spoke to resident assistants at Wheelock College about the dangers of MDMA, also known as Molly. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

Steve Flannigan paced the room in Wheelock College, his eyes on the assembled students, his mind on the memory of his daughter, Brittany.

“I’m still really struggling,” he said. “Did this even happen? To me? To my kid? No. My kid was like —”

He pointed to a young woman. Before the talk started on a recent Friday afternoon, he had seen her huddled with her friends, giggling, and he thought of 19-year-old Brittany, the youngest and most easygoing of his three daughters. She was a goofball, always telling funny stories, who worked with handicapped children and was about to start her sophomore year at Plymouth State University, about an hour from her hometown of Derry, N.H.

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“Reminded me of you,” he told the young woman before him now. “A good kid. I can tell by the look on your face. What makes you different? What made my daughter different? Absolutely nothing.”

On Aug. 28, 2013, Brittany Flannigan overdosed on MDMA, commonly called Molly, a pure form of ecstasy popular at electro-dance concerts. She was at a Zedd show at the House of Blues with her sister and some friends that late summer night. The randomness of her death haunts her father: She was healthy, with a strong heart, and she took about the same dose as her sister and friends, who were fine.

It could have happened to any young person who made the mistake his daughter did, Flannigan said, thinking Molly was safe because it is “pure.”

And that is why he has begun speaking at schools and to community groups, telling her story, why he stood before the group at Wheelock on Jan. 16, flanked by top Boston police officials, talking about the dangers of drugs and alcohol.

“You don’t know. You have no idea. When this is going to impact you?” Flannigan told the students. “Who it’s going to be. Will it be somebody in this room?”

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Brittany Flannigan was 19 when she died after taking MDMA.
Brittany Flannigan was 19 when she died after taking MDMA.

Flannigan details his daughter’s last night by the hour, but still he cannot answer the questions: What went wrong? And when? And why? Brittany took the drug about 9:30. At 10:30, she smiled for a black-and-white cellphone photo next to her sister. Just before midnight, she told her friends and sister that she couldn’t control her legs and she collapsed into a seizure.

As EMTs took her out of the club, a passerby asked, “Is that girl dead?”

By 1:08 a.m., she was.

Molly is not pure and it is not safe, Boston Police Superintendent Robert Merner, head of the Bureau of Investigative Services, told the group of about 20 resident advisors who monitor students in dormitories. They were assembled for training to make sure they were prepared to counsel their charges, not only about Molly but about other drugs, alcohol, and date rape drugs like Rohypnol which could be slipped to them without their knowledge.

Flannigan and Merner were joined by Lieutenant Detective Brian J. Larkin, commander of the Drug Control Unit, and Deputy Superintendent Norma Ayala, who oversees the Major Case Division, which includes the Drug Control and Sexual Assault units.

Police have seen a rise in women reporting sexual assaults by acquaintances, they said.Emergency workers have also seen a spike in drug calls, with a 33 percent increase in all narcotic-related incidents between 2013 and 2014.

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“We’re here to talk about saving people’s lives,” said Merner, who along with Police Commissioner William B. Evans, who was then superintendent of the Bureau of Field Services, put together a presentation on Molly after Brittany Flannigan’s death.

The drug can cause inability to regulate body temperature; dehydration; and liver, kidney, and cardiovascular failure, he said. And often, a person who takes it can go from apparently fine to crisis within minutes.

Merner has given his talk at more than 100 clubs and bars across Boston, and the city has worked with venue owners to get them to institute safety precautions including increased availability of free water, cooler temperatures during electro-dance concerts, and better lighting to discourage illicit drug activity. Club staff check bathrooms more frequently, because often young people who become sick initially try to hide for fear of getting in trouble.

Molly is often cut with other drugs and substances, Merner said, such as heroin, crystal meth, bath salts, cocaine, caffeine, and even battery acid. Flannigan said the medical examiner told him methylone, a synthetic stimulant that is often an active ingredient in bath salts, was found in his daughter’s system.

The same night Brittany Flannigan died, two other people overdosed on Molly at the House of Blues. The weekend after her death, two people died at a music festival in New York City, apparently also after ingesting Molly; and the drug was blamed for mass illnesses at TD Garden last June.

“It’s scary because this is the safe thing, this is the ‘OK’ drug,” said Flannigan. “The end result, you play it backwards: you now exist in an urn on a fireplace. Everybody’s life around you, the bottom has dropped out of it.”

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About three weeks after his daughter’s death, Flannigan spoke at Plymouth State, where she went to school. He has since given about four other such talks, he said, and he filmed a message to students and parents that can be played as a public service announcement. He has launched a scholarship in his daughter’s name, and started a foundation, but he is not yet sure what he wants her legacy to be.

“I want to do something in her memory so this isn’t just a horrible waste,” he said in an interview. “I don’t want to just take a rock and throw it in the ocean. I want to make an impact on somebody’s life.”

On that Friday afternoon when he spoke to the group at Wheelock, it appeared that he had. Students asked him to come back and speak again. They had heard all the warnings about drinking, drugs, and safety, they said, but none had felt as real — or as painful — as this.

“So often we hear, ‘A 21-year-old girl is dead somewhere,’ you know, and it’s so far away from us,” said 20-year-old adviser Erin Bruce. “But to have somebody here, to hear your story firsthand, for you to say, ‘This was my daughter, and you know she did everything right except for this one thing’. . . it’s heavy.”

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Steve Flannigan spoke at Wheelock College.
Steve Flannigan spoke at Wheelock College. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen.