Steroids and coronary problems may have contributed to the widely sensationalized death of a frail 18-year-old at the Tunnel disco two weekends ago, the Voice has learned. Wire reports attributed the death of Sound Beach, Long Island, resident Jimmy Lyons to a suspected overdose of ketamine and Ecstasy, but information given to 10th Precinct detectives by two of the teenager’s friends presents a more perplexing portrait of the deceased.
Nineteen-year-old Joseph Grassi, who accompanied Lyons to the Tunnel just before midnight Saturday, January 23, and Amy Lebrecht, 18, another friend who was at the club that night, both told police that the five-foot-five-inch, 100-pound Lyons— called “Shorty” by buddies— abused steroids and had a pre-exisiting heart condition.
“He was very self-conscious about his size,” says Lebrecht, who hails from Kings Park, Long Island. “He started doing steroids to bulk up. I remember telling my boyfriend four days before we went to the Tunnel that if Shorty wasn’t careful, he could kill himself.”
Her fears were prophetic: At 5:30 a.m. on January 24, Lyons was found collapsed, convulsing, and foaming at the mouth on a loading dock next to the nightclub’s 27th Street exit. Not long after a fleet of police cars and ambulances descended on the Tunnel— a message had mistakingly gone out over law-enforcement airwaves about a murder at the club— Lyons was pronounced dead at the scene.
In contrast with the rumored half-dozen overdoses— none fatal— that occurred in reaction to the increasingly popular club drug GHB at the Roxy the weekend before, Lyons’s untimely demise was widely reported in the local media. Veteran journalistturnedclub kid Jack Newfield featured Lyons’s grieving mother on the cover of the New York Post as part of his ongoing crusade to put embattled club czar Peter Gatien (“the dark prince of nightlife”) out of business. The accompanying article presented Lyons as an innocent victim who got caught up in the drug scene at the Tunnel, paying for it with his life. Lyons’s death could scuttle a deal that convicted tax-evader Gatien had made with the state, and could conceivably cost him his liquor license.
Gatien’s high-powered attorney Ben Brafman claims that, as yet, no solid evidence proves Lyons bought drugs at the nightclub. “Our preliminary investigation raises serious questions as to the accuracy of media reports suggesting that this young man purchased drugs at the Tunnel,” says Brafman. “We would hope that responsible city officials would wait until the autopsy and toxicology reports have been completed before seeking to assess responsibility for this tragedy.”
Both Grassi and Lebrecht informed detectives that Lyons had also experimented with the pet tranquilzer ketamine, known as Special K in the clubs. Lyons was well aware that consuming illegal drugs might damage his health— he told friends he’d stopped smoking pot because he feared it would aggravate his heart trouble.
Both Grassi and Lebrecht told police they had no knowledge of Lyons buying drugs in the club. But now Lebrecht admits she didn’t tell the entire truth to authorities, in order to protect the reputation of their dead pal.
“I didn’t want to say anything to the cops that might make Shorty look bad,” explained Lebrecht. She now says her boyfriend and Grassi were with him when he purchased two hits of E in the Tunnel.
Grassi’s father, Joseph Grassi Sr., refused to allow his son to be interviewed by the Voice, citing an impending lawsuit that Lyons’s mother, Margaret, reportedly plans to file against Gatien. But Grassi Sr. did give the following statement: “I’d like everyone to know that the article that appeared in the New York Post is second-and thirdhand hearsay.”
The picture that Newfield allowed Margaret Lyons to paint of the Tunnel was misleading— though drug use is evident, dealers do not walk around the premises touting wares on serving trays, as she claimed. Her suggestion that a contributing factor in her son’s death was that he couldn’t afford $5 for a bottle of designer water also makes little sense. Certainly, dehydration is a concern for club-goers high on Ecstasy crammed together in a humid room, but the venue features a large restroom where sweaty patrons frequently go to cool off by dousing themselves under taps.
Lyons’s peers say he wasn’t very worldly when it came to the wicked ways of clubland. He rarely went out, because he was too busy working jobs at both a restaurant and a hospital to help support his mother, younger sister, and brother. This was his first trip to a big Manhattan disco. If he did in fact purchase Ecstasy in the Tunnel, he may not have realized that the E sold in clubs these days is often adulterated with everything from horse tranquilizer to crystal methamphetamine, potentially lethal ingredients for anyone with a coronary problem.
“I was amazed to feel how weightless he was,” said one beefy guard who helped carry Lyons’s body back into the club after it was discovered. “He was light as a cork.” “We tried to be good samaritans, but there was nothing else we could have done to save the kid,” said another member of the Tunnel security team. (Both bouncers asked to remain anonymous.)
Whether it was steroids, ketamine, Ecstasy, or some other factor that caused Lyons’s life to end prematurely won’t be conclusively known until the middle of next month, when the medical examiner releases the toxicology report.
Until then, who if anyone deserves blame for this tragedy remains an open question.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 9, 1999