"Take one capsule."
"Takea thousant [sic]!"
"I wanna see if you survive or if you just black out."
As other members of a chat room devoted to drug users cheered him on, Vedas, 21, downed one prescription pill after another while smoking pot.
"Do it," wrote one of his pals.
But as dawn approached—and with a half dozen other chatters watching via a "Webcam—the dangerous game was taking its toll on Vedas. "I told u I was hardcore," he boasted to his buddies in a final burst of coherence.
Minutes later he lost consciousness for good.
Vedas's lethal overdose might have been remembered like any other case of a young man gone before his time. As it happens, however, it was something of a first: a deadly round of truth or dare viewed live over the Internet. According to a transcript of the chat room found on the Web by Vedas's brother a week later, several of his online pals did send warnings during the two-hour binge—"man don't die," "who's calling the cops when he passes out?"—but none actually called police or alerted Vedas's mother, who, for part of the time at least, was asleep in the next room.
"What has the world come to when people are watching someone die on a Webcam?" asks Vedas's mother, Nancy Russell, 52, who discovered Brandon's body when she tried to rouse him to work at the University of Phoenix computer technology department. Emergency workers found bottles of Klonopin, methadone, Restoril and Inderal stashed around his room. "If only someone had encouraged him to get help, then maybe he would have just overdosed. Brandon would be in counseling now, instead of dead."
Brandon's brother Rich, 28, a Huntington Beach, Calif., sales rep, says he has spoken with three of the people who were in the chat room. One, according to Rich, claimed that he dialed 911, but the dispatcher said he couldn't help. Meanwhile police have rejected Russell's request to file charges against the people who encouraged her son to take drugs that morning. "There was no coercion or duress. He could have stopped taking pills anytime he wanted to," says Phoenix Police Dept. Sgt. Randy Force. "This is a guy who had a history of drugs, and it caught up with him." (Tests to determine Vedas's exact cause of death are still pending.) As for the reaction of those who witnessed the death online, says Internet scholar John Perry Barlow, "young people by nature like to play around with the edge of death. What makes this different is that the edge was blunted by being virtual. It must have been like a video game."
Still, for Brandon's family, the feeling remains that his friends abandoned him when he needed them most. "We're in complete shock," says Rich, the second of Russell's five children with computer technician Richard Vedas, whom she divorced in the late '80s. The youngest of the kids, Brandon was a high-tech whiz who dropped out of high school at 16 but earned a G.E.D. and managed to land impressive jobs writing software and building networks. "He was a classic computer dork in a lot of ways," says Rich.
But Brandon could also be immature, his brothers say. About 3½ years ago, when his mother remarried, he moved out of the family home and discovered Phoenix's rave scene. According to his brother Brett, 23, a Phoenix bartender, Brandon began using a wide range of drugs, including Ecstasy, LSD and speed. Then, just as abruptly as he had stumbled, Vedas seemed to pick himself back up. "One day he just realized, 'This is probably going to kill me,' " says Brett. About a year ago Brandon began seeking help from a doctor, who prescribed medicine for depression. He also moved back in with his mother. "He assured me he was turning his life around," says Russell, who adds that Brandon had just landed his job and started dating a new girl. "He seemed so positive," she says.
Russell is adamant that her son would never have intentionally killed himself. But after his final Internet session, she says, the family did discover Brandon was well-known in chat rooms for drug devotees, where he went by the name Ripper and had been using the drugs prescribed by his doctor to get high. "I was so oblivious to what he was doing," says Russell. "We're hoping his death will make people more aware of what's going on around them."
Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles