For the record, 87-year-old Rita Greenfield answers quickly when asked if the marijuana muffins she ate last May marked her first experience with drugs.
“Heaven forbid, yes!” Greenfield laughs. “I never thought at the age I was that I would be trying marijuana.”
The switchboard operator at Lake Highlands High School — better known as “Miss Rita” to the staff and students — became the most celebrated victim of what has come to be known as “the muffin prank.” Of the 19 high school employees who ingested the pot-laced muffins delivered to the school, Greenfield took the hardest hit.
“I don’t want to experience it again,” she says, “because I may not be so lucky the next time.”
While Greenfield was recovering from the marijuana’s effects, the entire country, it seems, was having a good laugh at our neighborhood’s expense. The 19 staff members were the butt of jokes everywhere from Conan O’Brien’s late night talk show to the MTV website, where the incident was named one of the year’s “best senior stunts.”
At the time, Lake Highlands residents didn’t appreciate the twisted humor — well, at least not at first.
Less than a month later at an Exchange Club of Lake Highlands meeting, high school principal Bob Iden’s schtick about the muffin scenario was getting as many laughs as guest speaker and independent gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman’s one-liners. That morning, Greenfield received a shiny plaque naming her one of the community’s unsung heroes for the more than three decades she has spent as the school’s switchboard operator.
The fact that the octogenarian had privately and publicly forgiven the two young men responsible for her hospitalization made her even more of a hero in the audience’s eyes. Iden lavishly sung her praises but didn’t miss out on the opportunity to poke some fun.
“Rita, we were going to present you with a muffin, but we ran out,” Iden joked as the room broke into laughter.
Greenfield just smiled and shook her head.
“No, thank you,” she politely said. “No more muffins.”
It will go down as “undoubtedly one of the most memorable moments in Lake Highlands High School history,” Iden has since declared, but Tuesday, May 16, 2006, began rather routinely. Even the boxes of muffins delivered to the teacher’s lounge weren’t anything unusual. Brownies, cookies and goodies of all sorts regularly wind up in the lounge thanks to some thoughtful parent or neighbor, so when they showed up, administrative assistant Clardy made her typical all-call, an email to the entire staff.
“All I have to do is put ‘food’ in the subject line, and it’s gone,” Clardy says.
Greenfield, one of the first to head to the lounge that day, remembers how beautiful the cupcake-sized muffins looked. Each tidy white box held four muffins in flavors like blueberry, bran and chocolate. They appeared to be professionally made — Greenfield and another staff member examined the boxes searching for the name of the bakery — and the way they tasted didn’t disappoint.
“They were good. I’m going to have to admit that,” Greenfield says, “and they weren’t sloppy.”
A few minutes later, an attendance secretary began feeling dizzy and wondered if the building had a gas leak. She and Clardy began opening windows, but the fresh air didn’t help. Down the hall, Greenfield’s telephone keypad was becoming blurry. Fearing a stroke, the 86-year-old stood up from her chair and glanced around to see a frightening image — her own body.
“I looked over, and my body was over there,” Greenfield recalls, motioning to her side, “and I’m standing here, and I thought, “Uh oh, I’m having a very bad attack of some kind.’”
Greenfield headed to nurse Sharon Simpson’s clinic. Simpson’s health aide, Pam Haley, had sweetly placed one of the muffins on her boss’ desk, but before Simpson had time to take a bite, another staff member showed up feeling nauseated and lightheaded.
Greenfield recalls that Simpson held her hand while taking her vitals, and she recalls asking Simpson: “Am I having a heart attack? Something terrible’s going on.” Greenfield’s vitals were good, but Simpson decided to call 911. While the paramedics were attending to Greenfield, Simpson heard a call go out over the radio: “There is a parking lot attendant down.”
“I turned to the EMS and said: ‘We’ve got a bigger problem than we realized — don’t go anywhere,” Simpson says.
It was Clardy who deduced that the muffins were making people sick, and she and Iden immediately removed them from the teacher’s lounge. Iden then sent out an e-mail urging all staff members who had eaten a muffin to head to the clinic.
Unfortunately for Haley, the message came too late. The health aide had been snacking on her muffin between tending to patients.
“I was putting the last bite in and swallowing it,” Haley recalls, “and the EMT turned around and said, ‘Don’t eat the muffins.’ I went, ‘Oops.’”
Feeling every blood vessel on her face is the symptom Haley remembers most clearly.
“It’s like Novocaine all over your face, soft teeth,” she recalls. “That was the weirdest sensation, feeling all your blood pump, and laughing at things that weren’t funny.”
No doubt some amusing things were said and done in the clinic that day, but Simpson’s smiling lips remain sealed about the particulars. Greenfield doesn’t remember much beyond having her vitals taken, though people told her she acted quite “giggly.”
“I was kind of la-la land for a while. I was told that probably I had a loss of memory,” she says, then wonders: “Why do people take that drug if they’re not going to remember anything?”
At the time, however, no one but the patients was laughing — at least not out loud. As soon as Simpson learned the muffins were to blame, her mind raced to botulism, a disease with symptoms like blurred vision and slurred speech that can cause paralysis or even be fatal.
Iden doesn’t remember what was on his agenda that day, but it certainly wasn’t a conference room filled with representatives from local agencies — Dallas Police, North Texas Regional Drug Enforcement Task Force, Dallas Fire-Rescue, Food and Drug Administration, Dallas County Health and Human Services and even the FBI, which showed up because of fears someone had tampered with commercially prepared food.
Ambulances began arriving one after another, and all 19 teachers and staff members who had eaten the muffins were rushed to Presbyterian Hospital.
Students began catching on that something monumental was happening. Those whose classrooms were in the front of the building could see the onslaught of ambulances and official vehicles, not to mention the news helicopters circling overhead, and were keeping friends in windowless classrooms abreast via text messages. Though officials were treating the situation with the seriousness of a bioterrorism incident, the humorous speculation that their teachers had been brought down by a batch of pot muffins was already circling. It wasn’t as funny, however, when they learned exactly whom the prank had impacted.
“Miss Rita is special to everyone, and when the kids in the building discovered she was sick, they realized this was no joke,” Simpson says. “Nobody hurts Miss Rita.”
They had to be high when they decided to bake marijuana muffins and feed them to teachers — at least that’s what some have acerbically said about Ian Walker and Joseph Tellini.
Walker delivered the muffins to the school that morning, claiming they were part of an Eagle Scout project, and his face was caught on a security camera as he walked into the building. Since Walker was a senior at Bishop Lynch High School, he probably assumed he wouldn’t be recognized.
Walker’s attorney, Lake Highlands resident Tim Menchu, says his client didn’t bake the muffins; the chef was Tellini, says his attorney, Lake Highlands resident Rick Howard. Tellini found the recipe on the internet; the senior was attending LHHS after transferring from Bishop Lynch. Neither he nor his family, however, has spoken publicly about the ordeal.
Walker and his family held a press conference 10 days after the muffins were delivered, where Walker apologized and admitted that his actions were “juvenile and stupid” and said he believed he was “only participating in a senior prank.” At the time, Menchu said he hoped his client’s willingness to take responsibility for his actions would be taken into account by the Dallas County District Attorney’s office, but a grand jury voted five felony indictments for each young man. And that was the last time Walker or his family spoke up.
When Walker’s mother, Caroline, recently was reached by phone, she remained hesitant to say much. Her family already has endured many hate calls and too much pain, she says. Last year, she says, every time a story ran in the paper or a segment appeared on the news, her son lost another summer job. The Walkers decided that the lower their profile, the better for their family.
She did say that her son and his friend are doing well. During high school, Ian Walker was an A student and a member of student council and the swimming and diving team. What he has had to overcome since then has made him even stronger, his mother says.
“I don’t want to make it sound like they’ve skipped off into the sunset,” she says. “But my son has a 3.7 average in college, and he’s never done that well before. He’s focused on what he needs to be focused on, and that’s what I mean by ‘they’re doing well.’
“I don’t want to speak for Joey’s family, but I know that he, too, is making a lot of progress. They’re just kind of shoulder to wheel, and they really want to keep their eyes on the future and look ahead.”
That’s difficult to do when the past looms over them in the form of pending court dates. Both entered “not guilty” pleas to the second-degree felony charges against them — five counts each of aggravated assault on a public servant. “Garden variety” assault against a public servant usually means kicking or slapping a police officer, says Dallas County assistant district attorney Courtney Hopping, who is prosecuting the cases.
The Lake Highlands cases are unusual, she says, because the public servants are school employees, and because what would normally be third-degree charges were upgraded to second-degree because of the illegal drugs involved. The charges carry with them the possibility of up to 20 years in prison for each count, Hopping says, but in Texas anyone without a prior history of felony convictions is eligible for probation.
That’s what Hopping is offering — five years of deferred probation and community service, says defense attorney Howard. That’s “taking a pretty hard line,” he says, even though it’s not as harsh as the district attorney’s office’s initial push for prison time.
“Under the new regime, they’re backing off of that, but they’re not backing off of five felony cases,” Howard says, “which would leave these kids with a lovely opportunity to make $12 an hour for the rest of their lives, college degree or not.”
Both Walker and Tellini are finishing up their first year of college and could be in their second year by the time the case went to trial, Howard says, a status that might fare well for them in the courtroom. The next court date is May 21, and by that point Hopping believes the attorneys will have either reached a deal or decided to head to trial. Howard is bracing for a trial, especially if the felony charges aren’t downgraded.
“This is a prank that went horribly wrong,” Howard says, “and the FBI came in and treated it like Al Qaeda.”
In a post-Columbine, post-9/11 world, it’s not as easy for people to shake their heads and say, “Kids will be kids.”
Clardy says the high school has experienced “all manner” of senior pranks — mice let loose in the school, chickens and snakes squawking and slithering through the building, even a front lawn full of “for sale” signs plucked from neighborhood yards — but nothing directed toward the faculty that might cause anyone harm.
“Students definitely have to consider the consequences of doing something like that now,” Iden says, “because things that may have been in the past considered a prank and dealt with in that manner now can be upgraded to a terroristic threat.”
Because of the charges, Tellini wasn’t allowed to participate in his graduation ceremonies, but he visited the school to pick up his diploma and apologize to Iden. Walker also visited the school with his mother and father, and Iden says both parents appeared distraught over what their son had done.
“I can’t imagine being in their position,” Iden says of the families. “Both of those kids on the eve of graduation, college plans made, and then you’ve got the FBI coming to your house.”
Walker asked if he could make a public apology to the staff, but Iden told him he wouldn’t be warmly received. At a faculty meeting following the ordeal, one observer says the general mood was “throw the book at them.” Perhaps a few of the muffin victims still feel that way; some of them didn’t return calls for this story. As far as Iden is concerned, the boys should be prosecuted, but the punishment shouldn’t ruin their futures.
“It’s a grievous error in judgment on their part,” he says, “but I don’t think it should haunt them for the rest of their lives.”
Greenfield shares his sentiments. When Walker and his parents visited the school, she gave them both forgiveness and hugs. And when Tellini called and asked to visit her at home, Greenfield invited him in and accepted his apology.
“I’m not bitter about it. I have no ill feelings toward those kiddos,” she says. “If I was near death, I think that would have been a different story, but they got it out of my system in plenty of time.”
Greenfield takes blood pressure medication, and that mixed with the marijuana sent her heart rate soaring. She was the only high school employee hospitalized overnight. Incidentally, she also was the only employee who ate more than one muffin.
That didn’t surprise neighborhood resident and City Council candidate Jerry Allen, who told a story at the Exchange Club meeting about walking out of an event with Greenfield. The concession stand was giving away leftover hot dogs, and the petite switchboard operator began stuffing her pockets wherever she could find space.
“So when I read that she ate two muffins instead of one, I flashed back to the hot dogs,” Allen chuckled.
Once all 19 staff members were in the clear, it became much easier to laugh. As Iden notes in retrospect:
“For 24 hours, we had the happiest faculty in America.”