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Family sues ABQ nightclub after woman in corn dog contest chokes, dies

SANTA FE – Jessie Harbeck and her mother, Debra Harbeck, just wanted to celebrate with drinks the night before Jessie’s 22nd birthday in January.

Hours later, Jessie ended up spending part of her birthday taking her mother off life support after the highly intoxicated woman choked during a risque corn dog eating contest at a now-defunct Albuquerque nightclub.

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Debra Harbeck, left, and her daughter Jessie Harbeck are shown on the night that, according to a lawsuit, Debra choked during a corn dog eating contest at an Albuquerque nightclub, leading to her death. The family was celebrating Jesse’s birthday. (Courtesy of Jessie Harbeck)

Now Jessie, her father and her grandmother are suing the club, Fire and Ice, and others connected to the property and its liquor license, in a complaint for wrongful death filed in Santa Fe District Court. It alleges, among other things, that the club served her too much liquor.

According to the complaint, Fire and Ice “held a corn dog eating contest where female contestants got on their knees in front of males who were holding corn dogs near their groin area” on Jan. 27.

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“The winner of the corn dog eating contest won a prize by eating the corn dog the fastest,” the complaint says.

Jessie Harbeck told the Journal on Tuesday that her mother paired up with one of Jessie’s friends for the contest. Debra began choking on the corn dog, and patrons rushed to apply the Heimlich maneuver and CPR before paramedics got there.

“The choking caused the loss of oxygen to her brain before medical personnel could be there,” said Albuquerque lawyer Gene Chavez, who filed the lawsuit for the Harbecks. “Her body fought valiantly, but the damage was irreparable.”

The lawsuit says Debra Harbeck, 56, was intoxicated, had been over-served at the bar and should not have been allowed to take part in the eating contest. The suit also argues the club should have had medical personnel on hand for the contest.

The family pulled Debra from life support on Jan. 28, Jessie’s actual birthday, and Debra died at 12:22 p.m. the next day.

“My dad wanted to wait to pull the plug until midnight of my birthday so that she wouldn’t die on my birthday,” Jessie said. “I told him my one birthday wish was for her to not suffer. I knew she was in pain, and I didn’t want her suffering anymore.”

Chavez says the club didn’t supervise the contest well enough in allowing such an intoxicated person to take part. Debra had a blood alcohol content between 0.13 and 0.14 percent, according to the suit. She had been served “three double shots & four double gin and tonics,” the suit says.

The complaint maintains Debra Harbeck was at a “fatal or near-fatal level of intoxication,” although the BAC described in the court complaint is less than twice New Mexico’s presumed level of intoxication for drivers, 0.08 percent.

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“Quite honestly, they did not cut her off,” Jessie said. “She was pretty intoxicated when I got there. The bar did not take the initiative to get her to stop drinking.” Jessie said she had a designated driver so she could enjoy her birthday, and she said she took her mother’s keys and told her she would drive her home because she was drunk.

Chavez said its common for eating contests around the country to have medical personnel nearby in case someone starts choking or has another medical problem.

Jessie and Anthony Harbeck, Debra’s husband, are suing PKG Investments LLC, which the suit says was operating as Fire and Ice at Montgomery and Eubank.

Also named are Anodyne Corp., which was leasing its liquor license to PKG, according to the suit, and Hinkle Investments LLC, which owns the property Fire and Ice was leasing. The suit can be filed in Santa Fe because the estate’s “personal representative” is in the capital city.

No one connected to the club ownership as described in the suit could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Jessie said Debra was an active supporter of the fire and police departments in Bernalillo and Sandoval counties. Her husband is retired from Phoenix Fire Department, and Debra made quilts and donated them to fire departments or to the homeless.

Jessie was an only child, and her relationship with her mother extended beyond a normal mother-daughter relationship, she said.

“She was my best friend,” Jessie said. “She was my support system.”


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