A CORONER has warned young people who experiment with drugs and alcohol that they could pay the ultimate penalty.

The warning followed the inquest into the death of 15-year-old John Winter, of Barnard Castle, County Durham, whose body was found in a snow-covered field after leaving a party at a remote village hall.

The inquest, at Chester-le-Street Magistrates' Court yesterday, heard that the teenager had been drinking at the party and traces of marijuana and Ecstasy were also found in his system.

The cause of death was hypothermia and, although it was made clear that drink and drugs were not directly to blame, Home Office pathologist James Sunter said they could have made him more vulnerable.

The party, at the Marwood Social Centre, on Friday, March 4, near the small County Durham village of Kinninvie, had been arrang-ed by two 16-year-old pupils of Teesdale Comprehensive School, in Barnard Castle, and allowed on the assumption that adults would supervise the party.

But the booking form, which was supposed to be signed by parents, had been signed and posted by the two youngsters and there was no adult supervision.

More than £600 of damage was caused to the centre as a result of several scuffles. One youth was later cautioned for the damage. Many of the teenagers took their own alcohol and 13 sacks of cans and bottles were cleared from the centre.

Cannabis was smoked and pills, believed to be Ecstasy, were also distributed.

Many youngsters reported that John was suffering from the effects of alcohol and had been seen falling asleep and waking up suddenly, knocking over tables.

At 10pm, an anonymous call was made to police who arrived to find more than 100 teenagers, many of them intoxicated. A decision was made not to cancel the party early as many of them were awaiting taxis and had no other way of getting home.

Detective Inspector Paul Harker, who led the investigation after John's death, said: "We would have had 100-plus youngsters in the freezing cold out in the middle of nowhere and it would have been much worse."

The inquest heard that John became aggressive and by 11.20pm was outside being calmed by a female friend.

He was not wearing his top and refused to put it back on.

Eventually, he pushed his friend away, setting off across fields towards his home, about three miles away. Although friends followed, they lost sight of him and returned to the centre.

He was found the next morning, half a mile from the centre, wearing only jeans and boots. A small amount of herbal cannabis was found on his body.

Recording a verdict of death by misadventure, South Durham Coroner Andrew Tweddle, said: "The dangers of drug taking cannot be over-emphasised.

"There's nothing to suggest that he'd overdosed on these substances, he might have woken up in the morning with a bad head and a clip round the ear.

"But it's appropriate to note the effects of substances and alcohol that can put people into these dangerous situations.

"I hope what I've said will be heeded so that there's some benefit and there aren't other families who have to go through proceedings such as this."

After the party, three people were arrested on suspicion of supplying drugs, but there was no evidence linking them with John's death and they were later released.

One of the young men was charged with possessing drugs for personal use.