Sartee Riley took the frantic call about her 12-year-old son just as she was about to board a rental car shuttle bus in Dallas. The number belonged to her mother, but the voice was nearly incomprehensible.
“Brent killed himself,” the voice screamed.
Riley, a 37-year-old single mother from Johns Creek, felt suspended between reality and a dream. Her son? Dead? There were no guns in their apartment. How could Brent kill himself?
“You need to get home now,” another female voice spoke into the phone.
As she made her way back to the American Airline ticket counter, Riley felt faint.
She pleaded with the agent to get on the next flight to Atlanta. But she had to book a hotel room instead, forced to wait another day to find out what happened to her son.
“That night in the hotel alone was so hard, “ she said. “I wanted to die.”
Brent’s death on Oct. 14, four days after his 12th birthday, was ruled a suicide. But in the weeks that followed Brent’s death, Sartee Riley came to a different conclusion: Her son died accidentally while playing the “choking game,” a self-induced strangulation that has been suspected in the deaths of a small number of mostly boys in Georgia and around the country.
The Georgia fatalities include 13-year-0ld Sanders Marshall whose February death was ruled accidental asphyxiation. At the time, the Alpharetta teen’s death was the subject of a community meeting packed by curious parents. Citing the closeness of the anniversary of her son’s death, Sanders’ mother, Layla Marshall, declined comment.
Riley’s grief led her to launch a campaign — The Life of Riley Organization Inc; No game, No shame — to generate national awareness about the deadly adolescent activity she believes killed her son.
She and other parents, including the founder of Games Adolescents Shouldn’t Play (GASP), are also advocating that the choking game be added to the D.A.R.E. curriculum presented to teenagers.
Sartee Riley had never heard of the choking game before Brent’s death.
“I wish I had,” she said recently. “I wish I had.”
A quick high
The sudden release of pressure around the neck, induced by a belt or rope, can produce a quick “high.” The activity turns deadly when the partial strangulation turns to asphyxiation.
“It’s Russian roulette,” said Dr. James Fortenberry, pediatrician in chief at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
Because the deaths most often occur when the victim is alone, officials have a hard time distinguishing between choking-game deaths and suicides.
Gaspinfo.com, which seeks to educate parents about the activity, estimates the game has killed more than 30 Georgia kids, including 16 metro Atlantans, between 2001 and 2011. But medical examiners have not confirmed that cause in any of those cases. Last year, Brent’s death was one of at least three in metro Atlanta that the victims’ parents blamed on the choking game.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimates that between 80 and 100 choking game deaths have occurred nationally over the past decade. The CDC sponsored one study in 2007 that indicated that 87 percent of the deaths were boys and nearly 96 percent occurred when they were alone like Brent, who was a year shy of the mean age of 13.
Fortenberry believes the number of fatalities is significantly underestimated and that “the deaths are surely only the tip of the iceberg.”
“We’ve definitely seen kids who’ve had a severe episode related to the choking game,” said Fortenberry. “We unfortunately don’t see the teen who dies because they don’t ever make it to the emergency room.”
Children’s Healthcare does not keep demographic data on the choking game, Fortenberry said.
“These are normal kids who may be doing well in school, on the soccer team and see this as something fun and part of a social network,” he said. “The real danger comes when they decide to do it on their own in their bedrooms and have an event and stop breathing and no one is there to revive them or call an ambulance.”
A quick death
Brent, a seventh-grader at Autrey Mill Middle School in Johns Creek, was at home with his grandparents and older sister the evening he died.
He’d been home alone from school less than a hour when his grandparents and sister, Lexis, pulled into the drive about 5 p.m.
Brent emerged from the apartment the moment he heard the car doors slam and threw his skinny arms around them. Edith Riley, his grandmother, thought to herself how much he’d matured. In the past, he would’ve run to meet them. This time he walked.
Mommy2, as Edith Riley was known to her grandchildren, handed Brent a crisp $20 bill for his birthday. He grabbed their luggage and the four of them went inside. He squirreled their luggage away and invited them to his room to show off the birthday present from his mother — a betta fish.
Edith Riley immediately noticed how clean his room was, especially the closet. Brent had moved his clothes to either side and his clothes hamper was on the other side of the room.
“Brent had never had a clean closet,” she said. “Something about the room didn’t feel right.”
While Lexis cooked dinner, they settled on the living room sofa to watch television. Brent was grounded and couldn’t go outside to play because he’d lied to a cafeteria worker at school to get a free lunch. He returned to his room.
Minutes later Lexis, finished with dinner, went to find him. He was hanging by a belt in the space he’d cleared in his closet.
“I jumped up and ran to his room,” his grandmother recalled. “I picked him up to take the pressure off and started screaming for my husband.”
Albert Riley rushed into the room. Lexis ran to get scissors to cut the green army belt from his neck.
Edith Riley ran out to get help. Her cellphone wouldn’t work. She knocked on neighbors’ doors but no one answered. She finally spotted a woman in a car.
“I couldn’t talk,” she recalled. “All I could do is point.”
The woman in the car was Cheryl Welch, a laser technician who lived in an adjoining building.
Welch rushed into the apartment and immediately noticed the marks around Brent’s neck.
While on the phone with a 911 operator, Welch said she checked for a pulse or heartbeat. But there was nothing. She cleared his airway and started chest compressions until the paramedics arrived.
“It seemed like a lifetime but it only took minutes,” she said. “But it was too late. He died very quickly.”
Sartee Riley started digging the moment she returned to Atlanta. She talked to the police, the paramedics who responded to the 911 call, school officials at Brent’s middle school.
Neither she or school officials had seen any signs of depression or other condition that would lead them to believe that he would take his own life. He’d been punished for the cafeteria incident but didn’t seem upset about it.
Riley moved to Johns Creek from Cumming before the school year so that Brent and Lexis could attend a more diverse and challenging school. Brent had adapted to his new home and school almost immediately, making friends the first day he arrived. He played trumpet in the school band and took eighth-grade classes even though he was in the seventh grade.
Paramedics responding to the 911 call the day of his death asked Edith Riley if Brent had ever played the choking game. Friends of her son told Riley they’d recently seen Brent walk home with a kid who was known for teaching kids the choking game.
On the Internet, Riley discovered that there are some 244,000 videos on YouTube instructing kids on how to play the game. She learned the game is sometimes referred to as flat liner, roulette, space cowboy, pass out, black out and airplaning. And she found two foundations, including The DB Foundation Inc. and GASP that were founded by parents like her to help raise awareness.
The more she dug, the more angry she became. Why didn’t she know about this?
A Fulton County medical examiner labeled Brent’s death a suicide. But the choking game was the only thing that made sense to Riley and her parents.
The choking-game deaths they learned about from around the country seemed to validate their suspicions.
She also recalled that Brent had been spending more time in his room and had an unexplained bump on his head the week before he died.
Then there was the belt found around his neck. Brent didn’t own a belt, and Riley had never bought him one.
“Brent never wore belts,” Sartee Riley said. “Someone had given him that belt.”
As he reached adolescence, Riley talked to her son about the dangers of drugs, alcohol and even bullying.
“The [choking] game was one thing I didn’t talk to him about because I wasn’t aware of it,” she said.
After Brent’s funeral, Riley launched The Life of Riley Organization Inc; No game, No shame to raise awareness about the choking game and other games harmful to children.
“As of today we have 15 volunteers, working hard to help bring awareness with marketing, finding seminars to speak out to people, coming up with fundraiser ideas and events for the organization,” she said.
Lexis created a public service announcement on YouTube that was aired at Johns Creek High School in November.
They have created a fan page on Facebook and Twitter and designed memory bands.
The awareness campaign is gaining ground. D.A.R.E. says it may add the choking game to its curriculum for parents.
In some ways, Riley said, she might feel better had Brent used drugs or alcohol. He might have been able to recover from those.
“I could put him in rehab,” she said. “But not this. You’re dead. There is no counseling or rehab. You’re just dead.”
Warning signs for parents
1. Overhearing your child talking about the choking game with friends or checking out videos of the game on the Internet.
2. Unexplained presence of belts, scarfs or dog collars hanging on a door knob in a child’s room.
3. Teen is suddenly having severe headaches or blood shot eyes.
4. Marks on the neck.
5. Disorientation after spending time alone.
Source: Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta
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