CEDAR CITY – Iron County parents are invited by members of the Iron County School District to attend a presentation about “The Choking Game,” a game that has caused 40 percent of adolescent deaths in Iron County since 2009, Cedar City Detective Mike Bleak said. The presentation will take place Wednesday evening at the Iron County School District building in Cedar City.
Oct. 25, 2011, 17-year-old Jaden Laws was found dead in his father’s backyard from what police had originally thought was a possible suicide. Upon further investigation, the truth about what had happened emerged: The death was the end result of a bad choice.
Laws had died accidentally after participating in a behavior that has come to be known as the “Choking Game.” Also called names like “tap out,” “space monkey,” “gasp,” “blackout,” “flatliner,” “roulette” and “airplaning,” the choking game can have permanent and irreparable damage to young developing brains and, in severe circumstances, cause death.
When he was first called to investigate Laws’ death, Cedar City Detective Mike Bleak said he had a very limited understanding of the “Choking Game.” The investigation was a life-changing experience, he said.
It seemed at first like a cut-and-dry case of suicide, but as the investigation continued, Bleak said, there was absolutely nothing to substantiate that position.
“Suicide investigations are fairly straightforward,” Bleak said. “And really, any investigator that is tasked with that, they will tell you that either there’s usually a note, there is usually someone who has tried it in their family history, a substance abuse history, a girlfriend or boyfriend history – you know, there’s usually a pretty obvious trigger as to why they committed suicide.”
In this particular case, however, Bleak said, none of these indicators were present. The more he spoke to people, the less evidence he found that Laws’ death had been a suicide.
One day, Bleak said, he was interviewing Laws’ stepmother when she casually mentioned the choking game. He said she told him Laws had admitted to playing the game several months before, after which they had a family discussion about the dangers and he promised never to play it again. Bleak said she told him there was never another mention of the game from her son or anyone in the family after that.
As Bleak pursued a developing idea that Laws’ death may have been caused by the choking game, he said he learned that it was a fairly unknown concept within the established medical and law enforcement community, which investigates causes of death. Digging deeper, Bleak said he became more and more certain that Laws had become a victim of the game.
After he closed his investigation on Laws, Bleak said the media took off with the story and people started talking about the choking game more and more in Iron County. One day, he said, he received an email from the mother of a child whose death he had investigated in 2009. She asked him to reopen her son’s case because she was sure the choking game had played a role.
Bleak said when he pulled the file, he was appalled at the job he had done; he said it was obvious there was more to the case, and so he agreed to reopen it. If there were such a thing as a textbook, open-and-shut case, Bleak said that 2009 case was it.
Bleak educated himself more about the choking game. In a victim’s interview with the young boy’s mother, he said, she laid out the last six to eight months of her son’s life. The information she gave Bleak was like a checklist for almost every indicator that her son had been a victim of the choking game.
“She said, ‘Well, we were having really bad trouble with his eyes,’” Bleak said. “One of the things we know from this activity is that there is damage to the eyes because of the pressure and the release of pressure.”
Shortly after his investigation concluded and the young man’s death certificate was amended, Bleak said there was another young man who fell victim to this deadly game. The likelihood of having so many deaths under his umbrella in such a small community was low, he said; he knew he had to do something to help educate parents and stop this horrific game and its deadly consequences before any more lives were lost.
“There have been 10 adolescent deaths (in Iron County) since 2009,” Bleak said. “Four of them have been attributed to the choking game – that’s a pretty cut-and-dry statistic.”
He said he was introduced to Erik’s Cause through Laws’ mother. Erik’s Cause is a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles that helps raise awareness about the choking game. Together, Bleak and the Erik’s Cause leaders have successfully lobbied to have choking game awareness added to the health and education curriculum in the Iron County School District.
Judy Rogg, president and co-founder of Erik’s Cause, said Iron County has been the first school district to agree to allow the program into their schools. She said it’s a three-part program that is standardized and measurable.
Students will receive different amounts of information in fifth, seventh and 10th grades, Rogg said. Health educators will also attend a training to understand not just what the choking game is, but how to teach it to the students without teaching them how to try it.
She said it has been a very delicate balance to put a program like this together, but as the mother of an only child who was a victim of the choking game, she couldn’t just sit idly by and not work to educate others.
“It’s what keeps me going,” Rogg said. “Gives me a reason to get out of bed and face the world every day.”
Iron County School District Secondary Education Director Jennifer Wood said she believes parents will learn a lot at the seminar Wednesday night, and that pioneering efforts in Iron County to study the choking game will hopefully create a positive ripple that saves lives.
The one-hour presentation begins at 7 p.m. in the School District Office building, 2077 W. Royal Hunte Drive, board rooms B and C in Cedar City.
- What: Presentation about “The Choking Game”
- When: Thursday, Nov. 5 | 7 p.m.
- Where: Iron County School District offices, 2077 W. Royal Hunte Drive, board room B and C, Cedar City
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