Teen's death blamed on 'choking game'
MILLBRAE, Calif. (KGO) -- It goes by many names -- space monkey, Cali high, the choking game -- and it's a risky fad that appears to have claimed another young victim, a freshman from Mills High School in Millbrae.
Child advocates say we're not putting any ideas into kids' heads by doing this story -- most already know about the choking game and it's important for parents to be warned. The parents of the boy who died this past Saturday asked the I-Team to tell this story.
Phil and Elisabeth Piefer from Millbrae buried their son Friday. Dylan was just 14 years old.
"Very happy, full of life the day he died," said Dylan's mother, Elisabeth Piefer. "He was so happy that day, he cleaned his room up, I gave him $10 and he said, 'Thanks mom, I love you,' and that was the last I saw of him."
This past Saturday, Dylan told his parents he was heading to the park to meet friends. He climbed through a hole in the fence, walked the long path to the airport property that lines Highway 101 across from SFO. Just across the water is a popular meeting place; they call it "the fort."
Dylan was the first one there. His friends arrived to find him with a rope around his neck, attached to a tree about four feet from the ground.
"He was on his knees when they found him. There was no way that he was, you know, he could have got up," said Dylan's uncle, Kenny Piefer. "If his friends were there, they could have took the rope off him at least, if there was other people there with him."
"My friend Elisabeth came flying to my house screaming that her son was found dead over here," said family friend Christina Baugh.
San Mateo County sheriff's investigators are working the case as a suicide, but the coroner told the family it appeared to be something else.
"That a lot of children played the choking game and that's what it looked like it was," said Elisabeth Piefer.
The choking game has been around for years, but it's spreading because of online videos.
"This is like a how-to instructional video, how to do it, but be careful, don't kill yourself 'cause then it would suck if it's my fault," said the narrator in of these online videos.
There are many variations -- deep breaths and pressing on the chest, a headlock, using a rope, belt, bed sheet or curtain. The point is all the same -- cutting oxygen to the brain.
"I want to warn you, I think you lose like several billion brain cells each time you do it," said the video's narrator.
The rush comes as brain cells die. The twitching that's so common with someone who's passed out is actually a seizure. There's also the danger of broken bones, if no one is there to catch and a kid lands hard.
The danger of death grows exponentially when someone does this when they're alone.
"It's definitely not safe because you don't have a lot of control over what you're doing," says adolescent therapist Jennifer Tan.
Tan works with the Bay Area Center for Adolescents, and she has treated kids who've experimented with the choking game.
"It's maybe considered a safe way to experiment with a different state of mind because drugs aren't used," she said.
It's difficult to track just how many kids die from the choking game; they're often simply ruled a suicide.
While Dylan's investigation moves forward, his classmates and teachers at Mills High are being offered grief counseling. They've been writing their thoughts on a banner for him.
Even on this, the most painful of days, Dylan's parents want you to hear their story, hoping something good can come from such tragedy.
"And I have the biggest hole in my heart and I hope no other parent ever, ever has to go through this," said Dylan's mother. "It's heartbreaking over something just so silly."
Investigators are checking reports of an adult male seen heading into the trees with Dylan just before he died.
Those instructional videos are all over the Internet, in fact, parents' groups use them to explain the warning signs, such as marks on the neck, bloodshot eyes, or persistent headaches. I give the full rundown in a new I-Team Blog here.
If you have a tip for the I-Team, send us an e-mail here or call 1-888-40-I-TEAM.
millbrae, children, i-team, dan noyes
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