Grieving mother wants her son to be last to perish in the 'Choking Game'
Sam LaCroix was a curious 12-year-old boy. He could turn his mother's kitchen into a science laboratory, growing crystals and exploding volcanoes, or sometimes he would simply cook homemade pasta and sauce all by himself.
The Missoula sixth-grader loved ballet, theater, arts and crafts, and knew without a shadow of a doubt that he would be chosen for "Kid Nation," a reality TV series starring children trying to create their own society. The 40-page application sat in his bedroom on Dec. 1, 2008.
He was a good kid.
He loved adventure. Though smaller than most children his age, he made up for it in guts. He led the way as boys jumped off the rope swing into Holland Lake. When his entire class received discipline, Sam made up a silent game to pass the time and entertain his classmates. That's the kind of thing Sam did.
He made his friends laugh; he made his family laugh. His infectious smile and big brown eyes clued them in to his next exploit.
But there was no one around for his adventure on that December day in 2008. No one to save him.
He was doing something known as the "Choking Game."
"That day was just a normal Monday at work," said Sam's mother and Missoula Chief Deputy County Attorney Kirsten Pabst. She let out a half laugh, half sigh at the memory as she stood at her kitchen counter recounting the day.
"I remember what I was wearing that day. I was wearing this black prego sweater — black because you know how you feel when you are pregnant," she said.
Pabst was 7 1/2 months pregnant with a baby boy. She and her new husband, Shawn, wanted to name him Gus, but Sam, his older brother Gabe and older sister Emma preferred Finn.
Sam couldn't wait to meet his baby brother. He taught himself to sew a perfectly imperfect patchwork quilt for his unborn brother. He used several different monkey fabrics to create the quilt, probably because of his own love of monkeys. A tiny yellow pocket finished off the top of the quilt.
Sam got home at about 4:30 that wintry afternoon, walking half a mile from the bus stop to his house. He finished his homework at the kitchen counter. He had the house all to himself.
He wrote two autobiographical poems for a class the next day, including the lines: "I love to play the violin because it's challenging," "I like to study ancient things because I think it's interesting" and "Lover of candy."
He described himself as happy, curious, stubborn and excited.
Sam ate a snack — half of a container of yogurt — then headed to his bedroom in the basement for that adventure, wanting the dreamlike, floating-in-space feeling as the blood rushed into the brain after he temporarily shut it off. He found his belt and attached it to the rod in his closet.
Pabst left work early to pick up Gabe from wrestling practice. He finished about 5:20 p.m., and the drive to their house off Upper Miller Creek Road took 10 to 15 minutes.
The backdoor between the garage and the house was locked.
As Pabst struggled to unlock the door, Gabe grew impatient and started yelling at his brother: "Sam open the door. Sam open the door." But Sam didn't come. Their dog, Tsegi, was going crazy on the other side of the door, jumping, scratching and barking as if trying to help them. The clock continued to tick. Pabst struggled to recall the details of the next few minutes. "It gives me a whole new appreciation for witnesses," Pabst, the lawyer, recounted.
Once she and Gabe got in the door, she remembers that there were only a few lights on in the house. "I think 'SpongeBob' was playing on the TV," she said. The two of them continued to call out for Sam, but they couldn't find him — living room, kitchen, upstairs, downstairs — he didn't call back. They looked in his room and everywhere else, but couldn't find him. They went back to look in his room a second time.
"Then at the same time, we both moved the door and saw him," Pabst said.
In his closet behind the door, Sam hung, his little chin resting on his belt loop, apparently just cutting off his circulation.
"We figure he had been hanging there for about 20 minutes when we got home," Pabst said.
The fight for his life was on.
Sam LaCroix didn't head to his bedroom to kill himself that first day of December 2008. He was getting "high" on the Choking Game, in which people choke themselves using their hands, ropes or belts to the point of passing out. Friends usually play together, choking each other. Right before they pass out, they let up the pressure, causing a warm and fuzzy chemical release, or "high," as they fall into their friends' arms.
That night, Sam decided to play it alone. When his mother found him, she knew nothing about the Choking Game. Pabst feared he had tried to take his own life. As she started to perform CPR, she remembers yelling at him, "Why didn't you call me?"
She had always talked to her children about calling her if something bad happened. She would always be there to talk them through it. But this — this Choking Game — she had never heard of.
Had she known, she believes she would have seen the warning signs. She is sure he had played it by himself before. Sam had complained of headaches, had dark circles under his eyes and had been locking his bedroom door at night.
By sharing her story, she wants other parents to be aware of the Choking Game and know its warning signs.
The "game" may have been around for a long time, but some experts think the Internet is making it more popular than ever. Online videos show children in groups — and alone — demonstrating how to play the Choking Game.
"Sam played it," Pabst said. "Teachers know about it — but parents don't."
At work, Pabst did an informal survey to find out if police officers and prosecutors had heard of the Choking Game. None of her close work confidants had.
"Why is there this disconnect that the teachers who are in the trenches with the kids know about it, but the parents and the law enforcement community have never heard of it?" she asked.
Emergency workers got Sam's heart pumping again in the ambulance en route to the hospital. Because of her close ties to law enforcement, word spread fast. By the time Pabst arrived at the hospital, she had a support system surrounding her.
The family soon learned that Sam needed to go to Seattle Children's Hospital. Sam's father — Pabst's ex-husband, Joe LaCroix — flew to Seattle with Sam while Pabst went with her parents back to the house, where the pieces of the puzzle fit into place: the finished homework, the snack and the biggest clue — the one that haunts Pabst — the history on the family computer revealing sites relating to the Choking Game.
A group of generous Missoula community leaders flew Pabst, Gabe and Emma to Seattle that night on a chartered plane. Her husband met them there —straight from Las Vegas, where he had been working on a temporary job. Kerin Taylor, Pabst's sister, flew from Great Falls to Seattle two days later.
Doctors at Children's Hospital told them it would take 72 hours before they would know anything. A group of eight to 14 specialized doctors took care of Sam at all times, and they had twice-daily team meetings that included the family's input.
In the early hours, it appeared that Sam was trying to fight the respirator and breathe on his own, giving the family hope that he would survive his error in judgment. Doctors told them that there was one thing they needed to watch for that was a sign Sam would surely notmake it: If his brain started to swell before the 72 hours were up, they would know that he was, in fact, brain dead. One doctor explained to Pabst what the monitors would do if that happened.
That Wednesday afternoon, just after Pabst's sister arrived from the airport, the family got the news it didn't want to hear. The numbers on the monitor showed that Sam's brain was swelling, even though he didn't look any different. The lawyer in Pabst needed proof beyond a reasonable doubt — the standard that she works in — so she pulled the lead doctor aside: "How sure are you?" she asked him. "I am certain that's what's happening to him," he told her. Pabst then asked her sister to duck into the bathroom with her. Pabst was in labor. In no state to deal with either the loss of her son Sam or the frighteningly early birth of her unborn son, Pabst chose to ignore that she was in labor and went to bed. By the middle of the night, the contractions were hard to ignore. In the morning, Pabst and Taylor headed to a second Seattle hospital because Children's Hospital doesn't have a labor and delivery ward.
"They already knew they would take him off life support," Pabst said of Sam. And the doctors would do that on Friday, Dec. 5. Pabst had until midnight to have the baby.
"I didn't want Finn's birthday to be on Sam's death date," she said, tears welling in her eyes. Pabst chose to have the baby without any medication because she wanted to keep a clear head.
"I thought they'd amplify the trauma — the pictures that were in my head," she said.
The family chose to donate as many of Sam's organs as possible since he was such a generous child and would have wanted to help other people. There was a lot of paperwork for the organ donation, and the team brought it to Pabst's hospital bed 3 miles from Sam's hospital bed.
With nearly everything else seemingly out of her control, she turned to something that she is good at, that she could control, to concentrate on. "In between contractions I was cross-examining the organ donation team. I wanted to understand the process for recipient selection and make sure those decisions were based on need, and not on a person's financial resources or insurance." As the hours slipped by, time again became a factor for Pabst. It didn't appear she was going to make her midnight deadline.
But at 11:35 p.m., little 5-pound, 6-ounce Finn was born.
"I just collapsed. I was just so happy that it was before midnight and I knew that Finn was OK," said Taylor, who had stayed by her sister's side the whole labor. Saying hello to one son meant saying goodbye to another the next day. Pabst traveled to Sam's hospital room one last time to say her goodbyes. "Gabe was so sure he was still going to be OK," Pabst said. Gabe put money in Sam's hand and told him he had won the bet they made on Finn's hair color.
The family made several casts of Sam's hands and feet to keep — so many that the hospital ran out. "I guess that was really good therapy for our family," Taylor said.
Pabst then went back to be with her newborn baby.
"I couldn't do it," she said of being there when Sam was taken off of life support. "I felt so bad for Kerin."
Taylor stayed with Emma and Gabe and Sam's dad and his family as they took Sam off life support and rushed him into surgery for the organ donations. Pabst later told her sister: "I feel so bad for drawing this week out by doing CPR, even though it didn't save him."
But Taylor knew Sam would not have wanted that. After all, his organs saved three lives: a postal worker, a mother and a ballroom dancer.
"And Sam was a dancer," Pabst said.
Pabst and her husband were stuck in Seattle for a few weeks with Finn because the baby was so premature. Sam's funeral had to be put off until the entire family could get back to Missoula.
Meanwhile, sixth-grade teacher Lisa Wimett was dealing with a class full of heartache. She had been on medical leave that year and had only been back to her classroom for three days before Sam's death.
"That was probably the toughest situation in my 30-year career," said Sam's Meadow Hill Middle School teacher.
But this wasn't the first time Wimett had first-hand experience with the Choking Game. Ten years before Sam's death, a boy in her son's class died while playing the Choking Game by himself before a Cub Scout dance. His mother held the boy's funeral in the school to shed light on the terrible "game" to try to prevent it from happening again, Wimett said.
Wimett said her students just wanted to talk about Sam and the Choking Game, and all that they knew.
"These kids were so knowledgeable about all this stuff," she said. "I was astounded by all this stuff. I'm 54, and I've been teaching 30 years and not much surprises me, but this does."
She went home and looked up the Choking Game on the Internet.
"If it's this easy for me to find, I can't believe how confusing it would be for my 11- and 12-year-old students to sort out," she said.
Pabst doesn't know who Sam may have played the Choking Game with. He hadn't told his best schoolmate, Zach Mumm, that he had tried it.
Zach's parents had seen a television special about the Choking Game and sat Zach and his older brother down and told them the dangers of the deadly "game."
"We were lucky to have heard the story on TV," Jackie Mumm said. "It breaks my heart that Zach could have somehow influenced Sam if he would have told him."
Still Mumm wonders if she should have done more to educate her boys.
"They don't understand mortality at this age," she said.
Sam's death was an "earth-shattering realization that death would be a result by playing this game," she said. Zach spent time putting together a note for both of Sam's parents as he grieved the loss of his best buddy.
On Dec. 17, Sam's funeral was held in a packed Missoula church.
"It was the biggest church in town, and they had to turn people away for his funeral," Pabst said.
Sam's friends, his family's friends and their colleagues turned out to support his grieving family. Little 60-pound Sam LaCroix touched many lives in his short life.
Before day's end, Zach Mumm slipped that note into Pabst's hand. It read: "Now I know how stupid that game really is."