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Part of this memorial table in the Peterson home shows the three things that Aaron Peterson Sr. said were important to his son: football, wrestling and family. (Robert Becker)

In a small brick house in northeast Lincoln, Aaron Peterson Jr. leaps into view on the computer screen, a modern-day cowboy, all hat and chaps and big black sunglasses.

“I just busted out of jail,” he says, and the paper-towel tube shootout with a ninja begins.

Eighty seconds later the school project captured on video, which turned from ninja-cowboy battles to renewable energy, is over and the small living room is quiet again.

Aaron Peterson Sr. smiles.

This is vintage Aaron Jr. The 15-year-old kid with boundless energy, the one who would do anything to get people to laugh, who commanded attention and loved football and wrestling and inline skating.

When he was a toddler, Aaron would put his little hands on either side of his mother’s face and turn it toward him.

“He’d say, ‘Look into my eyes,’”  Julie Beasley, who lives in Pleasant Dale. “That is the kind of person he was. He demanded your attention in whatever he did. He was the type of person who would come into your life and you’d just never forget him.”

This is the kid, who, on Nov. 5, spent the evening text-messaging a friend, talking about how he couldn’t wait to get his own car. The kid who, before hanging up the phone at 10, told a longtime friend he loved her and he’d see her tomorrow. The kid who spent the fall getting to weight so he could do what he’d wanted so badly: wrestle varsity.

All of that made what his stepmother Michele saw the next morning not just horrible and shocking and gut-wrenching. It made it unbelievable. Impossible.

She ran downstairs that morning to her stepson’s bedroom, propelled there by the look on her 17-year-old daughter’s face. Aaron was sitting on his bed, a belt attached to a bookcase, then looped around his neck.

Her first thought was suicide, Michele said, because what else could it possibly be?

“That’s what you think when you see something like that.”

But before long, another possibility pushes its way into the room: Maybe this was a 15-year-old kid doing something stupid, something he didn’t think would turn deadly.

The next hours are a blur. Police and fire trucks and questions. Months later, a few things stick out. Words, mostly.

Those of an officer, blocking the Aaron Sr.’s way as he ran down the stairs.

I’m telling you, as a father, this is not the last image of your son you want burned into your brain.

And this.

We don’t really know what happened yet, some things don’t look like a typical teen suicide.

An officer mentions auto asphyxiation, the Petersons recall, a game kids play to get a drug-free rush.

The Choking Game.

Space Monkey.

Pass-out.

The game has many names.

The practice — cutting off the blood supply to the brain to create a lightheaded feeling, followed by a tingling or rush when the blood begins to flow again — has been around for decades, according to Julie Rosenbluth, program director for the Phoenix House Center on Addiction and Family in New York, who has written and spoken about the game.

Sometimes, it has a sexual component, combined with masturbation to heighten the sexual experience. But for many kids, it’s more simple than that. It’s a high without drugs.

“I think it’s becoming increasingly popular,” Rosenbluth said. “What’s different now, why we’re having so many deaths is they’re playing it alone, they’re using ligatures, scarves.”

And when someone plays it alone, if the ligature doesn’t release properly or the person falls the wrong way, he or she can die.

Dr. Andrew Thomas, New Hampshire chief medical examiner, has reviewed the deaths of more than 20 adolescents nationwide after coming across two young boys in his state he believes died playing the game in 2001. Since then, he attributes one more New Hampshire death to it.

Based on those numbers, he estimates 100 children a year could die playing the game.

“I’m certainly convinced the phenomenon is real,” Thomas said.

Sara Wolter, assistant director for the School Community Intervention Program in Lincoln, said she hears anecdotal evidence about kids playing the game from counselors. She thinks its popularity ebbs and flows over the years.

“Each time it kind of gets going again, kids think it’s brand new and they’re the first ones to discover this technique.”

Lincoln Police Chief Tom Casady is skeptical the game is widespread.

“I think if there really was such a fad that we’d be hearing about it from confirmed sources. We’d get first-hand accounts from kids. We do get first-hand accounts of drug use, playing with guns, huffing. …”  

Rosenbluth thinks that may be because it seems less risky, like a safe alternative to alcohol and drugs and sex.

“Part of the reason is that kids don’t see it as a danger at all,” she said. “They’re more willing to talk about things that are illicit or risky because it is more interesting to them.”

Since January 2006, police have investigated seven suicides of people 19 or younger. In most of those cases, there was clear-cut evidence: a note, previous suicide attempts, Web site activity. In a couple of cases, there was nothing so obvious, but police still concluded the deaths were suicides, Casady said.

Aaron Peterson Jr.’s death was one of them.

Lancaster County Attorney Gary Lacey said police could find no one who knew Aaron had played the choking game or talked about it.

“I think this has some of the characteristics of rumor and urban legend,” Casady said. “But embedded in that I can’t rule out the possibility that a couple of these kids may not have been trying to kill themselves but were fooling around.”

***     

Sandi Stefkovich is convinced her son Stephen was one of those.

His father found Stephen, an eighth-grader at Mickle Middle School, hanging from low ceiling rafters in the basement on May 2. His feet were touching the floor.

A few days later, his mother said, three friends told them their son had been playing the choking game. They think he’d learned it a year earlier and had been playing off and on since.

“Of course, we didn’t know it at the time,” she said.

But looking back, there were signs: Stephen complained of headaches, had bloodshot eyes. He’d go into his bedroom closet at night and his parents would hear noises.  After his death, they found a belt there with a strange loop in it.

“Certain kids get hooked to that feeling,” she said. “I think my son was one of them. Not everyone who does this with a group of kids does it by himself.”

Stephen, who had a very mild form of autism, had been suspended from school that day for an incident with another student. But his mother said he wasn’t that upset about it, nor were she and her husband.

Stephen died downstairs where he watched TV, and Sandi Stefkovich believes he thought he’d be OK because his feet could touch the ground easily.

“These kids are immortal in their own heads,” she said. “They do not always think clearly. They don’t think their actions are going to hurt them.”

A similar horror awaited Becky Nelson and Jan Havranek when they came home from a walk near their rural Sterling home on April 19, 2005.

They found their beautiful, happy, 15-year-old daughter Hali Nelson in her bedroom closet, a shawl tied in a slip knot around her neck and hooked to the clothes rod.  

Official cause of death: undetermined.

A friend believed Hali had been playing the choking game, but it wasn’t until Nelson and Havranek saw a story about it on “Good Morning America” in July that it all fell into place.

“There were so many clues,” Havranek said. “We feel lucky that we got our answer. We know there are a lot of families who think their kids killed themselves when they didn’t. We just wanted the truth.”  

Although she was home-schooled, Hali had been hanging around with some friends who went to school in Lincoln. Her parents had heard her and her friends call each other “space monkey.”

Two weeks before she died,  Hali’s parents confronted her about a mark on her neck. She told them her friends were horsing around, playing a dog game with a leash. She and her friend got a lecture about the dangers of putting things around their necks.

 At the funeral, three friends told Nelson and Havranek that Hali hadn’t committed suicide, but would say no more.   

Now, Nelson and Havranek want other parents to be armed with information.  

“I feel like I didn’t have a chance because I had no information,” said Nelson.

On a recent evening, Aaron Peterson Jr.’s friends filled his living room to talk about their friend.

How he would risk life and limb on his inline skates, how he’d exaggerate every story, how he had joined the speech team and was practicing for a speech he was to perform the week after he died.

He would have been great, they said. After he died, the school gave him letters in both wrestling and football.

Nobody ever heard him talk about the choking game, never knew him to be curious about it, they said. But it would be the kind of thing a kid like him who loved to push the envelope might try. Still, they think he would have talked about it.

“I’ll bet that’s the only time he ever tried it,” said James Smith, 16.

Both his mom and stepmom said they talked to him about the choking game after they heard about Stephen Stefkovich’s death.

Aaron said he’d never heard of it, Michele Peterson said.

His friends are sure he didn’t commit suicide. If he’d been upset about things, they would have known.

On the day of his death, school officials pulled Aaron’s friends out of classes at Northeast High School and sent them to the counselor’s office, then home if they wanted.

“You can’t even describe how you feel when someone tells you something like that,” said Bryce Peschel, 15.

A letter went home to parents that day, saying Aaron had died, that his death was being investigated as a suicide.

Aaron Peterson Sr., upset with the letter, went to talk to Principal Kurt Glathar.

Over the next weeks, the two talked about what Peterson was sure had happened to his son. They talked about the possibility of using some of the memorial money people sent to bring in a national speaker to talk about the choking game.

A December newsletter mentioned Aaron’s death again, telling families it may have been an accident. It was accompanied by an article about the choking game.

“Aaron didn’t fit any of the indicators you see in suicide,” Glathar said in an interview. “He was engaged in school, a good student, involved in activities, looking forward to the future.”

Beasley is equally convinced that her son didn’t mean to kill himself. He fits the mold, she said: popular, involved in sports.

“I believe it was the choking game,” she said.

The conversations Glathar had with Aaron Peterson Sr. sparked a discussion among Northeast administrators and counselors that resulted in a series of parent meetings. The first will be Tuesday. The topic: risky behaviors, including the choking game. They’ve invited students from the middle schools that feed into the high school.

Northeast officials believe educating parents, and encouraging them to talk with their kids, can only help.       

“Just talking about it and getting it out in the open can be very beneficial, instead of squelching it and not being able to talk about it at home or at school,” said Ruth Lohmeyer, counseling coordinator for Northeast.

School officials say addressing — and reducing — risky behavior by students is an important part of their education.

Aaron Peterson Sr. hopes kids will think twice, maybe tell an adult if a friend is doing something dangerous.

“I think it’s important mostly for the parents to step back, take a deep breath and not lose touch.”

Reach Margaret Reist at 473-7226 or mreist@Journalstar.com.

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