Mother missed signs of 'choking game'
California teen died seeking high with rope around neck
From Thelma Gutierrez
Wednesday, August 10, 2005; Posted: 6:18 a.m. EDT (10:18 GMT)
Talk with children about dangerous games, just as you would about smoking or drugs.
Be firm and serious in discussions.
Look for signs of playing the game -- bloodshot eyes, marks on the neck and closed doors.
PARADISE, California (CNN) -- Looking back, Sarah Pacatte realizes she missed the warning signs.
But at the time, the mother of four thought maybe her 13-year-old son, Gabriel Mordecai, was smoking marijuana. She never
imagined he was putting a rope around his neck and choking himself for a rush.
"A couple of months before he died, he became very hostile, very angry, and he complained of horrible headaches," Pacatte
said. "Then I started seeing bloodshot eyes."
What killed him in May was the "choking game," one of the names for a practice in which children use their hands, arms,
ropes or belts to cut oxygen to their brains and pass out.
Pacatte says she wants to warn other parents about the risks before it's too late for them.
"I feel a little bit of anger, but mostly I feel desperation and urgency," she says.
It's already too late for 13-year-old Chelsea Dunn of Idaho and 14-year-old Jason Linkins of North Carolina, whose deaths
in recent years were among those thought to be the result of similar suffocation games.
Details of how the "game" is played, once passed among schoolmates, now spread on the Internet.
Gabriel's twin brother and best friend, Sam, says they learned of it from an older boy, who showed them how to hyperventilate
and apply pressure to their necks.
"You kind of like pass out for a few seconds," Sam explains.
"It's a sensation ... like we've never experienced before," he said, calling it "weird."
But Gabriel's initial response was more enthusiastic, Sam says.
"It's awesome," he recalls his brother exclaiming.
"I really didn't like it that much," he says, adding that he did it out of peer pressure.
When Sarah found out her sons were playing, she told them to stop.
"Gabriel was argumentative about this game," Pacatte said. She recalls him saying, "What's the big deal? I'm not taking
any drugs; I'm not drinking or anything."
"I said, 'The big deal is that every time you cut your oxygen off to your brain, you're causing brain damage little by
Children have likely been playing the "choking game" for a long time, Connecticut-based child psychologist Dr. Lawrence
Shapiro told The Associated Press.
Shapiro, author of "The Secret Language of Children," told the AP that parents should discuss such dangerous behavior with
their children, in addition to talking about drugs and alcohol.
"Younger kids don't know that they can die from this, that it's a very dangerous activity," Shapiro told the news agency.
But Gabriel loved the sensation, his mother said.
"It was almost like a drug," she said. "They crave it; they crave the high that they get from the lack of oxygen."
Gabriel began to play alone.
"One day he was doing it to himself," his brother says. "He stopped because I told him I was going to tell Mom."
Despite Pacatte's numerous warnings, Sam says Gabriel kept doing it -- often while their mother was at work.
The day before Gabriel died, she asked him about a mark on his neck.
"He looked at me kind of funny and he said, 'Don't worry mom, it's not a hickey,'" Pacatte says.
The next evening, while Pacatte was preparing dinner, Sam went into his room and found his brother with a rope around his
neck. When his brother didn't respond, he yelled, "Gabe!"
"When I got to the bedroom door, Samuel was across the room behind his brother," Pacatte says. "He was holding his brother
up under his arms."
Gabriel was airlifted to a hospital in Sacramento. Sarah and Sam made the gut-wrenching, two-hour journey by car.
They prayed at Gabriel's side, but 15 hours later, Pacatte says, "He died on life support. His body shut down."
Pacatte says their apartment is too quiet now.
"It's very hard to watch Sam be without his brother," she says. "We miss him so much."
She even misses the bickering.
"I miss the fighting," she says. "I'd gladly give up my life just to see those two kids fight."
The family takes some comfort in their memories of Gabriel and from the words in his journal.
"I plan to go to college for four years," Sam reads from his brother's writings. "I plan to send my mom about $500 a month
to help support her."
Wiping away tears, Pacatte says that months later she remains angry and hurt.
"I have guilt, so much guilt, because I didn't save my baby," she says. "What a beautiful child; what a beautiful gift.
And he's gone."
"In the blink of an eye, my boy is gone," she says.
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