MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Austin and Clayton Spicer were more than twin brothers. They were best friends with their entire lives in front of them.
Just shy of their 17th birthdays, both teens had just started jobs at Rizzi's Pizza Cafe in Arlington, Tennessee and had received their first paychecks.
"That's all I've ever known, you know, the boys. Both of them, together," recalled Brandon Spicer, the teens' father. He said Austin "was gonna be turning 17, April 14th. Him and his brother. It was 17 days before his 17th birthday he passed away."
The brothers were staying overnight, Easter Sunday, at their mom's house. Jennifer Spicer and the twins' father, Brandon, are divorced and share custody.
According to Brandon Spicer, "Jennifer came into the room about 12 midnight and asked both of them if they wanted to go to the corner store, just to run and get something real quick. Clayton wanted to go, but Austin said, 'No.' When they came home is when they found him. Clayton found him."
In the short time Austin was left alone in his bedroom, the teenager tied one end of a shoestring around his neck and the other end around a doorknob. Austin then leaned forward, cutting off oxygen to his brain. He was dead by the time his family returned from the store.
"There are children out there playing these games and parents are completely blindsided by it," said Jennifer Spicer, who discovered in the weeks following Austin's death that her son died while playing the "choking game."
From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The "choking game" is an activity in which persons strangulate themselves to achieve euphoria through brief hypoxia. It is differentiated from autoerotic asphyxiation. The activity can cause long-term disability and death among youths. In 2008, CDC reported 82 deaths attributed to the choking game and other strangulation activities during the period 1995--2007; most victims were adolescent males aged 11--16 years.
The night Austin died, he, his brother and several other friends from Arlington High School were sending each other group text messages with videos of themselves playing the choking game.
Austin's parents believe he died while trying to record his own video.
"It started that night, this group of boys just joking around, videoing themselves and taking pictures of themselves, you know, just hanging off the doorknob or hanging off the top of a door and standing on their feet and leaning forward," Brandon told the WMC Action News 5 Investigators. "They were just playing. It was a joke. None of these kids knew that if I lost consciousness for ten seconds and no one's here to save me, I'm gone."
"They don't perceive this being dangerous. It's not smoking. It's not drugs. It's not alcohol. They think this is a game. So this could be any kid," said Dr. Debbie Greehouse, a pediatrician with knowledge of the choking game.
The choking game cuts blood flow to the brain. Once the blood flow is decreased, brain cells begin to die. If enough brain cells decrease for a long enough period of time, a person can die.
"What I would recommend, as far as parents speaking to their children about it, is just opening the conversation with a question: "Have you heard of the choking game?" and if they have not heard of it, then they should be asking "What have you heard?", so they can correct any misconceptions if the child says, 'I heard it's fun,' and, 'It's just a cheap way to feel good,'" Dr. Greenhouse said.
Austin's parents were not aware of the videos or text messages until several days after Austin's death.
When they discovered the messages, they met with the parents of the other boys involved.
The parents' reaction, said Brandon, "Stunned. Tears. Because they know it could have easily been them."
A review of Austin's autopsy shows he died of asphyxiation due to hanging.There were no illegal drugs or alcohol discovered in the toxicology report.
Shelby County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Karen Chancellor originally listed the manner of death as suicide, unaware at the time of the videos and group chat messages sent the night Austin died.
Dr. Chancellor denied several requests by the WMC Action News 5 Investigators to speak about the ruling, but Brandon and Jennifer say, for several weeks, they asked to meet with Dr. Chancellor to show her the choking game videos and text messages and to request the manner of death be changed from suicide to accident.
"Austin's actions cost him his life that night, but his intent was never to take his life. I know that and there's no way you can change my opinion about that. He loved life and he wanted to be here. If he knew what they were doing was actually, could be fatal, he would have never tried it, never. He would have never done that," Brandon said.
After finally agreeing to speak to Austin's parents over the phone and after reviewing the videos and group text messages, Chancellor changed the manner of death to "could not be determined," citing "Neither suicidal nor accidental manner can be ruled out."
It was another devastating blow for this mom and dad, who say Chancellor told them she believed Austin willingly chose to do something dangerous that, she felt, he knew could end his life.
"I've had medical examiners ask me, why does it need to be ruled an accident? I'm like, 'It's my son!'" said Brandon. "What's the difference between this and if a group of boys goes 80 miles an hour down a country road and wraps their car around a tree? You'll call that an accident, but you say Austin was engaging in risky behavior. That's risky behavior, too, but that's an accident? Someone shoots up heroin and ODs. Well, everyone knows heroin is pretty risky behavior, but you're gonna call that an accidental overdose, but you just leave this undetermined? It makes no sense."
Jennifer added, "There are medical examiners all across the country who understand the concept, the link between a suicide and an accident due to the choking game. It's unfortunate that the Memphis and Shelby County medical examiner's office has not adopted that philosophy yet. It took us 15 weeks for her to change it to undetermined.Fifteen weeks. That's a long time waiting on a decision of our son."
The medical examiner's ruling is final. There is no formal process for Brandon or Jennifer Spicer to appeal.
Austin's parents say a correct ruling is important not only for their son's legacy, but also because having an accurate account of choking game victims could save lives.
If the truth about Austin's death brings awareness to the choking game and saves just one child, it's, at the very least,something positive to come from this tragic situation.
"What tears me up inside is I want to reach so many people out there, so many families, parents, students, aunts, uncles, neighbors. We all know children. We all know teenagers," said Jennifer. "It's so hard to look at pictures and Austin's not in there. If parents would just talk to their kids, they wouldn't have the pain that I have of going back and looking at these pictures and my son's not in them."
"I'm not OK with any of this. The main thing is, I miss my son and I just want him back. I just need to go all the way for him. You know? I gotta, gotta do everything for him," Brandon said. "He had the whole world in front of him. And just10 minutes of one decision cost him his life. I'm not the first parent to lose a child and I'm not gonna be the last."
There are several online resources dedicated to educating parents and teens about the dangers associated with the choking game.
Austin's mom started a Facebook group to share her son's story and connect with other parents worldwide. It's called Aubie's Purpose. "Aubie" is what Austin's twin brother, Clayton, called him when they were little.
"Austin may not be here physically, but his life is still serving a purpose and he's still touching people," Jennifer said.
Aubie's Purpose: https://www.facebook.com/aubiespurpose/?fref=ts
Erik's Cause – Help Stop the Choking Game: www.erikscause.com
G.A.S.P – Games Adolescents Shouldn't Play: http://www.gaspinfo.com/en/home.html