Justin Butler's parents want the community to know that their son did not commit suicide. In fact, their bright-eyed 16-year-old boy was actually playing a dangerous "game" that had a deadly result.
Less than 48 hours since their son was pronounced dead early Monday morning, Eric and Kendall Butler believe they now have enough pieces in place to solve his puzzling death.
"I think we need to be brutally honest about the reality of what happened," Eric Butler said. "The only way to make something good come out the death of our son is to save the lives of some other kids. Because that's what we're talking about here - life and death."
Justin Butler was found unconscious at his home early Sunday evening, after apparently playing what is known as "the choking game," in which oxygen and the circulation of blood to the brain is cut off in order to obtain a euphoric or "high" feeling.
According to his parents, he never regained consciousness.
"This possibly being a suicide attempt ... it didn't make sense to us," said Kendall Butler. "Justin had just scored his first varsity touchdown and was thrilled about it.
"He had been bugging me about getting a snowboard pass ... He had lots of things to be excited about and look forward to. If you're going to kill yourself, you're not going to make plans for the future. You're not going to do something when a friend is over and your parents are in the backyard."
Justin and a friend were watching football and completing homework Sunday, while his parents were doing some gardening. Apparently, Eric said, when the friend left the room, Justin decided to choke himself by leaning his neck into a strap anchored on a piece of exercise equipment.
His parents believe he passed out before relieving the pressure he had applied, which would have allowed blood to circulate to his brain.
The day after his death, Eric said, some Bear River students stepped forward to let him, Kendall and their son, Bryan, know about the deadly "game" several of them had been playing.
"The kids told us about it and that apparently he had done it before," Kendall said.
"It was made clear to us that this is being done by kids," Eric added. "That it's part of their culture right now."
"And when we heard that news," Kendall said. "It made more sense to us."
Although both of Butler's parents say they had not heard of the "choking game" before it led to their son's death, it is apparently a prevalent practice. Through some quick research on the Internet, Eric Butler saw several stories of young boys and girls who have perished after performing self-asphyxiation.
That is why, despite being grief-stricken by the death of their son, the Butlers are speaking out with hopes of helping prevent other parents from going through the same nightmare.
"I love Justin more than anything in the world and I think this is the best way for us to honor him," Kendall said. "As a mother, you give up your life to raise your child. It becomes all about them. I love both of my boys more than anything in the world. To have that end so abruptly, it's so hard."
But the Butlers both say they don't believe they could wait until their pain subsides before pressing forward to help other parents.
"I don't want people to be impressed by us speaking so soon," Eric said. "It's raw right now. We hurt right now, but we can be brutally honest about it right now. The time is now.
"I now see that it's well known and there are different variations of this (choking game). Apparently, they started out doing it to each other, (with it) even happening at a dance, where one kid compresses the other kid. Going from conscious to unconscious and back again is what they're trying to do. And Justin tried it in such a way that had deadly results."
The Butlers don't plan to stop with spreading the word in their Lake of the Pines community, even as they make plans for their son's memorial service. They said they've already been contacted by national media, including NBC's "Today Show."
"Unfortunately, it took a tragedy to realize the tight-knitted community we are fortunate to be a part of here," Eric said. "So my goal is to spread the awareness, starting with our little community here and then go onto bigger and bigger circles."
The main message they want to share with parents is that it can, in fact, happen to their own child.
"One thing I do want to stress and make clear is that Justin was a good student - he had just brought his grades up to straight A's - he went to church with us every Sunday and he followed the rules we gave to him. He wasn't a troubled child.
"It's easy for parents to say 'Well, my kid wouldn't do that,'" Kendall said. "If it could happen with Justin, it could happen with anyone."
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