An 11-year-old St. Petersburg girl died at her home last week while playing what is sometimes called suffocation roulette, a dangerous game that authorities say is on the rise among young people in the United States.
Deneathia Service died June 15, after attaching a belt to a shelf in a closet, then tying it around her neck, according to police.
The girl was playing the game, which can provide a druglike high from the lack of oxygen, with her 5-year-old sister after church a week ago. Her mother had left the house to pick up a relative and to get pizza for dinner. Deneathia's 12-year-old brother found her with the belt around her neck.
He rushed to the kitchen, grabbed a steak knife and used it to cut the belt, but Deneathia showed no signs of life. She was later pronounced dead at Bayfront Medical Center.
The family declined to be interviewed, and her principal at Gulfport Montessori Elementary School, Lisa Grant, said she would not comment without permission from the family.
In a February report, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the choking game has resulted in the unintentional strangulation deaths of at least 82 children and adolescents since 1995.
"It's absolutely tragic what happened to this young lady," said the family's attorney, state Rep. Darryl Rouson. "And to the extent we tell other children of the extreme danger, like death, hopefully we can save some lives.''
Rouson said he remembers from his youth that the choking game was popular among wrestlers, who put an arm around a person's neck in the "sleeper hold.'' Others played the game by standing behind a person and squeezing the abdomen.
Police originally suspected that Deneathia committed suicide, but later concluded the death was accidental.
Rouson has been told that Deneathia was "a bubbling young lady, with no indications of depression or despondency.''
"She was very playful with her 5-year-old sister," he said. "Her brothers had no reason to suspect anything. Two of them were asleep and one of them was on the computer.'
According to a police report, her family said that Deneathia had "played dead'' in the past. A detective investigating the case — unidentified in the police report — said the suffocation roulette game is being played by middle school children.
"In most cases kids will hyperventilate and another kid will put pressure on their neck, choking them with their bare hands until they pass out,'' the detective wrote in the report.
The game has evolved to where children are playing it by themselves, using belts, ropes, ties, dog leashes, bed sheets and chains, the report stated. Some kids develop brain damage from the lack of oxygen, and the deaths can be mistaken for suicides.
According to police, the girl's mother, Deneathia Smith, was asked whether her daughter had been playing the game. She said she had heard about the game from her pastor.
"She (the mother) has since heard that her daughter has faked death in the past and believes this may be associated with the game. Furthermore, she recalled incidents where clothes from the closet were either on the floor or across the room and she questioned what her daughter had been doing in the closet,'' the police report said.
Deneathia's funeral service was Saturday at Bethel Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church.
• • •
After her 12-year-old son, Jesse, died while playing the choking game three years ago, Sharron Grant and her daughter formed a support group for parents.
"He used the cord from his computer, and that's what's happening with most of these kids. He had learned it at summer camp,'' said Grant, whose group is called GASP, an acronym for Games Adolescents Shouldn't Play.
"These kids seem as though they have their heads on straight, but they're tempting death,'' said Grant, who lives in Toronto.
She said parents are often ashamed when their children die under such circumstances.
She said it's "very typical'' for kids to use belts to play the game.
"It's probably 90 percent are found like that in the closet. A very, very high number of children die under the same circumstances or hanging from a doorknob or a bunk bed,'' she said. "Because these children are normally 'A' students and very active and not into drugs, you assume that they are beyond doing stupid things, and that's what we are trying to teach parents.''
Scott Metheny, a police officer in Upper Moreland Township, Pa., and executive trainer for GASP, said he developed a training program in 2005 after a couple of mothers of eighth-grade children learned that the game had been played at a slumber party.
"I created a power point that is being used around the country to educate kids," he said, adding that the program is being used by law enforcement, DARE officers, school nurses and others.
Grant says she believes the number of deaths is higher than reported. "It's school-age children teaching school-age children,'' she said.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.