Arthur J. ‘AJ’ Sposito

Arthur J. ‘AJ’ Sposito

Debra Sposito has been asking young people if they have ever tried the choking game.

“A lot of them have said, ‘yes,’ ” the Hermitage woman said. “About 75 percent of those I’ve asked have tried it.”

Ms. Sposito has seen firsthand the danger of this so-called game. Her son, Arthur J., known as “AJ,” died after playing the game on July 15. He was 16.

The game has many names: the Passout Game, Space Monkey, Black Out — as many names as there are variations to play it. And each could be deadly.

The purpose is to create a brief euphoria from oxygen-rich blood rushing to the brain after the oxygen supply has been cut off, said Dr. Charles Zeigler, the Mercer County deputy coroner who investigated AJ’s death.

Some kids use their bare hands to choke friends until they pass out. Others use ropes or belts. Still others hyperventilate until they pass out.

Kids often play this game in groups so someone is there to release the pressure and breathing resumes.

“Even if there’s a couple of kids, something could happen,” Ms. Sposito said.

That night

AJ was alone.

He had worked from 5 a.m. to noon at APEX Engineering, a fabrication shop in West Middlesex, where his dad, Arthur “Joe” Sposito, also works.

The pair went shopping. AJ, who just completed his sophomore year at Hickory High School, had been looking for a television for his room, but he wanted to get one as cheaply as he could because he was saving money for a car, Sposito said.

That evening, Sposito went to bed early. AJ was waiting for his mom and sister Amanda, now 15, to return home. Amanda was bringing a computer hard drive that AJ, who was good with computers, thought he could fix.

When Ms. Sposito and Amanda came home, “We figured he was downstairs listening to his music because he liked to do that,” Ms. Sposito said.

But, when he didn’t come up, she went to check on him.

“My first reaction was screaming,” she said.

AJ was hanging from a belt buckled into the shape of a noose that was attached to another belt, which was looped around a clothes line, Hermitage Police Deputy Chief Edward P. Holiga said.

“He showed signs of life when I found him,” Ms. Sposito said. “He was looking at me.”

By the time Amanda got downstairs, his eyes were closed, she said.

Sposito and a friend of Amanda’s got AJ down and tried to resuscitate him.

“You could tell his throat was clogged,” Ms. Sposito said.

Police, who were called at 10:17 p.m., arrived within about three minutes and paramedics shortly after, but AJ died at 11:12 p.m. in the emergency room of Sharon Regional Health System.

Not a suicide

Family members were very confused by how they had found AJ.

“I didn’t expect to see that,” Ms. Sposito said, acknowledging that she initially assumed he had killed himself.

But, AJ didn’t have any of the classic signs of suicide. He had not been despondent or withdrawn, family members and investigators said. He had a job and was saving money for a car. A high school junior, he was thinking about enrolling in a technical school after high school to study computers. He had dreams of working for a NASCAR team.

There were no signs of a struggle or disturbance, Holiga said. Police interviewed AJ’s friends and no one claimed to have been with him or even to have known that he had ever tried the choking game before, Holiga said.

While there was talk of someone running from the home and a friend claiming to have been there, Police Chief Patrick B. McElhinny said police could not substantiate any of the stories. Police concluded the death was accidental and have closed the case, Holiga said.

“It didn’t add up to a suicide,” Zeigler said.

About AJ

AJ was respectful to others, and talked to kids who were not popular at school, family members said. Amanda said he had always spoken negatively of suicide whenever the subject came up, and considered it dumb.

“AJ was very good-natured and very big-hearted,” Ms. Sposito said.

His parents said they had no concerns about him using alcohol or drugs, and Amanda said she had only seen him drink once, a small amount at a party.

Sposito added that AJ was home the night he died, and he had no worries about his son when he went to bed while AJ was still up.

“When your kid’s out, you always worry about an accident or something like that,” he said.

Ms. Sposito said she had never heard of the choking game before AJ’s death. Sposito said he had heard of kids hyperventilating, but never using the kind of apparatus AJ used.

“This game is out there,” Ms. Sposito said. She wants to alert parents to its existence. “You never know what your child might do.”

“You talk to your kids about drugs,” Sposito said. “You have to talk to your kids about this.”

Zeigler said officials suspect there have been others in the county who died of the choking game, but have nothing firm to prove it.

Warning signs

There are warning signs that someone has been playing this deadly game. Zeigler said there could be marks or burns on the neck, although some kids use towels to try to prevent the development of marks.

Deadly Games Children Play, which has a Web site at, said other warning signs include changes in personality, such as agitation and aggression, headaches, flushed face and bloodshot eyes.

Zeigler said he does not know whether the choking game is a big problem in Mercer County, but said the threat it poses to young people should not be disregarded.

“With kids today, with the Internet and all that, it happens more than people want to think,” Zeigler said.

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