GREAT FALLS - Sam LaCroix was a curious 12-year-old boy who loved science, ballet, theater and the arts, but his life was cut short because of a dangerous game of asphyxiation that appears to be gaining popularity among schoolchildren.
The Missoula sixth-grader loved adventure. Though smaller than most children his age, Sam made up for it in guts. He had applied to be on "Kid Nation," a reality TV series starring children trying to create their own society.
He made his friends and his family laugh, and his infectious smile and big brown eyes clued them in to his next exploit.
But there was no one to save him that December day in 2008 when he was doing something known as "the choking game."
Sam got home at about 4:30 that wintry afternoon, walking half a mile from the bus stop. He had the house to himself.
He finished his homework at the kitchen counter, writing two autobiographical poems for a class that included the lines: "I love to play the violin because it's challenging," "I like to study ancient things because I think it's interesting" and "Lover of candy."
Sam ate a snack, then headed to his bedroom in the basement. He found his belt and attached it to the rod in his closet.
Sam wasn't trying to kill himself. He was getting high on the choking game, in which people choke themselves using their hands, ropes or belts to the point of passing out. Friends usually play together, choking each other. Right before they pass out, they let up the pressure, causing a warm and fuzzy chemical release as they fall into their friends' arms.
But Sam decided to play it alone that day.
Meanwhile, Kirsten Pabst, Sam's mother and Missoula's chief deputy county attorney, left work early. She was 7 1/2 months pregnant with a baby boy. She and her new husband, Shawn, wanted to name him Gus, but Sam, his older brother Gabe and older sister Emma preferred Finn.
Sam couldn't wait to meet his baby brother. He taught himself to sew a perfectly imperfect patchwork quilt for his unborn brother. He used several different monkey fabrics to create the quilt, probably because of his own love of monkeys. A tiny yellow pocket finished off the top of the quilt.
Pabst picked up Gabe from wrestling practice. He finished about 5:20 p.m., and the drive to their house off Upper Miller Creek Road took 10 to 15 minutes.
She knew the second she made it into the driveway that something wasn't right. The house was darker than it should have been. The back door between the garage and the house was locked.
As Pabst struggled to unlock the door, Gabe grew impatient and started yelling at his brother: "Sam, open the door. Sam, open the door."
Their dog, Tsegi, was going crazy on the other side of the door, jumping, scratching and barking as if trying to help them.
The clock continued to tick.
Once she and Gabe got inside, she remembers that there were only a few lights on in the house.
"I think ‘SpongeBob' was playing on the TV," she said.
The two of them continued to call out for Sam, but they couldn't find him - living room, kitchen, upstairs, downstairs - he didn't call back. They went back to look in his room a second time.
"Then at the same time, we both moved the door and saw him," Pabst said.
In his closet, Sam hung, his little chin resting on his belt loop.
"We figure he had been hanging there for about 20 minutes when we got home," Pabst said.
The fight for his life was on.
The choking game may have been around for a long time, but some experts think the Internet is making it more popular than ever. Online videos show children in groups - and alone - demonstrating how to play the choking game.
Pabst knew nothing about the "game." Had she known, she believes she would have seen the warning signs. She is sure he had played it by himself before. Sam had complained of headaches, had dark circles under his eyes and had been locking his bedroom door at night.
At work, Pabst did an informal survey to find out if police officers and prosecutors had heard of it. None of her close work confidants had.
She also discovered that videos detailing the choking game are prevalent on the Internet. It bothered Pabst that nobody seemed to be talking about the game and the videos, and she is considering legal action to try to get them blocked.
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"Why is there this disconnect that the teachers who are in the trenches with the kids know about it, but the parents and the law enforcement community have never heard of it?" she asked.
As she started to perform CPR on Sam there in the house, Pabst feared he had tried to take his own life. She had always talked to her children about calling her if something bad happened. She would always be there to talk them through it.
As she started to perform CPR, she yelled at him, "Why didn't you call me?"
Emergency workers got Sam's heart pumping again in the ambulance en route to the hospital. Soon after the family gathered there, the family learned that Sam needed to go to Seattle Children's Hospital.
Sam's father - Pabst's ex-husband, Joe LaCroix - flew to Seattle with Sam while Pabst went back to the house and put the pieces of the puzzle together: the finished homework, the snack and the biggest clue - the one that haunts Pabst - the history on the family computer revealing websites relating to the choking game.
In Seattle, doctors told them it would take 72 hours before they would know anything. Early on, it appeared that Sam was trying to fight the respirator and breathe on his own, giving the family hope that he would survive his error in judgment.
Doctors told them that there was one thing they needed to watch for: If his brain started to swell before the 72 hours were up, they would know that he was brain dead.
That Wednesday afternoon, the family got the news it didn't want to hear. The numbers on the monitor showed that Sam's brain was swelling.
Pabst pulled the lead doctor aside: "How sure are you?" she asked him.
"I am certain that's what's happening to him," he told her.
Pabst then asked her sister to duck into the bathroom with her. Pabst was in labor.
In no state to deal with either the loss of her son Sam or the frighteningly early birth of her unborn son, Pabst chose to ignore that she was in labor and went to bed. By the middle of the night, the contractions were hard to ignore.
In the morning, Pabst headed to a second Seattle hospital because Children's Hospital doesn't have a labor and delivery ward.
"They already knew they would take him off life support," Pabst said of Sam.
The doctors would do that on Friday, Dec. 5. Pabst had until midnight to have the baby.
"I didn't want Finn's birthday to be on Sam's death date," she said.
At 11:35 p.m., 5-pound, 6-ounce Finn was born.
Saying hello to one son meant saying goodbye to another the next day. Pabst traveled to Sam's hospital room one last time.
Sam was taken off life support and rushed into surgery. The family had chosen to donate as many of Sam's organs as possible since he was such a generous child and would have wanted to help other people.
Pabst later told her sister that she felt bad for prolonging Sam's death by performing CPR on him, but Pabst's sister knew Sam would not have wanted that. His organs saved three lives: a postal worker, a mother and a ballroom dancer.
Pabst doesn't know who Sam may have played the choking game with. He hadn't told his best schoolmate, Zach Mumm, that he had tried it.
Zach's parents had seen a television special about the choking game and sat Zach and his older brother down and told them the dangers of the deadly "game."
"They don't understand mortality at this age," his mother, Jackie Mumm said.
Sam's death was an "earth-shattering realization that death would be a result by playing this game," she said.
On Dec. 17, 2008, Sam's funeral was held in a packed Missoula church.
Sam's friends, his family's friends and their colleagues turned out to support his grieving family. Little 60-pound Sam LaCroix touched many lives in his short life.
Before day's end, Zach Mumm slipped a note into Pabst's hand. It read: "Now I know how stupid that game really is."