by Ricky Rash
On the morning of January 20th, 2011 the phone rang and it was the local dispatcher whom we knew. She said Eric had called and reported a dead body. She didn’t seem too concerned because we all knew Eric was a good, level-headed kid.
However, Eric was not in his room so I went to find him. I expected to sit with him waiting on police. But instead found him about 30 feet from the car.
It was 5:22 AM.
He had used my 12-gauge shotgun that he had hunted with for 3 years. He had killed deer so it was not like he did not know what it would do to him.
In what seemed like an eternity, I had to call Diane, my wife, and tell her Eric had died by suicide.
I called the dispatcher and told her what had happened. Diane begged to come to the scene but it is not what anyone wants to see—not law enforcement and certainly not a parent. Eric was only 15. He used the car he would have been driving at 16 to get to the end of a dead end road and he faced the moonlight before he fell.
It was a cold and dreadful day
Eric was a big boy that wore his heart on his sleeve. He loved to feed his mind by reading and inhaled books at a rapid rate. He was a Harry Potter fanatic and his mother read him the first one and then he re-read it as well the rest in the series—sometimes in 36 hours or less.
He loved to learn, to help. We were told after his death that he was always smiling. He loved to hug his mother. She still misses those great big Eric bear hugs.
So do I.
Eric always migrated to adults as he was trying to learn and glean the knowledge they had. He was inquisitive about so many things and his words and thoughts were very mature even as he started school. The teachers had trouble keeping him busy early on but those veteran teachers knew to give him a book and let him enjoy himself.
He never revealed how hard school was for him in his teen years. We didn’t find out until it was too late. But what we learned is that he always stood up for the underdogs. With his towering 6′ 2″ 260-pound frame, he was not one anyone was going to pick a fight with. But his size, weight, glasses, and academic ability made him a target of teasing.
The teachers loved him and trusted him and he was a favorite so that added to his grief in school. But he smiled. Always. We were told.
I could tell much more about him and should but the biggest testament to his positive impact was the fact his senior class of 2013 wanted him to receive his diploma post mortem. They released 13 doves in his memory for 2 years after his death.
Several classmates asked for permission to write about him in college essays. One student even shared the 2 biggest life changing events in his life before more than 1000 high school kids and Eric’s influence was one of those two events.
We took our girls to a counselor against their wishes. When they said they did not need to go to the crazy doctor, I was in the car alone and told them that their mother and I wanted reassurance from a professional that they were fine.
They went for a period until we felt it was OK to stop. Diane also went to a counselor and we shared our stories with Eric’s pediatrician and our family doctor. Those two MD’s and two PhD’s were as stumped as we were.
We desperately searched for answers of WHY?
We were devastated. We still had three daughters and our lives had to continue.
In many tragedies, something positive emerges. I am reminded of the mother that started MADD—Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. Or an Anne Moss Rogers that now works diligently with Beacon Tree Foundation.
Our crusade led us to fighting social media and passing legislation for other parents that have lost a child.
So here is our second story
The morning of Eric’s death, we were faced with many questions from law enforcement. After all, he had called in either as a hoax or a true story but no one realized he would call in his own suicide.
Not many realize that all suicides are investigated as a murder and treated as a crime until they have evidence that proves otherwise. Because it involved a gunshot wound, the medical examiner is required to do an autopsy. We were on the path of learning many things we never dreamed about. It was not until over a year passed that we learned the Hollywood portrayal of solving a crime in 60 minutes minus commercials is anything but a reality.
The initial questions from the deputy were routine for the most part. Then they began the digging. Had he been punished? Made a bad grade? Had he broken up with a girl? Had we had a fight with him over something? All normal in my line of thinking.
Then he began asking did he have a phone, email account a Facebook page and did we have the passwords? All of which we knew about then comes this next question that sent chills up my spine.
Did he have a dark page?
Now what is a dark page? I had no clue. Diane had no clue. Most of the folks I told our story to had no clue.
The officer described it as a secret page that is linked almost in code so the user is generally the only one that can find that page. The dark page could be used for some subversive underworld type chat room of sorts to encourage and influence a teen to hurt himself or someone else.
For example in 2011, the choking game was popular and I suspect it was the first time we learned about teen suicide pacts. But this dark page might offer some clues or explanations or even some things we didn’t want to learn but our search was on.
About a month before, our home computer had been hacked and we changed all passwords. So did Eric and we had not gotten the new passwords in written form. No problem, we would just ask Google for his email, Facebook for his wall password and Verizon for his phone account.
We were wrong
I spent two years researching a problem and seeking a solution.
The short version is there is a 1987 law that was written as the internet was in its infancy and certainly long before chat rooms and social media.
ECPA, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, replaced a vintage 1930’s law that prevented law enforcement from illegally wiretapping mafia phones on the actual poles and redefined the spatial confines of our homes. ECPA reinforced what we do in our homes, even if it is stored in a server elsewhere, it is still private. An antiquated law.
A second law COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act, was created to disallow intent providers from asking children 12 and younger questions without parental permission. Our 13 year old’s however are deemed mature enough to answer these questions of providers and we were told are protected under the fourth amendment to privacy the first amendment of free speech and they had court cases to prove such claims.
By accepting the terms of service that no one ever reads before accepting, the teen has entered a legal and binding contract and while they are minors, parents CANNOT request or force an internet provider to give basic information, a password or close and account without the account holder’s permission.
All this going on with the internet but parents can sign a waiver for the school to release a name to the local paper for making the honor roll or being player of the week.
Our blood boiled
I researched, studied, and read everything I could about these two laws.
I searched those court cases. I became a self-proclaimed expert.
I wrote letters asking questions of state and federal legislators seeking a plausible solution. I spoke with friends and lawyers, and plotted a strategy which involved passing a law so no other parent would face this brick wall of being denied access to their child’s account if, in the unfortunate event of a tragedy, parents needed access. It was my opinion that the law did not grant these broad powers of granting minors access without parental permission but it was a grand leap for the lawyers writing those terms of service in their favor thus increasing their market and clientele.
Profit was placed ahead of principal
I was frustrated to learn how much power and influence billion dollar companies have over Congress. I found absolutely nothing in the state laws that remotely allowed a lawsuit demanding access. Frankly, it had not been addressed in probate laws. I looked at the FTC website for answers as that agency oversaw enforcement hoping to file a complaint but to no avail.
They aggregate complaints but there was no agency that would advocate on our behalf against Facebook. Our representative and senators were helpful and greased many skids but we were blazing new trails into a new wilderness of law.
We just wanted to get in our deceased minor son’s Facebook page and see if there were any answers.
After talking and researching for 18 months, I decided that requesting state legislation would be the best option. It would not need to be a suicide– cancer or a car wreck would also have a family looking for memories and closure. Quite frankly, we have access to our children’s rooms and any of its contents so why not their computer, phone email, iTunes and Facebook?
I digress a moment for this factoid: In 2011, there were 25 named social media sites including MySpace and Facebook; by 2013 there were more than 50 and who knows how many today.
My strategy initially was not to pass a new law but use the law-making process to start a public outcry. It worked magnificently. Not because I was the author of the strategy but because we told our story.
We told it to the news media at the urging of Representative Randy Forbes.
It was picked up by a Wall Street Journal reporter In January 2012. That article led us to others that had been denied access and gave us a bigger knowledgebase. We grew our circle of kindness and compassion and our research grew with their stories and articles.
In the fall of 2012, Frank Ruff and Tommy Wright agreed to allow me to use the legislative process to tell our story and hopefully force change. They were blunt and said not to expect a law anytime soon. I knew that five years was a reasonable amount of time to pass legislation.
SB 913 and HB 1752 were introduced in the General assembly session of 2013. The original bills were drafted to allow access to minors and adult accounts through the normal probate laws that we all use to settle estates today.
As time went on, the idea of minor access gained far more traction with legislators than all-access so we opted to push minor access for that session. The original draft made it out of a subcommittee much to the chagrin of Facebook, AOL and Google lobbyists.
There were other communication and social media giants opposed but the three named were the last ones fighting. I testified 9 different times, shed tears in front of those committees and in legislator offices, but in the end, Virginia was at the forefront of a movement that had allowed parental access to a minor’s account in our state in the case of a death.
News and media requests went up 100 fold as we were quoted in UK MailOnline, the Washington Post, CBS news path and even PBS NewsHour. Humbled, yes. Proud, yes. And whupped beyond your wildest imagination.
So what did we learn about Eric’s account after all that work?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Eric would have turned 18 in March 2013 and the law was not enacted until July 1 that year. So we never pursued password access for his account fearing the billion dollar boys clubs would once again oppose our efforts.
I did follow through on a promise to cost Facebook lots of money after a frustrating conference call in October 2011 set up by Randy Forbes office. I screamed into a phone loud enough for them to hear me in Washington to get their lawyers and lobbyists ready, this redneck was coming after them!
After that call, we did ultimately receive a CD of Eric’s Facebook wall from a Facebook employee who turned out to be human after all.
It did not answer any questions.
We were always curious if it had been edited or redacted in any way. Not likely but grief makes you think and do things you never dreamed you are capable of.
We are proud of Eric. Always have been and always will be. Not of his choice, but of the gifts he gave us in those 15 years.