DACONO — On a May night just after the end of the school year, 13-year-old Von Mercado opened a Snapchat video call and set his cellphone on the ground in his backyard. Then he climbed a ladder next to a tree and stepped off.
The girl he had a crush on, the one who had stopped by earlier that day so he could give her a necklace, ring and fidget spinner, watched on her screen as Von hanged himself, she later told police.
About an hour after his death, police found the black phone on the ground and collected it as evidence, along with Von’s blue Nikes and jean shorts. His phone revealed the boy’s final messages to friends about his plan to “end it all.”
Colorado Crisis Line: A statewide hotline. 1-844-493-8255, or text TALK to 38255.
Police didn’t know it as they shined flashlights across the dark backyard on May 25, 2018, but the seventh-grader’s suicide would spark a social-media frenzy they would chase down for months to come. A pastor at the local church would become overwhelmed trying to keep kids from hurting themselves, begging for mental health help from bigger towns.
And the state legislature would pass a new law this year in an attempt to keep this from ever happening again.
The 13-year-old girl on the other end of the Snapchat video didn’t call 911 as Von died, according to a police report. Afterward, she ran to a friend’s house in Firestone, where she frantically banged on the door. She thought Von might have hanged himself, she told the friend and the friend’s mother.
The three drove to Von’s house, where the two middle-school girls jumped out of the car and rushed toward the backyard.
The mother, still in front of the home, heard the girls scream.
The same girl who police say was on Snapchat with Von as he died took a photo or video of his body, though she told police she was only trying to use a flashlight to see in the dark and took it by accident, according to the police report.
Within minutes, the street in front of Von’s home was packed with middle-schoolers, some of whom claimed to have seen the photo or a video on their phones. Police captured a screenshot of a rambling message sent by the girl that night:
“He talked hella crazy alot and always said he was gonna kill himself and when he did that he would call me I would record someway for evidence for cops …. he knew I did it he didn’t care this time he actually did kill himself I got it on screenrecord.”
Dacono police also were able to recover a one-minute video the next day, pulling it off a laptop owned by the girl’s family. It is silent, dark and eerie, and shows only an arm and part of Von’s chest.
They have never found a recording of a video call that rolled as the boy died, despite a court order sent to Snapchat.
In an interview with The Colorado Sun, the girl, whose name is not used in this story because she is a minor, said Von ended the call with her before he died and that she never sent any videos to other teens. She claims Von was still alive in the video recovered by police, but police disagree.
“A lot of people took it out on me, saying it was it my fault,” she said. Other teens called her a “disgusting person,” she said. Instead, she says she tried to talk Von out of it, telling him that suicide wasn’t “removing his pain, it was passing it on.”
The police report notes that the girl’s family told authorities other kids were blaming her for Von’s death and that officers sent a victims’ advocate to the girl’s house to help her set up counseling “because she witnessed Von’s death.” The report includes her detailed descriptions of what she said she witnessed in the Snapchat video call.
For months after Von’s suicide, teens in the Weld County town of about 6,000 reported seeing video footage of his body.
The kids told police they had received the videos via Snapchat, an app that does not save photos, videos or conversations. By the app’s design, they vanish once viewed by the recipient.
Sonya Chapa’s son was among those who received a video, and when Chapa discovered this, she marched her son and his phone to the Dacono Police Department. But the video was no longer on the boy’s phone. He could only describe it to officers: his friend, he said, was already dead in his backyard.
The words that came with the Snapchat message suggested the boy should join his dead friend, Chapa alleged. Her son told police it made him want to kill himself, too.
Parents in Dacono, a bedroom community dotted with oil pumps and drilling rigs, begged police to put a stop to the video chain. Chapa, along with Von’s older sister, Jessie Templeman, suggested police charge any teen who sent a video, particularly if the message was threatening or mocking.
But it wasn’t against the law.
The Weld County District Attorney’s Office suggested officers could make a harassment case, with the right evidence. But it was not illegal in Colorado to send a video or photo of a person taking their own life.
Chapa contacted Linette Ballew, pastor at New Horizons Christian Church in Dacono, and asked for help. Ballew, who was working to provide mental health services to youth traumatized by the suicide, called her friend, state Rep. Lori Saine, a Republican from Firestone, just down the road from Dacono.
The new law was passed in just four days — from its first hearing to final vote — in the flurry of the end of the legislative session in May, a year after Von’s death. The law, passed this year with only Republican prime sponsors in a Democratic-contolled statehouse, makes it a Class 3 misdemeanor to distribute an image of a minor attempting suicide or dying by suicide with the intent to “harrass, intimidate or coerce.”
Kids who see images of a peer who has died by suicide are more likely to comtemplate suicide themselves, Saine said.
“This is a very serious problem,” Saine said. “Nobody was alerted until he was good and dead. That’s the other part I find so disturbing.”
Von’s father, Bivian Mercado, a biker known as “Big Von” who raised the boy on his own, sat outside a committee room in the Capitol hallway as his daughter and pastor Ballew testified in favor of the new law.
Inside the committee room, lawmakers watched a video tribute for Von set to Bad Company’s “Burnin Sky.”
“I believe my soul’s on fire,” the song goes. It was too painful for Mercado to hear.
Colorado Crisis Line: A statewide hotline. 1-844-493-8255, or text TALK to 38255.
Now, Mercado is concerned that teenagers don’t know the law exists. He wants flyers in school hallways, and a video that explains that it’s now a crime to send an image of suicide with a threatening message.
Mercado knew his son was troubled; he had threatened suicide many times. But Mercado could never find the help the boy needed. The boy went to the emergency room more than once when he was suicidal, but he was released within seven or eight hours, Mercado said. He was kicked out of school and then kicked out of special programs because of his mental and behavioral problems.
“I fought so hard with everybody because I could not find no resources to help him,” Mercado said. “I knew he needed help.”
Von was born with a port-wine stain birthmark that stretched across one side of his face, a blood vessel disorder that required laser treatments every few weeks. When he was little, children would run away from him, his dad and sister said. And when Von got older, kids bullied him because of how he looked. In response, Von sometimes would fight them.
He loved motorcycles, and his dad gave him one of his own. Though their relationship was strained, the father and son bonded over bikes and cars.
In the months before his suicide, Von began hanging out with a new crowd of 17- and 18-year-olds. He was arrested for breaking into a local tattoo parlor and had to wear an ankle monitor. Von seemed like he was in love, too, his father said, recalling that his son had spray-painted a hummingbird and a rose on the street in front of their house.
The night he died, Von seemed normal, Mercado said. As Mercado went out for the night, he left Von money to order pizza. He also gave him his phone, because Von did not have his own.
“He seemed happy. He was listening to music,” Mercado said, before his voice trailed off. “I don’t know … I done what I could.”
“I think about him every day.”
The police effort to chase down the videos took months.
One teen would tell officers he had seen a video but no longer had it, and then name three other people he thought would have it. The next kid would say he had seen it or had it described to him, and name two or three others who might have it.
And so on, said Dacono police Chief Brian Skaggs.
Phones were searched, and nothing was found. “Snapchat would show things sent or received and not what it was,” he said. “It was brutal.”
The rumors were also rampant. People told police the video taken after Von’s death was 10 minutes long and much more graphic than the one-minute, dark video police recovered the day after the suicide. It was rumored that kids were ditching or destroying their phones for fear officers would search them.
Nearly a year after Von died, his father walked into a local bar and the waitress told him that she started watching the video before she realized what it was. When she did, she chucked her phone across the room, Mercado said.
Police got a court order to compel Snapchat for evidence to find out whether there were videos circulating or had been sent the night of the suicide. It took three months for the social media giant to respond, despite the fact that it legally had 30 days, and the results were minimal.
From the phone of the girl who originally said she saw Von’s final minutes, Snapchat noted she had used the app five times on the night he died — twice at 9:14 p.m., once at 9:33 p.m. and twice at 11:19 p.m.
Snapchat released only the times their app was used — not photo, video or text content of the messages. There was no evidence the girl had sent photos or videos of the suicide to anyone else.
The case was closed.
“We did a lot of work on this in trying to verify or not verify the evidence of any circulating video,” Skaggs said. “It got a little overwhelming at times, all the names being thrown at us.”
In the end, there was no criminal case, the chief said, but noted that “had the law been in place when this happened, the situation might have taken a different turn.”
In response to a request from The Colorado Sun, a Snapchat spokesman said the app’s videos and photos are ephemeral and designed to delete after viewing, mimicking real-life conversations. This “makes it difficult to broadly circulate a Snap,” he said in an email.
A quick internet search, however, will pull up directions from multiple sources on how to screenshot not just a photo received via Snapchat but also a video.
Snapchat bills itself as a “communications tool, not social media,” since there are no browsable profiles, likes or comment functions. The company did not answer a question about whether it has filters in place that would detect whether someone is sharing video or photos of a suicide in progress.
The suicide and the trauma that followed exposed a gaping hole in mental health resources in the small town.
Ballew, the pastor at New Horizons, got a call at 10:33 p.m. the night Von died, within minutes of police arriving at his house. She said she will never forget the noise in the background, the sounds of kids screaming and crying as they gathered in the street.
For months afterward, Ballew took calls from scared parents with depressed and suicidal kids. Ballew knows five teens who were on suicide watch, including two who were hospitalized, she said.
“I was getting calls night and day,” she said, noting some of the kids said they saw the video and others said they sat around discussing Von’s death almost obsessively. “It was this poison that was going through the community. We were fighting for a lot of our kids.”
Ballew, overwhelmed, called mental health centers in other towns, in the hopes of getting them to “bring me resources down to our little town and help us out.” She wanted to organize a community meeting for adults and youth to talk about suicide, the warning signs and the importance of mental health, but she didn’t feel equipped to lead such a conversation.
She’s still waiting for help.
The video, Ballew said, “is still out there. We haven’t been able to confiscate it.”
Ballew and others in the community said they were disappointed in the local school district’s response to the suicide and related social media drama. They wished the district would have engaged area youth in a conversation, despite that Von was attending a school in Denver when he died.
St. Vrain Valley Schools declined an interview request. In response to an open records request from the Sun, district officials would not say how many students had died by suicide in recent years. The district did release a letter emailed to parents following the suicide of another student, not Von, in which the Erie High School principal said there were counseling teams available at school.
At the police department, Von’s death took a toll on his officers, Chief Skaggs said. Two of the officers who knew the boy best — they were at his house regularly — were the first to arrive on scene the night he died.
The suicide and subsequent investigation spurred the chief to seek out more training for the 15-member department, including a co-responder program that would dispatch a mental health professional with police officers on certain calls. The department can’t afford a full-time co-responder and is hoping to partner with North Range Behavioral Health in Greeley.
“The uptick in mental health calls is through the roof,” Skaggs said.
Skaggs said the social media aspect of the case was wild, and showed him just how desensitized young people are to death and suicide.
“The fact that someone would think to stick a phone up and take a video, that’s crazy,” he said. Yet, it’s what people do when they see anything. “Look at all the things we are taking videos of now.”