By Jessie Rowan and Courtney Cox
Gulfport, Mississippi – The message seemed harmless enough.
“Would you like to play a game?” the stranger wrote.
Caileigh Groome-Santos, 12, was curious. “I was like, ‘Sure what game?'”
So she started playing an online game called the Blue Whale Challenge and was quickly drawn into a dark world of threats, suicide and death.
“I was so scared,” she said.
The Blue Whale Challenge started in Russia. At least 80 of 130 youth suicides reported there during a six-month span were linked to the game, Novaya Gazeta newspaper said.
In 2016, Russian authorities arrested a man named Filipp Budeykin and accused him of leading online “death groups” that urged teenagers to kill themselves. He pled guilty and was sentenced to a three-year prison term.
Budeykin, 22, claimed he was “cleansing society” of people who didn’t deserve to live. “Biological waste,” he called them, according to Russian media accounts.
Radio Free Europe investigated and could not find a definite link between Russian suicides and the game.
Claims that the game has triggered dozens of suicides is “unproven,” according to Snopes, the fact-checking website.
No matter, Blue Whale tales have spread outside Russia, causing concern in the United States and other countries. Some school officials in Florida, Alabama and other states have warned parents to be alert for signs their children were playing the game.
Caileigh said the game is dangerous. She talked about Blue Whale on a recent afternoon at her home in Gulfport, where she lives with her brother, her mother and her step-father and his two children.
Tall for her age and slender, Caileigh sat on her bed and crossed her legs. She wore an olive-green and white shirt and flowered leggings. Minnie Mouse peeked out from a pillow behind her and a stuffed bird that resembled a platypus sat on a plastic dresser.
Caileigh said the stranger sent her an Instagram message about the game in April 2017. After she agreed to play, she said a taskmaster ordered her to type “I am a whale” in her Instagram biography. She complied.
“And I was like, “OK, what’s next?’ He said cut F 57 in your leg. And I was like, “OK, I did that already.’ And he was like ‘Really? Send me picture proof.’ So then I really knew that I had to do it and he said that if I didn’t do anything that he could track down where I lived and stuff and that kind of freaked me out because he said that he was going to that he could call people that could kill my family.”
F 57 was the name of one of the supposed Russian death groups.
Caileigh said she worried she and her family were in danger.
“My heart like sank and I was just so scared, and so I didn’t know if it was true or not.”
So she went ahead and used a sewing needle to scratch F 57 into her leg.
Not long after that, she said, the taskmaster’s profile mysteriously vanished and she figured she was probably safe.
Still, even before playing the challenge, Caileigh was vulnerable and said she had thoughts of suicide.
“Nobody really liked me,” she said. “They didn’t. They thought that I was a bit weird. Nobody really wanted to hang out with me and it’s just like Dad wasn’t around and I would barely get to see him all the time. And it was just a really hard time.”
Her family had lived in Virginia Beach before moving to Mississippi. While in Virginia, Caileigh’s mother discovered that her daughter had been searching the Internet for “ways to kill herself that didn’t hurt.”
“She was looking up carbon monoxide poisoning,” said Melissa Patton, 30.
Caileigh’s brother, Brandon, 8, said some kids had bullied his sister when they moved to Gulfport.
“A lot of people started calling her names,” he said. “I was just wondering what she would do next. She was always in her room most of the time. So I’m like a little worried. And then I just would go in there and she was like ‘Get out!’ and she would be on her phone and hide under her pillow.”
Patton said she found out her daughter was playing the Blue Whale Challenge after checking her phone and finding screenshots of her cutting her leg. She said she rushed Caileigh to get counseling.
Caileigh said she isn’t upset that her mother was snooping into her Internet activities.
“I’m kind of happy because I got the help that I needed,” she said.
Caileigh also said she understands now that killing herself isn’t the solution.
“We’re starting to talk about our problems together. It’s helping a lot.”
Both she and her mother said they want to speak up about Blue Whale to spread awareness and help others.
No one knows how many young people have hurt themselves while playing the game.
In Texas, Angela Gonzalez said her son Isaiah, 15, hanged himself after playing Blue Whale in San Antonio on July 8, 2017.
Since then, Patton said she and her daughter have grown close to Gonzalez.
“I’ll have hard times with Caileigh and if Caileigh is feeling difficult or whatnot, she will call Angela and she’ll talk to her and they’ll help each other out,” Patton said.
Patton has also gotten to know Maria Bristow, whose 14-year-old son, DeAngelo, shot himself in their home in El Paso, Texas, on Oct. 3, 2017.
“That night when it happened, when DeAngelo took his life, I went to a psychic show,” Bristow said in a phone interview. “I left the house at 5:30 and before that he asked me, ‘Mom, what time are you leaving?’ I said at 5:30 my friend’s going to pick me up. And he said, ‘OK.’ Not wondering why he would ask me that because that’s normal.”
“My husband already went to work because he’s a truck driver, he comes home in the morning. So when we left I had no gut feeling, no worries, no nothing…then when the show was over I noticed that DeAngelo had called me around 8:30 and so I called him back at around 9:35. Around that time and I said ‘Hey babe what you doing?’ And he says, ‘Oh, nothing Mom, just on the tablet.’ I go, ‘OK.’ And then I told him about the show and then I said, ‘I’ll be back–should be back in about 10 minutes.’ And then he just said, ‘OK, mom.’ Just like that. And I still did not have that gut feeling that something was going on with my son. Nothing. Nothing.”
When Bristow got home, she found herself locked out. She said she knocked on the doors and windows and called the house “hundreds of times.”
But no one answered.
“So, 2 in the morning my husband came home and he opened the door and we noticed his bedroom door is locked. So, we went upstairs and I told my husband, ‘I bet you he fell asleep upstairs.’ And sure enough we went upstairs, the door was closed – and that’s when we found DeAngelo, slumped over on our bed. And then all of the sudden, I just saw blood and I said, ‘What in the world?’
“So, then my husband said, ‘Don’t touch anything.’ And then my husband tried to lift him up a little and that’s when he started screaming and hollering and screaming and hollering, and then we noticed he shot himself.”
DeAngelo was dead.
Children “are very impressionable, impulsive,” said Melissa Muller, a mental health counselor in Florida. “Kids don’t have life experience. Kids are so involved in social media, they just get lost in the world.”
Such games as the Blue Whale Challenge make some young people feel that “they’re part of something,” she said.
“If they don’t have parents that keep tabs on what they’re doing or monitor their internet use, or they don’t have any friends, they don’t have any social support system, then it’s easy for them to feel like they’re involved in something and so they can just get sucked into something like that.”
Patton said she did not report her daughter’s Blue Whale experience to the police because she did not believe the culprits could be found.
She said she has tried to more closely monitor her children’s activities after the episode and began homeschooling them.
“I felt like I needed to keep an eye on her,” she said. “She had a lot of anxiety at school. She felt overwhelmed because they learned two things one day, two things the next and then they’re taking a test on something they learned last week, so I think it was just, it was just too much for her.”
“I mean I put a lot of blame on myself because you know as a parent you should always know what your kids are doing.”
Bristow faults the media for not doing enough to raise awareness of the perils facing young people.
“We need to fight for our kids,” she said. “We, as parents, we lost our children. Now we can save other children. We can by speaking up about the Blue Whale Challenge, the depression and the bullying because those three factors are very important and very, very, very dangerous.”
The people behind the Blue Whale Challenge, she added, should be punished severely.
“They’re pure evil,” she said. “And I do not understand why in the world they cannot catch these maniacs. These are killers. These are murderers. How can they allow that stuff to be on Internet? I just don’t understand that they cannot catch these people and lock them up for life. I lost my baby because of it. They need to get punished. Not just get a slap on the little hand.”
Bristow misses her son.
She said DeAngelo was a “very intelligent, very handsome” African American boy who endured bullying in the seventh grade.
She thought the harassment had subsided by eighth grade, but she now knows that it went on. “He was bullied quite a bit” – but he hid it.
DeAngelo was “tough on the outside,” Bristow said, “but inside he’s a very sensitive child. He was a very gentle child. He loved little kids.”
Brandon said he wishes his sister Caileigh would have just ignored the Blue Whale taskmaster.
“It makes me feel sad. I mean, if I was her I would just stop and break my phone,” the grade-schooler said.
“Kids are constantly killing themselves for reasonable things that they can talk through and get over with. They shouldn’t just end their life like, ‘Bam! I shot myself in the head. Bam! I stabbed a knife through my throat.’
“Suicide shouldn’t be a thing.”
Caileigh said she’s glad she survived her ordeal and is taking things one day at a time.
She isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life, but is interested in everything from animation to science. And she said, “I really like soccer.”
“I kind of want to help out with animals, too. I’m still debating because I have such a long time to go before I can finally decide what I want to do.”
Photos and video: Tracey Eaton