More than anything else in this world, Carson Crimeni wanted to make friends and fit in. He’d never been invited to a classmate’s birthday party; he’d never been on a sleepover. The hyperactivity and impulsiveness brought on by his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder made him a target. He didn’t tell his family, but in the past year, his peers say, the 14-year-old was bullied relentlessly – kicked at, hit and mocked by classmates.
Early in the past school year, a girl his age started a rumour that he’d wet his pants in class. That spread like wildfire. He was christened “Crackhead Carson” – so named because he had trouble sitting still. That’s all anyone ever called him, say students from Walnut Grove Secondary School, where Carson had just finished Grade 8.
So the invitation to hang out with a group of much older teens on Aug. 7 was a thrill. But the warm, summer night ended with Carson’s death from an apparent overdose, as he was taunted by people he thought were his friends. Instead of calling for help, they made him a meme.
In videos, Carson appears heavily intoxicated and ingests drugs labelled MDMA, a party drug also known as ecstasy. He’s sweating through his grey hoodie, swaying to music while a group of young men howl and catcall him.
The videos are posted to popular social-media platforms over several hours that night, even as the boy is overheating and losing the ability to speak.
News of the incident, which is being investigated by the RCMP, ricocheted through Walnut Grove, a wealthy commuter town in B.C.’s Lower Mainland.
“It tears me apart,” says Darrel Crimeni, the grandfather Carson knew as Nonno, in the Italian tradition. “He was a beautiful boy. Why did they do this? It’s pure evil.”
‘To them, nothing seems real’
Shortly before 10 p.m. that Wednesday night, a teen skateboarding home found Carson’s shoes, the orange and black NMD Adidas kicks his Nonno bought him a week earlier. Next, the boy saw Carson, who was flat on his back, soaked in sweat. He was cold as stone, shaking violently, lying alone against the silver chain-link fence ringing Walnut Grove’s soccer field.
Carson’s eyes had rolled back into his head. His bare feet were curled inward at bizarre angles, says Mitchell Pederson, 15, the skateboarder who saw Carson and alerted police. His breath came in irregular, ragged gasps. For 20 long seconds, Mitchell says in an interview conducted with his mother’s consent, none came at all.
The Globe and Mail spent three days in the community, speaking to Carson’s family and six of his friends. The family provided The Globe with videos of Carson from that night.
Someone had thrown Carson’s cellphone in a nearby garbage can. Those posting on his descent had vanished.
In one video, his face is a deep, blazing red. His hair is soaked from sweat. His eyes are bulging from his face.
Young men all around him burst into raucous laughter when he can’t seem to recall his name. Carson curls inward, hugging himself. He looks terrified.
A photo taken later shows the boy, now shirtless, his chest and face a bright shade of pink, his hair wet, his blue eyes open wide. The sun is still shining.
The awful coda was shot hours later, against a black, night sky. In it, a teen leans toward the ambulance attending to the boy. “Carson almost died lol” the caption reads.
Some in Walnut Grove are blaming warped, new cultural pressures that parents barely understand. For Gen Z youth, who spend hours online every day, memes such as those made of Carson – captioned images or videos meant to be funny or sarcastic – have become one of the most popular ways to communicate. But in a world where comments and followers are measures of popularity, and an “all-about-the-likes” sense of values dominates, the bar for outrageous behaviour is constantly being raised.
Carson’s aunt, Diane Crimeni, 33, worries that in viewing everything through a screen, kids are starting to have trouble discerning reality: “To them, nothing seems real.
“How many kids sat at home watching Carson dying in front of their eyes, but did nothing?” she adds.
Still others see this as an age-old story. Carson had many classic characteristics of a child at risk for bullying. He was perceived as different from his peers. He was not popular. He sought out attention, often by being annoying or by trying to provoke others.
When Vancouver criminal lawyer Kyla Lee was growing up, Reena Virk was lured to a waterfront park north of Victoria, where the 14-year-old was beaten and left to die by a group of teens. Ms. Lee says she believes Carson’s story is the postmillennial generation’s equivalent: “Find a child, get them completely intoxicated on drugs, film them, then leave them to die.” Those with Carson saw him as “entertainment,” she adds, not a human in need of help.
Ms. Lee, who has viewed several videos from the night, says the people who filmed Carson could be charged with criminal negligence causing death. The act of filming is enough to show criminal disregard for the life of the child “in obvious distress,” she says. The power imbalance is aggravated by a stark age difference, she adds.
Carson was considerably younger than those who have been identified on social media as having been there that night.
Carson, meanwhile, who was goofy and childlike and stood a little over five feet tall, seemed even younger than an eighth grader. He’d chosen a Spider-Man game for his 14th birthday, just a few weeks before he died.
He didn’t always understand when he was being subtly bullied. He still had a child’s round cheeks and lugged Koko, his orange tabby, to bed with him every night. His voice hadn’t broken yet.
He had a 7 p.m. curfew that he’d missed only once before. In his final call home, at 4:22 p.m. on Aug. 7, he claimed he was off to a movie, knowing his father, Aron Crimeni, would never let him hang out in the skate park with older boys.
In the three hours before his death, Mr. Crimeni called his son 11 times, then drove around looking for him. Carson’s grandfather was on foot.
It was Darrel, 71, who followed the red, flashing lights of a police car parked near the soccer field, some 800 metres from home.
As police wrestled an adult-sized oxygen mask into place, Darrel called his son: “He’s not breathing,” he said. “He’s in bad shape. Really bad shape.”
Aron followed the ambulance over the Fraser River to Ridge Meadows Hospital, where he found a doctor bent over Carson’s slight chest, trying to revive him. “Don’t go,” he pleaded with his son. “Wake up.”
By then, however, the boy’s heart had stopped. He had no pulse.
Struggles at school
Aron, 45, who works as an apprentice electrician, fell instantly in love with the baby boy he named for Johnny Carson – a fitting name, it turned out. From the time he could walk, all Carson ever wanted to do was make people laugh. Mr. Crimeni gained full custody of him when he was four months old.
Mr. Crimeni and Carson shared the same pale, blue eyes, the same sense of humour.
“We did everything together,” says Mr. Crimeni, whose social circle is limited to a few online friends. They went for sushi, saw all the Marvel movies, shot hoops together. “He’s the only person I hang out with.”
Until he was 10, Carson and his father lived with Darrel in his sprawling home on an acreage in Surrey’s Newton neighbourhood. Carson’s aunt, Diane, would paint the boy’s nails and take him bike-riding. Mr. Crimeni’s other sister, Laura, was like a mother to him and still bought most of Carson’s clothes. “It was like he belonged to all of us,” Diane explains.
But at school, Carson struggled mightily.
Darrel saw it as his job to build up Carson’s self-esteem.
He was always signing Carson up for new sports – soccer, hockey, swimming, skiing, golf – hoping to ease his anxiety and hyperactivity and help him find a passion. When he started showing an interest in pool, his grandfather drove around the Lower Mainland until he found a “family friendly” pool hall, where he took Carson every Thursday.
For Grade 5, the Crimenis moved as a family to Walnut Grove, where Darrel bought a townhouse exactly halfway between the elementary school and Walnut Grove Secondary. Aron rented nearby. They chose the community so Carson could attend its excellent schools and to get him away from the drugs and gangs colonizing central Surrey.
But Carson’s problems followed him there.
A group of six boys who spoke to The Globe say they were the only kids who accepted Carson at Walnut Grove Secondary. The Globe granted them anonymity because of their age and the sensitivity of the matter.
They’re gamers who don’t fit in with the cool kids at the top of Walnut Grove’s pecking order. They spent countless hours online with Carson playing an adventure survival game. Seeing how badly he was treated by those in his grade, they tried looking out for him.
They come from intact, middle-class homes, and say Carson stuck out in their homogeneous burg, where two-thirds of adults have postsecondary degrees and the average home costs just less than $1-million.
Carson bused in from downtown Langley, where his single dad rents a $700-a-month, one-bedroom apartment. Until recently, he lived with his retired grandfather, who lives on a fixed income in a community where 70 per cent of adults are married and the median household income tops $112,000.
The six boys who spoke to The Globe smoked pot with Carson, but say there is “no way” he tried hard drugs before Aug. 7.
This summer, though, they witnessed worrying behaviour: Some older boys unknown to them were allegedly “greening” Carson out – getting him so high on marijuana he’d grow white-faced and sick.
A vulnerable boy
In Walnut Grove, a heavy police presence has chased away skaters from the park where Carson’s night began; it’s become a makeshift memorial. Every day, people still visit it. Some leave flowers. Many shed tears. Parents bring their kids, reminding them to stand up for their friends, to call police when something feels wrong.
“He was vulnerable, gullible,” Aron says. “He thought these guys were his friends. He trusted them.”