Mother Challenges Coroner’s Suicide Ruling, Says Race Played Role in Son’s ‘Choking Game’ Death

A mother whose teenaged son died at a church camp in Logan County last year has filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Franklin County Common Pleas Court. Tonya Amoako-Okyere is seeking damages in excess of $25,000. The Logan County coroner says James McCoy III committed suicide by hanging. But McCoy’s mother says he was killed when four other youths played a prank called The Choking Game.

Tonya Amoako-Okyere says she talked to her son the morning of his 18th birthday. That was April 22nd, 2006. He was excited, she said, about getting the “scholarship of his dreams” to Mount Vernon University. But a few hours later he was dead in what the Logan County coroner ruled as suicide by hanging. His mother says she does not believe her son took his own life.

“I know something else transpired in that woods,” Amoako-Okyere says. “I do believe they played the choking game prank on my son. And it was fatal. Now what the motive in their heart was? I’m not able to judge that. But I do know that it’s been covered up.”

James McCoy was the only black youth at Camp Cotubic near Bellefontaine. The retreat was sponsored by a United Methodist Church he attended in Westerville, The Church of the Messiah. Weeks before, his mother says, McCoy had been harassed at the church for dating interracially.

“There were several people who had a problem with that,” Amoako-Okyere says. “He had come home on several occasions where he’s called and said, ‘Mom I need you to come and get me now.’ Where there had been several comments made to him because he had chosen to date a young white lady.”

Amoako-Okyere is suing the church, four unnamed teens and four unnamed emergency or law enforcement personnel who may have delayed McCoy’s resuscitation. She’s incensed by what she believes is a superficial investigation of her son’s death.

“We were never talked to, there was nothing. ‘Come ID your son. We’ll send him off to get an autopsy. You bury him and let it go.’”

Her attorney, Cliff Arnebeck, thinks a more thorough investigation would have been conducted had James McCoy been white.

“Can you imagine that there would not have been a serious investigation where the parents and all the witnesses would have been thoroughly talked to and any kind of physical evidence would have been carefully examined before any conclusions would have been drawn as to whether it was a suicide or a homicide?” Arnebeck asks.

The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division concluded there was insufficient evidence or legal authority to prosecute violations. Logan county coroner Michael Failor did not return several phone calls Friday seeking comment. Logan County Sheriff Michael Henry declined to comment. A church spokesman referred WOSU to the office of its attorney. Meanwhile James McCoy’s mother says she hopes legal action will restore her son’s name.

“I could not fight for my son the day that he was murdered. But I can be there now and restore the honor and the integrity in which he walked in,” she says.

Tonya Amoako-Okyere says her lawsuit will also give greater exposure to the choking game which she says is not a game at all; it’s a matter of life and death.