New Hampshire Hanging: Parents of Accused Teen Say It Was An Accident Not a Lynching

New Hampshire hanging
People stand together for an interfaith vigil at Broad Street Park in Claremont NH on Sep. 12, 2017. Scores of people gathered to show support for the family of an 8-year-old biracial boy who was momentarily hanged with a rope around his neck. Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

On August 28, an 8-year-old biracial boy was playing with a group of teenagers in the small town of Claremont, New Hampshire. Soon, however, their games took a dangerous turn. Somehow, the boy—who is half black—wound up with a rope around his neck, hanging from a tree. He was rushed to the hospital. That same day, the boy's mother posted photographs of his swollen neck on Facebook, and soon the story story went viral.

The boy's family alleges the hanging was a deliberate, racist act, and that one 13-year-old boy—who is white—was the instigator. The older boys, they allege, left the 8-year-old hanging and ran away, and the police, they claim, did not initially take the investigation seriously.

Related: Police slow to investigate bi-racial boy's hanging, family claims

In an exclusive interview, with Newsweek, which has been edited for brevity, the teenage boy's parents, Rhianna Larkin, 33 and Eric Sullivan, 32, tell their side of the story. In a tearful exchange, Larkin says what happened was a tragic accident, not a racially-motivated crime—and that since it occurred, people have threatened not only their lives, but the lives of their children.

Can you tell me what happened on August 28?

Larkin: Around 10:00am, the teens involved [including the 8-year-old boy who was hanged] came to my house and said to my son, "Where have you been? We've been waiting at the park for hours". [My son] got his shoes on and off they went. My stipulation was that they either play at my house or Eric's. [The two are not married, no longer date, and live about a mile from one another].

Eric, they wound up at your house. How did you find out what happened?

Sullivan: [Around 5:00pm] The neighbor gave a knock on the door and told me. He said some kid tied a rope around his neck playing dumbly and fell off the picnic table. [My son] said [the other boy] spun around twice and then the rope came undone. I guess it was like ten seconds. From what [my son] said, it was quick.

The 8-year-old's family says your son and the other teenage boys put the rope around their necks then encouraged the younger boy to do the same. When he did so, they say your son pushed him off the picnic table. Have you asked your son about this?

Larkin: Of course we have, we've asked him a hundred thousand times. Every child that was there fully admitted that they put the rope around their own neck, and… they all said, "I was being dumb, I know it was stupid." That's what my son said, "I know mom, you've told me my whole life, don't put a plastic bag over my head, don't put anything around my neck. I don't know why I did it." That's okay, that's an acceptable answer, but what happened after is just horrific and not acceptable.

And your son said he didn't push the other boy off the table?

Larkin: Right, [my son] was daring another child to climb a tree. So [my son] said he was watching [the first boy] climb the tree, and turned around for a minute and saw [the 8-year-old] standing on the picnic table. Not thinking that he had a rope around his neck. [My son] said [the 8-year-old] was wearing a hoodie at the time, and [my son] was looking at him from behind, and couldn't see anything. He thought he was just standing up there. So he said he thought in his mind, "Oh this is going to be really funny, I'm going to jump up behind him and scare him so he jumps off." So [my son] jumped onto this bench, and jumped on to the opposite end of the table where he was. And then [my son] went 'GGGGRRRR' and [the boy] jumped.

[My son] said that it all happened so quickly, but seeing, he described the way [the 8-year-old's] neck moved, and he was in tears. He said "I ran to him and tried to stop him from spinning." He said, "I grabbed around his legs and at that time, the rope had come lose and I noticed he opened his eyes," and then he was able to talk and stand. And [my son] said he couldn't apologize enough. Everyone was apologizing.

The 8-year-old's sister told her grandmother that she was with the boys in your backyard when it happened. Why do you think she tells a different story?

Sullivan: I don't think she was there. I don't know where that's coming from because I think it was the three boys and [the 8-year-old] that were there. The sister left, that's what they told me, that [he] got ditched by his sister and that's why he was playing with the boys.

What has your life been like since this happened?

Larkin: Complete hell. You saw the door [which was vandalized and is now covered in plywood]. I have a very small apartment as it is, and we barely make do. I cannot leave.

Sullivan: We've had to worry about the kids leaving the house. We're getting death threats.

Larkin: I've been assaulted twice. Adults come up to me and hit me. There have been comments after the fact: "Wait 'til I catch you outside of a public place, I'll blacken your eye so you can never see again, and break both your legs."

[My 12-year-old daughter] was at the middle school, and two of the teens that believe that [my son] was the only one [involved] waited outside the door…and they basically jumped her. The worst for me was what came after the candlelight vigil here in town. There were 32 voicemails on my phone and they were all hate mail and there were 123 unread messages on Facebook and every single one of them were threats and probably only 20 out of the 123 were kids. Someone on a voice mail told me that my entire family should be hung in the town square while everyone watched. And that my youngest son should go first so I would know the pain of what it's like, like the other family does. Just last night…[my 12-year-old daughter] was playing on the lawn and I was talking to her through the window, and said "you need to come inside." And there was a mother walking and holding hands with a small child, so [my daughter] glanced over and the woman said, "Don't look at me, I know you're the sister of that punk that hung the black boy."

Do you feel like you are getting any support?

Larkin: Absolutely not. I reported the threats to the police, and they said that these investigations can take months, and the only way I could protect myself and my children is to seriously consider relocating. I can barely afford where I live right now and I have no savings, so there is no possible way for me to relocate.

There is no agency that has said this kid needs some help? Regardless of the truth of what happened, he's getting death threats and he needs a little help from adults.

Sullivan: Everyone just believes the newspaper really. And that's why we haven't talked to any (reporters) until now.

One of the things the 8-year-old said is that, in the days leading up to August 28, the same boys, including your son, were throwing rocks and sticks at him and using racial slurs.

Larkin: Absolutely not.

Sullivan: The only thing I can think of is that [the 8-year-old] is confusing [our son] with one of the other little boys who was there. [Our son] has never done anything like that, I've never heard him say anything about race at all.

Larkin: I asked [my son] what a racial slur was and he said, "What?" I said, "If you were going to say something to someone, what racial slur would you use?" He said, "Mom I don't know what you're talking about, what do you mean, what's this all about?"

We have plenty, plenty of people in our family that are not white. We've never had an issue with it.

So you have African-Americans in your immediate family?

Larkin: Yes, my dad was one of 14 children and he has a set of [half] twin sisters who [are African American] and live in Georgia, and I communicate with them from time to time. My current boyfriend of nine years, his brother married an African-American woman. And she's beautiful and we love her. It doesn't make sense.

So, you think that someone may have thrown rocks and sticks at the 8-year-old and used racial slurs, but he is mixing up the boys?

Sullivan: I don't think any of it is coming from [the 8-year-old boy]. I think it's all coming from the grandmother and the mom.

Do you think they are making it up or have it wrong?

Sullivan: I was there when the cops questioned them and there was no mention about any of this. [The 8-year-old] had the same story as the boys. They're saying the boys were there so of course [the 8-year-old] is gonna lie. The boys weren't there; they were on the other side of the fence at [the park]. They couldn't even hear or see him. It was just the boy's mom and stepdad, the police officer and me, and I came in at the end because I went over and found them.

Do you think your son understands the enormity of what's going on around him?

Sullivan: I don't think he knows the severity, what the outcome could be.

Larkin: And I think partly the reason for that is he does not know what a big deal racial slurs are because he doesn't know what they are. He knows the severity of the other boy's injuries and when I told him that he was being flown to [Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center], he had a nervous breakdown. He sat down on his bed with his head in his hands. And I went in and closed the door and talked to him for a while and he said, "Mom, I was just trying to scare him and make a joke. I had no idea he had tied the rope around his neck".

What would you both like to see happen?

Larkin: I hope for peace of mind in our community that there will be no more hate crimes against us as retaliation for something that was a complete backyard accident. And that includes for [the other] family, too. I just wish that it could all stop. Because the trauma that little boy went through hanging by that rope to begin with is enough. He's never going to forget it. Now the entire world knows who he is. His picture, where he lives. My son has had night terrors about it happening. He said it made him want to throw up. The articles that say they ran and left him to die. It makes me sick, so sick. I can't imagine anyone doing that. The meanest kid in the world, I can't imagine seeing something like that happen and leaving and running away to leave him to die. I just want it to stop because I'm afraid that something really bad is going to come from an already horrifying situation.

Sullivan: I feel like the people it's really hurting is all the kids involved. I haven't talked to the other families of the kids who were here, but I imagine they must be going through the same thing.