How A Desperation For YouTube Fame Ended In Tragedy
With a wild look in his wide eyes, a glistening stud in each ear, and a camera in his right hand, Pedro Ruiz III stood on a scrub of green space behind the garage of his family home in the town of Halstad (population: 597), Minnesota. In the background was his car, a white Toyota Celica. On the right side of its tail fin was a GoPro camera. On its roof sat a cheap red cushion. And on that red cushion was a gold .50-calibre Desert Eagle pistol.
Aged 22, Ruiz was going to make a special video that he hoped would secure the future for his childhood sweetheart, Monalisa Perez, and their three-year-old daughter Aleah. Ruiz and Perez, three years younger, had grown up with YouTube. They knew all too well that YouTube could make a somebody out of a nobody. But Perez’s YouTube presence, a parenting and family channel called LaMonaLisa, hadn’t taken off. She and her boyfriend aimed to make it big on the site by filming increasingly daredevil stunts. Starting in March 2017, her channel contained videos in which they had pranked each other, with titles such as ‘WORLDS HOTTEST PEPPER PRANK!! GONE MAJORLY GONE!!’ [sic] and ‘SHE TOOK IT TO [sic] FAR…’
Despite the couple’s inventiveness, the channel hadn’t taken off: its 18 videos had been viewed a total of 8,460 times, averaging just 470 views per video. But the time was ripe for optimists. In one video, Perez said to her boyfriend: ‘Imagine when we have 300,000 subscribers.’ They were not the kind of couple to give up on the dream and Ruiz had a plan. He aimed to set up his own channel, calling himself Dammit Boy, because that’s what everybody would say when they watched one of his stunts. And to kickstart his channel, he planned to undertake a wow-worthy stunt that couldn’t help but get people’s attention. Perez was reluctant: it sounded dangerous. But Ruiz had been thinking about it for weeks, begging his girlfriend to help him, and eventually she had given in. She would do it. She would shoot him.
‘Me and Pedro are probably going to shoot one of the most dangerous videos ever,’ Perez tweeted
Naturally, Dammit Boy realized he needed to be more than a one-hit wonder, so he protected himself against the bullet. Sort of. He test fired his pistol at an abandoned house three or four miles away, at one of several books he found there. The book – particularly thick – blocked a bullet. So he found another, similar book. With a black marker pen he drew a target in the centre of the hardback cover, and an arrow pointing to it, then wrote ‘Plz Hit Here’.
Ruiz had just come home from work at BNSF Railways in nearby Hillsboro at 4pm on 26 June 2017 when he decided the time was right. Two video cameras would record the stunt, for the benefit of millions of YouTube viewers (hopefully). ‘Me and Pedro are probably going to shoot one of the most dangerous videos ever,’ Perez tweeted hours beforehand. ‘HIS idea not MINE’. She had previously re-tweeted a motivational tweet reading ‘Every vlogger on YouTube starts at 0 subscribers. Believe in what you do!’
Ruiz started his video with supreme confidence. ‘What’s up everybody, it’s Dammit Boy,’ he said speaking with boundless enthusiasm. ‘My channel is going to consist of a lot of crazy stuff,’ he continued. ‘Entertainment just for you guys. My thing is crazy.’
After 38 seconds, he started to struggle. ‘I just love the adrenaline, the pumping, the near-death experiences…’ He paused as his mind flickered. He regained his composure. ‘With this being my first video, I hope to capture all my audience’ – he clicked his fingers – ‘like that.’
He held up the inch-and-a-half-thick, hardback encyclopaedia. His heavily pregnant girlfriend was reluctant. She said: ‘I can’t do this babe, I am so scared. My heart is beating…’ She added: ‘Babe, if I kill you what’s going to happen to my life? Like, no this isn’t okay… I don’t want to be responsible’. But Ruiz reassured her that she would not hurt him as long as she hit the book.
She fired into the book. Ruiz recoiled backwards as the bullet passed through it. He stumbled back, fell to the floor, and said ‘Oh shit’ as he looked down at a hole in his chest. His girlfriend rushed indoors to ring 911. As his body turned blue, all she could do was wait for the emergency services to arrive.
Ruiz was merely the latest of a series of risk-taking creators hoping to make a living off the site. It can seem – especially for a journalist who has set up a Google alert to trigger whenever a news story mentions YouTube – that the pursuit of views is creating more and more chaos.
Attempting to break into the White House is a bad idea at any point, but to do so simply to try and create good video content seems particularly troublesome. Yet that’s what happened in October 2017 when Curtis Combs, a 36-year-old former US Marine from Kentucky, attempted to scale the outer fence of America’s most highly guarded home—dressed as cuddly yellow Pokémon protagonist Pikachu. The arrest affidavit, filed by the police in the District of Columbia, said that Combs ‘wanted to become famous and thought jumping the White House fenceand posting it to YouTube would make him famous.’
In March 2017, five pranksters snuck into the BBC’s New Broadcasting House in London, in a vain attempt to interrupt live broadcasts. The group accidentally chose a time when none of the studios were on air, but managed to get into the television studios which film the national news. A video of the group running amok, uploaded by one of the YouTubers nicknamed Carnage, gained just 184,000 views in its first seven months.
Two of his fellow pranksters, Trikkstar and Harris, then ‘invaded’ Facebook’s London headquarters. Trikkstar, a freshfaced youngster with a half-shaved right eyebrow, explained in the ensuing video: ‘We’re going to do this stunt because everybody loved when we invaded the BBC headquarters.’
Despite the fast-paced music soundtrack, the seven-minute video is mundane. More than 40 seconds is the duo walking up and down stairs. At one point one of them says: ‘Maybe see if there’s a café?’
In September 2014, British YouTuber Sam Pepper uploaded a more notorious video called Fake Hand Ass Pinch Prank, in which he groped five separate women on the street after distracting them with a fake hand. Sex vlogger Laci Green (who came to fame for her videos promoting the idea of people embracing their sexuality) wrote Pepper an open letter, which was cosigned by 63 other YouTubers including Tyler Oakley, Hannah Witton, Hank and John Green and Michael Buckley. The You- Tubers said: ‘We are deeply disturbed by this trend and would like to ask you, from one creator to another, to please stop. They added:
The pursuit of subscribers can also harm children.
‘While it may seem like harmless fun, a simple prank, or a ‘social experiment’, these videos encourage millions of young men and women to see this violation as a normal way to interact with women. 1 in 6 young women (real life ones, just like the ones in your video) are sexually assaulted, and sadly, videos like these will only further increase those numbers.’
The Vlogbrothers banned Pepper from appearing at VidCon, and Pepper later claimed his video was a ‘social experiment’ so ‘I could watch you guys go crazy in the comments’. Pepper paused his YouTube videos in early 2017, but he is now uploading again.
The pursuit of subscribers can also harm children. Heather and Mike Martin – together known on YouTube as DaddyOFive—garnered more than three-quarters of a million subscribers to their videos, where they pranked their children for the benefit of viewers. After a particularly unpleasant video, and a rising acknowledgement and discomfort among viewers about how severely they were mistreating their children, the pair uploaded a strident defence of their actions, before eventually apologizing publicly after realizing just how strongly public opinion had moved against them.
The family initially seemed unaware of just how much the pursuit of views and subscribers had warped their approach to their children, but eventually reneged. ‘It started out as family fun,’ Mike, the children’s father, told Good Morning America. ‘It started with me and my kids, but then it was just about making a video and then making the next video more crazier than the next. It was more for shock value.’
The Martins were sentenced in a Maryland county circuit court in September 2017 to five years probation for two counts of child neglect, and lost custody of their children. (The sentence was reduced in January 2019, though the judge retained a probation condition preventing the couple from uploading new videos.) YouTube finally deactivated their ability to upload in 2018.
Another way in which YouTube can encourage extreme behaviour comes courtesy of Jay Swingler and Romell Henry, two YouTubers from Wolverhampton in England who together run the TGFBro channel. As part of an Extreme Christmas Calendar series of videos on the channel, Swingler and Henry were undertaking ever more ridiculous tasks. On 7 December 2017, they uploaded a video called 'I cemented my head in a microwave and emergency services came.. (nearly died)'.
In a preamble to the scene recorded after the event, Swingler, then aged 22, said: ‘I would give you a good intro, but in this video I nearly fucking died. The following footage isn’t a joke and I really wish it was click-bait, but this is as serious as it can get on this channel.’
The video showed what they had done. In a bucket, Swingler and Henry had mixed up four boxes of Polyfilla, a cement-like substance that fills holes in walls. They tipped the contents into a disconnected microwave without a door. Swingler wrapped his head in a plastic shopping bag with some thin plastic tubing as a breathing mechanism. He then dipped his head into the Polyfilla-filled microwave and waited for it to set. Henry left to buy a hair dryer to make the Polyfilla set quicker.
Then Swingler realized he couldn’t get his head out. As a caption on the video claimed, ‘thr [sic] air tube got blocked’. ‘I’m going to die,’ a panicked Swingler shouted. The couple of friends watching on and filming tried freeing him using a spoon and an electric drill to chisel away the plaster, before one called the emergency services asking for the fire brigade and an ambulance.
Swingler’s friend Jake told the 999 dispatcher: ‘He has a microwave stuck to his head. I know this sounds like a prank call, but he was trying to film a YouTube video. My friend was trying to do a stunt with a microwave where he basically put plaster inside the microwave and stuck his head in there, and now we can’t get it off.’
Five firefighters, with the help of paramedics, spent an hour freeing Swingler from the microwave. All the while the pranksters kept the cameras rolling. While the emergency services’ workers stood cross-armed, Swingler and Henry embraced and laughed with relief being freed. The West Midlands Fire Service tweeted: ‘We’re seriously unimpressed.’
YouTube viewers were interested, though. Within 13 hours of being uploaded, the video was viewed 850,000 times. Within two days, two million people had seen it, with 25,000 leaving comments. TGFBro’s gamble may have resulted in public disapproval, but it probably paid off. It earned up to $8,000 from the video in its first two days online, according to estimates by Social Blade. Another 17,247 people subscribed in its first day online – three times the channel’s daily average (though the most successful single day for the pranksters was in June 2016, when the group featured in two videos with KSI, who called them ‘fucking retarded’, before joining in with them by running over plastic sheeting slicked with washing-up liquid and covered with mouse traps, and jumping into fields of nettles. They gained nearly 90,000 subscribers that day).
Swingler was unapologetic for wasting the emergency services’ time. ‘I think this shit’s hilarious,’ he said in a video uploaded the day after the prank.
There is a race-to-the-bottom mentality.
How often do YouTube pranks go wrong? Using freedom of information laws in Britain, I asked each police force in the UK how many times they had been called out to deal with incidents where YouTube was mentioned in the notes made by the emergency call operator. 90% of police forces responded to my request. Every year between 2013 and 2017 the number of YouTube incidents increased, rocketing from 1,887 in 2013 to 3,172 in 2017– nearly nine every day. As this book was going to press, police data for 2018 was still coming in—but many forces had recorded even more calls about the video sharing website. West Yorkshire Police had 406 incidents in 2018. In about half those cases it sent an officer to investigate.
Pranks are an important part of YouTube—‘a genre of content that is largely designed to the platform’s algorithmic preference for click-baity and shocking content,’ says Zoë Glatt, a PhD researcher at the London School of Economics. ‘In some corners of YouTube there is a race-to-the-bottom mentality. If the appeal of your content is that it is shocking or risqué, then the competitive nature of YouTube means that people have to post increasingly shocking and risqué content in order to be seen.’ They’re also global: The Crazy Sumit, an Indian YouTuber, has 612,000 subscribers who watch his cringe-inducing videos where he pranks young women – the kind of thing that Sam Pepper once got into trouble with.
That doesn’t mean that they’re respected by everyone, though. And YouTube’s pranksters and chancers are damaging the platform’s perception amongst the public. In an exclusive poll carried out for this book, polling company Poli asked nearly 3,000 British adults whether they thought YouTubers are good role models for children. Half said they aren’t. And worse, almost everyone else was uncertain. Just 14% thought that they are. Those same people were asked who is responsible for the content of videos on YouTube. A quarter said YouTube; a fifth said the creator posting the video. Half said both were equally responsible.
Incidents requiring a police response and the Bird Box challenge viral sensation (where participants did everyday tasks like driving a car while blindfolded in homage to the Netflix film) have caused YouTube to crack down significantly on dangerous content. Dangerous challenges and pranks that have a ‘perceived danger of serious physical injury’ were banned from the platform in January 2019, with a two-month grace period for creators to clean up their act. But informally YouTube has been exerting pressure on extreme content creators for a while. In the first half of 2018, YouTube started to age-restrict Swingler and Henry’s videos, throttling their ability to sell adverts against their content.
Jay Swingler lived to tell his tale after his tussle with a microwave, but Pedro Ruiz III didn’t. He bled out through a bullethole. The video he and his girlfriend shot has never been publicly released but a transcript, and clips prior to the shooting itself, were published during the police case against Monalisa Perez, who was charged with second-degree manslaughter, and sentenced to 180 days in jail.
Three months after she shot her boyfriend, her account was stuck at 21,942 subscribers, a fraction of the number they planned. But Perez was not done. On 31 July 2018, after she’d served her time, she removed all the videos from her past life on her YouTube channel from public view and uploaded a new video entitled 'Something to say...'
Sporting a new, dyed-blonde haircut and two new tattoos of red flowers over each collarbone, Perez sat on her bed and said: ‘I’m sure a lot of people are probably surprised that I’m even here right now making a video. I’m even surprised a little bit but I feel like I’m ready.
‘I’ve always wanted to do YouTube, and I feel like now I’m healed enough.
‘This past year has been—hoo—one journey, I tell you,’ she confessed. ‘A lot of downs. Honestly, now, it’s a lot of ups.’ She had started weekly counselling. Her son Rayden, born just a few months after her boyfriend’s death, was approaching his first birthday. She had found a new boyfriend. And she felt the time was right to start again with YouTube. ‘I’ll be posting again, probably twice a week or three times a week.’
Perez hasn’t just eased back into the YouTube lifestyle, though. In September she posted a vlog titled 'THINGS AREN’T JUST EASY', where she said:
“The sadness came over me deeply, it feels like. I miss Pedro a lot, guys. I’ve really learned to, like, not show any of my emotions. I really suppressed all my feelings inside of me because I don’t want to feel anything, and it’s really hard for me to get emotional now. It’s really hard for me to just cry. […] I think it’s maybe because I’ve seen a car just like his.”
She gets a couple of thousand views a day now.
This story is adapted from ‘YouTubers: How YouTube shook up TV and created a new generation of stars’, published by Canbury Press on 2nd May. Buy the book from Amazon or the publishers.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.