Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
When the popular social media platform, Facebook, first became available to the general public in 2006, its original intent was to connect people all around the world—this world. Its unsurpassable success only fueled the company’s need to innovate and come up with new features and revenue streams. Facebook had to learn quickly how to provide best-in-class services to their nearly 2 billion users—some for fun, and others out of necessity.
In 2015, Facebook released a feature allowing users to appoint a Legal Contact that would be designated to manage the account after a user’s death. While the Legal Contact would not have access to the former user’s private messages and other sensitive information, they would be able to manage new incoming friend requests, outgoing messages, and other post-mortem activities on behalf of the deceased user.
With ironic coincidence, in 2016 the company introduced Facebook Live to its users, giving them the ability to connect globally in real-time via live video broadcast directly from their smartphones. This is where my story begins.
I went to graduate school at Syracuse University in New York back in 2002. There, I met a life-long friend named Jimmy Banks. We studied Advertising Design and worked on several non-profit projects together until graduation two years later. Jimmy was from Boston and I lived in Los Angeles.
As the years passed, we went from planning trips together with our families each year to an occasional text message or quick phone call. We had grown apart.
One morning in the Summer of 2017, I was stuck in heavy traffic on the 405 Freeway on my way to work in Santa Monica. As I sat listening to “Friend of the Devil” by the Grateful Dead, my phone buzzed. It wasn’t a call, but a Facebook Live alert from someone named “MadameMermaid94.” The connection was really bad, but, as far as I could make out, it was a male voice.
After about a minute of static and noise, I thought I heard the voice say “This is Jimmy.” Then, the call dropped. I tried reconnecting several times without success.
I was curious as to why I had been alerted to this live broadcast. I looked up MadameMermaid94’s profile and, like hundreds of other random “friends” I’d connected with, sure enough, I was connected to her, assuming she was female. But, I had no idea who she was, other than that she was the owner of a group I had joined a while back dedicated to horror movies. I figured I’d been included in the feed as a member of the group. But, the feed was very strange. There was nothing but static and darkness. And, why did I think I’d heard Jimmy’s name? I arrived at my office an hour later.
In the early afternoon, I had a few extra minutes available and decided to look up Jimmy on Facebook. I nearly fell out of my chair when I read the headline on his account: “Remembering Jimmy Banks.” When Facebook includes the word “Remembering” next to a user’s name, it means the person has passed away and evidence of their passing has been provided by their next-of-kin or Legal Contact. I was at such a loss for words and so utterly confused that I had to take the rest of the day off to digest this.
After sitting in my car for nearly an hour in the parking lot of a nearby Starbucks, I called my wife, Rachel. “I’m on my way home early today, honey,” I said. She sensed I was upset.
“You remember Jimmy Banks?” I said softly. “He’s dead.”
“What! How do you know?” she asked.
“I went to his Facebook account today and saw.”
I hadn’t talked to Jimmy in 10 years and had just realized that I didn’t know how long it had been since he’d passed away. “Have you talked to Jenny lately, honey?” I asked my wife. Jenny was Jimmy’s wife. She and Rachel had become close friends and seemed to stay in touch more frequently than Jimmy and I.
“No. I haven’t spoken to her for a few years. But, I saw she posted an old wedding picture of her and Jimmy a few days ago,” Rachel said.
“I don’t have her number. Can you share her contact info with me and I’ll give her a call?” I said frantically.
“Yes, I’ll send it right now. Call me when you find anything out!”
Stuck again on the 405 headed home, I mustered up enough strength to call Jenny. The phone rang for what seemed like forever. “Hi. This is Jenny Banks. I’m not able to talk right now, but please leave me a message,” played from her answering machine.
“Hi, Jenny. This is Tyler Lee. Look, I’m sorry we haven’t been in touch with you guys in a while,” I said beginning to lose my composure. “I came across Jimmy’s Facebook page today and…” I paused in silence. “Well, I just wanted to talk to you when you have a minute. Call me back, okay?”
I still had a Grateful Dead album playing randomly in the background, but, I wasn’t in the mood to hear “Cumberland Blues,” which had just started. I hit the Next button and “Black Muddy River” began to play, which seemed to fit the mood better. As I listened to Jerry Garcia sadly sing the chorus, “I will walk alone by the Black Muddy River. Sing me a song of my own,” I couldn’t help but picture Jimmy walking sadly alongside a dark river in a dark, unknown world.
My phone rang, interrupting the song through my car radio. “Jen-Jen” appeared as the Caller ID, and I mustered a frail smile. Jenny was originally from Japan. Jimmy had met her while shooting a documentary film there in the Nineties. They had two twin daughters, Rachel and Akira, who were just babies when we last saw them. They named Rachel after my wife, who Jenny adores. Akira called her mom “Jen-Jen” when she was a toddler, so Jimmy followed suit and called her the same, as did Jenny’s friends.
“Hello?” I answered awkwardly.
“Hello…Tyler?” said the quiet voice on the other end.
“Yes. Jenny, how are you? You got my message?”
“Yes. I’m sorry we haven’t called either, Tyler.”
“It’s okay. Life gets crazy,” I said, trying to break the ice a bit. “Listen, Jenny, the reason I’m calling is…” I hesitated. “Well, how is…I mean…where is Jimmy?” I could hear Jenny begin to cry on the other end. It seemed as though she hadn’t stopped crying in a long time.
“He’s gone, Tyler. He died two days ago,” she sobbed.
“What happened, Jen?” I pressed. “He just didn’t wake up. You know he had that sleep apnea thing, right?” Jimmy had severe sleep apnea and used a CPAP mask to sleep at night. We roomed together at Syracuse and he would snore horrendously whenever he didn’t wear it, which he absolutely hated to do. It’s estimated that about 22 million Americans suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, yet it’s believed that as many as 80% remain undiagnosed. Fortunately, Jimmy had received treatment for his condition, which, if left untreated, could cause several significant health issues including death!
Recently, he had grown tired of wearing his mask and had not worn it for nearly two years. Jimmy’s health had been suffering so badly that, two days prior, he stopped breathing in the middle of the night due to lack of oxygen, and died quietly.
Jenny had only learned that her husband was dead after she tried to wake him before leaving for work. When he didn’t respond, she called 9-1-1 and paramedics declared him deceased at 8:43 am EST Monday, August 6, 2017.
Jenny was suddenly alone now raising her twin daughters, who were now 14-years-old. As we talked, it was painfully apparent that she was struggling to deal with everything related to Jimmy’s sudden death and desperately needed help, but was afraid to ask.
“Look, Jenny, Rachel and I would like to come out and help. Would you let us do that?” I asked. There was silence for a moment on the other end.
“I can’t ask you to do that, Tyler. We’ll be okay. The funeral is Friday,” she said quietly.
“We want to help, Jenny. We can get the girls to school, take care of you and the house…” I pleaded, “Plus, we’re coming out for the funeral anyway.”
“Yes, yes, okay. I would be very grateful,” she confessed.
“Good. We will fly out tonight and arrive by morning,” I told her.
As soon as I got off the phone, I dialed Rachel to give her an update. As the phone started to ring, the Facebook Live alert came up again, from the same user, MadameMermaid94. I hadn’t told my wife or Jenny about how I’d received or almost received, this odd feed earlier that morning. But, this time the connection came through slightly more clearly.
“Is anyone…is…is anyone…there?” the voice said statically through a live video image that was completely black with colored lines of static breaking up the choppy signal.
“Who is this!” I messaged back through the inline text feed. No one replied. I watched the dark signal in dismay for what seemed liked minutes, wondering who was on the other end.
The voice came through again, and even clearer: “Jenny?” followed by a long pause. “Anyone?” I heard what sounded like a loud knocking noise—thump, thump, then a pause. Then, another frantic THUMP, THUMP THUMP. After the second round of knocking, the connection abruptly dropped.
By this time, I had pulled off the freeway and stopped at a gas station off of Sepulveda Boulevard near the Getty Center. “What is going on?” I yelled out loud to myself. I rested my head in my hands on the steering wheel of my car for a few minutes thinking of how to make sense of all of this. I tried messaging MadameMermaid94 directly several times but I received no response. I looked at the posts in her feed and by now several other users had posted things like “Who is this?”, “WTF!!”, and “PLEASE STOP!” It was clear that I wasn’t the only one receiving the bizarre feeds. I was now certain that the voice distinctly asked for “Jenny,” and that I had to have heard the name “Jimmy” earlier as well. Puzzled, I went to the store to get something to drink and try to re-immerse myself into reality.
After I got back on the freeway, I called Rachel and updated her on my conversation with Jenny and the strange live feeds I’d received earlier.
“How is that even possible?” Rachel protested. “They can’t be related. You just think you heard ‘Jenny’ and ‘Jimmy’ because they’re on your mind,” she reasoned.
“Perhaps, but, don’t you think it’s odd that this would happen only a few days after Jimmy died?” I said.
“Did you ask Jenny about it?” Rachel asked.
“No. I didn’t want to upset her with that. Plus, she sounded really bad. She’s not doing well and we need to get out there tonight!” I insisted.
After I returned home, we each packed a carry-on and made arrangements for our oldest son to watch our younger kids overnight until Rachel’s parents would arrive on Sunday. Then, we flew out of Burbank on a 10 pm flight to Boston.
When we arrived at Jenny’s house Thursday morning, our hearts sank as we hugged her and the girls. Jenny looked like she had not slept all week, and the girls were still in their pajamas at 12:30 pm on a school day. Rachel followed Jenny into the bedroom and insisted that she sleep while we took the girls to school and made preparations for the coming days. “We don’t want you to worry about anything, Jen,” said Rachel. “You just get the sleep you need and we’ll take care of everything else.”
“Thank you,” said Jenny quietly, with tears rolling down her eyes.
Rachel and I thought that Jenny would sleep for several hours, then wake up and want to talk. But, we picked the girls up from school at 3:30 pm, took them to eat at their favorite restaurant and returned home at about 9 pm, and she was still asleep. Rachel sat in the girl’s room with them talking about old memories until nearly midnight when the girls fell asleep.
Rachel is an outdoorsy-type and had coaxed me into becoming the same over the last 20 years we’d been married. We traveled to faraway places with our kids on a shoestring budget and with very limited supplies. So, we were used to sleeping on couches, floors, concrete, dirt or anything semi-flat with only a light blanket. We curled up together on the living room floor and went to sleep.
At about 2 am I was awakened by a vibrating sensation near my head. I had placed my phone in a small travel bag that doubled as a pillow and it was ringing.
I scrambled to find my glasses and looked at the screen. “MadameMermaid94 would like to connect with you on Facebook Live,” read a message on the phone. “What the hell?” I said turning to wake Rachel. “Honey. Honey, wake up. It’s the live feed again!” Rachel turned over confused.
“It’s the Facebook Live thing again!” I almost shouted. I held my phone up as we both watched the screen from the floor.
“Hello?” said the dark screen.
“Does that even sound like Jimmy?” I asked hypothetically.
“Well, it’s definitely a male voice,” said Rachel, “but, I can’t tell. Of course, I haven’t talked to him in a decade or more.”
“Should we let Jenny know?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“Not right now, honey—it’ll just upset her more,” replied Rachel.
Ten minutes had gone by now and we hadn’t heard anything but a faint “Hello?” followed by a few minutes of noisy static and occasional knocks on what sounded like metal.
“What are you watching?” asked a voice at daytime volume from the hallway. It was Jenny. She’d awaken in the middle of the night famished and was looking for something to eat.
“It’s nothing! I said startled, “Just a video I was showing Rachel.”
Jenny walked over putting her glasses on to get a better look as I struggled to shut down the Facebook app on my phone without looking. “What is it? Let me see,” begged Jenny.
“Oh, it’s nothing really—just something someone sent me,” I said sheepishly.
“Someone sent you something this early in the morning?” asked Jenny. Rachel and I glanced at each other agreeing non-verbally that we had to tell her something.
“Um, Jenny, I have to ask you something that’s going to sound very strange,” I started. “Can you sit down?” Jenny sat on the couch as Rachel joined her in a warm embrace.
“What’s going on?” Jenny sensed something wasn’t right.
“You contacted Facebook to give them information to confirm Jimmy had died, right?” I asked hopefully.
“Are you serious?” Jenny said. “I don’t use that stuff! It’s a waste of time. I didn’t think Jimmy did, either?” she proclaimed. “Why?”
Rachel and I looked at each other confused. “Wait, you mean, you didn’t change his Facebook account to a Memorial account?” Rachel asked.
“No, absolutely not! Is that bad? What’s going on?” Jenny grabbed the phone from my hand. I had pulled up Jimmy’s account and Jenny read out loud: “Remembering Jimmy Zello: 1976-2018.” There was a long pause as Jenny digested the implication. “Wait! How does Facebook know that my husband died?” Jenny cried.
“That’s a good question, Jen,” I said. “Technically, they can’t do this without a death certificate.”
“I don’t even have that yet. I should get it from the Funeral Director later today,” Jenny said.
“Jenny, there’s something else,” said Rachel as she grabbed my phone from Jenny and navigated to the recorded Facebook Live feeds and played them for her.
“When did you get these?” she asked panicked. “Tyler got the first one the morning he spoke to you on the phone from L.A. And, we got the last one about ten minutes ago!”
“WHAT!” Jenny shouted, starting to cry. “Who sent them? Who’s doing this?” she screamed. “Who is this ‘MadameMermaid94?'” No one had to say what we were all thinking.
“No, no! Don’t go there! Jimmy wouldn’t do that!” I insisted. Jenny turned around grabbing a small, framed photo of the two of them from a bookshelf.
“We weren’t the same couple you knew ten years ago,” explained Jenny. “We had drifted apart. Jimmy had severe depression and lost interest in almost everything.” Rachel put her arm around her friend.
“I’m so sorry, Jenny,” she said. “Do you think he was seeing this MadameMermaid94 and that she changed his account?”
Suddenly, another alert message appeared on the screen. It was Jimmy’s voice again. We all gathered closely on the wood floor of the living room listening and watching in darkness. “Jenny? Jenny, are you there?” said the voice. “Yes! Yes, I’m here, Jimmy! Can you hear me?” Jenny screamed.
“He can’t hear us, Jenny. The broadcast can only send out a signal, but we can send him a text message,” I explained.
“YES! I AM HERE!” texted Jenny from my phone. “THIS IS JEN. WHERE ARE YOU?” The audio went fuzzy again for nearly five minutes. Then, a strange text message came through cryptically: “):’p!Lobtry!” On a smartphone displaying a QWERTY keyboard, the characters “):’p!Lobtry!” are very close to the characters that would spell “Help! Low Battery!” if a person were trying to type blindly. We never received another feed or message again.
“He’s alive! He’s got to be alive!” Jenny declared as she grabbed her coat and shoes and put them on over her nightgown. “We’ve got to find him right now!”
I calmly stopped Jenny and held her closely looking her in the eyes: “But, Jen, Jimmy was cremated. He can’t be alive. Someone’s playing a sick game.”
Jenny ran to the kitchen, grabbed a Post-It note from the counter and her keys, and ran out the door. Rachel stayed with the girls as I followed Jenny to her car in my sweats, t-shirt and barefoot.
“I’ll drive!” I said as I took the keys and ran around to the driver’s side. Jenny frantically dialed the phone number written on the Post-It note. It was the County Coroner’s office. “Hello, this is Jenny Banks. My husband was pronounced dead on Monday and I need to speak to the Coroner as soon as possible. It’s an emergency! I’m headed to the cemetery as I speak! Please call me as soon as you get this!”
We drove towards the cemetery where Jimmy’s funeral would be held later that day. We pulled up near the edge of an open stone mausoleum where a pedestal holding flowers stood near a large framed picture of Jimmy. Red velvet ropes restricted access to a large marble box that held the remains of Jenny’s deceased husband. Jenny fell to her knees holding the marble slab engraved with Jimmy’s name and wept.
The silence was interrupted by the sound of a white official-looking van pulling up. It was the Coroner. He parked and rushed over to meet us. “I got your message, Jenny. I’m sorry I didn’t call back. You sounded very upset so I just rushed over as quickly as I could. What’s wrong?”
I proceeded to explain to the Coroner, named Ross, what had transpired over the last few days regarding the strange Facebook Live feeds. Ross’s facial expressions conveyed his dismay as he clutched his keys and asked us to get into his van. “Wait! Where are we going? He’s been cremated, hasn’t he?” I protested. Ross’s silent response seemed to tell a different story.
We jumped into the van as Ross rushed towards the county morgue. “He hasn’t been cremated yet, as far as I know. We’ve had an unusually high volume of cremations to perform over the last few days and yours was rescheduled for early this morning, in time for the funeral this afternoon” Ross explained. “So, he’s still in the morgue?” asked Jenny, confused.
“Yes,” answered Ross, “but there’s no way he can be alive. I signed the exam report.”
“Why did you do an autopsy if you already knew the cause of death?” I asked angrily.
“I didn’t actually do it, but it’s standard procedure, and required by the Health Department. When we know the cause of death and there’s no sign of foul play, we refer to it as a ‘post-mortem examination,’ which is what my Tech performed. There are no incisions made, nor any damage to the subject,” Ross explained.
We arrived at a nondescript looking building in a remote part of the county. Ross flipped on the greenish-blue fluorescent lights as we ran down the whitewashed hallways into the crematorium. Two men and a woman were dressed in white scrubs hard at work preparing lifeless corpses for cremation. Ross logged into a workstation and asked one of the Techs to retrieve the body from Chamber 23.
The woman disappeared quickly into tall rows of cold chambers, stacked two-high. The bodies of the deceased were stored in these chambers in a positive temperature setting of 2 to 4 degrees Celsius, sometimes for up to several weeks. From a distance, we heard a sudden scream from the woman and raced over to see what was the matter. Sitting up before us on the black sterile pad of Chamber 23 was Jimmy Banks, very much alive!
He was famished, weak and dehydrated. His arms and legs were severely bruised from kicking the walls of the metal chamber. His hands were also bleeding from scraping, pushing and pulling with his fingers anywhere he could get a grip. The lack of oxygen to Jimmy’s brain earlier that Monday night had caused him to fall into a deep coma.
Jenny wrapped her arms around her husband as the other Techs placed emergency blankets around him and called 9-1-1.
“What is going on here!” yelled Ross, half-angry and half-terrified. “What did your examination entail, Amber?” he asked in frustration turning to his Technician.
“You saw the report, Ross. You signed it!” she deflected.
Amber Martin was a 24-year-old millennial who had recently graduated from the local City College with a degree in Mortuary Science. This was her first job out of college and she had worked at the morgue for nearly a year now. Amber was what some might consider a Goth. She was an oddly attractive girl of medium height and build, with dark black hair and a pale complexion. She wore dark eyeshadow and had several piercings and tattoos—two of which were behind each of her ears designed in a sort of a webbed pattern, like the gills on the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
“I performed an external-only examination, tested all vitals, documented identifying marks and scars,” Amber explained, scaling down her earlier aggressive tone. “He had no pulse or heartbeat. His body had undergone algor mortis and had reached room temperature. He was dead!” she said disrespectfully to Ross. We observed the exchange, alarmed at how the girl was still employed. But, Ross seemed to be a patient man.
“Had the body reached the rigor mortis stage?” Ross asked Amber. Rigor mortis is the post-mortem stage, usually between 2 to 6 hours after death, in which the body begins to stiffen from a lack of blood circulation. The blood begins to pool and settle. Amber looked away as if embarrassed. “Well, no. Not exactly. I conducted the examination at about noon on Monday which was about 4 hours after he was pronounced dead. It can take up to 6 hours for it to set in,” she argued.
“But, you didn’t confirm?” yelled Ross.
Amber removed her white lab coat and threw it on the back of a work stool. “It’s getting hot in here,” she joked. No one laughed.
“Dammit, Amber! You’ve created a shit show here. I’ve never had this happen on my watch!” Ross yelled unfiltered.
Beneath her lab coat, Amber was wearing a vintage black Fangoria Magazine tank top. My heart skipped a beat as Rachel stealthily stepped on my bare foot and discreetly pointed to the girl’s right shoulder. There was a fading tattoo that read: “MadameMermaid94!”
“Ross, can I talk to you privately?” I asked as I guided the Coroner into a small side office. “We’ve got a problem here, sir.”
“What is it, Tyler?”
“It’s your Tech. We just noticed Amber has a tattoo on her shoulder that identifies her as the Facebook user from which Jimmy’s live feeds were coming from” I explained.
“I don’t understand,” said the Coroner.
I held up my phone and showed him the feeds that he’d glanced at earlier.
“These recordings came from this Facebook account from user MadameMermaid96. Take a look at Amber’s right shoulder.” Ross peered out the office door and looked at Amber’s shoulder and held his hand over his mouth. He grabbed his phone and walked quickly down the hall as he made a call.
By now, the ambulance had arrived and had taken Jimmy on a stretcher en route to the nearest hospital. Jenny accompanied him while Ross, Rachel and I stood in silent disbelief as Ross angrily typed a report into the computer. Amber and the two other Techs cautiously reviewed the reports for the remaining corpses.
Just then, a phone began to vibrate. We all checked to see if it was our own. It wasn’t. The buzz was coming from Chamber 23.
“My phone!” yelled Amber scouring the chamber underlayment until she found the phone. “I’ve been looking for this for the last few days!” she said ecstatically. Ross stopped typing and slowly removed his glasses as if he were thinking “how on earth could this debacle get any worse!” Amber ran over to her small workspace and plugged the phone in.
“Why the hell was your phone laying in a subject’s chamber?” demanded Ross. “And, please don’t tell me you forgot it there!”
“Okay, I screwed up, Ross! Is that what you want to hear?” cried Amber.
“That’s the understatement of the year,” said Ross under his breath. “What the hell were you doing on your phone in the first place when you should have been 100% focused on the examination? Do you know how this looks!?”
The two continued to argue for a few minutes as Rachel and I stood uncomfortably nearby witnessing what may become the worst post-mortem blunder ever committed.
Amber’s phone lit up as it restarted after a few minutes in the charger. Amber typed in her password and navigated frantically to the Facebook app.
“Give me that!” demanded Ross.
“No! I’m not giving you anything!” said Amber twisting her body away from Ross. The Coroner—a seemingly mild-mannered man in his early sixties—grabbed her wrist and took the phone.
After clicking a few buttons, a video began to play. It was a live stream Amber had recorded Monday as she performed the post-mortem examination on Jimmy. She had streamed it live to her Facebook group of horror movie fans! We all looked at her in shock.
“Is this what Entertainment has come to?” Ross asked sarcastically. “Amber, you’d better sit down.”
By now, the girl was beginning to realize what trouble she was in.
“Amber, you’re not only officially fired, and will likely never work in this industry again. But, you’ve committed a crime which will likely result in an unprecedented privacy and wrong-doing lawsuit against the County, not to mention a media firestorm.”
Two police officers knocked on the door outside. Ross walked over calmly and spoke with them outside for several minutes.
Rachel called Jenny at the hospital and explained what had happened. While Jenny was livid, she was more grateful that her husband was still alive.
Over the next several months, a major lawsuit ensued. It was discovered that this was not the first time that Amber Martin had secretly streamed live examinations and autopsies to her followers. In fact, prior to this ordeal, I had just recently turned on my Facebook notification that alerted me when groups I had followed had posted anything or were broadcasting live. I enabled this setting on Tuesday and had not received the alert about the live stream she was doing with Jimmy as her subject.
As I searched through the group feed, there were several questionable recordings that had been streamed without the consent of the subjects. She had also taken it upon herself to impersonate the next-of-kin of several deceased subjects and had submitted death certificates for these subjects to several social media companies, including Facebook. She had done this with Jimmy’s account, and, like several others, had near-complete control of their accounts going forward.
Nearly a year later, Amber Belinda Martin was convicted of 17 counts of Criminal Impersonation and Invasion of Privacy. She was also convicted of two counts of first-degree murder, as it was discovered that she had actually staged the murder of an elderly couple so that she could broadcast the autopsies that ensued as part of the investigation. She would serve a life sentence in the Massachusetts State Penitentiary, which no possibility of parole.
Jimmy, Jenny and the girls sold their home and moved to Los Angeles. Jimmy and I quit our jobs at large advertising agencies and started a studio of our own creating opening and closing movie title sequences in Studio City. Today, we consider the Banks part of our extended family. I hope to never lose touch with them again.
Credit: Tyler King Lee
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