Lawrence Hsieh, a researcher at Yale University, is one of a growing number of victims of the disturbing “knockout game.”
In the game, people–usually teenagers–punch strangers, trying to knock them out with one punch.
Hsieh, a 35-year-old postdoctoral associate in neurosurgery at Yale, was walking to the park and ride bus stop on Church Street in New Haven, Conn. on Tuesday after work.
Hsieh saw three men walking toward him. The next thing he knew, he was on the ground. One of the men had punched him so hard that it knocked him out.
Hsieh is schooled in Taekwondo but didn’t have time to defend himself because he was so surprised by the sudden attack.
“I did not expect the punch that they threw,” Hsieh told WFSB. “I fell victim to the game and was one of its statistics.”
By the time he recovered, the men had fled the scene. “The whole ordeal was over in 30 seconds,” he told the New Haven Independent.
Hsieh suffered a broken nose from the attack.
It’s the sixth attack related to the knockout game, said Lt. Joe Witkowski.
“The common thing seems to be there’s no attempt at theft. It’s an unprovoked assault,” Witkowski said.
Psychologists believe that youth are drawn to the game for fame, because video footage of some of the attacks are getting millions of views online. Some of the youth identified as having participated–including one in Michigan who has landed in jail–describe also a sort of peer pressure involved.
“The behavior of the sudden assault of someone who seems helpless has appealed to the idiotic impulsive quality of adolescence forever,” said said Jeffrey Butts, a psychologist specializing in juvenile delinquency at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “But there are now bragging rights beyond your immediate circle, when this is on television and online.”
At the same time, “It’s hard to excuse this behavior, there’s no purpose to this,” he said. “When someone runs into a store and demands money, you can sort of understand why they’re doing it, desperation, whatever. But just hitting someone for the sheer thrill of seeing if you can knock someone out is just childish.”
At least two deaths have been linked to the game this year and police have seen a recent spike in similar attacks, including in New York City, where a spate of attacks in recent weeks in Brooklyn has prompted a heightened police presence in the area.
In Washington, D.C., police were investigating two assaults in the past week, both of which resulted in minor injuries but not unconsciousness.
One victim, Phoebe Connolly, of Brattleboro, Vt., said she was randomly punched in the face by a teenager while riding her bike during a work-related visit to Washington last Friday. Connolly, who is 32 and works with teenagers in her job, said the blow knocked her head to the side and bloodied her nose.
“I don’t know what the goal was,” she said. “There wasn’t any attempt to take anything from me.”
While some of those attacked have been white, and some suspected attackers black, experts said the incidents are more about preying on the seemingly helpless than race or religion.
“It’s about someone who is seemingly helpless, and choosing that person to target,” Butts said.
In Lower Merion, a leafy suburb near Philadelphia, two attacks may be related to the game.
“We do worry that it’s something like that … because we’ve had two similar assaults, neither one of which resulted in a robbery,” said Lt. Frank Higgins of the Lower Merion Township Police Department.
In one, two 19-year-olds were charged with knocking down a 63-year-old man out walking his dog the evening of Oct. 29. They were arrested nearby a short time later, and have been charged with assault, Higgins said. No arrests were made in the other incident from September.
Also in September in Jersey City, N.J., two 13-year-olds and a 14-year-old were charged as juveniles in the murder of 46-year-old Ralph Eric Santiago. He was found Sept. 10 with his neck broken and his head wedged between iron fence posts. Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Gene Rubino has said prosecutors believe the teens were playing the game.
In late May in Syracuse, a group of teenagers attempting to knock Michael Daniels out with a single punch wound up beating and stomping him to death, according to police. A 16-year-old was found guilty of manslaughter, and his 13-year-old co-defendant pleaded guilty to assault, admitting he started the fatal beating by trying to knock out Daniels with a single punch. Both were sentenced to 18 months behind bars.
And earlier in May, Elex Murphy, now 20, was sentenced to life in prison plus 25 years in St. Louis for killing a Vietnamese immigrant as part the game in 2011.
Juvenile delinquency experts say a good punishment for these teens would be empathy training, such as volunteering at a homeless shelter. But a New York lawmaker proposed a bill this week that would make stricter sentences not only for those who do the punching, but for those who publish images online and watch the attacks.
“These twisted and cowardly thugs are preying on innocent bystanders and they don’t care if the victims are young, old, a man or woman,” GOP state Assemblyman Jim Tedisco said. “Life isn’t a video game. These are real people whose lives are not only being put in jeopardy but in many cases destroyed.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.