Like nearly every day of his adult life, the Saturday Freddy Buhl died was laid bare for the world to see.
LOL I got ambushed by a mob of girls! was his first tweet that day, sent just after midnight from Fusion Ultra-Lounge in the U District, where he was being feted as special guest.
The messages continued to stream into the early morning, snapshots of a boozy night at the club that began with gunfire in the parking lot.
OMFG this party is so turnt. I’m fuxkin loaded!
Niggas shootin’ in the air. Y’all ain’t ‘bout that life
Each of Buhl’s messages went out to about 150,000 followers, most of whom knew him as Freddy E, a wisecracking comedian whose YouTube videos had become common currency in certain youth circles. Buhl had been making videos under the moniker for years, deftly channeling the brassy humor and sensibilities of the undergrad set. Buhl spent hours in front of his computer’s camera, giving hyperactive and humorous rants about everything from Obama to tattoos to YOLO. He edited each of these free-form performances into five-minute collections of his best bits, then tirelessly hawked the videos around the web. The pieces were so vulgar at times that his Christian, Stanford-educated parents cringed and urged restraint. He told them that he was only doing what it took to get noticed in the entertainment business. He had the swelling fan base to prove he was on to something.
By the time he was being mobbed by women on Northeast 45th Street, YouTube was sending checks every month—some as much as $1,000—in exchange for the hundreds of thousands of views his videos received. That money came on top of his income from freelance videography, a fledgling career that had started even before he’d graduated from Seattle Art Institute with an associate’s degree in video and digital production. He’d subsidize his nightlife by producing promotional videos for special club nights in exchange for drinks.
A performer hitting his stride, Buhl was soaking it up. At the outset of the new year, he was barely sleeping. He went to bars, recorded rap tracks, and partied in downtown hotels he rented with his earnings. He turned 22 on New Year’s Day, adding to the celebratory fervor.
Early on January 5, the day that began with a mob of girls, the tweets kept flowing.
I’m STILL HERE BITCH.
Tonight was crazy turnt.
This stardom shit ain’t easy . . .
As he broadcast to the world from his phone, he was amplified by followers, each tweet setting off small viral spasms across the Internet.
As the hours wore on, though, his short notes took on a darker edge. Around 4:30 in the morning he wrote:
At times I feel too different for this planet.
Things only got worse as dawn broke. Sochitta Sal, a Toronto rapper better known as Honey Cocaine who’s an even bigger online personality with 470,000 Twitter followers, began to scorn Buhl publicly. She told him to stop flirting with her on Facebook and mentioning her in his tweets.
He pleaded with her, again on Twitter for everyone to read. For two months the Internet celebrities had engaged in a public courtship of sorts. What had changed? he wondered out loud to his followers. Then he started talking about heartbreak. Around noon he tweeted:
It doesn’t get worse than this.
That afternoon, during the time investigators now know Buhl left the Renton home he shared with his mother, father, and sister Katherine to borrow a bolt-action rifle from a high-school friend, the Twitter feed never went silent for too long. He kept talking about the unbearable pain that comes with young heartbreak. Then the tweets became morbid:
It’s . . . all . . . bad . . . y’all. *puts finger around trigger*
Love you mom.
Love you dad.
Love you Katherine.
After that, the unstoppable chatter of Freddy E stopped. He had killed himself in the parking lot of his family’s apartment complex. His final message, “I’m sorry,” was retweeted more than 10,000 times.
In the days that followed, national media ran tabloid-grade stories about the suicide, focusing on the macabre aspects of the death and Buhl’s connections to Honey Cocaine. For most Seattleites, including many of the city’s cultural critics, the salacious stories on E! Online and Buzzfeed were the first they’d ever heard of the 22-year-old who’d built the kind of fan base performers dream of attaining. The short story The Seattle Times ran the day after his death was the first time “Freddy E” had ever appeared in that paper. Same goes for The Stranger, in which Larry Mizell Jr. wrote a thoughtful plea for anyone feeling depressed to seek help. Until now, Buhl’s name never appeared in this paper.
Instead, while Buhl was a fixture at local clubs, his greatest fame existed in online realms unmoored from a region—including WorldStarHipHop, a hugely influential website that draws 1.1 million unique visitors a day. Using that site, YouTube, and Twitter as portals, the artist won fans across the globe—most of them women—with his singular wit and charm.
But Buhl also faced demons. Some of them were personal: He could be overemotional with women, a trait that earned him a restraining order from an ex-girlfriend in 2011. Other challenges were those of young men playing tug-of-war between responsibility and the follies of youth. Some troubles were due to the fact he was an African-American man from South Seattle, where the psychological trauma of witnessing a shooting is more common: Buhl witnessed, in the course of four years, the shooting deaths of two friends, including one whom he held in his arms as he bled.
On January 5, the demons led one of Seattle’s most promising young artists to a deadly intersection of depression, alcohol, and readily available firearms. And his fans watched it all happen on their mobile phones.
Buhl’s father, Frederick Douglas Buhl, is a large, bespectacled man who sports a neat pencil mustache and drives a gold Chrysler 300.
Trained as a Baptist minister, he speaks emphatically in a clean tenor, a voice he says his son inherited and used when at home and not hamming it up for the camera. He punctuates his points with gregarious bursts of laughter and draws deep, audible breaths when grasping for the words to describe his son.
Frederick Buhl met Freddy’s mother, Jamie, when they were both undergraduates at Stanford. He grew up in L.A.’s Watts district, raised by a single mother who, despite her flaws, instilled in her children a deep respect for education. Jamie was raised on Beacon Hill, her father an engineer at Boeing.
Freddy was born in California, but the family moved to western Washington in 1993 when the boy was 2 and a half years old. Their daughter, Katherine, came soon after.
Katherine, now a student at Seattle University, says her brother was quiet as a kid, shy and caring. They lived typical childhoods on Beacon Hill, watching the Japanese cartoons that became all the rage in the 1990s at their grandparents’ house after school.
“Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z, we loved all that stuff,” she recalls. At Nathan Eckstein Middle School, Freddy studied Japanese, deepening his interest in the culture.
Jamie Buhl’s parents still live in the Beacon Hill house they built upon moving here from Chicago: a tidy split-level, its walls crammed with photos of grandchildren. On their bedroom wall hangs a self-portrait Freddy drew when he was 10 years old, its careful shading indicative of a precocious artist. On a coffee-table shelf sits a bound book of the comic strip, Animal Parade, that Freddy drew as a teenager. The 85-page book speaks to the work ethic the boy brought to his crafts.
With his kids growing up in a more stable home than he’d ever known as a child, a tireless Frederick Douglas Buhl was making a name for himself in the Seattle area. He continued the banking career he’d begun as a student in Stanford, and became involved in so many organizations that Times columnist Jerry Large profiled him in 1995, chronicling his rise from a troubled home in inner-city L.A. to student-body president at Stanford to serving in five civic organizations while working as a bank branch manager.
Buhl was inspired, he told Large, by his two younger brothers. Both were good students like him, but they were seized by drugs and crime before they could get their lives off the ground. He saw the same pattern play out again and again with poor black kids in California and Seattle, and he wanted to do something to break the cycle.
“These are brilliant young people in business for themselves—selling drugs,” he told Large. “They looked for adult mentors and found men to teach them. They taught them to be criminals, taught them ‘The system doesn’t care about you. In my system, you can be a VP.’ ”
Buhl says he was constantly worried that his own children would follow his brothers’ paths, and early on in his fatherhood saw how biting the world could be for a young black kid like his son.
When the Times piece came out, Buhl was working at a bank in Eastgate near Bellevue. Freddy, 5, was starting kindergarten at a predominately white grade school.
Driving north on Interstate 5 in his Chrysler, Buhl recalls the time Freddy came home from school crying. The children had been told to color a picture of Abraham Lincoln, he told his dad, and he’d colored the 16th president’s face brown, just like his own.
“All the other kids laughed at him, told him there had never been a president who looked like that,” Buhl says, drawing a huge breath in exasperation. “I told him, ‘Look, Freddy, that’s true. But Abraham Lincoln had a friend named Frederick Douglass, who was brown. And Frederick Douglass would go to the White House and eat with Abraham Lincoln.”
Frederick Douglas Buhl looked at his son, Frederick Eugene. “And maybe someday there will be a brown president. Freddy, that could be you.”
The younger Buhl, though, had no interest in politics. It was art that captured his imagination.
“He was into drawing, illustration . . . always walking around with a video camera, capturing footage,” says Ruben Martinez Wilcox, a close friend who met Buhl at orientation before their first day of school at Nathan Hale High School in Meadowbrook.
Wilcox was from the Central District, but his mom didn’t want him going to high school in the neighborhood. So she sent him to Nathan Hale instead.
Arriving at school that day, he felt a little out of place. “There were no, uh, black people,” he says with a chuckle as he sits in a Capitol Hill cafe, “no people of diversity.”
Then he saw Buhl, noticing less his race than his jacket—the exact same South Pole design Wilcox had on.
They became fast friends.
Through high school, the two encouraged each other’s art. Wilcox liked still photography, Buhl video. Wilcox was good at hardware—he’s now interning as an IT technician at a downtown investment center—while Buhl could teach anyone to become a whiz at Adobe Photoshop.
The pair created a YouTube channel in 2006, giving Buhl the first taste of the audience the web offered. His user name was Garyosk543. It was supposed to be Garyoak543, after the Pokémon character Gary Oak, but Buhl mistyped and stuck with it.
The early shows were what you’d imagine a high-schooler’s videos would be: unedited trains of thought, largely focusing on crushes. In a few videos he had a cute female co-star, Jade, who did most of the talking while Buhl sat in the back, shy but confident.
Meanwhile, Buhl produced videos for classes and drew his comics, a number of them appearing in Nathan Hale’s student newspaper, The Sentinel.
While some Animal Parade strips were light vignettes in the mold of The Far Side, others were insightful reflections of a black student’s experience at Nathan Hale—for example, a strip showing a white student trying to talk hip-hop jive to a nonplussed African-American student who continues to use proper English.
“They were quite sophisticated,” recalls newspaper adviser Ted Lockery. “He wasn’t shy about taking on issues of race or adult authority. . . He was willing to poke fun, but his humor was coming from a place of experience and wanting to raise awareness around issues of race and culture.”
But while Buhl was able to find humor in racial issues, they also weighed heavily on him. He felt increasing pressure from his peers to prove his street cred, his stable home and middle-class upbringing becoming almost a burden.
Buhl stopped studying Japanese after other black students at Nathan Hale teased him, according to his family, saying people of his race didn’t speak the language.
He also began to speak English differently.
“I’d call him multilingual,” his father says. “He began speaking like he was from the street. He wanted to reach that audience, so he learned to speak that language.”
Buhl had no police record to speak of other than a string of traffic infractions, and no evidence suggests Buhl was involved in criminal activity. A post-mortem toxicology report found no drugs in his system. Yet he had repeatedly witnessed extreme acts of violence.
In 2009, he was in Leschi with friend Aaron Sullivan when the latter was shot and killed by Tristan Appleberry after two groups of teenagers got in a fight over a girl. Appleberry shot Sullivan in the back of the head with an assault rifle as the victim sat in his car. Family members say Buhl was just outside the vehicle and saw the shooting. Calling the murder an “unjustified execution,” prosecutors say Appleberry didn’t even know Sullivan when he fired the shot that killed the 19-year-old, only that their groups of friends were feuding.
After witnessing the murder, Buhl got a tattoo on his back—a large angel’s wing with Sullivan’s name on it, the first of two such tattoos he would get.
The second came in 2012 after gunfire erupted outside Club X in SoDo. Police say a dispute broke out between two groups of people around 3:30 a.m. As Buhl’s friend Desmond Jackson stepped in to break up the fight, four shots rang out. Jackson, hit multiple times, died later at Harborview Medical Center.
Police investigations found no evidence that either Sullivan or Jackson had been involved in any crimes or activities associated with gun violence when they were shot and killed. As Seattle Deputy Police Chief Nick Metz told Seattle Weekly last year, Jackson had “no indication of criminal gang activity on his part.”
“I think sometimes it’s easier for the community at large that when a young African-American man is murdered, there can be an immediate assumption on some people’s part that he must have been a gang member . . . This was a good kid. No record, not even a parking ticket. He was just out with friends and having a good time.”
Buhl’s family says he cradled Jackson in his arms after the man was shot, and showed signs of post-traumatic stress after the killing: He was drinking heavily—self-medication, his father says—and sleeping only three hours a night. Almost 11 months after Jackson’s death, Buhl told his family he was still struggling to get past it.
“Just before he died, Freddy had a root-canal issue, and he had a keloid in his ear, and he was dealing with what I believe was PTSD from Desmond’s death,” his father says. “He went to a dentist for the tooth. He went to the doctor for the ear. He never saw anyone about his mind.”
A growing body of research suggests that post-traumatic stress disorder—a known precursor of suicide—does impact victims of urban violence. As John Rich, a doctor at Drexel University, told a Philadelphia public-radio station, “Like combat veterans who have been in military theater, these young men are jumpy, they have nightmares, they have flashbacks, they feel completely numb.”
Despite this tumult, Buhl continued to hone his skills, receiving a degree with commendations from Seattle Art Institute. Around 2010, he branded his YouTube show Jerk TV. The name evoked the character he sought to portray: a straight-talker not afraid to come off as insensitive while parodying the world around him. To portray the jerk, he shed his clean tenor for a higher-pitched, flamboyant voice he used to chatter about sex, drugs, and life as a 20-something in Seattle. “On the YouTube, it was m-f this and m-f that,” remembers his father. “I’d urge him, ‘Freddy, maybe don’t use that kind of language. Freddy, maybe don’t share so much on the Internet.’ But he said that’s what it took. I felt like Richard Pryor’s father.”
Wilcox says Buhl was intensely focused on finding and replicating what made other performers successful. “He’d look at the artists in the game who made the most money, then he’d focus on what they did best and try to do what they did,” he says. “He wanted to make as much money as he could for his family. He was very family-oriented.” In December he tweeted:
Just filled my mom’s fridge with groceries. What did you do today?
His video format was simple: He spoke straight into the camera and edited the footage to make his jokes come rapid-fire at the viewer, often while he was wearing wigs and costumes mimicking obnoxious women or moronic street thugs.
Knowing his dad was uneasy with some of his work, Buhl urged him to watch a specific episode in which he compared Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.
“That one I enjoyed,” his dad says, urging others to view it to understand that Jerk TV wasn’t all “Exes and Hoes,” as another episode was titled. The Obama piece is at times hyperbolic, with quick cuts to images of Nazis marching when the topic turns to Romney. At times sharp, it includes a dead-on imitation of Obama that eluded comedians of higher stature. That Buhl does the impression while rapping makes it all the more impressive.
“I need y’all to vote. Don’t vote for Barack Obama just because he’s black. That’s just plain ignorance. But don’t vote for Mitt Romney. That’s just plain stupid,” he tells his audience. With 104,000 views and 3,400 likes, it’s one of the less-popular videos he released last October.
Far more popular that month was “Virgin Girls vs. Experienced Girls,” which now has 346,000 views (Jerk TV altogether tallies more than 12 million), and shows how raunchy his shtick could get. “How we going to date without you letting me hit it?” he asks the camera incredulously. “That’s like buying a car without test-driving it. Now some of you bitches are letting every nigga in the hood test-drive it. OG be doing donuts in that pussy. I need the Carfax on that ho.”
Crass as some of these jokes may seem, more than 2,000 comments have been posted below the video, cheering his work. A typical one: “Lmao Freddy E. Is A clown yo. None other like’em. And his Smile and Laughs? P R I C E L E S S <3”
If an episode really hit, he could receive checks from YouTube for $1,000, remuneration for the ads that would roll before spots. In other months, the payments were closer to $600.
Buhl put hours of work into the videos, but spent an equal amount of time pimping that work across the web. As Wilcox put it, he had a “hustler’s ambition, in a legal way.”
Another friend, Armando Valadez, says friends came to dub these fits of self-promotion “Freddy E moments.” “He’d come in all excited, ‘I just got a hundred more followers on Twitter!’ or whatever,” Valadez recalls with a laugh.
When Buhl began freelancing for WorldStarHipHop, he quickly used his position to leverage his own work, gaining fans in the UK and beyond.
Buhl was producing live video, too, going to clubs and shooting footage that could be used to promote the establishments. That led to him emceeing some shows and showing up on flyers for club nights.
“He’d be on the mike all night, giving shout-outs to people, saying happy birthday,” said Juan Hernandez, a DJ who performs under the name DJ Equis and partnered with Buhl for many shows. “He was good at creating a buzz. If he was on a flyer, a lot of people would want to go and hang out. And I’d say a lot of them were females.”
Indeed, he was never too busy to charm women. His Twitter feed saw a constant stream of flirtation between him and his female fans, including the Cambodian-Canadian rapper known as Honey Cocaine.
Well before he was pleading with Sochitta Sal to take him back, Buhl already had a troubled history with women, well documented by two petitions for protection filed by an ex-girlfriend.
The first request came in 2009, in which the woman claimed Buhl had made suicidal statements to her after they’d broken up. The petition was dropped and the two got back together for a time, only for things to fall apart again. In her second request for protection, filed in 2011, she claimed Buhl had fired a .22 caliber rifle while they were on the phone together. After the gunshot, she said, he told her he had tried to shoot himself in the head but missed.
Also submitted into evidence was a stream of nasty tweets Buhl had posted about the woman—his Twitter life already coming into bloom.
In court papers, Buhl denied some of the woman’s claims, but admitted to having the .22 for target practice at a Maple Valley gun range. He wrote that at the urging of his father, he’d sold the weapon. (Frederick Buhl said the restraining order was the first he knew about the gun.) Buhl also claimed that the woman, whom Seattle Weekly has chosen not to identify, had fabricated many of her claims to damage his fledgling career, retaliation for derogatory statements he’d made about her on his YouTube channel.
The protection order was granted.
More than a year later, Buhl met Sal when the Toronto rapper was in town for a performance at the Belltown nightclub Tia Lou’s in November 2012. As Wilcox tells it, Buhl was shooting video of the performance—he was almost always shooting video at that point—after which Sal approached the videographer to compliment him on his T-shirt. Later on her tour, Sal flew Buhl down to Austin to travel with her, going from Texas to Louisiana, family members say.
The trip was purely for pleasure, but beyond Buhl’s attraction to Sal, the relationship had obvious implications for his career. Sal is signed to Last Kings Records, a label founded by the rapper Tyga—the artist responsible for the chart-topping track “Rack City”—and was touring with artists of even bigger repute. Sal came through Seattle again in December, this time touring with another Internet sensation, Kreayshawn (“Gucci Gucci”). Buhl and Wilcox gave Sal a ride to Neumos for the show.
But apart from these jet-set meet-ups, the couple’s relationship was virtual, much of it on Twitter for fans to enjoy. By then, Buhl was sending out 50, 80, 100 micromessages a day to his growing roster of followers.
Sochitta is mine. :)
I’m still stuck on the fact that Sochitta thought Bambi was a reindeer lmao.
Ain’t nothing like Sochitta’s voice to wake you up in the morning. I haven’t been back to sleep yet lol
Likewise, when things went south on January 5, much of the fight was out in the public eye.
Though Sal has deleted many of the tweets from that day, her texts to him, acquired by Seattle Weekly, suggest that she thought he was untrustworthy and was using their relationship to feed his ambition.
“I wish more than anything he would have come talked to us about what he was going through,” his father says, “so that I could have said, ‘Well, Freddy, would you have rather she waited until you were married with two kids to tell you this?’ ”
As news spread about Buhl’s death, many fans blamed Sal for his suicide, an assertion Buhl’s family says is unfair. Still, Frederick Buhl is mystified by the way Sal has reacted to his son’s suicide. She told some media that she and Buhl were close friends who shared everything. But later, in an interview with MTV about the death, Sal downplayed their relationship, calling Buhl a “fan” with a small following of his own. E-mails to Sal’s representatives seeking comment were not returned.
Buhl’s death caused such a stir in the celebrity-media world that Tyga too was asked about it in a video. In that interview, from the floor of Madison Square Garden before a Knicks game, Tyga seems annoyed. He’d never met or even heard of Freddy E until one of his artists was implicated in his suicide. “I gotta start making my album and it throws me off what I’m doing, trying to address little stuff like that,” he says before offering condolences and encouraging the distraught to seek help.
Thinking about that interview and Buhl’s “Freddy E” moments, Valadez cracks a sad smile. “If Freddy were here, he’d be going crazy that Tyga talked about him.”
Today, Frederick Douglas Buhl walks about with two cell phones—one his, the other his son’s.
As news spread around the Internet that Freddy E had live-tweeted his suicide, tweets and text messages streamed into the phone, futilely pleading with the young man to say it wasn’t so.
After a while, Buhl took to his son’s accounts and began to send messages. “He gathered all these people together. They’ve been waiting for him. And I have to say sorry,” he says.
As the voice changed from the crass playfulness of Freddy E to a mournful Frederick Douglas Buhl, thousands of people clicked “unfollow”—the Twitter account has since lost 20,000 followers. But others messaged back about how much his son had meant to them. One young woman asked if she could call him “Dad.” Buhl’s mouth gapes in perplexity recalling that.
During a recent morning service at First A.M.E. church, Frederick Buhl was invited to the pulpit to share his son’s story—his passions, the violence he’d witnessed, and the plans they are now making in the hope of preventing other young people from taking their own lives.
He intends to create a Freddy E. Buhl Center for the Prevention of Suicide, he told the congregation. The Center, he said, would work with established suicide-prevention organizations to better use social media in their efforts.
In the meantime, he, Jamie, and Katherine have chatted with more than 1,000 of Freddy E’s fans, some of whom have contemplated suicide (Buhl says his family believes they have forestalled three suicides since his son’s death). One fan, he said, contacted him after she’d tried to hang herself in her closet and woke up in a hospital, as several of her friends had done. “She was surrounded by family, social media such as Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and phone calls, yet she felt very alone and lonely,” he said. “And very depressed.”
The experience, he says, has convinced him that social media has drawn young people apart, deprived them of a human element of interaction vital for those in crisis. “They’re trying to do it through Twitter and texting, and they’re missing something. There’s something missing from our technology.
“Lots of young people think just connecting over the Internet is enough,” Buhl says, drawing his breath in thought. “But is it?”