But instead of starting over at Radford, he had slid backward. Friends worried Aris was skipping class, drinking too much and trying hard drugs. In the Sept. 11 video, his champagne-colored eyes were foggy, half-closed and ringed with dark shadows.
Within an hour of posting the clip on Snapchat, Aris was arrested in his dorm by campus police for public intoxication. The next morning — before his family even knew he had been arrested — guards at New River Valley Regional Jail found him dead in his cell.
More than a month later, the Sept. 12 death remains a mystery, and his family is raising questions about the way the university chose to deal with Aris.
State police, who are handling the investigation, are looking into his suspected “illegal recreational drug use,” including what he might have taken and who might have given it to him, according to an affidavit for a warrant to search Aris’s phone. But a toxicology report has yet to be completed, and an autopsy did not reveal a cause of death. Radford University officials refuse to release an arrest report while the inquiry is ongoing.
More than 1,800 college students die each year of alcohol-related injuries, including car accidents, according to one widely cited study. Suicides, drug overdoses, hazing incidents and even campus shootings account for hundreds more.
“It’s much more likely that a student who is intoxicated dies in their bed,” said Kevin Kruger, president of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. “Many colleges or universities don’t have facilities to ensure that an intoxicated person will not do harm to themselves or others, so literally the safest place to be may be in detention.”
After seeing the Snapchat video, Aris’s family can’t understand why he wound up in a jail cell instead of a medical facility.
“It’s obvious that he needed to go to the hospital,” said Aris’s mother, Dixiana Perez.
Two witnesses to the arrest raised similar concerns.
“I just can’t believe the police didn’t take him to the hospital or something,” one student said in a message to a friend shortly after Aris died.
“I was one of the last people to see him other than the police and when I was talking to him before they arrested him he was foaming at the mouth and could barely open his eyes,” the student continued in the message, which was obtained by The Washington Post and confirmed by the freshman who wrote it. “But he died in the drunk tank.”
A second student also described Aris as foaming at the mouth during his arrest, according to two friends.
The school rejected their accounts.
“The University is unaware of the assertion of any ‘foaming at the mouth,’ as this was not observed by the Radford University Police Department nor was it reported to officers,” it said in a statement. “There was no indication of medical distress.”
Radford does not allow alcohol in its dorms, and the school said its resident assistants and directors are “trained to notify the police if they encounter a student suspected to be under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.”
Not all students found intoxicated at Radford are arrested. Some receive only conduct referrals, resulting in punishments that include warnings, fines and reflective writing assignments.
But students who get into trouble for alcohol at Radford are three times as likely to be arrested as students at nearby Virginia Tech. Both schools arrested 19 students for liquor law violations in 2018, according to their disciplinary records, though Virginia Tech has triple the number of students and alcohol referrals.
Radford said Aris was arrested for his own safety. But his mother believes the school failed him.
“If somebody is making bubbles at his mouth,” Dixiana said, “how can they not know something is wrong?”
'I don't like myself'
He had almost died once before.
In 2018, Aris and a date were on their way to get ice cream when their car was struck crossing a highway. The crash broke his neck, ruptured his diaphragm and shredded his spleen. Aris remained in a medically induced coma for a month. His brain trauma was so extensive he had to learn to speak and walk again.
He and his twin sister, Ariela, had been born three months early: so frail their mother thought they looked like little deer. They grew up small and thin — but fast. Ariela starred in track at Eastern View High School. Aris excelled at soccer.
He was quick-footed, quick-witted and well-liked, saying and doing goofy things that made his teammates and friends smile.
The accident changed everything. After months of rehab, Aris was able to return to high school for his senior year, but he wasn’t the same — mentally or physically.
Occasionally Aris would forget where he was going, his mother recalled. Loud noises gave him headaches. And his mood could flip from mellow to irate in an instant.
For Ariela, it was like watching her reflection warp. The twins had often raced each other growing up. But when Aris insisted on a sprint several months after the accident, he stumbled and fell, she recalled. And while Aris was sidelined from soccer, his sister was breaking track records.
“Seeing me do what I liked, it hurt that he couldn’t do what he liked,” Ariela said.
At school, some people teased Aris for the way he now spit when he talked, said Megan Moore, one of his closest friends. She watched as Aris sank into depression and lashed out at others.
“Due to my massive brain injury,” he wrote on Instagram in April, “I’ve learned that [it] causes me to react to a lot of things and be very impulsive and a dick head. They told me I’d never be the same that I’d have problems all the way till 3-5 years from now and I honestly kind of died inside when they said that [because] I don’t like myself.”
“I have 0 hope for myself anymore,” he added.
His senior quote, which prompted concern from school officials, was: “That car should’ve hit me harder.”
Hope did arrive, however, in the form of a letter.
Dixiana, a single mother from Honduras, had always urged her four children to attend college. But after the accident, Aris gave up on the idea.
“You need to fight to go to college,” Dixiana recalled telling him.
So Aris applied online, shouting with joy as he opened the envelope from Radford several months later.
“He was so proud,” Dixiana said.
But even as he prepared for college, there were signs his problems would travel with him. On June 23, a year and a day after the crash, Aris was arrested for alcohol and marijuana possession. As he was being handcuffed, he warned a Culpeper County sheriff’s deputy that “he was not the one to play with,” according to an incident report.
After a night in jail, Aris promised a cousin, Alejandro Lobo, that he was all right. But Aris’s Instagram told another story.
“If I’m not drowning myself in drugs or alcohol then I’m depressed sittin at home scheming,” he wrote a few days later.
“When I’m high I feel nothing,” he wrote in July, a month before heading to Radford. “When I’m sober I feel everything.”
'Stumbling and confused'
Dixiana worried about her son being on his own 200 miles from Culpeper. But Ariela encouraged her to give Aris some space, so she helped him set reminders on his phone to take Lexapro for his mood swings and to attend his classes. And then she tried to leave him alone.
The sports management major made friends easily those first days in Muse Hall. Early in the morning, he’d poke his curly head into Vinny Sofia’s dorm room and ask if he wanted to hang out. When they didn’t have class, the two would listen to hip-hop and play Fortnite or Call of Duty.
After about two weeks, however, Aris made new friends who lived outside the dorm with whom he began drinking more and doing drugs. A few days before his arrest, Sofia ran into him in the hallway and was startled by his appearance.
“He was stumbling and confused,” Sofia said. “It was pretty sad.”
It was around that same time that Aris suddenly moved out of his room into an off-campus apartment.
“He just left without telling anyone,” said Aris’s roommate, who did not want to be identified. “I walked into the room, and none of his stuff was there.”
When he texted Aris to ask what was going on, there was no response. On Sept. 10, the roommate was doing homework in the dorm’s common area when Aris appeared. He said he had moved out but didn’t say where or with whom.
“He seemed a little drunk,” the roommate said.
His family was unaware of his struggles. Aris was upbeat in group messages with his siblings, teasing his older sister, Jennifer, when she posted an old photo of herself.
“I know mama didn’t let her go out like that,” he wrote under a laughing emoji.
On the night of his arrest, Aris posted the video on Snapchat showing him severely intoxicated in what appeared to be an apartment about 10 p.m.
About half an hour later, a group of students was playing Uno at Muse Hall when there was a knock at the door. When the students opened it, they found a red-eyed Aris escorted by a resident assistant. Aris, who had lived next door, had mistakenly told the RA that this was his room.
“He had white stuff around his mouth,” one student told The Post. “He looked like he was high.”
That student, who would later message a friend that Aris was “foaming at the mouth,” then saw campus police step off the elevator. The other witness, who described Aris the same way to friends, declined to speak to The Post.
Asked why Aris — who had no previous disciplinary history at Radford — was arrested instead of only given a conduct referral, the university said that there was no one available to ensure his safety.
“There are limited situations in which a person would not be arrested but would be released into the care of another individual and issued a conduct referral,” the school said in a statement. “There has to be a responsible, sober adult that can care for a person under the influence for this to be considered a viable option. If there is no such person, who can supervise them until they are no longer intoxicated, they will be arrested in accordance with Virginia [law] and transported to the New River Valley Regional Jail and held until no longer intoxicated.”
The university said there were no signs Aris was in medical distress; otherwise, the officer would have called an ambulance or taken him to the hospital.
“Although he was intoxicated, he conversed with police officers and walked under his own power to the police officer’s cruiser for transport,” the school said, adding that a “small amount of greenish, plant-like material” was found in his pocket.
At the jail, a night magistrate required that Aris be held until “no longer intoxicated,” according to a commitment order.
New River Valley’s superintendent, Gregory P. Winston, declined to say whether Aris was given a medical exam upon arrival, citing the open investigation. He said Aris was put in a cell by himself, as is common for inmates held overnight to sober up.
Aris would have gone before a magistrate again that morning and probably been released, the superintendent said. Instead, half an hour after declining breakfast about 7:20 a.m., the teenager was found unresponsive in his cell.
On a cloudless Saturday morning in September, mourners streamed into Culpeper Baptist Church, across a blood-red carpet and toward a silver casket adorned with yellow flowers. Inside, Aris wore a dark suit and a bright-green bow tie.
As piano music rose to the arched ceiling, Ariela leaned down to kiss her twin, then stood and wiped away her tears.
Dixiana placed a silver stag atop the casket for the son she called her little deer. As she put her face to his silent chest, she began to sob violently.
“Why?” she cried in Spanish, pulling Aris’s lifeless hands up to her face. “My beautiful boy. Why?”
A large photo of Aris next to his casket captured him posing in a Radford T-shirt. Others showed him and his twin sister over the years, from tiny bundles in Dixiana’s arms to high school graduates in caps and gowns.
“Half of me died with you,” Ariela said in her eulogy. “I honestly don’t know how I’m going to live without you.”
At the cemetery, as the pastor delivered a final prayer beneath a blue tent, Dixiana shook in her seat, clutching the silver stag.
“The last thing I ask of you is to know the truth about your death,” she said, talking to her son as his coffin sank into the earth.
When most of the mourners had left, Ariela dropped to her knees and stared down into the chasm. Soon she was joined by her siblings and then Dixiana.
One by one, they kissed the flowers they held over the open grave, then let go.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.