UTICA, New York ― The chatroom was populated by a motley crew of teens and young adults, spread out from California to Tennessee to Massachusetts. They didn’t know each other independently, but they were brought together by a single, unifying force: bright, effervescent 17-year-old Bianca Devins.
The teenager from Utica, New York, loved her cats and had a way of creating community. Her friends ― most of whom she’d never met in real life ― gathered on her server on Discord, a messaging app for gamers, to discuss true crime, talk about cryptozoology, play Minecraft and dish about their daily plans.
Bianca, who was tall and slender, could come across as shy in person, even a little awkward. At Thomas R. Proctor High School, she often retreated to the art room to work on projects during lunch. Albert Shaw, her teacher for three years, said she stood out as a naturally gifted artist. “Whatever she did, it was amazing,” he said. “It was always the best in the class.”
Online, uninhibited by anxiety, her creativity shone. She sent her friends silly homemade videos set to music and posted artistic selfies with quirky compositions ― her face surrounded by skulls and bats, or paired with ironic text. She often switched up her look, experimenting with pink hair and dramatic makeup. She liked modeling but her long-term plan was to get a degree in psychology so she could help adolescents with mental illness, which she struggled with herself. She was set to attend Mohawk Valley Community College in the fall.
On Saturday, just two weeks after her high school graduation, Bianca headed to New York City to see one of her favorite singers, Nicole Dollanganger, whose dark songs tackle self-harm and depression. Bianca had invited a handful of people from her group chat but ended up going with only one, Brandon Clark, 21. They went to the show, driving several hours there and back again in one night.
Clark was one of Bianca’s IRL friends, and he lived an hour from her. On Discord, he mostly posted about “macabre stuff and murder suicides,” said Bianca’s friend Jared, 18. None of her online friends wished to use their real names in this article because they were afraid of internet harassment, and they are all being identified by pseudonyms.
Like most mornings, Jared, who lives in a small town in southern Utah, logged in to Bianca’s group chat on Sunday to see what he’d missed overnight.
There, posted 15 minutes earlier, was a photo of Bianca’s body. From the gaze in her eyes and the extensive injuries, it was obvious she was dead.
On his own social media accounts, Clark was busy telling a story seemingly calculated for maximum exposure. He uploaded pictures of himself and Bianca’s body and declared his intention to kill himself. As police arrived to apprehend him on a secluded street in Utica, he continued to snap photos and post them online.
He even left a message at the scene, police said: The words “May you never forget me” were spray-painted on the pavement, an apparent reference to a manga about a toxic relationship that both he and Bianca liked.
Photos of the violence were shared and reshared online, then modified and shared some more. By the time #RIPBIANCA began to trend, a teenage girl’s death had gone viral. The internet, a place where she’d found friends and community, had turned on her.
In the immediate aftermath of her death, certain narratives, sticky as rice, began to emerge. Everyone wanted Bianca’s death to mean something.
Some claimed Bianca was a semi-famous internet celebrity who had been stalked by someone she met online. Others said her killer was an incel, a member of an internet subculture that resents women for not having sex with them. And some said her death was a prime example of teen domestic violence, unique only because of the viral posts. (Nearly half of all murders of U.S. women are perpetrated by intimate partners: boyfriends, husbands and lovers. Ninety percent of teens killed by dating partners are girls.)
The truth is still being excavated. What is known is that Bianca was not famous; she had a small number of followers online. And there are conflicting reports on her connection to Clark. According to one of Bianca’s sisters, he was a trusted and close family friend. The police said they met on Instagram and had been dating for at least two months. Friends who spoke to HuffPost said Clark sometimes gave her drugs to get her to hang out with him. At least one friend worried that Clark, four years older than Bianca, was taking advantage of her sexually while they were high.
Police have not yet declared a motive in the killing and few details have been publicly released. But some clues can be found in Bianca’s online correspondence from Saturday night. According to a chat log reviewed by HuffPost, she told a friend she had met up with another guy she was interested in, and kissed him in front of Clark. It made him mad, she wrote.
Clark and Bianca left Trans-Pecos, a small music venue and coffee shop in Queens, New York, late in the evening to make the four-hour drive back to Utica. It is unclear what route they took; police are working on obtaining toll records to track their movement. But Bianca was dead by early Sunday morning, allegedly killed inside Clark’s car.
When Jared first saw the photo of Bianca’s body, he was in shock. “I wanted so hard to believe it was fake and an elaborate prank,” he said.
It’s not particularly unusual to see a photo of a dead body in a chat about true crime, he added. But the girl looked too much like Bianca. Someone in the group did a reverse image search to find out where it came from, and they examined the timestamp. The photo was brand-new.
Jared called 911 to report the photo to the police about an hour after he first saw it. Soon after, Clark, who was by then parked in Utica, also called the police and said he was going to harm himself. The police traced the call and found Clark lying on the ground next to his car. Once the cops arrived, he started to stab himself in the neck, according to a police statement. Then he went over to a green tarp that was on the ground and laid down on top of it.
Bianca’s body was underneath. Clark took a selfie with his slit throat and posted it to Snapchat, writing, “ashes to ashes,” the tarp visible below him.
How to interpret an act like that? He laid down on top of her body as though they were star-crossed lovers, destined to end their lives in each other’s arms. It looked like a demonstration of control. This is mine now. And forever.
Clark was transported to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where he had surgery. He was released from the hospital on Thursday and transferred to the Oneida County jail. He has been charged with second-degree murder, a felony punishable by up to 25 years to life in prison. His public defender did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Those Left Behind
Bianca’s high school,a large brick building from the 1930s, is located a short walk from the street where her body was found. On a recent day, students came in and out of the front office to pick up transcripts, joking with the staff as workers were cleaning out classrooms. Life was carrying on. The door to the art room, one of Bianca’s real-life refuges, was closed. All week, the school was offering counseling to students who wanted it.
The night before, some students and teachers had attended a vigil for Bianca. The crowd chanted “love, not violence” over and over, and sang along to “Puff The Magic Dragon.”
Her family has asked for privacy and declined to comment for this story. Her funeral is scheduled for Friday, and her family has set up a fund in her name to provide scholarships to students pursuing a degree in psychology, so that her dream could be realized by others.
Bianca’s mother, Kimberly Devins, said in a statement that the family was devastated. “My heart is completely shattered, having lost my best friend,” she said. “We will always remember her beautiful smile that lit up our lives.”
The fact that strangers were still sharing photos of Bianca’s dead body online ― and that social media platforms appeared powerless to stop it ― added insult to injury. Instagram has faced criticism for its sluggish response, and pictures of Bianca’s dead body were still popping up on the platform as of Wednesday.
“It is absolutely disgusting that people are sharing, screenshoting the pictures of Bianca’s tragedic death!! Wtf is wrong with you people!!??” her stepmother, Kaleigh Nicole Rimmer, wrote on Facebook. “I have seen the pictures. I will FORVER have those images in my mind when I think of her. When I close my eyes, those images haunt me.”
Meanwhile, Clark’s family has grappled with the accusations against their loved one.
Jason Clark, his father, offered an apology to Bianca’s family in an interview with local media and said his son’s home life had been dysfunctional at times. It’s unclear whether he was alluding to his own record of domestic violence, which shares startling similarities to his son’s alleged crime. In 2010, Jason Clark held his wife hostage with a knife for 10 hours and threatened to slit her throat, according to court documents obtained by CNYCentral. His son was around 12 at the time.
James Ward, one of Clark’s siblings, struggled with his feelings in an Instagram post. “I love you, my best friend, we finally got close after a shitty childhood, I am who I am because of you,” he wrote. “I hate you. You took away so many peoples opportunities in life. Hers, yours. Friends. Families.”
Less than 3 miles from the high school, Bianca’s friend Tom, 22, sat in a McDonald’s, unable to eat.
It was the place where Tom, who is also not being identified by his real name, said he first went with Bianca after they stumbled upon each other on 4chan two months ago. Within a few minutes of their first messages, they realized they both lived in South Utica. They’d gone to the same elementary school and high school, but they hadn’t met because of their age difference. They bonded over their struggle with mental health issues, he said.
In person, they instantly clicked. Bianca was funny and sensitive and profoundly bored by the lack of things to do in Utica — just like him. Tom said he’d last seen Bianca on the Fourth of July, when they’d gone swimming in his pool and listened to music together. He played Hall & Oates; she wanted to listen to trap music. A normal day. Now, he couldn’t go online without seeing pictures of his dead friend.
On 4chan, which Bianca and Tom both grew up using, users gleefully shared images of her dead body, begged for video, and called her vile names. Tom said he was disturbed to see his community turn on her so quickly, though not surprised.
4chan is known as the cesspool of the internet, a hub for misogynists and members of the so-called alt-right. Nothing is off-limits, not even mocking a teenage girl. Users were latching on to screenshots of stupid stuff Bianca had done online when she was younger, Tom said, as if anything she could have said or done would justify what happened to her.
“They are demonizing a 17-year-old girl,” he said.
But he, too, showed signs of being influenced by 4chan culture. Girls need stronger male role models in their lives, he said. And they need to take fewer risks. He thought teaching men to be less violent was essentially futile.
Tom was concerned with what Bianca could have done to avoid being killed, although he stressed she was not to blame. Missing from his analysis was Clark himself. Tom did not recognize toxic masculinity as the central problem.
He was also frustrated with the media, which he said got many facts wrong about Bianca. It was especially galling to see her death being blamed on an internet stranger, he said. The internet was where she found community. The real danger came from a person she knew. Someone she trusted.
A Safe Space
After the photo went viral, Bianca’s Discord server was inundated with trolls, and her real friends had to move somewhere else to talk. They made a new group chat and supported each other on an almost minute-to-minute basis.
Mostly, they shared memories of how Bianca made them feel. Less alone. Loved. Safe. Understood. Appreciated.
They also talked about the internet culture they were living and breathing, how it bred misogyny and how it might be connected to Bianca’s death. What it means to spend time in spaces where women are devalued and dehumanized, and where violence is ordinary.
Claire, 19, said she started talking with Bianca two years ago. They bonded over their experiences with older, abusive men on 4chan. They had both started using the site at a young age, when they were lonely and looking for friends. What happened next was textbook, Claire said. They attracted men who wanted young, “innocent” girls to obsess over. As soon as the girls did anything to break that image, like find a boyfriend or have sex, the spell was broken and the men would retaliate, using anything they had to hurt them, including posting intimate photos of them or their chat logs without permission.
“It is really damaging to young girls,” Claire said, referring to the unending harassment buoyed by trolls who resurface old photos over and over and over again. “And it continues on for years.”
She said she was pretty sure she knew what Clark meant when he posted that picture of Bianca and said no one could “orbit” her anymore.
“He wanted her to himself,” she said. “He wanted to be the last person to have her.”
Karla, 18, who lives in Tennessee, said she met Bianca on Instagram. She also credited Bianca with helping her through a difficult time with a man she met online.
“She’d had experience with people like him, people who manipulate and harass younger girls. And she helped me get away from him,” she said. “That’s one of the things I’m most grateful for.”
In recent exchanges, Karla said Bianca was really excited to turn 18. (She would have celebrated her birthday on Oct. 2.)
“She talked about that a lot,” Karla said, trying not to cry.
Karla wanted to go to Bianca’s funeral but she didn’t have the money for it. But other teens in the group were scrambling to organize transport. Claire was taking a bus from Pennsylvania. Another friend was driving up from Boston. Jared was flying in from Las Vegas. Tom would be waiting for them.
It was odd that their first meeting IRL would be under these circumstances, they said, but in a sense, it was the perfect way to honor Bianca. She brought people together.
Hayley Miller and Nick Robins-Early contributed reporting.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.