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'Ryan Deserved Justice'
For more than two years, Ryan's parents stayed silent as their son's killer was prosecuted for murder. Now, in exclusive interviews with PEOPLE in this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday, they are opening up about Ryan's life and sudden death — and the headline-grabbing case that followed.
“He was caring and kind," says his mom, Rebecca Murtland. "He loved animals and tried to help anyone with a need.”
“No trial is fair when the victim cannot participate,” Rebecca says, adding, “Ryan deserved justice. He could have been saved.”
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'The Love of My Life'
Ryan grew up in Jeannette, Pennsylvania, about 40 minutes east of Pittsburgh, the son of Rebecca, 54, who works at a local nonprofit, and George Mangan Jr., 48, who owns an auto-repair shop.
His mom says he was a happy child, and he was close with both of his parents.
“He was just the love of my life, he was my everything,” George says. “We would do all kinds of stuff together, gardening in the yard, we would plant trees and other stuff, he'd always be by my side wanting to help or be there, do everything that I would do. He was special.”
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A Close-Knit Family
George says he and Ryan — his only child — were “real close.”
“He used to sit on my lap probably when he was 2 years old, even on my tractor cutting grass,” George says, adding, “Probably ever since he could walk, he was always by me or with me."
As Ryan grew older, the two would often spend their evenings outside, playing basketball. He’d help his dad around the house or in his garden. One summer he helped out at George’s shop, cleaning and painting.
More than two years after Ryan’s death, his bedroom at George's house remains almost completely unchanged, “still filled with all the things just as he left ‘em.”
"Everything I did was for him,” George says.
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Raised Catholic, Ryan was confirmed at the same church which later held his funeral mass.
His mom and dad regularly visit his grave. George says he knows Ryan is “in paradise.” Rebecca says her faith was shattered by her son's death but she recovered, in part, thanks to Christian fiction book The Shack.
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'He Told Me Everything'
Like his mom, Ryan loved being in the water, she says: “That is what me and Ryan spent our time doing in the summertime, we were water park enthusiasts.” They explored Splash Lagoon in Erie, Pennsylvania, and Kalahari in Sandusky, Ohio, and others.
Rebecca told Ryan that he had hands like Michael Phelps, which is why they were both such good swimmers.
“We were very close and he openly told me everything,” she says.
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'A Beautiful Soul'
Ryan's friends and family say he was a naturally gifted student who could earn an A without taking a book home to study. He enjoyed video games and basketball (though, his mom says, he wasn't "sporty").
“He was just a beautiful soul,” Rebecca says. “He was one of God’s beautiful souls here on earth, a nice, general, all-around good kid.”
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A Friendly Face
Ryan’s friend Desirae Krystofiak says she met him in the fifth grade, after he introduced himself to her — the new girl — in school one day.
“He was very forthcoming and he was like, 'Oh well you know, she looks really nice, let's go get to know her,’ ” she says.
Both she and Ryan's best friend, Jimmy Malik, say Ryan was well-liked but spent most of his time with a small circle of friends.
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A Life Cut Short
As a teenager, Ryan split his time between school, his friends, his parents’ homes — George and Rebecca never married and they separated when Ryan was young, but they seamlessly co-parented in the years since — as well as his part-time job at McDonald’s and volunteering at the Red Cross, which he officially joined as a volunteer when he was 14.
“I made him join that because I said, ‘If you want to be bad, then you need to do a little good,’ " Rebecca says. “So he wanted to run around and be a teenager and I told him if he wanted to do that, then he had to do a little good in his life.”
“He actually ended up really liking it,” Krystofiak says. “He liked helping people. He liked being there for someone who wasn't as fortunate as he was.”
In sharing her son’s story, Ryan’s mom stresses that he was a normal teenage boy — a “very good kid,” but with some issues, nothing unusual. “We did have some trouble with him, of course he was a teenager,” she says. “But we would have all that back today, I would take all that back today, just to have him back.”
Ryan and his parents had talked some about his future after high school (perhaps he would work with animals), but nothing was definite. “He didn't even get to turn into the person he could be or would be today,” Malik says.
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The Scene of the Murder
Before his death in 2015, Ryan had transferred to a local alternative school following a fight (for which his mom says he was not responsible). There, Ryan and another teenager named Maxwell Morton grew closer as friends. The two bonded, in part, over the first-person shooter video games they both enjoyed.
The night of Ryan’s death, he and Morton were alone at Ryan's mom’s home when, Morton later claimed, they began playing with a gun that Ryan had in Ryan’s bedroom.
Regardless of how or why, what happened next is not disputed: Max shot Ryan, hitting him once in the face and leaving him slumped and bleeding in a chair. That’s where his mom found him when she returned home after work.
By then, Morton had fled the scene with the gun. Instead of calling for help, he took a smiling self-portrait — a selfie — with Ryan’s body, which he later sent to another boy via social media.
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A 'Silly Game'?
Morton (whose family declined to speak to PEOPLE) was arrested soon after Ryan’s death and prosecutors tried him as an adult, seeking to convict him of first-degree murder in the shooting.
In an interview with PEOPLE, the district attorney described Morton’s actions as “egregious” and “reprehensible.”
But Morton and his defense attorney maintained the shooting was a tragic accident and the teen’s behavior in the aftermath, including taking the photo, was the result of panic and shock.
“In my heart of hearts, I don't think Max intended to take a life,” attorney Patrick Thomassey said. “They were playing a silly game.”
Thomassey told PEOPLE in February that Max was not familiar with firearms and that he didn’t know the gun was loaded when he pointed it at Ryan. Instead, Thomassey argued, the two were friends who were playing around.
"I really believe that if he [Morton] hadn't done what he had done afterward, with the photo and all that, and had called the police and said, ‘Look this is what we were doing, this is what happened,’ essentially what he testified to on the witness stand, I don't know if he would have been charged,” Thomassey said.
“The smiling [in the selfie] was not good, but once again I think the jury understood this is a kid,” Thomassey said. “And our kids today -- I don't get 'em.”
Those closest to Ryan took a different view of this argument. "A shooting is not just a crazy thing between teenagers, it's a homicide case,” Malik says.
“Absolutely it was not an accident in my mind,” he says, “because you don't accidentally shoot someone and take a picture.”
John Peck, the Westmoreland County district attorney, echoed that when he spoke to PEOPLE in February: “Morton left this young man to die. He could have sought help and that could have prevented his death.”
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A Murder Trial and Conviction
At Morton’s trial in February, prosecutors called a medical expert who testified that Ryan did not die immediately after he was shot and might have been saved if Morton had immediately sought help. Morton testified himself, as the lone defense witness.
Both of Ryan’s parents were in court for the proceedings, where Morton’s selfie at the scene was used as key evidence against him — and shown to the court.
“I did take a quick glance at it,” George says of that moment. “To see my son that way is just unbelievable.”
While prosecutors brought the maximum possible charge and Morton’s attorney said he was seeking a lesser conviction of involuntary manslaughter, the jury ultimately returned a guilty verdict for third-degree murder. In May, Morton was sentenced to at least 15 years in prison. In announcing her ruling, the judge underlined the importance of Morton’s actions after the shooting: failing to call for help and taking a photo with the body.
“I do have a concern about whether or not you value life and whether you respect life,” she told Morton, “And I hope you do.”
Morton's lawyer is appealing.
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Dad: 'This Isn't Justice for Him'
Ryan’s dad says he was shocked by the jury’s decision not to convict on first-degree murder. “It was like my son died all over again a second time, and I just feel that this isn’t justice for him,” George says of the verdict. “But that just shows you the way today’s society is and how screwed up this world is.”
Rebecca, too, wanted a first-degree murder conviction, but she says she is satisfied with the outcome. “I am thankful the judge realized the audacity of the crime,” she says.
At the May sentencing — where both the Mangan and Morton families made statements — the judge reflected on the scope of the loss involved:
“As a parent, I can't begin to image the pain endured by both families. It's every parent's worst nightmare.”
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'My Heart Is a Skeleton'
In court in May, Ryan’s mom shared some of her devastating grief: "Each morning I must awake and put on my happy mask. My heart is a skeleton." George says the year after Ryan’s death left both parents stunned.
“Leaving work was my hardest time of day,” Rebecca tells PEOPLE. “Because I was going home to be nobody when I really wanted to go home to be a mother.”
They have grappled with their son’s death and the aftermath in different ways. George says the conviction and sentencing are not a relief and describes the jury’s decision as a failure of justice. But he knows he has to move forward.
“I think I'm progressing faster than he [George] is, as far as overcoming the grief,” Rebecca says. “But it's always going to be there.”
Of Morton, she says, “I hope he can rehabilitate. I don't think that's gonna happen."
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Learning to Live with Grief
Just before Morton’s trial, George erected this 4-foot-by-8-foot billboard in his yard, which can be lit at night. He plans to keep the banner on it in his auto-repair shop.
“I believe Ryan has forgiven Maxwell, that's how sweet he was,” Rebecca says. “And I hope he will help me with that when we are together again.”