There is no way to talk about 16-year-old Ryan Mangan without also talking about how he died.
On the night of Feb. 4, 2015, his mom, Rebecca Murtland, returned to their home in Jeannette, Pennsylvania, to find Ryan dead in a chair in his bedroom. He’d been shot once in the face, about an hour earlier, and his body was still warm.
Briefly, Murtland thought that her son had killed himself — but she didn’t see a gun nearby. Within days, she learned the truth: Ryan had been murdered by another teenager, 16-year-old Maxwell Morton, who left Ryan to die as his lungs filled with blood. He called Ryan his friend.
Prosecutors described Morton’s behavior as “egregious” and unsuccessfully sought a first-degree murder conviction, but Morton claimed it was a tragic accident while the two played with a handgun that Ryan had in his room. His attorney told PEOPLE that Morton didn’t realize the weapon was loaded when he pointed it at the other boy.
What’s not disputed is what Morton did after he pulled the trigger: He took a smiling selfie with Ryan, with Ryan’s body slumped and bleeding in the background, and then he fled.
He did not call for help.
For more than two years, Ryan’s death and Morton’s subsequent prosecution have made headlines — stirring debate about the arguments made by both prosecutors and the defense — while Ryan’s parents, George Mangan Jr. and Rebecca Murtland, declined to speak publicly out of deference to the ongoing legal process.
Now, in exclusive interviews with PEOPLE in this week’s issue, Ryan’s parents are opening up about the teenage boy left for dead in what became known as the “selfie murder.”
• For more from Ryan Mangan’s parents on his life, death and the court case that followed, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.
There are a few things George and Rebecca say again and again about their son: He was generous, he was kind, he was smart. He had hobbies and passions — he liked basketball and video games and he loved animals — but no definite future plans.
He was going to turn 17 only a few weeks after he was killed. He was still learning to drive.
“You don’t fully know who you are at 16,” says Ryan’s best friend, Jimmy Malik.
Ryan’s parents say that growing up in Jeannette, he was a sweet-natured boy who started following his dad around at an early age. “Probably ever since he could walk he was always by me or with me,” George says.
“We would do all kinds of stuff together,” he says. “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.”
Both George and Rebecca were close to Ryan. In the summers, he and his mom would explore water parks and when Ryan stayed with his dad, they would often go out in the evenings to play basketball by the house. (George and Rebecca never married and separated when Ryan was young, but they both say they co-parented without issue.)
When Ryan died, he’d been working part-time at McDonald’s for about a year, says friend Desirae Krystofiak. Though he helped at George’s auto-repair shop, this was his first “have-to-pay-taxes job,” she says.
He also made time to volunteer at the local Red Cross, which he officially joined at 14 years old. And though he was pushed toward it at first by his mom, that wasn’t why he kept volunteering, Krystofiak says.
“He actually ended up really liking it. He liked helping people,” she says. “He liked being there for someone who wasn’t as fortunate as he was.”
In speaking out about her son, Rebecca stresses that he was a normal kid — a “good kid, but he had some issues.”
“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.”
Following Morton’s arrest, George and Rebecca faced scrutiny as Morton’s attorney argued they shared some of the blame for the shooting because it was Ryan who allegedly owned the gun that Morton fired.
Though Ryan had taken photos posing with firearms in the past, those closest to him dismiss the idea that he was a gun enthusiast.
“No trial is fair when the victim cannot participate,” Rebecca says.
“Ryan was a teen imitating what he saw on social media,” she continues. “Unfortunately all our children are under the influence of various [media] which are causing a whole new set of issues that parents must resolve without guidance.”
Her son was “book-smart but not street-wise,” Rebecca says.
His shooting death cut short a future of possibilities.
“He didn’t even get to turn into the person he could be or would be today,” Malik says.