An autistic man was surfing the internet on his father's sofa. Then the FBI showed up (2023)

Von Stephanie Clifford

IIf you read a story to Brandon Fleury when he was three, he would recite it word for word. His father Patrick, then a professional tennis coach, was both amused and impressed by his physically clumsy son. He told people about Brandon's ability to mimic - eventually explaining it to a jury.

Brandon had a rough childhood. One night when he was five and in bed with his mother, she had a pulmonary embolism and died. Fleury became a full-time single father to Brandon and his younger brother. Brandon had always needed special attention, but after his wife diedFleury began to pick up on more unusual elements of his son's behavior. A neighborhood girl would pull him around in a wagon "like he was a puppy"; Brandon seemed uncomfortable with this, but couldn't articulate his discomfort. At their home in Santa Ana, California, he kept repeating phrases and questions or opening and closing doors repeatedly. Sometimes he flushed the toilet 30 times in a row and giggled.

Doctors diagnosed Brandon with Attention Deficit Disorder, then Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. When he was seven, they added OCD and Asperger's Syndrome (Asperger's is now classified as a syndrome) to the list.a form of autism).

Fleury tried to help Brandon regulate his behavior, but nothing the doctors suggested — therapy, medication, a teaching assistant — seemed to make a difference. He homeschooled his son for a time, then sent him off to high school, which turned out to be a disaster. Desperate to be accepted, Brandon became the plaything of a group of bullies he believed to be his friends. They took his money and beat him up. “You would mess with him any way you could; they would fool him,” says Fleury. "He didn't know any better." Brandon dropped out before his senior year.

After that, the family seemed to have found a rhythm. Appearing a few years younger than him, Brandon often got lost in repetitive rituals like washing his hands. But he was self-reliant enough to walk to and from town and cook himself in a microwave. At night Fleury set the burglar alarm with a motion detector so he would know when his son was leaving; Brandon seemed to like staying in his bedroom and didn't mind being monitored.

"Please don't hurt him," Fleury called as his son was led away. "He has problems"

Brandon spent most of his time at home on the couch, listening to music and surfing the internet. Fleury didn't really know what his son was doing online, but Brandon seemed to be enjoying the escape from face-to-face contact, and his dad was glad he had that. Brandon never said thank you or hello, never told anyone he loved them, but he seemed content. "Endless smiles," Fleury recalls.

One morning in 2019, when Brandon was 21, Fleury woke up to lights flashing outside and a loud knock on the front door. He ran to open it:FBIAgents were on the other side. They immediately handcuffed him. Brandon wouldn't leave his room, they saidFBIdetonated an explosive device and finally pulled it out. "Please don't hurt him!" Fleury recalls screaming as they led him away. "He doesn't understand."

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ThatFBIhad been led to Brandon's door by a trail of disturbing social media messages. Brandon had created multiple Instagram accounts under different aliases. Most of those account names ("nikolas.the.murderer") appeared to refer to Nikolas Cruz, a teenager who shot dead 17 students and staff at a Parkland, Florida high school in early 2018. Later that year Brandon used these accounts to unleash a spate of abuse against some of the friends and family members of those whom Cruz murdered. "I killed your sister," he wrote to a victim's brother. "It was fun. She had her whole life ahead of her and I fucking stole it from her." To Max Schachter, whose son Alex was killed, he wrote: "Little Alex Schachter will never make music again." The messages poured out, sometimes several in a minute: "I killed your loved ones haha." "Your sorrow is my joy." "I gave them no mercy." "I'm kidnapping you, you fool."

Fleury had no idea of ​​this when he opened the door to the houseFBI. He was shocked and nauseous, but assumed the issue would be resolved quickly. He knew Brandon would answer questions truthfully. He didn't even contact a lawyer.

AUtism Spectrum Disorder, the clinical term for autism, is a complex brain disorder that affects how people understand and interact with the world. It is already detectable in infancy: One in 44 American eight-year-olds has a diagnosis, which means that theoretically there would be at least one autistic child in every second class.

Researchers still can't say exactly what autism is. There is no biological test or scan for it. It is not a purely genetic disorder like Fragile X syndrome. The diagnostic criteria are broad and vague, centered around difficulties in social communication and interaction and repetitive behaviors. Behind these generalities lies a complex set of symptoms that vary significantly from person to person. Some are in conflict with each other — for example, lack of anxiety and excessive anxiety are both associated with the condition. Just like depression. Other possible signs include an inability to understand the emotions of others and difficulty interpreting facial expressions. Some autistic people live completely independent, professionally successful lives; others never learn to speak.

Autism was not identified as a specific disorder until 1943. Even after that, children diagnosed with the disease were shunted away into institutions rather than helped to live in the community. They were perceived as a burden. In Far from the Tree, a book about how parents raise deviant children, Andrew Solomon cites a series of cases from the early 2000s where parents who killed their autistic children received light sentences or no jail time at all. "The habit of the courts," writes Solomon, "has been to treat infanticide as an understandable if unfortunate consequence of the stresses of raising an autistic child."

In recent years, autism has lost some of its stigma and is being more widely recognized and treated. The prevalence of diagnosed autism among American children has more than tripled since 2000, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control (in part because a broader spectrum of disorders is now included in the definition). Many affected children are years away from being diagnosed, especially girls, but awareness of the condition has come a long way.

People who are on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum are increasingly demanding that society accept and embrace the ways in which they are wired differently. Rather than expecting autistic people to endure the hustle and bustle of office noise, autism activists are calling for employers to offer them more privacy or headphones. The word “neurodiversity” has entered the lexicon, literally referring to the range of how the human brain functions, but has also become a rallying cry for those who want greater inclusion of the outliers on this spectrum in society. Some companies, particularly inSilicon Valley, have started actively recruiting autistic peopleto improve neurodiversity in the workplace. This may be a sign of virtue in some cases, but organizations also recognize that people with autism often have exceptional skills and an unusual perspective that can benefit an organization.

However, as Brandon's family noted, the criminal justice system is an institution that struggles to embrace neurodiversity. Neither Britain nor America routinely measure autism rates in prisons, but the limited evidence available suggests that it is slightly higher than in the general population. A small study of nearly 500 male prisoners in America in 2012 estimated that 4.4% of them met criteria for an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, compared to 3.6% in the broader male population. An even smaller survey of male prisoners in Scotland in 2018 found that 9% had autistic traits.

A psychiatrist asked if the messages were meant to cause fear? "What is fear? It's not something I know what it is."

There is no evidence of a "criminal" tendency associated with autism -- if anything, autistic people tend to follow rules conscientiously. But a condition that makes it difficult to read social cues puts people at risk of committing (or being charged with) certain crimes and makes it harder for them to interact with police and prosecutors in such cases. Some autism experts say they see growing numbers of people with the condition involved in online crimes (both victims and suspects). The social norms of the internet are difficult to analyze, even for those who are neurotypical.

The problem with trying to make the system fairer, according to mental health and criminal justice expert Elizabeth Nevins-Saunders, is that people with autism "don't always fit neatly into the categories that the law wants people to be placed in." Little about autism is definite.

The concept of criminal justice rests on the fundamental principle that we are responsible for our own behavior. Exceptions to this are narrowly defined. In England and Wales, as in most American states, the threshold for a successful defense based on a defendant's mental state - the defense against insanity - is still significantly set by a 19th-century English murder trial in which a judge told the jury said the accused could be acquitted if he "suffered from a lack of reason". This is not helpful for autistic sufferers, who typically do not lack basic intellectual abilities.

Even if a defense attorney were to convince a jury that their autistic client met this criterion, the outcome would not necessarily be desirable. Darius McCollum, an autistic man who was fascinated by New York City's mass transit systems, was arrested multiple times over a 30-year period for posing as transit workers and driving their bus or subway routes (and doing the job pretty well how it happened). . In 2015 he was accused of stealing a Greyhound bus. The judge accepted his plea of ​​not guilty by reason of insanity due to his autism but sent him indefinitely to a mental institution.

A diagnosis of autism may influence questions about criminal intent (men rea, in legal jargon).If a lawyer can show that the accused did not understand the consequences of his actions, this can contribute to an acquittal. This was a central issue in Brandon's case. The charges he faced -- cyber-stalking, using threats to hurt or kidnap people -- required evidence that the messages he sent caused, attempted to cause, or "reasonably to cause" was emotional distress." Was that what Brandon intended when he sent the messages?

When Fleury first heard the news, he couldn't reconcile it with the "lucky" son he knew. It made a little more sense when he heard Brandon's account of what happened — his son admitted almost everything immediately. Brandon told a federal investigator that he was inspired by an internet troll named Lynn Ann. "Lynn Ann" became obsessed with one of the Columbine High School shooters and earned a small fame online by posting messages on social media about how "ugly" the shooter's victims had been. Brandon's messages to the Parkland victims' families were "pure bullshit trolling," like Lynn Ann's, he told the investigator. Brandon said he's interested in internet trolls because they're "popular."

(Video) Killer Laughs at Dad Crying for Daughter, He Snaps..

An autistic man was surfing the internet on his father's sofa. Then the FBI showed up (2)

Fleury knew how much his son craved to be popular, or at least to be socially accepted. He was also aware of his tendency to repeat sentences from something he was immersed in. After watching "Daredevil," a superhero movie, he kept saying, "Hey orphan, let's play!", a taunt used by one of the characters. It was the same with Shark Tale. It made sense to Fleury that Brandon would mimic the language and behavior of internet trolls without really understanding them. An autism expert hired by the defense made similar comments to the court.

Prosecutors pointed out that Brandon's messages did not simply copy Lynn Ann's sentences, but included specific information about the victims and contained constant threats. Brandon claimed his intention is not to hurt or scare people, but to "annoy" them. When a prosecutor's psychiatrist asked if he was trying to inflict fear on victims, Brandon replied, "What is fear? It's something I don't know what it is."

The law leaves a lot of leeway for a jury to ignore a defendant's understanding of their actions, and Brandon's attorneys ultimately failed to persuade them that his case should depend on it. The trial was taking place right next to the hearings on Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland gunman, and the trauma of the murders celebrating Brandon's messages was still fresh. Even the judge in Brandon's case hinted that his cyber-stalking trial was an opportunity for the Parkland families to find "closure."

Prosecutors framed Brandon as someone who might have committed mass murder himself had he not been caught. They went through his messages in detail to demonstrate the distress he had caused. They put people like Fred Guttenberg on the stand, a man whose daughter had been killed in Parkland and whose son had received messages from Brandon. Guttenberg spoke about the terror felt by his family.

"Has it also occurred to you that it could have been a punk teenager just trying to tease you?" asked a defense attorney.

"My ability to imagine a punk teenager using social media in this way and not acting on it ended on February 14," Guttenberg said.

The judge dismissed the idea that Brandon "didn't understand" and sentenced him to five and a half years behind bars

Prosecutors emphasized Brandon's apparent sexual interest in mass murderers, perhaps to make Brandon appear dangerous by association. He had said thatFBIthat he had fantasies about Cruz, the parkland shooter. One of his Instagram aliases referred to Ted Bundy, a notorious serial killer from the 1970s. A prosecutor used the term "serial killer" six times in his closing arguments and "Ted Bundy" twelve times.

The jury found Brandon guilty of all charges.

For autistic, prison is a special kind of punishment. Bright lights, noise and the unrelenting presence of other people overwhelm many of them. Often anxious to be accepted and struggling with unspoken rules and codes, they are particularly vulnerable to being bullied and taken advantage of.

A defendant's autism will most likely be addressed at sentencing. In America, judges are not required to give less lenient sentences to autistic people, but may do so at their discretion. In October, a man who took part in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots was placed on probation rather than sent to prison: the federal judge said his autism significantly affected "the culpability of your conduct."

Not all judges understand autism well. In 2016, Colleen Berryessa, a criminology professor, asked 21 judges to try a fictional case in which the defendant had autism. Nine said knowing the condition made her more sympathetic to the defendant. Three saw it differently: The defendant's autism meant he was likely unable to control himself, increasing his danger to the public.

Many autistic people are themselves suspicious of the term used to defend a crime, fearing that such arguments fuel the misconception that autism makes people dangerous. Dylann Roof, who killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, invoked his autism when appealing his death sentence last year: When he did so, two autism campaign groups filed a brief objection to the claim from Roof on. "Associating autism with violence harms our community," they wrote.

When Brandon's sentencing hearing began, Fleury brought in a new attorney, Sabrina Puglisi, to replace his public defender. She argued that Brandon was a fundamentally law-abiding person, pointing out that when the court ordered him not to use social media as a condition of bail, he took it so seriously that he wouldn't even touch a computer. She called Lynda Geller, a clinical psychologist and autism expert, to assess Brandon's suitability for a rehabilitation program rather than prison. Geller recommended rehab. She, too, believed he was a docile person who lacked the skills to interpret how he views people's behavior online.

A genuine expression of remorse from a defendant can persuade a judge to impose a lighter sentence, but again, people with autism are at a disadvantage because they often have trouble communicating feelings. Puglisi assured the judge that Brandon expressed remorse after hearing testimonies from his victims. But when she played the judge a video of him apologizing to them, even Puglisi admitted it was a little "flat".

(Video) “You ruined my life”

An autistic man was surfing the internet on his father's sofa. Then the FBI showed up (3)

This was contrasted by the passion of Guttenberg, the Parkland father who testified at Brandon's trial. He also spoke at the sentencing hearing. "It's not because of autism that he did what he did to my family and the other families," Guttenberg said. "It's due to sociopathic behavior."

The judge, Rodolfo Ruiz, made short work of the idea that Brandon "didn't understand." He sentenced him to five and a half years in prison, well under the maximum sentence of 20 but more than the federal average penalty for manslaughter or drug trafficking.

AJust weeks before Brandon was sentenced, another federal case involving an autistic defendant was closed in Chicago. This, too, had started with a raid by theFBI: Agents were after a manthey thought was behind a huge market manipulation schemewhich briefly wiped about $1 trillion from American stock markets in 2010. What they found in the London suburb of Hounslow was a hoodie-wearing video game addict who lived with his parents, had a bedroom full of stuffed animals, and paid for his meals at McDonald's with coupons. When Navinder Sarao was extradited to America, he excitedly questioned it on the flightFBIAgent who accompanies him in his cool job.

The allegations against Sarao were serious: he was accused of a gigantic fraud. There was no shortage of evidence - he had even recorded some of his own trading activities, providing extensive documentation for prosecutors. But his story had a completely different ending than Brandon's.

Roger Burlingame, Sarao's lawyer, said it was obvious when they first met in prison that Sarao was "different". “Customers all want to know the same thing: What is going to happen? How are you going to fix that?” he recalled. Prosecutors spoke of a 200-year sentence and Sarao asked his lawyer "things like New York and how many hours a week I work". Burlingame called in Simon Baron-Cohen, one of Britain's leading psychologists, who examined Sarao and spoke to those closest to him.

To Sarao's family, he was just Nav, a quirky, lonely math whizz who had graduated with flying colors. What if he played video games for so long that he became one of the top scorers?FIFAPlaying soccer or forgetting to take off your bike helmet before sitting down at your desk to work? You never thought that could be part of a disease.

When Sarao was extradited, on the flight he excitedly questioned the FBI agent who was accompanying him about his cool job

However, Baron-Cohen was clear that Sarao's behavior went beyond quirkiness. He was so sensitive to light that he hung blankets over his bedroom window. He still loved his stuffed tiger. He could be amazingly blunt and tell his sister-in-law that her baby looked like a garbage pail kid, and then pull out his collection of garbage pail kid cards to back up the statement. Baron-Cohen diagnosed Sarao with autism and said it was central to understanding his actions.

Sarao had an unusual eye for numbers and patterns. When he began the plot that led to his arrest, he was working in one of London's trading arcades - communal facilities used by self-employed traders for a fee. As ambitious about stocks as he is about video games, Sarao became obsessed with the markets; sometimes he worked two days without sleep.

As he traded, Sarao became increasingly frustrated with high-speed algorithms, tools that could process data and execute trades in milliseconds. Sometimes these algorithms just seemed aimed at moving the value of a stock or commodity up or down so someone could benefit from a priori knowledge of the move. One way algorithms can move prices is through a dubious practice known as "spoofing": They place many orders to mimic a buy or sell surge, then cancel them at the last minute. In 2009, Sarao began complaining about spoofing to officials at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, where he did most of his trading. The staff there didn't care about his allegations of cheating and eventually hung up when he called.

Sarao decided to hire someone to write a computer program that could beat the spoofing algorithms at their own game. It was a wild success: Between 2009 and 2014 he earned $70 million. He didn't seem to know what to do with the money - he rarely spent any of it, apart from losing tens of millions to crude scam schemes. And he lacked the tact of other traders who operate on the fringes of legality. When someone from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange contacted him in 2010 and warned him not to place bogus orders, he told them, "Kiss my ass."

Financial experts are divided over whether Sarao caused the May 2010 "flash crash," which saw the Dow Jones index lose nearly 9% of its value. Sarao was extraordinarily active that day, earning nearly $900,000. But although the prosecution accused him of contributing to the crash, a federal judge later said she didn't hold him responsible.

Sarao was defended by some of the most sought-after attorneys in the industry. Burlingame was an expert on white-collar crime and believed that once prosecutors got to know his client, they would see him as someone who understood rules and boundaries rather than a greedy con man. He secured an agreement in which Sarao would help prosecutors with their investigation in exchange for the possibility of a reduced sentence. As a result, federal attorneys and agents began spending significant time with Sarao.

An autistic man was surfing the internet on his father's sofa. Then the FBI showed up (4)

(Video) Code Orange Intro, Ch1-2

By the time Sarao was convicted in 2020, he had met with prosecutors 10 times to explain spoofing and served as a witness in another case. Prosecutors had noted Sarao's inability to maintain eye contact and his tendency to become "obsessed" with certain subjects. They had also benefited from his extraordinarily detailed presentations on the subject of spoofing. In a highly unusual move, they asked the judge not to give him a prison sentence.

Sarah was lucky. Case judge Virginia Kendall said she was "very, very familiar with autism," citing in sentencing him: "Someone with Asperger's or autism doesn't have the same judgment as someone who has autismmen reawould manipulate.” Realizing how hard autistic people find life in prison, she sentenced Sarao to one year of house arrest.

The lenient verdict did not provoke any public outcry. Many commentators felt that Sarao had exposed an unacknowledged truth about the financial system: it treats rules as a game to be evaded. There was something refreshing about the innocence with which he did what others tried with greater cunning. "He's not some exception to the normal workings of finance," wrote Michael Lewis, author of several books on Wall Street culture. "He's a parody of it."

ARight now, it's sheer luck whether an autistic person is brought to justice and convicted by people who understand the condition. Revising the concept of legal responsibility for admitting autistic people is a philosophically daunting task, but educating officials about their condition is an immediate practical step that could contribute to fairer outcomes.

Advocacy groups say both judges and juries should undergo mandatory training so they understand, for example, that an autistic person may not show emotion, which can have a real impact on how a trial goes. "Sometimes ... our tone of voice doesn't seem empathetic or remorseful enough," says Haley Moss, a Florida autistic attorney. "The system that we have is definitely not very understanding."

For people with autism, the bright lights, noise, and unrelenting presence of other people in prison are often overwhelming

Campaign groups also suggest that autistic defendants should be given help with communicating in court, for example through computer programs that convert typed text into speech. Courts could also insist that a supporter be present at the hearing to indicate if they think an autistic person does not understand something.

The prison system could also be more accommodating. A recent report commissioned by Robert Buckland, then Head of the UK Department of Justice (who happens to have an autistic daughter) recommended that courts and prisons should be properly inspected so that autism and other diseases can be reliably identified. He also suggested that prison officials should be trained to better serve the needs of these inmates.

Until these kinds of reforms are introduced, autistic people accused of a crime face a cruel lottery. Since his conviction, Sarao has returned to happy isolation, living a quiet life with his parents in Hounslow. Barred from trading, he spends much of his time gambling and gambling with his nephews.

Brandon Fleury is in prison in Connecticut, thousands of miles from his family. He is small, about 54 kg and wears braces. He was verbally and physically assaulted in prison. He was cheated out of money and sent to fetch other inmates' food or clean up their mess. His attorney, Ashley Litwin, filed an appeal last year based largely on how Brandon's autism affected his intent. The complaint was rejected.

His father says Brandon is a changed person. When Fleury suggests doing push-ups so he can defend himself better or pursuing a high school diploma to make something productive out of those years, Brandon has little reaction. "He's gone backwards in that regard. He just doesn't understand why he's still in prison," says Fleury.

Brandon has recently started writing letters to the jailer and Judge Ruiz asking to be released. "Brandon, this just won't work," Fleury tells him. But he has to explain it again and again. Now they're having the same conversations, over and over, over and over, and getting nowhere: Brandon just doesn't understand.

Stephanie Cliffordis a journalist and novelist based in New York. Her new novel The Farewell Tour will be published in March 2023



What is the life expectancy for Aspergers? ›

The study found that the average death of an autistic person was age 54, while their matched controls had an average death age of 70 (Bazian 2016). That means, on average, autistic people are dying 16 years earlier than the general population.

Who was the first person with autism? ›

Donald Triplett, in full Donald Gray Triplett, (born September 1933, Forest, Mississippi, U.S.), American male who was the first person diagnosed with autism.

When was the first person diagnosed with autism? ›

Donald Triplett was the first autism diagnosis. He was born in 1933 to a family in Forest, Mississippi. His family was well known and well respected in their small community. Before his diagnosis of autism, Donald had been placed in an institution.

Can a person with autism live a normal life? ›

In severe cases, an autistic child may never learn to speak or make eye contact. But many children with autism and other autism spectrum disorders are able to live relatively normal lives.

What is the divorce rate for autism? ›

Approximately 36% of individuals with autism in our sample experienced a parental divorce by age 30. Higher rates of divorce were associated with maternal education, race and age at child's birth, as well as autism symptom severity and diagnosis.

Where do autistic adults live? ›

Many adults with autism live at home or with a friend or family member. When additional support is needed, in-home services may include a companion, homemaking/housekeeping, therapy and other health services, or personal care.

What president has autism? ›

Thomas Jefferson – This famous Founding Father of the United States of America, former President of the United States and principle author of the Declaration of Independence was said to have been autistic or have Asperger's syndrome.

What president was autistic? ›

Thomas Jefferson

He was also struggled with public speaking and was highly sensitive to loud noises. Jefferson also had an almost obsessive fascination with remodeling his home. He also had some eccentricities in his behaviors, such as wearing slippers to important business meetings.

What actress has autism? ›

Actress Daryl Hannah was diagnosed with autism as a child. In an interview with People Magazine, Hannah opened up about her “debilitating shyness” as a child and fear of fame as an adult.

Can a person with Aspergers live a long life? ›

Asperger syndrome is not a curable condition. However, being one of the milder forms in the Autism Spectrum Disorders, with little language development difficulties and normal or high IQ, this disorder allows a child to live a normal or near normal life.

Is Asperger's a serious mental illness? ›

Asperger's Syndrome, a form of Autism Spectrum Disorder, is a developmental disorder. Young people with Asperger's Syndrome have a difficult time relating to others socially and their behavior and thinking patterns can be rigid and repetitive.


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