Cases That Test Your Skills

The case of the quadriplegic cyberterrorist

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Confined to a wheelchair after an automobile accident, a teenager finds an outlet for his anger on the Internet—and in the process terrorizes a small town. You are charged with breaking the cycle of violence and restoring the young man’s equanimity.



History: A turn for the worse

Mr. P, 22, presented as intelligent and well-oriented. He was serving a 1-year prison term after pleading guilty to a charge of distribution of dangerous material.

Mr. P had no history of psychiatric treatment or hospitalizations, drug addiction, paranoia, hallucinations, or suicide or homicide attempts. In fact, before his arrest in 1999, he had always been viewed as a model youth.

Born in a small Midwestern town, Mr. P’s childhood and early adolescence were unremarkable. He was popular, always on the honor roll, and exhibited no serious behavioral problems. He and his best friend had been inseparable since the third grade. Both played school soccer and were in the marching band. As Boy Scouts they hiked, canoed, swam, and did good deeds together.

Mr. P’s life changed 7 years ago, when he and his friend, then both 16, rode to the local mall in a late-model Thunderbird. Mr. P’s friend, a newly licensed driver, sped at 50 mph in a 35-mph zone, on a curving, gravel-covered back road in foggy weather. The youth lost control of the car, which spun around and smashed into a tree on the passenger’s side. The driver emerged unharmed, but the impact rendered Mr. P tetraplegic. An incomplete C6 spinal cord transection allowed some movement in the arms and wrist, but no lower extremity function. Sensation was intact, except for orgasmic anesthesia.

After the accident, their friendship ended. The youth did not respond to Mr. P’s phone calls or letters. A year later, Mr. P sued his former friend for driving to endanger, but the defendant, under 18, was too young to be held legally responsible under state law.

Mr. P missed months of school, but with tutoring, summer sessions, and an indomitable will he graduated from high school on time and with honors. He won a scholarship to college, where he studied computer sciences.

Those familiar with Mr. P were impressed—and inspired—by his courage, but his inward suffering was well concealed. Activities he once enjoyed were now out of reach. Unable to even get in and out of bed independently, he had no social life. Despite his hard work and intelligence, he was a bored quadriplegic teenager with time on his hands.

Mr. P turned to the Internet, where he ultimately began communicating with members of a chat room for students of a middle school 1,000-plus miles away. The younger students with whom he dialogued could not see he was wheelchair-bound. Freed from the identity of a physically disabled person, he could “try on” other identities. He assumed the identity of an eighth-grader, and kept a data bank on students with whom he had online contact at the school: their names, addresses, interests, pets, etc. Before long, he was spending 8 hours a day online.1

Eventually, Mr. P. blew his cover. Some of the youths picked up on his online slip-ups and challenged him, demanding that he reveal his identity.

Infuriated, Mr. P. identified himself by the name of one of their classmates. (That classmate was harassed at school, a result Mr. P said he later regretted). He then told the youths, “If you don’t believe me, I’ll blow you up.”

What started as a source of restoration for Mr. P suddenly left him feeling discredited and rejected. The more he went online, the more disrespected he felt.

On Oct. 19, 1999, Mr. P posted two photos on the chat room: the school in the cross hairs of a rifle scope and the principal bleeding through simulated bullet holes in the head and chest. He invoked the horror of the recent Columbine High School massacre with the words: “Remembering those two heroes in Columbine, ’99: R.I.P. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.” Beneath a “hit list” of 24 eighth-graders and three of their teachers, he wrote: “Some of you lucky individuals will go home with more bullet holes in your body than you came with.”

Mr. P also directed the students to Web sites featuring graphic photos of child pornography and sex abuse. One state attorney general remarked that the pictures were among the most graphic he had ever seen.

Before the students arrived for school the next morning, police with bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the hallways and inspected classrooms. Teachers searched student’s books and backpacks for suspicious items. Parents of youths on Mr. P’s “hit list” were in panic, too scared to let their offspring leave their houses, let alone go to school.

If Mr. P’s goal was to invoke terror within the middle school’s community, he had done just that. Just 6 months after the Columbine tragedy, the threat of another school massacre had hit home. The terrorist was a quadriplegic several states away, but as far as anyone in town knew, a potential killer lurked among them.


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