Saturday, October 27, 2012

Gary McKinnon : In an extraordinary interview mother Janis Sharp mother reveals how she fought to save her son || AutismAid

Gary McKinnon : In an extraordinary interview mother Janis Sharp mother reveals how she fought to save her son

by Kathryn Knight,
October 19th 2012

This week, Janis Sharp experienced the unique joy of seeing her son smile properly for the first time in a decade.

‘He said, “Mum, I’d forgotten how it feels to be happy.” He’d spent so long in a long dark tunnel.’

For ten years, Gary McKinnon, a pale-faced 46-year-old computer fanatic who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, has fought extradition to the U.S. to face trial and prison, accused of hacking into the American military’s computers.

This week, he finally learned that the threat had been lifted by Home Secretary Theresa May.

For the past three years, the Mail has campaigned for Gary to be tried in the UK.

‘The Mail has stuck by us, and it’s because of you, to a massive degree, that Gary is no longer facing a long plane journey and an American prison,’ Janis says now.

At the heart of this ten-year battle, though, is Janis, who fought like a tigress to protect her only son.

But she was powerless to protect Gary from his descent into a deep depression. Since the threat of extradition was lifted this week, Gary has shaved off his beard — a visible sign, perhaps, that he is already starting to recover.

‘Only now can he contemplate having a life, a job, perhaps a family of his own,’ says 63-year-old Janis. ‘That’s all I have wanted through this.

For justice to prevail, and for my son to have his life back.’ Little wonder that when I meet with Janis at the home in Hertfordshire that she shares with Gary’s stepfather, Wilson, 64, an air of unreality still permeates.

Flowers are delivered and the phone rings off the hook with congratulatory messages, many from celebrity supporters such as Sting’s wife Trudie Styler and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.

Janis tells me: ‘Trudie was screaming down the line. She said: “You’ve done it, Janis. You’ve effing done it!”’

And of course she has. A woman with no legal qualifications, who describes herself as a musician and free spirit, took on the might of the U.S. government. And won.

Incredibly modest, she insists that any loving mother would do the same. ‘When it’s your child, you’ll do whatever it takes,’ she explains simply.

Theirs is a particularly close bond. Janis gave birth to Gary in her native Glasgow just two months after her 17th birthday, having married Charlie, his father, within days of turning 16. The marriage ended when Gary was six. Janis then brought Gary to London, where she met Wilson, her husband of the past 35 years.

While to the British public Gary may be a computer geek who got in over his head, to his mother he will always be the good-natured boy who was fascinated by aliens.

‘He could grasp these very complicated concepts,’ she says. ‘At two, he’d ask questions about the solar system.

‘But then he struggled to grasp very basic things, such as getting on a bus. He’d have these meltdowns every time. Now I know it is because travel is difficult for people with his condition, but I didn’t know that then.’

In Janis’s laid-back household, Gary’s differences didn’t really stand out. ‘He was different — but we were musicians, we had an eclectic group of friends, so Gary was just Gary.’ Although he attended mainstream schools, Gary struggled with concentration and left at 16 with just one O-level (in English) and a handful of CSEs.

At home, Janis recalls, all that her adolescent son wanted to do was sit in his room, composing music.

He got work as a trainee hairdresser at a central London salon, but his transition into the world of employment was troubled.

‘He was blacking out on the Tube, and he’d come home looking blank. He complained of his body going numb. Now I know he was struggling with leaving the safety of his home environment, but back then we thought he had a brain tumour.’

Janis and Wilson took Gary to a neurologist at London’s Whittington Hospital. The 17-year-old was given a clean bill of health, but a pattern was set which would repeat itself time and again over the years, with Gary drifting between an assortment of temporary jobs.

‘He couldn’t stick with anything,’ says Janis. ‘In some ways he was like a child. He was 20 going on 12.’

Salvation came in Gary’s flair for computing, which enabled him to pick up short-term troubleshooting work for leading companies, from banks to supermarkets.

By his mid-20s Gary also had a girlfriend, Tamsin, a social worker he’d known from school. After a few years they moved into a flat in North London together, but the relationship was not without troubles.

‘When he was about 30, Gary said to me: “Tamsin wants a baby, but I can’t be responsible for that.” He was petrified. He didn’t know what was required of him in a relationship.

‘I remember going to a party that Tamsin had organised, and Gary just sat in the middle of the living room on his computer. I told him he couldn’t behave like that, but his response was, “It’s my party, too”.’

While Janis was worried about her son’s odd behaviour, it wasn’t until 2008 — six years after he was first arrested — that he was finally dignosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a type of autism characterised by bizarre obsessions and difficulties with social interaction.

For Gary, the obsessions centred around UFOs and the notion that, somewhere out there, there was ‘free energy’ that global governments were preventing their citizens from accessing.

It was in search of evidence of both, Gary has always maintained, that he hacked into 97 U.S. military computers over the 13 months between February 2001 and March 2002.

It wasn’t even that difficult for him: the sites had no passwords or firewalls, as Gary gleefully pointed out in mocking messages he left behind.

The U.S. authorities have said that his actions shut down a vast network for 24 hours and caused damage costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. They reported him to UK police, and in March 2002 Gary and Tamsin were arrested by the National High Tech Crime Unit and taken to a North London police station.

They were there for hours, with Gary never thinking to ask for a lawyer. ‘He had no idea how serious it was,’ says Janis. ‘He rang me when he got home and told me he’d been arrested and his computer seized, but insisted it was okay.

‘He said: “Don’t worry, Mum, they’re computer people just like me.” So he’d told them everything, because people with Asperger’s don’t generally lie. But when I put the phone down, I had this dark feeling.’

Gary was released without charge after the British authorities decided not to prosecute due to lack of evidence. But within months the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, signed a new extradition treaty, paving the way for the U.S. to apply to have Gary extradited.

Janis clung to the idea that if the family kept a low profile, the whole awful business might disappear — and for a while, it seemed that it had, and Gary was still able to carry on his contract work.

Though the drama had cost him his relationship with Tamsin, by 2005 he had met a new girlfriend, Lucy, a 40-year-old charity worker, with whom he now lives in North London.

Then, in June 2005, with the extradition treaty newly signed, America began formal proceedings and Gary was re-arrested.

‘We were devastated,’ Janis says. ‘We realised that if Gary was to remain in Britain, we would have to fight. Gary made it clear he would take his own life rather than step on the plane.

‘To him, that was perfectly logical. When the businessman Christopher Tappin was extradited recently, Gary asked, quite matter-of-factly: ‘Why didn’t he take an overdose?”’

Janis took her fight from the High Court to the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords. Each time, chinks of light were quickly followed by crushing disappointment.

‘We would have these moments when we were elated, such as when David Cameron discussed Gary with President Obama. Then nothing. It was like waterboarding of the mind.’

Meanwhile, the stress was giving Gary panic attacks.

‘For years, Gary has woken up every morning with pains in his chest,’ she reveals. ‘Countless times we took him to hospital, but the pain was emotional, caused by sheer terror.’

Banned from using the internet, Gary had little to occupy him. ‘He spent hours sitting with the curtains closed, just staring into space. It was very oppressive. Lucy did her best, but none of us could reach him.’

Little wonder that dark thoughts gathered pace. Only last year, Janis says, Lucy told her she had found potassium chloride, used for death by lethal injection in America, in their bathroom cabinet.

‘Gary had bought it ready to take in case they came to take him away,’ she says quietly.

‘You can imagine how that made me feel.’ Meanwhile, his exhausted mother and stepfather were spending 14 hours a day raising awareness of Gary’s plight.

‘Everything in our lives came to a halt,’ says Janis. ‘All our energies had to go into Gary. We couldn’t be half-hearted.

‘It has been difficult for Wilson. He has propped me up, and his health has suffered as a result. He has almost permanent headaches from the anxiety.’

With no income, the Sharps sold the family home in London’s Crouch End and moved to a smaller place in the suburbs where they could live on the equity — a modest sum which has been boosted by donations from celebrity backers.

Ironically, Gary’s Asperger’s diagnosis — a key part of the case for him to remain in Britain — came about by accident after he appeared on a news bulletin four years ago. Concerned viewers contacted the family to point out that he was displaying classic symptoms of the disorder.

‘It helped everything fall into place,’ says Janis. ‘It was a relief to Gary, too. He’d always felt different. Now there was a word for it.’

The diagnosis was formally confirmed that same year by Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Development Psychopathology at Cambridge University and an expert in autism. Subsequently, examinations by the professor and two other leading experts confirmed that Gary was a suicide risk were he to be extradited.

The diagnosis goes a long way towards explaining Gary’s naivety in hacking into the military systems of the world’s leading superpower — although Janis admits it doesn’t entirely excuse his actions. ‘Of course he was stupid. He’s ready to answer questions here in the UK.’

The family learned of the Home Secretary’s final decision in a phone call to their home on Tuesday, shortly before the announcement in the House of Commons. Janis had steeled herself for bad news.

‘Wilson answered. It was our solicitor, who was in tears and couldn’t speak,’ she recalls. ‘Then she managed to say: “Gary’s safe. They’re dropping it.”

‘Wilson was in tears and couldn’t speak either. I was mouthing “What? Tell me!” I still thought it was bad news.’

But, finally, the cloud hanging over this family had been lifted.

When, hands trembling, Janis picked up the phone to tell her son the good news, he wept. ‘He couldn’t stop. It was incredibly emotional,’ she says.

At this moment Gary arrives with Lucy. Taller and broader-shouldered in the flesh than you might expect, he is polite but shy. He appears slightly dazed and admits that the news is still sinking in.

‘It’s been such a long time,’ he says. His mother touches his arms and asks him whether, this morning, he felt pains in his chest when he woke.

‘No, I didn’t. For the first time I didn’t,’ he replies with a smile.

His mother beams back at him. It is clear that this remarkable woman’s decade-long battle has been worth it.

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