Leak suspect Reality Winner: Quiet demeanor masked fierce competitor

Reality Leigh Winner, who worked as a contractor for Pluribus International Corporation, was charged with allegedly leaking a top secret National Security Agency report to the website The Intercept.

Reality Leigh Winner, who worked as a contractor for Pluribus International Corporation, was charged with allegedly leaking a top secret National Security Agency report to the website The Intercept.

KLEBERG COUNTY, Tex. — As a high school kid growing up on acres of farmland miles off a rural highway, Jaykob Elizondo sometimes threw parties when his parents were away. With the goats, chickens and rabbits on his family's property serving as the only witnesses, Elizondo and his pals enjoyed flexing a little freedom. But the girl on the other side of the fence was never part of the action.

Reality Winner wasn’t one to break the rules.

“She wasn’t a party animal or anything like that,” said Elizondo, now a dad himself and prepared for whatever hijinks his own kids cook up in their teen years. “She didn’t want to get in trouble.”

The now 25-year-old stayed out of trouble until last month when, prosecutors allege, she leaked a top secret document on Russian attempts to hack U.S. election systems to the news media.The report summarizes an attempt last year by the Russian security services to hack a Florida-based election software provider, and then use that information to attempt to gain access to the voter registration systems of several unnamed local governments.

Reality Winner’s booking photo, Lincoln County Jail.

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If convicted, she faces up to 10 years in federal prison. She has pleaded not guilty and, denied bond, remains in jail.

Her case is the first prosecution of an American for leaking government information since the election of President Trump, who has demanded harsh treatment for leakers.

And for friends and family, it’s been a sharp and unexpected turn for a young woman who left the Air Force just last year with a commendation for her role in helping allied forces identify and kill more than 600 enemy combatants, and capture 650 more.

Winner’s journey from the rural landscape of south-central Texas to a jail cell in east Georgia included four years at Fort Meade in Maryland, where she honed her skills as a linguist specializing in the war in Afghanistan, and a stint at Fort Gordon in Augusta.

Interviews with those who knew her describe a driven young woman who taught herself Arabic while still in high school, a competitive athlete who couldn’t stand to lose and a person of many acquaintances but few close friends.

On the soccer field and tennis court, fellow players recalled, Winner played with fierce determination.

“I remember she had a lot of court tantrums when she was losing,” said Juan Carlos Gonzalez, who was on the H.M. King High School tennis team with Winner.

Once, she stormed off the court mid-match, he recalled. Another time, she cursed at a teammate in charge of securing the team’s gear after matches and practices; she’d accidentally left her phone behind and it got locked up with the athletic gear.

“She got real mad as if it was his fault,” said Gonzalez, who said that although the team was generally a convivial group, Winner usually kept to herself. “She was always this very serious person. I think she was viewed as like, don’t mess with her. Don’t make her mad.”

Reality Winner, second from right, sits with members of her tennis team in this photo that ran in 2009 in the Kingsville Record and Bishop News. She was extremely competitive on the court, friends recall.

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Flashes of that anger surfaced in Winner’s social media posts, referring to Trump as that “orange fascist.”

At her bond hearing, prosecutors suggested Winner had more ominous intentions than leaking a five-page report about the Russians to the news media, and planned to steal more classified material.

"The defendant has a separate life," Assistant U.S. attorney Jennifer Solari told the court. "She has two faces, so to speak."

Winner's Facebook page filled with angry comments from critics blasting her as a traitor soon after her arrest was announced, but a GoFundMe page launched on her behalf has drawn $34,000 in donations, with comedian Rosie O'Donnell chipping in $1,000 and WikiLeaks' Julian Assange urging support.

Even U.S. Magistrate Judge Brian Epps appeared stumped by the sinewy blond woman who appeared in his courtroom Thursday.

“Who is she?” Epps wondered aloud during the hearing.

An estranged father

Winner was born in Alice, Tex., in neighboring Jim Wells County and attended a faith-based elementary school before public middle school in Ricardo and then high school in Kingsville, population about 26,000. Her parents divorced in 1999, when she was 7 and her sister was 8.

Her relationship with her father, Ronald Winner, would become strained over the years, according to her mother. Ronald Winner struggled with back injuries and addiction to painkillers. He would make unkept promises to his daughters, such as the wild idea that they would one day travel to Central America to see the Mayan ruins.

Though Reality Winner loved her father dearly, the girls couldn’t depend on him, Winner’s mother said. She went years without seeing her father.

Winner has a close relationship with her stepfather Gary Davis, posting last year on her now-shuttered Facebook page, “Just a reminder on Father’s Day how awesome it is having a dad like Gary Davis!”

Reality Winner’s high school yearbook photo from her senior year at Kingsville, Texas (2010).

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She loves animals, plays the guitar and keeps a strict, often vegan diet. She loves Pokemon and Hannah Montana, but not necessarily Miley Cyrus, according to her parents.

Davis and Winner’s mother, Billie Winner-Davis, have been in Augusta in recent days, meeting with Winner’s attorneys and cleaning up her house.

Winner-Davis said they considered telling the parade of reporters who’ve come by the house “no comment,” but they decided on an opposite strategy. They have accommodated interview after interview with local, state and national media, including CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

“The only way that Reality is going to get a fair trial in this, and a fair chance, is if the American people get behind her,” Winner-Davis said during one of several interviews with the AJC this week.

"She's a good kid. She's never been in trouble in her life," Gary Davis said. "She turned down a full-ride scholarship to go to Texas A&M University in Kingsville to go to the Air Force in hopes of becoming a linguist. She pursues whatever she does with a passion."

Learning Arabic by Post-it note

As an Air Force senior airman, Winner became a linguist proficient in Farsi, Dari and Pashto, languages spoken in Iran and Afghanistan.

Her parents could only speculate on why she chose a military life over college. Winner was an excellent student in high school, always in the top 10 percent of her class, her mother said.

But her priorities changed suddenly during her senior year, her stepfather said. She started exercising more. She wanted to learn Arabic. They came home once to find she had posted sticky notes all over the house with words in Arabic and their English translations.

Gary Davis said she has an older stepbrother who is a sergeant and a Russian linguist for the Air Force. But they aren’t too close. “That may have been the genesis of what she thought about and kinda kicked it off,” Davis said. “I don’t know.”

After Winner enlisted, she perfected her language skills during two years of training at the Defensive Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. She became attached to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Md., serving with the 94th Intelligence Squadron, 707th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing.

Billie Winner-Davis, the mother of Reality Leigh Winner, and her stepfather Gary Davis talk about their daughter Reality Leigh Winner at Winner’s home in Augusta. Winner, 25, has been accused by the U.S. Department of Justice of sending classified material to a news organization. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

Before being honorably discharged Winner received a military commendation, a mid-level Air Force award, for assisting in overseas airstrikes that killed hundreds of enemy combatants. “The distinctive accomplishments of Airman Winner while serving her country reflect credit upon herself and the United States Air Force,” the award says.

As to why she got out after a single tour, the prosecution’s version and her parents’ recollections diverge.

Prosecutor Solari suggested Thursday, amid her contentions that Winner had a burning desire to travel to hostile countries and meet with terrorist leaders, that it was because the Air Force wouldn’t deploy her to Afghanistan.

Her parents said it was the combination of her politics and her altruistic nature.

“She didn’t want to kill people anymore,” Davis said. She wanted to join some humanitarian group, such as the Peace Corps, and give aid to people in countries where she’d been helping the military drop bombs, he said.

“She really wanted to go over to Afghanistan and help the folks there, make it better,” Davis said.

Her mother recalled another reason Winner cited for wanting to leave the Air Force.

"She didn't like her new boss," Winner-Davis said, referring to President Trump. "She wasn't going to serve in his military."

A trip to Belize

Winner’s departure from the Air Force at the end of last year coincided with another major event in her life: the death of her biological father, the man she’d been largely estranged from.

Ronald Winner was physically decimated by disease, with Reality’s half-sister taking care of him. He died just before Christmas.

The AJC found no obituary for Ronald Winner. “Between Reality and his daughter, they just handled it. There was no service. There wasn’t anything,” her mother said.

Ronald Winner indirectly factored into the bond hearing last week. Prosecutor Solari portrayed Winner as a turncoat who fawned over terrorist leaders, who sought to cover her digital tracks and concoct fake identification documents, and who wanted to “burn the White House down” and then bolt overseas to Nepal or Kurdish territory.

Solari brought up Winner’s Memorial Day weekend trip to Belize, portraying it as a mysterious international movement. “We have little idea what she did there, but she claims to have met with no one,” Solari said.

Reality Winner wasn’t close to her father, who died in December, but she took a trip to Belize to bring closure to their troubled relationship, according to her mother and step-father.

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Winner’s mother and stepfather explained that trip: it was about her father’s death, and his long-ago promise to take his daughters to see Mayan ruins.

“The trip to Belize was to put closure on that, and to fulfill his dream,” Billie Winner-Davis said. “He always wanted to go to Belize. He wanted to see the ruins, and so she did that, to try to do that for him.”

Winner’s social media posts bear that out. On May 27, she posted a photo of herself sitting pensively, a tad forlorn, in front of a Mayan pyramid. “I miss you, Dad,” she wrote. “You would have loved to be here, though I’m sure you would have been bitching about the hot weather every minute.”

She wrote an emotional tribute in an Instagram post the same day, saying, “I still don’t know who I am without you here or how to keep moving forward without the one person who believed unconditionally in everything I want to do in life.”

Reality Winner wasn’t close to her father, who died in December, but she took a trip to Belize to bring closure to their troubled relationship, according to her mother and step-father.

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Life in Augusta

In February, Winner took an analyst job with Alexandria, Va.-based Pluribus International Corp., a contractor for the NSA, assigned to Fort Gordon.

In Augusta, she picked one of the city’s roughest intown neighborhoods to make her home — Harrisburg. She found a small, one-story brick house on the internet and entered a rental agreement without looking at it first, her mother told the AJC.

Inside, she hung crucifixes on the walls and threw Persian rugs on the floors. One wall she decorated with early Beatles album covers. On another, she hung a framed passage from the Quran, written in Arabic, describing the wonders of God. She found her spiritual home at a local Episcopal church.

She put herself through extreme weightlifting sessions at her favorite gym. She’d be there every morning at 5:15 a.m., then return after work and teach a spin class or work out more, said Lane McLendon, a coach at Winner’s gym. She was hardcore, he said, doing dynamic yoga poses while stretching, fasting and lifting heavy weights for her size and gender.

“She would get super upset and yell if she missed a lift,” McLendon said. “Or if she even completed a lift, she would yell in excitement. It would freak you out. She’s so quiet all the time. She became so exponentially loud, just in those split seconds.”

But while most people parlay the CrossFit community into a social life, Winner kept to herself, McLendon said.

“She was super quiet,” he said. “Didn’t have many friends that I knew of. She would have conversations, but she was real real soft-spoken, like she didn’t want to say much. It’d be four- or five-word sentences, and then she’d be done with the conversation.”

Sharpening political views

Winner’s social media posts shed some light on her activities.

On Facebook and Instagram, she mostly shared the mundane and, at times, intimate details of her life. She posted pictures of her pets, what she was eating, her workouts, and the charity runs that she frequently participated in during her time in Maryland.

But while she posted only occasionally about politics on Facebook in recent months, her Twitter feed took on an almost exclusively political tone.

There, she posted disparaging comments about President Trump and voiced support for causes taken up by many progressive millennials.

Her tweets and retweets reveal concerns about climate change, conflicts in the Middle East and racism in America, and she regularly expressed outrage toward Trump over his actions and rhetoric in those arenas. In a January 26 tweet, she expressed support for Native Americans and their allies fighting to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) underneath a lake near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, saying “#cleanwater is still a #privilege in the US. If you don’t think so, you’re part of the problem #NoDAPL #notmypresident.”

She responded to a Twitter post from Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran, a top Middle Eastern adversary, posting, “If our Tangerine in Chief declares war, we stand with you!”

She followed only 50 Twitter accounts, among them that of famed NSA leaker Edward Snowden, several accounts tied to the activist hacker collective Anonymous, and Wikileaks, a site known for attracting and publishing leaked and hacked documents. Other handles she followed included several progressive politicians, the March for Science, the media outlet FiveThirtyEight and “alt” government accounts like AltFDA that voice dissenting views on Trump administration policies.

Reality Leigh Winner rented a house in a tough neighborhood of Augusta when she moved to the city to work at the NSA’s Fort Gordon. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

‘I screwed up’

Winner’s rented house in Augusta has an extra back bedroom that went unused. Her mother said she didn’t like that room. It didn’t sit well with her. The smell. The dead roaches. She kept it empty.

When nearly a dozen FBI agents descended on the house June 3, surprising Winner as she carried groceries into the house, they ushered Winner into that back room while they searched the place, her parents told the AJC.

According to the government, agents discovered a tempest brewing. They found notebooks filled with handwritten notes about wanting to burn down the White House and flee to the Middle East or South Asia, her fawning thoughts on Taliban leaders, instructions on how to anonymously access the dark web — where one can find phony IDs and weapons — and ways to make cell phones virtually untraceable, prosecutors allege.

It wasn’t long before the rigid control Winner had seemingly kept over her life crumbled.

Solari, the prosecutor, said that at first Winner and an agent swapped stories about their dogs. But before long, she was spilling everything to them in a recorded confession.

Winner allegedly told them she took the document on Russian election hacking because she was “mad about some things she had seen in the media, and she wanted to set the facts right.” And she “couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been leaked already,” Solari said.

She also allegedly told agents that they could find a screen shot on her cell phone of a news agency’s document drop site.

Other sloppy moves for a leaker would emerge in the investigation. The government contends she once ran a web query: “Do top secret computers detect when flash drives are inserted?” And she did just that on a top-secret computer while she was still in the Air Force, plugging in a flash drive to see what would happen.

When she later mailed the Russia document off, she sent it off locally, so it had an Augusta postmark, allowing investigators to further narrow down who might have printed off the sensitive report while in contact with the news outlet.

The agents let her call her parents from that back room.

“Basically, she got to tell me that she was in trouble,” her stepfather said. “She was being arrested, and that she would probably be detained. She was frightened and upset, but in control, that’s how she is.”

Over the phone, according to prosecutor Solari, Winner also told her mother something else:

“Mom, those documents, I screwed up.”