Reality Winner: A small-town girl at center of firestorm

Reality Winner during a vacation in Belize from Facebook.

Reality Winner during a vacation in Belize from Facebook.

To get to the tiny Texas town where Reality Winner grew up, start out in San Antonio, point the car toward Mexico and, for about the next two hours, take in an expansive landscape of cattle, crops and oil derricks.

Her now-deleted social media accounts are full of images you might see on most any 20-something’s page — selfies with friends, cuddling with pets, posing with family members.

“Just a reminder on Father’s Day how awesome it is having a dad like Gary Davis,” she posted last year with a photo of herself and her stepfather.

Winner’s talents took her far from Kingsville, Texas, population about 26,000; she turned down a scholarship to Texas A&M University-Kingsville to join the U.S. Air Force, Davis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

But six months after her stint in the service came to an end, Winner, who worked as a contractor for Pluribus International Corp. at a U.S. government facility, stands accused of leaking top secret government intelligence to a media outlet.

Her Saturday arrest was announced on Monday, shortly after The Intercept web site reported it had received a classified report detailing how officials think Russia attempted to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.

Winner could face up to 10 years in prison. While many on social media lambasted her on her now-shuttered Facebook page, she’s drawn the support of some activists and whistleblower Edward Snowden, the former Central Intelligence Agency employee who passed on classified National Security Agency intelligence and is now living in Russia.

"Winner is accused of serving as a journalistic source for a leading American news outlet about a matter of critical public importance," Snowden posted on the Freedom of the Press Foundation's site. "For this act, she has been charged with violating the Espionage Act — a World War I era law meant for spies…it's clear she is neither a threat to public safety nor a flight risk. To hold a citizen incommunicado and indefinitely while awaiting trial for the alleged crime of serving as a journalistic source should outrage us all."

For a supposed spy, Winner didn't exactly live in an electronic bunker. The 25-year-old avidly documented on social media the antics of her pets, her travels to Belize and to her adopted home of Baltimore, her hours in the gym and yoga studio, vegan meals, concerts and the recent death of her biological father. A Twitter account that she supposedly controlled also blasted President Donald Trump's policies, with one post complaining "the most dangerous entry to this country was the orange fascist we let into the White House."

Her feeds document forceful views on climate change, refugees, the war in Syria and other topics. She also showed support for the citizens of one of the nation’s top adversaries.

In response to a post from Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif that Iran would be “unmoved by threats as we derive security from our people,” she wrote, “There are many Americans protesting US govt aggression towards Iran. If our Tangerine in Chief declares war, we stand with you!”

Reality Leigh Winner was charged with allegedly leaking a top secret report to the web site The Intercept.

Credit: Reality Leigh Winner's Instagram

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Credit: Reality Leigh Winner's Instagram

Her social media persona is not an “an accurate portrayal,” Davis said. “She’s a veteran, six years’ service of the Air Force. She received commendations during that time. She’s just a passionate young woman who probably made some mistakes.”

Winner taught yoga classes at a studio in Martinez, just outside Augusta, earning $20 a class, and she worked out regularly at a gym near one of the city's hospitals.

Her students and fellow teachers were in shock Tuesday, studio owner Annalisa Adams said. Throwing away her career — and possibly her freedom — seems totally out of character for the Reality they knew, she said.

“I am profoundly saddened by what this seems to have done to her future,” Adams said. “Every impression I ever got of her was extremely professional, extremely bright. And she seemed very grounded in everything that she was doing.”

One of Winner’s students, Kasi Hall, said she was struck by her teacher’s incredible self-discipline — which showed in her physique.

“Anyone at that athletic level has to have a certain level of work ethic, which I would say likely transcended from her physical work to her career work,” Hall said, speaking to the AJC through Facebook. “I mean, to get a super high security clearance at the young age of 25, she had to have done well in previous jobs and her service to our country, right?”

Reality Leigh Winner was charged with allegedly leaking a top secret report to the web site The Intercept.

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Adams said Winner first contacted her late last year about teaching classes, saying she was moving back to the area. She subbed for another teacher in January and did so well that she earned her own regular classes, and then some.

“She was very much the person that would jump in and sub a class at the last minute if she was available,” Adams said. “All the way to driving over there straight from work, if there was no one else available. Very dependable.”

She said she knew Winner worked for a government contractor. She also knew she had strong political beliefs, but only because she followed her on Facebook. Adams has a policy of students and teachers leaving their political beliefs in the parking lot, and she said Winner never said a word about national news.

Facebook is also the only way Adams knew Winner’s father had died. She never talked about that, either. When Adams saw the post that showed Winner at U.S. Sen. David Perdue’s office in February, she took it as a good sign.

“If she was going to espouse those views, I thought that she seemed to be handling things in a constructive way,” Adams said. “It seemed like she was making her opinions known, but it didn’t seem like something like this would come out of it.”

Glenn Whelan, co-owner of Epic Ultimate Results gym, said he knew her as “Ree,” a fellow fitness buff who was pretty quiet, certainly never outspoken about politics.

“She’d come in, say hi, go to the back and work out,” he said. “She just did her thing and left.”

Winner lives on Battle Row in a poorer stretch of Augusta near John C. Calhoun Expressway, just a few miles east of The Augusta National Golf Club. Around her small brick home are many tired looking bungalows with metal roofs, some boarded up.

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Winner has been living on Battle Row in the hardscrabble Harrisburg section of Augusta, just a few miles east of the Augusta National Golf Club. Around her small brick home are many tired-looking bungalows with metal roofs, some boarded up.

Rudy Volkmann, who lives a few doors down from Winner’s home, said he’d read news stories about the leak, but he had no idea the accused lived in his neighborhood.

“Wow! How about that!” he said.

Several other neighbors declined to comment or said they didn’t know anything about Winner.

One neighbor, remarking on the camera crews and print reporters around Winner’s small house said, “I thought somebody had died down there.”

Winner’s arrest marks the first criminal leak case under the Trump administration. Court documents say she admitted to printing out and mailing top secret documents.

Social media activity reflects the contrast in Winner’s private and now very public life.

A recent post shows her sitting pensively in front of a Mayan pyramid in Belize.

“There is nothing that can fix the hole in my heart that you left behind,” she wrote. “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. I miss you, Dad.”

But on Monday, a Trump supporter posted, “Poor dad would sure be disappointed if he knew you were a Traitor. Don’t worry you’ll make new friends in Prison.”

Under a comment posted by her mother in December — “My baby girl is home!” — someone added: “Sadly she won’t be home again for a LONGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG time.”

Among the insults, there were some messages posted in her defense. One: “Realize Reality had a clearance for a few years prior …Only since Trump became President did she act. Hero!”

Another: “Keep fighting the good fight young lady, you have my support. In a non material way, granted, but you do have my genuine support …”

Staff writer Jill Vejnoska contributed to this story.