Sometimes, as night falls over Greater Manchester, the ingenious adolescent returns to the place where he was stabbed last year, when he was 14. The boy is tall for his age, but slight, with olive skin, a long crooked nose, and dark, intelligent eyes framed by thick black brows poised for flight. The stab wounds still pain him. One in the chest—that was the light wound—and another in the abdomen, six inches deep, which pierced his kidney and liver and necessitated the removal of his gallbladder. It was from this injury that the teenager almost died on the operating table—twice, police tell me. Blood pooled inside the boy’s body cavity, and this restricted the movement of his diaphragm, which stopped the functioning of his lungs. For days he lay on a respirator, treated with painkillers and antibiotics, saying little.
In Wythenshawe Hospital, where he spent more than a week, John asked to see a psychiatrist, but this was Britain, home of the dilatory National Health Service. Despite his mother’s pleas, the teenager was put on a waiting list. A four-month waiting list. When pressed by police, the boy would finally concede, reluctantly and only after changing his story several times, that it was his best friend, Mark, who had stabbed him, though John said he had no idea why. (These are not their real names.)
“I love you, bro,” Mark told his younger friend as he plunged in the knife.
“Mark did it once, stood up, holding me, did it again,” the victim told police. “He was kneeling on me saying, ‘Trust me,’ holding the knife to my stomach…. There was blood coming out.” Somehow or other, the boy added, he found himself dragged once again to his feet, then the knife plunged back in. “Call an ambulance!” John screamed. “I’m dying.”
“Shush…. People will hear, please be quiet,” the older teenager told him.
“You’ve killed me!” screamed John.
“Don’t say that,” begged Mark. “Don’t let that be the last thing you are saying.”
And so John crumpled, a drained, pallid figure muted forever, he thought, by the tall, light-haired boy he considered “perfect” and “out of my league.”
Minutes passed, perhaps as many as 20. Then Mark pulled out the knife and called an ambulance. Some madman had attacked his friend, the boy told the police. Early 20s, wearing a black hooded jacket and black jeans. An all-points bulletin was issued by Detective Chief Inspector Julian Ross, 43, a terse, authoritative figure with an iron jaw and a manner to match. “This was a seemingly unprovoked attack,” he told the media, which were directed to inform the public of the knife-wielding monster, “and we have no idea why this happened.” To this day, a British media Web site carries a picture of John, his engaging, shy smile shadowed by a tender hint of mustache. Next to it is the headline BOY STABBED.
All this took place on June 29, 2003, a very hot Sunday, in a small alleyway in an area that goes by the charming name of Goose Green. At the time of the stabbing the alley led nowhere; it was cut off by a 40-foot drop. It lies off Stamford New Road, close by a shopping mall in the prosperous Manchester suburb of Altrincham, where random stabbings simply don’t occur.
And as far as the police could see, it hadn’t occurred, at least not the way the older boy had said. No madman in a hooded jacket, the authorities quickly realized, would ever be found. No media alarm should have been raised. A closed-circuit camera at the base of the alley had recorded all the foot traffic. As the boys disappeared into the alley, that camera swung around and followed them. After reviewing the tape, the police arrested Mark for attempted murder.
That same camera follows John whenever he revisits the scene of the crime. He ducks in and out of the small brick sandwich shops and coffee bars, passing the hair salon and the little metal statue of two geese. Everything is as it was that June day when Mark carried the six-inch knife they had bought together. John yearns for strangers to recognize him for the celebrity he almost was. “That’s the guy that got stabbed,” one might say. Or, more anxiously, “Are you O.K.?” But all he manages to attract is the curiosity of the local police.
And they have had enough of him.
Four months after the stabbing, the charges were amended. Mark was still accused of attempted murder, to which he ultimately pleaded guilty. But this time John also was charged—with inciting murder. His own murder. This is a legal novelty in Britain, and very likely throughout the world. “Yes, I’m not aware of any other case where somebody’s incited somebody to murder themselves,” Nicholas Clarke, the prosecutor, declares in his Manchester office, each syllable clipped with derision. It is clear he doesn’t have much sympathy for the boy whose brush with death prompted the unprecedented charge. “I would say, of the two teenagers, John was the more wicked and more criminally culpable.”
For months John had corresponded in an Internet chat room with Mark, a bland-featured 16-year-old who possesses as his most striking traits a vast forehead, a tendency to open every sentence with “Ermmm,” and, it would later be claimed, an almost infinite store of credulity. Every story John spun on the chat-room site, every slithering creation dropped into the ocean of the Internet, Mark avidly reeled in. Invention was so easy, “the equivalent of taking heroin,” John thought. The older boy’s gullible nature stirred in him conflicting emotions: love foremost, but very likely also a shade of contempt.
It was “like feeding a dog,” John would later explain.
As for himself, John was a virtual Scheherazade, a gifted fabricator. “Staggering,” said the judge who would hear his case. “Skilled writers of fiction would struggle to conjure up a plot such as arises here.” From John’s laptop emerged what the prosecutor would subsequently describe as “an Internet soap opera moving from one scene to another, each character and story line more fantastic than the last.” The plots were extracted from what John had seen both in films and in life: thick with treachery, villainy, and betrayal. They were empty of hope.
John had always been “a very gentle, slightly withdrawn personality,” his lawyer, Jonathan Goldberg, would inform the prominent Manchester judge David Maddison in his courtroom, but harbored, despite his introversion, dreams of someday becoming a barrister himself. On the whole, Goldberg thought, a teenager who could spin such tales was headed in the right direction. “Your Lordship may think he would make a very good barrister.” (His Lordship, as it happened, did not.)
Certainly John possessed the determination and industry necessary for success. From four in the afternoon to seven in the morning, he typed his inventions into his laptop. Indefatigably.
When he stopped going downstairs for meals, his slight frame shrank even further. “I’d stopped eating in March,” he would later explain. “Just wanted to be on the Internet, that’s all that mattered.” He found he was never tired. He had “a buzz,” he told one of the innumerable experts who would eventually interview him. “It was like satisfying a craving, you had to be on there, you had to be doing it.” Perhaps it was “warped” to spend so much time in chat rooms, he reflected, sleepless and typing ceaselessly. That, however, was not how it seemed at the time. It seemed normal.
But to the authorities who later analyzed and re-analyzed what was written, none of this was ordinary. Fifty-eight thousand lines of text were extracted for scrutiny, a fraction of the total. “The amount of data on those two computers was about 133 gigabytes, masses of data,” Sally Hogg, a police analyst, tells me. If converted into a paper pile, she adds, “it would stretch, I think, 46,000 feet high.”
Practically everyone I speak to about this singular boy and his case demonstrates toward him a high level of antipathy, with the notable exception of Goldberg, who compares this story to Romeo and Juliet. The lawyer is distinctly impressed by his client. “What emerges from this is an extraordinarily persuasive, inventive boy!” A person, says the lawyer, whose future may well turn out to be “brilliant.”
Most views are considerably less indulgent. A “matrix of deceit” is how the prosecution described John’s maneuvers to engineer his own death, inveigling an unsuspecting friend into “a web of deception.” In contrast to such frightening cunning, the blundering stupidity of Mark—the actual knife wielder—comes as something of a relief. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say he brainwashed my client,” says David Hatton, Mark’s attorney, who has nothing but compassion for the boy.
The media swarmed all over the case, fighting, in vain, to extract from the principals every last ounce of information. But here they were thwarted at every turn by the peculiar British legal system. A court order, citing the age of the culprits, would not permit any media outlet—including Vanity Fair—to identify the boys and required every publication to use the pseudonyms “John” and “Mark.” The newspapers and television networks, which at the behest of law enforcement had terrified the region with tales of a crazed would-be murderer loose in Manchester, weren’t even permitted to correct these false allegations. Thus, the stories that emerged about John were a feeble compilation of bare-bones facts and judgments spoon-fed by the authorities. The boy was devious. Brilliant. Deceitful.
But more than 500 pages of Internet-chat transcripts, 50 pages of psychological reports, and excerpts from a score of police interviews land in my possession. These documents sketch a different, complex picture of John, victim and criminal. If the 14-year-old painstakingly arranged for his own execution in an MSN chat room and chose Mark for the job, it wasn’t out of wickedness. It was out of fear. In the universe he inhabited, there was, John felt, no one to sustain him—except on the Internet, which he peopled with characters of his own device. These characters spoke his language, a blend of northern-England vulgarisms and the cheerful adolescent code of chat rooms. And they shared his mission: to keep Mark perpetually in contact with their creator, John.
Thus, he concocted more than a half-dozen fantasy personas, four of them women. Much later, after months of wrong turns and huge confusion, the police would be very impressed by his skill. Threads of plots, no matter how complicated or absurd, were never dropped. A character’s most improbable revelations would, inevitably, be confirmed by another. The female creations came across, police decided, as archetypes of femininity, and not simply to a 16-year-old mind. It is instructive, for example, to analyze the dialogue of the character John called Janet Dobinson (No. 3 in the hierarchy of the British secret service, as she informs correspondents), on whom John clearly lavished special effort. Being middle-aged, she is “not with teenage talk,” Dobinson admonishes Mark in the chat room, and she requests communication in more adult language. Moreover, he was not to stray from her explicit instructions, because: “4 Agents watching you now … “
“Each style of conversation was totally different—I really believed it,” marvels Sally Hogg, the police analyst. “That was the stumbling point for me. At no point could I find he made a mistake.” John was careful to find an excuse for a certain character to disappear so a new one could enter the online chat. “And sometimes it would be a week or a few weeks before that character came back,” always without a hitch, Hogg says. “The continuity and his memory were phenomenal.”
Nonetheless, there were enough absurdities to warrant re-examination. Various characters shared the same last name—or, alternatively, although claiming to be siblings, didn’t share the same last name. Two of them ceased writing after meeting up with sorry fates: rape, murder, a coma, a baby born during the coma—plot twists so messy and operatic that police had to provide themselves with stacks of names and huge piles of colored charts to sort things out.
Disaster awaited one young female character, it was noticed, whenever a love-struck Mark attempted to rendezvous with her (“which could not happen due to her not existing,” as David Boulger, a probation officer, crisply observed in his report). Of these invented creatures, the most passionate and durable was the high-ranking spy Dobinson. Although evidently preoccupied with problems at the most exalted levels of government (“Hiya Babes. Very busy, this thing with the royal party being disturbed, u will know about it … ” ), she was always available to Mark. It was she who ordered the teenager to carry out John’s murder.
“The Internet’s a very dangerous place to be,” the prosecutor says mildly. “In fact, I think MSN themselves should perhaps take some responsibility. There’s no supervision on a lot of these chat rooms. You can take any identity you want.”
But for all his facility at invention John wanted for himself no identity at all. That is what lies at the heart of this story. His e-mail addresses contain no hint of his real name. They are proud, existential boasts stuffed with lies: [email protected] and [email protected] “I wanted to be dead,” John told his therapist—he finally has one.
‘Uwant me 2 … kill him … ?? that’s wot ur askin me?” an incredulous Mark wrote the British agent Janet Dobinson on June 28, 2003. That was the day before the attempted murder.
“And jus leave him 2 die …. Wot shud i say 2 him? Stand there a [minute] while i stab u?”
“You love him,” came the response.
“I love him. But this has 2 be done?”
“Take him [to] a quiet place,” advised the British agent. Dobinson was, as Mark had been informed, 44 and authoritative. She liked to issue instructions.
“Buy knife…. Glove.”
“Where can u buy knives frm by the way?”
“Boots,” typed Dobinson, referring to a drugstore chain which sells many household articles, including, as it turns out, Sabatier kitchen knives. Dobinson had answers for everything. And quite a few demands. Mark, for example, was to stab his friend while saying: “Love you bro … Make sure he knows you love him.”
John felt himself to be so profoundly unlovable that he entered the MSN chat room not under his own name but as a teenage beauty named Rachel West. It was through this character that he introduced himself to Mark, who promptly fell hard. Rachel’s desirability was enhanced by the attachment of a promising photograph—from some source, “although we don’t know who,” Hatton points out. A great deal of thought went into her gestation. “He said if he had not created Rachel, then Mark would not have wanted to get close to him,” Dr. Kirsty Smedley, a Manchester psychologist, wrote after interviewing John subsequent to his arrest. “He said it was important to him to keep Mark as his friend and he was not confident that Mark would be interested in just speaking to John.”
Thus, Rachel was only the beginning of what evolved into an intricate Internet folie à six. Shortly after her appearance, John suddenly emerged in the chat room as himself (saying that he was Rachel’s brother), and these two were followed by still other fantastical alter egos equipped with wild backgrounds but dull, repetitive names: Lyndsey East, Rachel East, Kevin McGregory, Dave McNeil, Janet Dobinson. A girl in distress, a homosexual blackmailer, a genial schoolboy, a top spy, a rapist, and a murderer—everyone checked in regularly with the alternately enraptured and horrified teenager Mark. They had desires they expressed frankly, ardently, threateningly, as the occasion warranted.
Mark’s world—until then packed mainly with soccer, passable grades, and admiring schoolgirls—was alight with these passionate intruders. He was the only child of working-class parents, well mannered and respectful, bound, he thought, for a local business college. John would later claim that Mark had declared him to be “like a brother”—but, as it turned out, he was a lot more than that. Behind the laptop screen John was Mark’s own personal deity, industriously enhancing certain elements of suburban life while eliminating others. Suddenly the “postman, ice cream man, teachers, drivers” were all revealed to be secret agents, checking to see if he, Mark, might be smart enough to join their ranks. Nothing was impossible. If Mark played his cards right, wrote John, “by may next year you will be a millionaire.”
As for John, he, too, was getting what he wanted from his friend, as Dr. Smedley would later recount: “He described a feeling of emotional intimacy he had never experienced before.”
Which wasn’t, unfortunately, saying much.
At age four, John found a book with his birth date in it, next to a different last name. That was how the child discovered that the man who had been living with his mother was not his father, as he had supposed. No man in his life had ever meant much to him: he had no recollection of his biological father—who had, John’s mother later told her son’s therapist, not only abducted their son when he was a baby but also abused her physically and sexually. As for the father’s successor, he was, John declared, “bad on drugs.”
Then the stepfather packed up when John was seven, and he, his mother, and his younger sister had to move to a smaller house. He remembers sitting on the stairs of this more confined house, listening to his mother weeping in the living room. Feelings of depression overwhelmed him. He took a cocktail stick and scraped it against his wrist.
School, despite his excellent grades, was equally desolate. “Paki” and “gay” were some of the names hurled at him—the first because “I think my dad must have been Asian,” the second “because most of my friends were girls.” About these taunts, which were ceaseless in elementary school, he said nothing to anyone. Even when John passed his exams (much to his surprise) and gained entrance to a prestigious grammar school, the names continued unabated. “I bottled it in,” he told the Manchester psychiatrist Sue Bailey.
Privately, grief and shame aren’t so easy to contain. He routinely washes parts of his body in a precise, unvarying order, no part cleaned more than once. He dresses in a manner equally rigid. One time he tried to depart from this routine, Bailey reported, but “the resulting anxiety was such that he had to go back and dress all over again.” Objects in his bedroom must be arranged in neat, parallel lines, toiletries and desk items perfectly aligned.
Also, John is certain that people are always talking about him once they believe him to be out of earshot. “If it is strangers, they are saying I am a Paki and a terrorist,” he says.
His mother, an office manager, also disappoints him, he suggested to therapists. Two years ago, she found another companion, a plumber who moved in with them, and it seemed to John that this newcomer was receiving more attention than he was. Eight months later he began spending a lot more time on the Internet, the teenager said. Sometimes John would approach their bedroom and listen quietly, his ear pressed to the door. He wanted to hear what his mother and her companion were saying about him.
“He didn’t feel part of the family,” his psychiatrist realized. But what could John do? There was, the boy said, “nowhere to go.” Except to his room. There he wielded control over everything—especially his laptop. But it is not a one-way street. Asked if anyone had ever been able to exert control over his private thoughts, the boy said yes.
The Internet did something like that to him, said John. Under the keyboard of his computer he kept a kitchen knife.
At 13, upon receiving a laptop from his mother (a homework enhancer, she thought), John became a habitué of the Internet. By February 2003 he was contacting 20 to 30 people a night in chat rooms; within a week he had found Mark. Once John had introduced himself as Rachel’s brother, the two boys just clicked, John was later to explain. For instance, both liked Catch Me if You Can, a movie in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays an adolescent con man who effortlessly assumes multiple identities. Another element the teenagers had in common: a Webcam, which allowed them to view each other and any other chat-room member who had one of the cameras.
By April 3, 2003, Mark had grown so smitten with the character Rachel, whom John had equipped with her own e-mail address ([email protected]), that her creator grew alarmed. Mark was, he told John, falling in love, ceaselessly trying to arrange a rendezvous with the girl. Something had to be done to forestall the moment of truth. John returned to his laptop.
As Mark would discover on the chat-room site, Rachel, along with her “brother” John, were in a state of ceaseless peril, threatened with abduction and rape by a self-proclaimed homosexual stalker named Kevin—John’s fourth character. To prevent such tragedy, Mark was told, he had to perform sexual tasks in view of the Webcam to gratify the stalker himself. It is this demand that catches my eye when I open the 15 pounds of chat-room text that I had received. The character Rachel is writing to Mark:
“Wank … you wanking on camera for them?”
“Wot else can i do?”
“Omg why is he making u wank?”
“Cos he is gay.”
“You dont have to do anything for me.”
“I do Rach. I (L) u … “
“I (L) u 2.”
This passage incensed Manchester authorities. “So when he’d gone through the humiliating task of masturbating on the Webcam, ‘Kevin’ then abducted his girlfriend. The trauma for him!” says Hogg, the police analyst. Within short order, a devastated Mark was to learn his virtual girlfriend was dead—gang-raped and then murdered by the mythical stalker and his cohorts. “He manipulated him,” says Hogg. “To get him to do what ‘they’ wanted!”
John would later concede that he knew exactly how much he had traumatized Mark by engineering the death of Rachel and permitting the ostensible killer to describe her last moments to Mark himself:
“Kicked all her stomach. put her head under water. Then out. Freezing cold…. And she stained my sheets when she was bleeding! U werent there for her. However much she screamed for u.”
“How cud I have been there when i didnt kno where she woz,” the bewildered adolescent wrote back.
If John was being eaten away by his passion for the Internet world, Mark was devoured. “Angry and upset” was how he later described his reaction to the news about his “girlfriend.” Previously acceptable grades at his relatively undemanding high school dropped to C’s and F’s, Hatton, his attorney, tells me. His friend John marveled at such a trusting, suggestible nature. “I was surprised Mark believed it all,” John would later admit. “I would say things that wouldn’t make sense.” Mark never noticed. “It’s a hard life!” he wrote when told his true love had been raped.
But the problem was Mark wasn’t the only one in love. The virtual universe John had so carefully constructed was fast slipping out of control. The older boy he had “looked up to and wanted for myself,” as John would later express it, had fallen for an imaginary girl. And not just one. “John said he invented other personas in the chat room in order to keep Mark interested in him,” one therapist was later to learn.
Into the chat room, therefore, came a new character, Lyndsey East, equipped with all that was required for instant membership—[email protected] But once Mark began expressing interest in her as well, she, too, evaporated, ostensibly killed by the British government on April 27, 2003. As solace, John eventually allowed Rachel to return from the dead, at which time it was explained that she had simply slipped into “a coma,” and had, moreover, despite her previous condition—and the fact that she had never actually met him—given birth to Mark’s baby. Then she again vanished, to be succeeded by the flashier secret-service agent Janet Dobinson, a doting mother but love-starved, married (unhappily) to an ogre from whom she was eager to escape.
“Look at how convincing these personalities are!” says Goldberg, John’s lawyer. He might be talking about a particularly apt pupil. “Brilliant for an e-mail chat!”
About his bent for invention John was manifestly ambivalent. On the one hand, the teenager was, as he would later acknowledge, “loving it.” On the other, he felt completely trapped. And, on occasion, guilty. (“Wud u h8 me if i told u that i pretended to be rach 1nite?” a short-lived character inquires of Mark right after Rachel’s “death.” It is a spasm of regret that goes unmentioned by police and lawyers alike in my conversations with them. Nor do the multiple therapists appear to have noticed it.)
“Isolated” was the word John used to describe his existence at this time. With whom could he discuss the activities of his imaginary heroines and villains? Not with his school chums or teachers. Certainly not with his mother, who noticed that the more time her son spent online the more he was becoming “secretive” and snappish. Mark, who “liked me loads,” as John realized, would certainly cease correspondence if the truth emerged about his virtual romantic interests.
“Bear in mind this is a love story—that’s why he wanted to commit suicide,” says Goldberg. “An unrequited-love story.”
But it wasn’t just the virtual Mark whom John loved. The two boys were beginning to meet in person. John saw his friend surrounded by admiring girls. A new feeling took hold: “Wanting my life to end” was how John described it. If he were dead, he told his therapist much later, then nothing more could happen to him. He knew he was addicted, and not just to the Internet.
At school his geography teacher saw a change in her pupil. “He would become withdrawn. And he would sit and read a book rather than talk with his friends,” she revealed. These books “were about mental illness,” the teacher observed. Stunned and uncomprehending, she reported her observations to John’s mother, who agreed that her son’s behavior had been very strange recently.
Four weeks later, the boy went missing from school, his first act of truancy ever. John’s mother discovered her son was at the home of an older boy named Mark, about whom she knew nothing.
Around the time of this incident, she slipped into her son’s room and checked his laptop, where she found that Mark was a frequent on-screen presence. Also in evidence were communications to both boys from someone who claimed to be a 44-year-old top administrator in the British secret service. John’s mother, a small, plump woman, who had experienced more than her share of life’s anguish, felt a heightened sense of alarm. This Dobinson woman claimed to have urgent business with a very lofty crowd.
“I GOT THE QUEEN OUT OF BED!”
“No offence but wot does she do neway?” wondered Mark.
There was no reply to this question. What appeared on the screen was a revelation of flattering significance:
“This is the UK’s biggest secret … I CAN TRUST YOU … WOULD IT BE POSSIBLE TO LOOK AT YOU WHILE I TELL YOU?”
Dobinson, too, was interested in watching sexual activity via the Webcam.
John’s mother wasted no time. The modem was removed from John’s laptop and the computer itself exiled to her room. This, however, made little difference; at night the boy would manage to retrieve and re-assemble the laptop and modem. The mother also insisted on meeting Mark’s parents, who lived in the middle-class suburb of Stockport, about four miles away.
Then Mark was invited for a sleepover at John’s. John’s family lives in a neat two-story brick house with a white front door; above it a thread of blue paint edges a six-pointed star composed of leaded glass. The house, which is estimated to be worth $400,000, lies in a slightly more prosperous neighborhood than the one inhabited by Mark’s family, where each brick structure is an echo of its modest neighbor. In John’s small bedroom, which overlooks a small garden of aloe and yew, the boys played videos. (It was not the most felicitous evening: the videos were porn, and the two boys engaged in oral sex that night.) On the whole, John’s mother honestly couldn’t see what her bright son saw in his less academically inclined new friend. Both sets of parents decided there would be no more sleepovers.
One final thing, both mothers told their sons. There was to be no further communication with the peculiar Janet Dobinson, allegedly of the British secret service. Ever.
“Could you kill someone close to you? You might be tsted on that later on.”
“Erm … I duno…. I prob wud but i wanna kno y…. I havent really thought about it.”
“Well think please.”
“Yeah i cud. Theres my answere.”
Young John—as the hopelessly credulous Mark was informed by the spy Dobinson—had a slow-growing but terminal brain tumor. However tragic for its victim, the condition also had devastating consequences for the British secret service, which needed John dead, she explained, in record time. Why hasten the inevitable? “IM NOW IN A POSITION TO TELL YOU WHY,” Dobinson wrote back. John was worth exactly £568 billion. At the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean lay a “huge massive safe” containing “the worlds richest jewels.” Access to that chest was available only through John, who had the combination. In his head.
“Only he can walk through the door. It will not allow anyone else.”
“Not even queen?”
“Aint it murder when u kill sum1?”
“Not in your case.”
It didn’t take the older boy very long to overcome his inhibitions. For one thing, Agent Dobinson was promising extraordinary rewards for his service to the Crown: £80 million, she estimated, sexual favors, a career in the intelligence service cemented by a contract. Mark was given the number 47695 and ordered to “terminate” his friend. (After this, there was to be a meeting between Mark and a grateful Prime Minister Tony Blair.) For another, John, writing under his own name in a more adolescent style, sent Mark careful confirmation of his supposedly fatal condition:
“I got a letter today, from my doc, when i went in a few weeks ago cos i was depressed and shit … i got a brain thingy tumour but its big.”
“I couldn’t go home and carry on with this fantasy,” John would later confide. “My life was on the Internet. I didn’t like it, I couldn’t undo it, it was all fake, taking someone else in.” He was, he told his probation officer, “trapped” in the virtual world, with no way out. To lose that world meant losing his friend.
However much John longed for death at this point, there was evidently a small portion of him that held back: “6969 abort code ok?! must stop st8 away with 6969,” Dobinson warned Mark, thus neatly uniting her creator’s two major obsessions, sex and death. If those numbers were uttered on the sunbaked streets of Altrincham, by the shopping center, Mark was told, John would be allowed to live.
But this was just a brief spasm of fear. (As things turned out, John would never utter the abort code to Mark: “Well I knew that he had to do it because I sort of told him,” he later told police.)
In the meantime, Dobinson added, Mark was to make sure to buy the right type of knife. He was the kind of teenager who needed every last detail spelled out. No pocket knives, she told him.
“It has to be big to stab him and make him bleed to death.”
Then Mark should call an ambulance—but “not st8 away.” He had to wait.
“When will I c u?” the perpetually besotted Mark asked her.
“At the police station,” Dobinson assured him. In her line of work, after all, she was expert at assuming all sorts of identities. Lately, for example, she’d doubled as an airline stewardess. When the murder was completed, Mark would, Dobinson promised, be in very good hands: “I will be a ‘detective superintendent.'”
Detective Chief Inspector Julian Ross of the Greater Manchester police force gazed at the mountains of chat-room printouts in utter dismay. On the one hand, the police were in luck: Mark’s computer contained software that permitted retrieval of much of the chat-room dialogue between the two boys—such sophisticated software is rarely on the home computers of unsophisticated adolescents, and it is possible the boy didn’t know of its existence. In addition, police managed to recover dialogue from “unallocated clusters,” data in storage space the computer is no longer using for active files.
On the other hand, for whom exactly were Ross and his computer experts supposed to be looking? A ring of pedophiles? Murderers? School bullies who had previously targeted the younger boy? Precise details of the June 29 stabbing, down to the kitchen knife, appeared on the MSN chat-room site right up until one day before the crime, police noticed. “And that caused us some major concern,” Ross says. “We couldn’t get our heads around it.” Apparently a girl named Rachel had signed in to the chat room initially. But was there a Rachel in real life? “There was no verification,” Ross says. “And so if you are talking about safety, that’s one of the big dangers. There’s no safeguards whatsoever.”
To make matters worse, the police went out and arrested a shop assistant with the same name as one of the characters—only, the poor girl was perfectly innocent.
For three months there would be no major reduction in bafflement. Sally Hogg, the police analyst, recalls that “there were 193 separate e-mail addresses” culled from the computers. But “the problem with the MSN chat room is we didn’t know whether there were, say, 98 individuals or one person using 98 e-mail addresses.”
Mark was no help at all. At the boy’s second interview, Ross recalls, Mark finally confessed to the stabbing. “He said he’d done it because he’d heard voices.” An arid pause. “So we said, ‘Fine. Thanks very much. Off you go.'” Back Mark went to a juvenile-detention center.
Intriguingly, the boy never spoke up at this point to reveal that, as he had stabbed his friend only under orders from the British secret service, he was entitled to release. There were no demands to see Janet Dobinson, who had sworn that she would engineer his freedom. No mention of sunken treasure, fatal tumors, or Tony Blair. And that raises the question: How much of this elaborately constructed Internet fantasy did Mark really believe, at heart? All of it? Some of it? None of it?
Hatton, Mark’s barrister, concedes that when he first met his client “he didn’t find it easy to explain to me why he had fallen for it and been so stupid.” Nonetheless, he is certain of Mark’s sincerity. The lawyer suspects that, on being arrested, Mark “was still believing he was acting on behalf of the British secret service, and held a fear if he said anything he might be in danger himself.”
The prosecutor thinks otherwise. Had Mark been truly convinced he worked for the spy agency, “he would have said it at the outset,” when he was arrested.
John, too, had his suspicions about the degree of his friend’s credulity. “Mark must have known at some point that these characters were not real,” he later told a therapist. But he could not say when the moment of enlightenment would have come for his friend.
Indeed, for all his love for Mark, who was languishing in confinement for eight months while John recuperated at home, the younger boy remained rigidly unforthcoming about his own participation in the scheme. When pressed, he told law enforcers only as much as he suspected they already knew—or might soon discover. Hogg recalls that the boy “brought into play different people whom we would later find. He brought into play Janet Dobinson”—a spy, said John. But that was because police had possession of the computers and were bound to find out about her anyway.
As Hogg sorted for clues through the stacks of transcripts of Internet chat, however, she noticed a repetition of a certain word. The word was “mybye,” and it was used by John, Kevin, Dobinson, and Lyndsey. Not a spelling or grammatical error, Hogg decided. A deliberate stylistic variation of “maybe,” shared by four supposedly different people. Odd that Dobinson used it. Who was she really, anyway?
“The aim of it all was to find Janet Dobinson,” says Ross. “The penny clicked—and I won’t forget it—when we said, ‘All right. Let’s just go over again where Janet Dobinson’s been.’ We finally saw that the last person to use the laptop at John’s house [before the stabbing] was Janet Dobinson.”
In October 2003, three months after the arrest and detention of Mark, authorities would discover that someone by the name of Dobinson logged on to John’s laptop with a password at a time when only John was at home. Sally Hogg went directly to the prosecutor with the news. He, in turn, went to Judge Maddison. There wasn’t just one teenager to charge in the attempted murder of young John, said Clarke, there were two. The second was John himself. That month the boy was arrested by police minutes before setting off for school. He seemed to have half expected their arrival.
“What’s the charge?” wondered the judge.
“Incitement to murder,” said the prosecutor. “And as nobody’s ever been charged with inciting his own murder, it’s a novelty.”
“Bizarre,” conceded the judge.
Mark was in the courtroom, listening to Clarke sketch the full account of the story in which Mark himself was such a major participant—and of which he knew so little. In the months since the stabbing, he had been working out regularly at the juvenile-detention-center gym; he had grown muscular, hard.
As Clarke spoke about how John had manipulated the older boy, deploying a stream of imaginary virtual characters to lure Mark into carrying out his murder, he sneaked a look at Mark’s face. The boy was, no mistaking it, aghast. The beautiful Rachel West, whom he had loved, wooed, and honestly mourned, was John—as was Kevin, who reveled in the bloody details of her gang rape and murder. Lyndsey East, who had briefly enchanted him and then disappeared without a word of good-bye, was John. Janet Dobinson, who had watched him masturbating on a Webcam, and who had promised him a lifetime of wealth and glamour, was John. The ice-cream vendors and shop assistants engaged in ceaseless surveillance of Mark: all John. The world he had known was John, written, produced, and directed by John.
“I’ve been a fool,” said Mark.
At the end of May, the teenagers, their lawyers, and the press gathered in Judge Maddison’s courtroom, where neither boy so much as glanced at the other. Both pleaded guilty and received, to their patent relief, probation. When the sentence came down, Mark winked at his mother, and Sally Hogg, whose work had uncovered the degree of his manipulation by John, wept for the duller, more susceptible boy. “I just thought, It could have been my son,” she says.
There were conditions made: no unsupervised Internet sessions for either boy, no further contact between them. Tales were told of instant transformations. Since seeing a psychologist, John’s mother informed the court, John had been getting along nicely with her live-in companion. Moreover, added the mother, despite his earlier homosexual leanings, John now had “a girlfriend.” At which point, one local reporter informs me, “Everyone in the press put down their pens and pads.” They might as well have burned them.
Only a part of this amazing story was ever revealed to the British public. Almost nothing consequential came out, as the lawyer representing the Manchester Evening News, the Daily Mail, and The Sun complained.
For example, although the media had named John as a stabbing victim and published his photograph less than a year earlier, no one in Britain would ever be allowed to learn that he had tried to engineer his own execution that hot June day in Goose Green: “As far as the public in south Manchester are concerned there is at large … a crazed knifeman who murderously attacked a 14-year-old,” said the newspaper lawyer. “And the public, in the submissions of the press, are entitled to be told the truth.”
Not in Britain, however. Even though, thanks to the Internet, anyone who wishes can access all relevant information. Just a few well-chosen words typed into Google are enough to call up some media stories identifying John as a stabbing victim last year, as well as other articles, more recent, revealing that in fact the victim incited his own attempted murder. Only in the second instance is John’s real name excised from accounts. It is a paradox that seems to have escaped the British judiciary.
In the absence of factual press reports, John feels at liberty to craft, for the benefit of his girlfriend, fabulous new tales, starring himself. He has told his therapist about his lies to his girlfriend. Someone stabbed him in Goose Green for revenge, he told her, because he, John, had identified a killer on the loose. Perhaps his girlfriend has access to the Internet; she doesn’t believe him, John reports.
The mere thought of Mark reduces the boy to tears. He misses him terribly, even while recognizing, as he puts it, “the friendship with Mark was fake.” It wasn’t John whom Mark loved, the boy knows. “Because he had the friendship with Rachel and Janet.”
Where does he belong? John wonders. Not at home: “It doesn’t suit me, being part of a family environment, being sucked in,” he says.
He doesn’t think he will ever get married, much less have children. He couldn’t imagine, he says, being stuck with the same person his whole life.