He grew frightened when his schoolmate put the knife to his throat, while his 15-year-old girlfriend shot video with her cellphone.
“I thought she was going to cut me. I was like, ‘Please stop,’ ” said the 16-year-old autistic boy, whose alleged abuse by two girls from his Southern Maryland high school made headlines around the world. The case triggered outrage in the teens’ rural community and consternation among advocates for children with disabilities.
Yet even amid his fear, he yearned for the girls’ friendship. And still does. The teen — speaking publicly for the first time about what happened to him — remains more concerned about protecting his relationship with the girls than about what authorities have charged them with doing to him.
The high-functioning sophomore, whose parents agreed to allow him to be identified by his middle name, Michael, described the knife incident as “a game gone wrong. It was a sick game, kind of creepy. But they didn’t have a serious intention about killing me.”
There were other menacing games. On Valentine’s Day, the girls allegedly took Michael to a frozen pond near his home in St. Mary’s County and persuaded him to fetch a stray basketball on the icy water, according to his account and court documents. Within minutes, he said, he had crashed through the ice. He clambered back up and fell a second time, screaming. Neither girl tried to help, he said.
Once again, the incident was recorded on his girlfriend’s cellphone, furnishing a chronicle of alleged assaults that authorities are using in the prosecution of the two Chopticon High School students. Lauren A. Bush, 17, was charged as an adult; the 15-year-old whom Michael calls his girlfriend was charged as a juvenile. (The Washington Post generally does not name juveniles charged with crimes.)
Michael would like the charges dropped against the girls he still calls friends. But his parents want Bush tried as an adult just as fervently as their only child wants her forgiven.
“It really makes me upset that my parents want to see them in jail,” he said. “Because I really like them.” But he also acknowledged that he felt “coerced” by the girls at the pond. He nearly froze to death, he said. And on the way home, they didn’t let him ride with them in the warm car.
“They put me in the trunk,” Michael recalled. “They didn’t want to get the interior wet.”
When the St. Mary’s County’s Sheriff’s Department arrested the girls in March, the charging documents described assaults so disturbing that Michael’s parents aren’t sure they want to see the video footage.
“My son is a staunch defender of his tormentors; it’s embarrassing,” said Michael’s father, a federal government contracting analyst. “He may be more disabled than I convinced myself that he was and maybe more lost than I realized. That’s something I am going to have to deal with on a later day. Right now, I am trying to get justice for him and others like him.”
In addition to the images of the knife being held to Michael’s throat in the kitchen of their tiny rancher, another clip allegedly shows Bush kicking Michael in the groin and dragging him by his hair. A third video allegedly reveals the girls trying to push Michael into having sex with his family’s dog.
The details created a furor online. Chopticon students and people across the country vented on Twitter, sharing stories with Bush’s police mug shot, a link to the 15-year-old girl’s Facebook page, and a Web site where the girls’ photos, their home addresses and phone numbers were published. An online petition demanded that prosecutors charge Bush and Michael’s girlfriend with a hate crime.
After the arrests, Chopticon Principal Garth Bowling posted a letter on the school Web site, alerting parents that a “serious community offense” involving students had taken place and that any questions should be directed to the sheriff’s department.
Michael Wyant, the school system’s director of safety and security, also emphasized that the alleged assaults didn’t occur at Chopticon. Even so, he said, “we want to make sure nothing like this happens again.”
This month, the 15-year-old girl pleaded guilty in juvenile court to second-degree assault and displaying an obscene photograph of a boy. The sophomore, whose mother declined to comment, remains in a juvenile detention center.
Bush, a junior, was charged as an adult with first-degree assault, false imprisonment and child-pornography solicitation, and faces up to 80 years in prison if convicted. She has been on house arrest, but on Monday she reports to a state juvenile detention center for several weeks of psychological evaluation, her attorney Brian Thompson said.
The Bushes, who are seeking to have their daughter’s trial transferred to juvenile court, hope those tests convince a St. Mary’s County Circuit Court judge that the girl should not be tried as an adult.
Autistic children are four times as likely to be bullied as kids without a disability, according to a 2012 study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
“It’s the people who are mainstreamed who are the most vulnerable because they’re interacting with non-disabled peers, and he’s an easy target,” said Laraine Glidden, a board member of the Arc of Southern Maryland, a nonprofit organization that supports families dealing with developmental disabilities. “It’s possible the girls recognized that something was a little bit different with him, and they could exert control over the boy.”
Bush’s parents, Donna and Larry Bush, said their daughter never intended to seriously harm Michael and that she should not have been charged as an adult and subjected to the online attacks she has endured. The girl struggles academically and has poor judgment, they said.
“This boy has more brains than Lauren [and the 15-year-old girl] put together,” said Donna Bush, a hospital lab associate who described her daughter as remorseful. “She hugs me and says, ‘I am sorry.’ ” When her mother asks about what happened, the girl sobs.
Late last year, Michael began courting the 15-year-old girl with handwritten love letters. He delivered them to her in the hallways of Chopticon, a 1,600-
student high school about a half-hour’s drive from Naval Air Station Patuxent River.
“I said she was pretty,” Michael said, “and that I wanted to be with her.”
Bush, a Chopticon cheerleader, was her friend, and the three of them began hanging out together, he said. At some point, he told them that he was autistic, and the girls shrugged it off.
Children with autism often struggle with social interaction and communication, but the degree of their disability can range from very mild to severe. Some autistic children do not speak; others have higher-than-average IQs and can talk for hours about topics that interest them.
Nearly 6 feet tall and skinny, with long sideburns and shaggy hair, Michael has no obvious physical or mental impairment from his autism, although he’s allowed to leave classes five minutes early to avoid the crowds and ease his anxiety. He has a small group of friends, is learning to drive and sometimes hunts with his father. He loves playing video games such as Gran Turismo, which simulates the experience of driving advanced race cars. His best class is English, and he recently scored a 192 out of 200 on a test.
But his autism, which was diagnosed years ago, affects his memory and his ability to interpret social cues, according to school system evaluations that his parents shared with The Washington Post. He struggles with others’ facial expressions, tone of voice and jokes.
“He and the girls must have started out as friends,” said Michael’s mother. “But eventually, they thought, ‘Maybe we can have some fun with him.’ Somewhere along the way, they got his trust.”
Late last year, Michael’s parents noticed that the money in his bank account was gradually disappearing. Michael, they learned, was taking the girls out to movies and restaurants, and paying for gas as well.
Then, at the end of January, Michael came home with his eyebrows shaved off, and his mother grew alarmed. She e-mailed a Chopticon school official, worried that Michael had been bullied into it by his girlfriend. “When I asked [Michael], he said that his girlfriend did it,” the mother wrote the educator. “I asked if it was his idea or did he lose a bet or something. He just sort of smiled and wouldn’t say why they did it.”
The school official called the mother and said her son was “fine” and not being teased about the eyebrows.
On Valentine’s Day, Michael’s parents returned home from work and asked why his clothes were wet. He and the girls had been playing on the frozen pond, he said. But he omitted how the girls got him onto the pond, how he fell in multiple times and how he was driven home in the trunk.
The next day, his father got a bank alert that his son’s account was below $100. So he banned Michael from hanging out with the girls.
Three weeks later, on March 10, Michael’s girlfriend told him that sheriff’s deputies had confiscated her phone. Later that day, she was arrested. That night, so was Bush.
The news exploded in the media and inside Chopticon, where a trophy case features numerous awards from Best Buddies, a nonprofit group devoted to helping children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“A lot of people were being really mean,” said Brianna Wedding, a cheerleader who knows Bush from the team, “and saying [about Bush and Michael’s girlfriend], ‘You deserve to go to jail, you deserve to die.’ I felt bad for Lauren. She messed up. But she needs to go to jail and be punished for her actions. She’s 17, and she’s old enough to know what’s wrong and right.”
Meanwhile, Michael wanted to know one thing: “I was asking [people] who ratted them out,” he said.
It turned out that a Chopticon student had heard about the videos and alerted school authorities. Eventually, the girlfriend’s mother handed her daughter’s cellphone over to Chopticon’s school resource officer. Prosecutors advised sheriff’s deputies to charge Bush as an adult.
“When a case like this comes along, you say to yourself, ‘How could someone be so evil to another human being?’ ” said St. Mary’s County Sheriff Timothy K. Cameron, who has not watched the video footage. “Quite honestly, I don’t want to ever see those videos.”
Still, Cameron is torn about whether Bush should be tried as an adult or juvenile. “What serves the community and Lauren best?” he asked. “I am not sure I can answer that question myself. You’re talking about a 17-year-old.”
Michael said his mother was so angry after the arrests that she took away a reminder of the girlfriend. “I had a heart-shaped candy box she gave me for Valentine’s Day,” he said. “But Mom threw it in the trash.”
Michael’s parents want the girls incarcerated for a long time. “Many of the attacks occurred at our home,” his father said. “If they hadn’t been caught, I think they would have killed him or all of us.”
He and his wife are worried that Richard Fritz, the St. Mary’s County state’s attorney, might go along with the request to move the case to juvenile court. Fritz might sympathize with Bush, they said. When he was 18, he committed a crime, too: He pleaded guilty in 1965 to statutory rape in an incident involving a 15-year-old girl, a charge that dogged Fritz when he ran for office.
But Fritz said he wants Bush tried as an adult. “If the family feels that way, then the family has obviously not followed me in my 30 years as a prosecutor,” he said. Bush and Michael’s girlfriend, Fritz said, “took extreme advantage of him. The boy could have drowned.”
Bush’s attorney said that he has seen the videos and that the footage doesn’t warrant the first-
degree assault charges that put the case in adult court. “I think college hazing is an apt comparison,” Thompson said, arguing that Michael is hardly low-functioning or as vulnerable as media reports might suggest.
Donna Bush, who declined to discuss the details of the case, said her daughter has twice suffered concussions during cheerleading. “She just got her PSAT scores. She’s second percentile out of 100,” Bush said. “I think the school is passing her through.”
Michael said that he hopes both girls return to Chopticon so that their friendship can resume. “I don’t feel like they exploited me,” he said, adding, “If I do hang out with [my girlfriend again], I’m going to ask her not to videotape anything.”
In early April, the president of Chopticon’s student government association held a long-planned anti-bullying assembly for freshmen. He made no mention about what had happened to Michael. Instead, he urged students to “be a role model” when they interact with classmates, and to vow not to use social media to harass people. After the assembly, he set up laptops outside the cafeteria and asked students to click their support on an online pledge not to bully others.
Inside the cafeteria, Michael sat alone between two packs of chattering students. No one talked to him.