The Mysterious Death of the Hacker Who Turned in Chelsea Manning
19 Sep 2019 – Debbie Scroggin and her husband live at the end of a series of gravel roads in a lonesome part of Kansas. It is the kind of place where, Debbie says, “you have to drive 15 minutes to get anywhere.” Getting to the Scroggin house involves turning onto a desolate ribbon of gravel that cuts through fields as far as the eye can see. It was easy to think that someone might come here to either get lost or be forgotten. Scroggin remembers Adrian Lamo arriving on a night train with nothing but a broken suitcase and a hangdog expression.
“He was shorter than I thought he would be,” she told me as we sat in her living room. “I saw pictures of him when he was young.” He was slight, dimpled and smiling, back then. The Adrian Lamo who stepped off the train was thick, stooped and “had on gloves and a hat and this long black trench coat, full of things.”
The sheer bulk of the coat demanded attention. Its contents rattled and clicked when Lamo walked, and the look of it was dramatic enough to compel the ushers at the Scroggins’ church to pull the couple aside and ask, “Who is that guy, is he with you?” Bill Scroggin, Debbie’s husband, remembers saying: “If I told you who that guy really was, you’d never believe me.”
Lamo was, back in the early 2000s, one of the world’s most famous hackers. As a young man, he broke into a who’s who of corporate America and couldn’t wait to tell anyone who would listen precisely how he did it.
“He was like the Tony Robbins of the hacking world,” Lorraine Murphy, an old friend of his, said. “It is one thing to be gifted at hacking and another to be able to tell the world about it.” Lamo did both. In happier times, he had legions of followers — long before Twitter made that a thing — and he loved the attention. “He wanted to be a household name,” Murphy said. “Fame. Media. That’s what motivated him.”
It turns out, the thing that made Lamo anything close to a household name had less to do with hacking and more to do with a random Internet chat he had with a young soldier in Iraq in 2010 and the decision that followed it.
“Hi, how are you? … Im an army intelligence analyst, deployed to eastern baghdad, pending discharge for ‘adjustment disorder. … Im sure you’re pretty busy… if you had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8-plus months, what would you do?
“Lets just say *someone* I know intimately well, has been penetrating US classified networks, mining data… and been transferring that data from the classified networks over the ‘air gap’ onto a commercial network computer … Sorting the data, compressing it, encrypting it, and uploading it to a crazy white haired aussie who can’t seem to stay in one country very long.”
The “crazy white haired aussie” was Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks; and the young soldier was Chelsea Manning. What happened next is what people remember about Lamo: He turned Manning in and found himself on the receiving end of death threats. Manning was arrested days later, after she had passed hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables and a video to Assange, which in one fell swoop had the effect of weaponizing the Internet and transforming the act of whistleblowing into a popular movement.
Those leaks, Manning’s admission and Lamo are creeping back into public consciousness because they are now at the heart of the U.S. government’s attempt to bring Assange to justice. As it seeks Assange’s extradition, the U.S. government alleges Assange did more than just accept a trove of classified material from Manning. It claims he not only encouraged her to provide more secret information but also attempted to help her crack a Defense Department password so she could leak more.
If the U.S. government can prove that set of facts — and it is far from clear that it can — the founder of WikiLeaks may have run afoul of the Espionage Act. And a key witness for the prosecution? It might well have been Lamo — had he not died under mysterious circumstances last year.
The “Wild West” of hacking
“I cannot come to the phone right now due to connectivity issues, distraction, my death,” an old voicemail greeting of Lamo’s began. “If I’m dead, I’m telling you that I love you from beyond the grave. You should consider this moment rather unique. Thank you and have a wonderful day.”
Lamo was born in Boston and spent his formative years in his father’s home outside Bogotá, Colombia. His early hacker’s résumé tracks like that of most computer geeks. He owned a hand-me-down Commodore 64, which he used to hack into computer games; he played with viruses on floppy disks (remember those?), and eventually he was tapping into strangers’ phone lines and finding ways to spoof the phone company to make free long distance calls.
When his family moved to Northern California, it made it easier for Lamo to pursue his interest in computers. “His name was very well-known especially for anybody who was up and coming in the community,” his cousin Glenn Morrow recalls. “And he wasn’t very hard to find, either, online during the AOL Messenger days. So a lot of people say, ‘Hey, look what I’ve done, what do you think?’ ”
Back then, regular people, civilians, the rest of us, were flocking to the Web. Every business, community and subculture was running headlong into cyberspace to stake a claim. What we consider fixtures of the Internet today were just getting their start. AOL introduced instant messaging in 1997. In 2004, Google launched its IPO, assuring investors it had found a way to profit from searching; and a loose affiliation of computer geeks had started a small group of hacktivists, calling themselves Anonymous. Lamo had been watching this explosion of activity with a mixture of excitement — he was part of it, after all — and alarm. This was all so fragile, he would say, the Internet was dangerous and no one could see it.
Lamo’s hacking was a way to underscore the point: Cracking into companies like AOL, Yahoo, MCI Worldcom, even The New York Times, with such ease certainly suggested something was broken. If someone like Lamo — who often got into these companies while borrowing an Internet connection from a local Kinko’s — could do this, the hacks seemed to suggest, anyone could. Lamo didn’t steal information; he didn’t hold people’s computers hostage. That might have had people questioning his motives. Instead, he would find security holes, offer to fix them free of charge, and if companies didn’t take him up on it, he’d notify the media, hoping that public attention would force whoever it was in his hacker crosshairs to patch the hole.
Federal prosecutors ended Lamo’s crusade after he hacked The New York Times and the paper pressed charges. The way it unfolded would sound familiar to anyone who was in the hacking underground at the time. Lamo was very good at figuring out passwords, either getting someone to unwittingly give him one or guessing at default passwords that hadn’t been changed. The Times had some employees who were still using the digits from their Social Security numbers as passwords, and that gave Lamo the opening he needed.
He searched the Times‘ internal server and gave himself administrator credentials and a login and a password for the paper’s LexisNexis account. (The Times claimed he ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of searches; this was later disputed, since the paper had negotiated a monthly rate with the company.) Lamo gained access to a database that contained the telephone and Social Security numbers for more than 3,000 contributors to the paper’s Op-Ed page. But he didn’t steal them or publicize them. Instead, he played a little joke: He added himself to the paper’s internal database of experts — as an expert in hacking. What might have been his undoing is that he then trumpeted what he had done.
The Times was not amused. In August 2003, the FBI issued a warrant for Lamo’s arrest; the U.S. attorney in Manhattan at the time, James Comey, likened Lamo and other hackers to common thieves: “It’s like someone kicking in your front door while you’re on vacation and running up a $300,000 bill on your phone, and then telling you when you arrive home that he had performed a useful service by demonstrating that your deadbolt wasn’t secure enough.”
Lamo pleaded guilty, paid a fine and served six months of home detention. “I do think there were some lines I stepped on in my access,” he told the Off the Hook radio program, a hacker favorite at the time.
“I want to take responsibility for this and I want to put it behind me.” And then he added, “On a tangentially related note, the U.S. marshals actually let me retake my mug shot until I thought it looked pretty.”
Lamo was olive-skinned and dimpled — and had a fun, impish air. That mug shot was pretty, too. He was half smiling and looking a little smug; and it reveals something about Lamo that he expected The New York Times episode to have a completely different ending. His friend Murphy told me, “He was really appalled that he didn’t get a job offer out of that… He thought he’d be made a security consultant…. You know the pipe dream of the best kid in the drama club at high school is to go to Broadway? The pipe dream of every kid in every hackerspace in the world is to get a paid job from a major corporation as a security consultant and all you do is sit there all day and find their weaknesses.”
The idea that everyone felt that way may be overstating the case, given the countercultural ethos that pervaded the hacker community back then, but about Lamo she was correct. He made no secret that he wanted to do that kind of work, but The New York Times hack only dimmed his prospects for doing so because it gave him a felony record and sparked a belief he never shook: that federal authorities were watching him, constantly.
To be sure, there was more than a whiff of self-importance in thinking the federal government cared about him that much, but Morrow, his cousin, believes the possibility that he was under surveillance may have played a role in Lamo’s calculation to turn in Manning. He may have assumed the authorities knew about the Manning chats and would be able to prosecute him as an accessory after the fact. “He never said that to me directly, that that was what motivated him,” Morrow told me. “But even back then, being digitally anonymous was an ever increasing challenge.”
Morrow witnessed the exact moment when the hacker community turned on Lamo. It happened, in a stark way, at a Hackers On Planet Earth conference in New York. Hacker meetups were usually a great opportunity to party, meet new people and start new projects, but from the outset it was clear that post-Manning, this HOPE meeting would be different.
“The first day at the conference there were a lot of people yelling out ‘snitch’ and at least one occasion that I recall somebody spitting in his direction,” Morrow recalls. “It was a rather divisive time back then. Something like this had never happened to the community. Up until that point, Adrian had been an inspiration, but that all turned. In their minds, or in the culture, the worst thing you could be was a snitch and I think that probably confused a lot of people. There was a bit of a mob mentality, people were just so taken aback that this happened.”
The organizers put together a last-minute panel they called “Informants: Villains or Heroes?” and it basically revolved around Lamo. He was onstage and there were boos from the crowd as soon as he was introduced. One by one conference attendees came to the microphone to berate him. “I see what you’ve done as treason,” said one. “I think you belong in Guantánamo,” said another.
Then Mark Abene, a member of one of the original hacking groups, Masters of Deception, took the floor. “As soon as you make up your mind to choose a side,” he told Lamo, “politically speaking, you cease to be a hacker. You had a choice and you made the wrong choice. You could have simply walked away and none of this would have happened.”
Lamo leaned forward and spoke into the mic. “I could have, but I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself,” he said. The rest of the conference, Morrow said, was a bit of a blur. “It was a little tough for me to hear,” he said, remembering the weekend. “Everybody knew who he was, and up until that point Adrian had been, you know, a hero.”
It didn’t help matters that the Manning arrest unfolded at a time when hackers were just beginning to consider the moral implications of what they were doing. “In the early days, hackers didn’t think that there were rules when it came to websites,” Murphy explained. “It was the Wild West. It wasn’t against the law to hack a particular website for years and years and years.”
The whole Manning affair had forced the community to address fundamental questions. What did ethical hacking really mean? If you cracked into someone’s server but didn’t do any damage, was that OK? And if someone tells you they hacked into a machine and leaked classified information, were you obliged to say something? The majority of the community wanted hacking to remain a force for good, but they weren’t entirely sure how to make that happen.
After the conference, there was no ambiguity about how the hacker community felt about Lamo.
“People hated him,” said another of his friends, Andrew Blake. “He couldn’t log on to any sort of interest platform under his actual name without instantly getting some sort of hate directed toward him. Even when Adrian would do something with the absolute best of intentions, as soon as anyone realized that it was Adrian Lamo who did it, they didn’t want anything to do with it.”
“He used to say that he liked to believe in a world where things can happen, even if I have to do them myself,” said Lamo’s ex-wife, Lauren Fisher. “That was kind of his motto. He just liked to make the extraordinary happen.”
If he found a letter on the ground without a stamp, he and Fisher would do whatever they needed to do to deliver it. They found a cellphone at a post office once and traveled across town to return it to its owner. “He just wanted to deliver it with all haste to this older woman who ended up buying us flowers and chocolates and giving us a big hug,” Fisher remembered. “There was always an adventure.”
There had always been rumors about whether Lamo had signed on as a government informant after the Manning affair; and they may have started with a project Fisher and Lamo dreamed up years before anyone had ever heard of Chelsea Manning. They called it Reality Planning and it was a kind of an a la carte offer of Lamo’s hacker services. He would test your website or your company’s servers, like the “red teaming” of company websites, which is common practice today. “It was all very vague but it was really just to get him back in the PR spotlight, and it kind of worked,” Fisher said.
Early on, someone contacted them about coming to speak at a computer expo in Europe. Lamo asked for business class airfare, a luxury hotel — but before discussions progressed very far there were unexpected complications from the State Department: a hold on his passport because of that felony hacking conviction related to The New York Times. The European trip, speaking engagements, being in the spotlight again — it never happened.
Fisher recalls that there were a lot of things that didn’t go their way back then. People saw only the Lamo they wanted to see and there were times when just being Lamo, living up to the expectations, took a toll. “He’d have to step into those shoes,” she said, “and if you’re anyone in the spotlight you have to do it wholeheartedly if you’re going to survive. It was hard for him to be who everyone thought he was.”
Lamo was wired differently, she said. That difference allowed him to see things other people didn’t see when he sat behind a keyboard and a screen, but that difference would also lay him low with crippling anxiety. Sometimes he wouldn’t leave the house for days. It was around that time, Fisher said, that she first heard Lamo mention something called ProjectVigilant. He was speaking with someone on Skype about a project that would use his hacking skills to catch the bad guys.
“It was kind of like Reality Planning, though it was all just vague,” she said. “But it seemed, for me, a bit bigger. And it seemed more secret.” Lamo told her it had something to do with the dark Web but he didn’t seem to want to talk much about it. The secrecy, looking back on it, was in keeping with the two Adrians that Fisher was constantly trying to manage. “He’d like to shine in his Adrian Lamo kind of persona,” she said, “but there were also the times where the walls were down completely and he wasn’t the Adrian Lamo that he himself made himself believe that he was.”
To cope, he medicated, hoping to find some little door within himself that would give him the control he wanted. Fisher called it body hacking, his attempt to contain all the different feelings inside him and keep them in check. The list of what he took was as long as your arm: Valerian root, vitamins and, at some point — no one is quite sure when it started — the list included an herbal supplement called kratom. (It is legal in most states.)
“It’s … a fine powder … like a dust, and Adrian explained that kratom was supposed to work on the same brain receptors that opioids did,” explained Blake, a longtime friend. Blake had helped Lamo out with a couch and a meal over the years and was well aware of Lamo’s kratom use. “Adrian would get it in like a big bag. … [He] gave us a bag for Christmas.”
It is important to understand that hackers like Lamo looked at drugs a little differently than would a typical recreational drug user. Drugs aren’t just a way to have fun; they are seen as a way to expand their powers. Early hacker conferences were so drug-addled and alcohol-soaked, attendees would get banned from hotels. So Lamo’s body-hacking approach was hardly the exception. Murphy said Lamo dosed himself with prescriptions and natural supplements and did remarkable things. “We would have never heard of him if he hadn’t done these remarkable things,” she said.
“Tourist to normalcy”
Murphy met Lamo on Facebook when they worked together on the platform’s 2600 Group. 2600 was an outgrowth of a magazine of the same name: 2600 — the Hacker Quarterly. Founded in 1984, it had become a bible for people testing the security of computer systems, full of technical information and invitations to meet up with other hackers around the world. The claim had always been, even back in their 2600 days, that Lamo was using the group to spy on people.
“He told me at one point that his job was to provide intel on non-Americans operating outside the United States,” Murphy said, but he would never reveal precisely whom he was working for. “He never said, but [it was] either the U.S. government or a contractor who is reporting to the U.S. government.” Murphy assumed it was this company he occasionally talked about, ProjectVigilant. The last time Murphy heard from Lamo was about two years ago. “I said, ‘How are you doing?’ He said, ‘Homeless in Wichita but better than a lot of people,’ ” she said.
In his heyday, Lamo had been known as the “Homeless Hacker,” couch-surfing before couch-surfing was really a thing and long before it became an app. Ironically, when he wrote to Murphy, this may have been one of the few times in his life that Lamo wasn’t exactly homeless. He was living with Debbie and Bill Scroggin. Lamo had been living with their son, a good friend of his, and had worn out his welcome, so Will Scroggin called his mother and asked if she would take him in.
Lamo was in his mid-30s by then, and whether it was a lifetime of transience, poor nutrition or his constant body hacking, he didn’t seem well. He walked with a limp. He had put on weight. He had back trouble. The younger Scroggin had a sense that someone needed to take care of Lamo, and he wasn’t equipped to do it. So he asked his mother. There was a FaceTime discussion, an understanding about house rules, and Lamo was on a train bound for Kansas and a life unlike anything he had ever known.
“He became a tourist to normalcy,” Murphy believed. “The 9-to-5 small town, you go to work, come home to your loved ones; you play with the dog, you take your kid to Little League. That was all as foreign to him as walking on the moon would be to you or me. The idea that someone like Adrian would be at your Little League game is like looking up in the stands and seeing Darth Vader at your ballet recital.”
There were family Thanksgivings and Christmas stockings. Lamo hadn’t really had much of an occasion to experience any of these things. And while the Scroggins took him in and made him feel like family, living with him could be a bit odd. He wandered the house at night. “I could hear him and I could see his little flashlight going down the hall,” Debbie Scroggin said. “He always slept either on a couch and if he slept on a bed it was always on top of it, never under covers.”
Sometimes he would just pile up his clothes and sleep on top of them, as if he were preparing for a quick getaway. There was also a constant stream of mysterious packages that arrived on the doorstep. “He did not use his real name,” Bill Scroggin said. “Most of the stuff that came would be to Adrian Alfonso, his middle name.”
And while he didn’t seem to have a paying job, he was hard at work in the basement doing what he called research. His projects seemed to have evolved; his focus had been updated. His days of hacking corporate America were over, he told them; instead, he was focusing his energies on more sinister forces. “It had to do with the dark Web, hacking into ISIS stuff,” Debbie Scroggin said, adding that Lamo led them to believe that he was in Kansas on a kind of secret assignment. Was it for ProjectVigilant? “It might have had something to do with the Department of Homeland Security,” Bill Scroggin said. “But I can’t say that for sure. I think in his own mind, he worked for this country.”
“I do believe that he kind of thought that he was an agent in some way,” Debbie Scroggin said, though she couldn’t put her finger on what that meant. “There were times where I’d say, this has to be in his head but there were other times where he would either show us a confidential piece of information from Homeland Security or tell us that he was working on something and I’d think, this almost seems real. It was hard to tell with Adrian.”
Lamo’s methodology and motivation had been under scrutiny ever since he turned in Manning. How he came to tell the authorities back in 2010 has been a source of controversy and confusion. The fact that Lamo eventually turned Manning in to the authorities isn’t in dispute. How it happened has always been a muddled story. According to depositions related to the case obtained by NPR, Lamo placed two phone calls shortly after the Internet chat with Manning.
The first was to a friend: Tim Webster, who at the time was a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Lamo may have called him because he had previously been in Army intelligence.
According to the deposition of an investigating officer, Webster called the FBI shortly after hanging up with Lamo. Whether he called the bureau on Lamo’s behalf or felt compelled, as a former intelligence officer, to report an intelligence breach is unclear. Despite repeated attempts by NPR to contact him, Webster declined to comment for this story.
According to the documents, Lamo then placed a second call — this time to a business partner, a man named Chet Uber, and he told him what Manning had said. The business partner immediately left a message on the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division tip line. That was on May 23, 2010, just two days after Lamo and Manning began their fateful exchange.
By the end of that week, Lamo had turned his computer over to investigators and Manning was in custody in Iraq. Whether it was Lamo who turned Manning in or the people who phoned the authorities became beside the point: The person everyone blamed for Manning’s arrest was Lamo.
“He really did think it was the moral imperative [to turn Manning in],” said Murphy, who later became active in the Free Manning movement. “He thought it would make him a hero, but it backfired spectacularly on him.” She knew about the death threats, but Lamo didn’t like to talk about them. “They were daily,” Murphy said. “Hourly.”
In the state of Kansas, medical examiners have five categories for determining a cause of death: natural, accident, suicide, homicide or undetermined — the last of which is the most unsatisfying.
“It’s certainly possible to have a known cause of death but still have an undetermined manner of death,” Scott Kipper, the deputy medical examiner who handled Lamo’s autopsy, explained.
“So, for example, if we find a body at the base of a tall building, it looks like he fell off the building. I can bring the body in. I can document the injuries. What I can’t tell you is how he ended up on the sidewalk. Did he jump off? Was he pushed off? Was he working on the building and accidentally fell off? I can’t see that at autopsy, but those three different things would have three different manners of death.”
In Lamo’s case, Kipper said he wasn’t able to find, despite all the supplemental testing, “anything that definitively showed a cause of death.” He couldn’t even rule out murder, he said. “There are some things that can be done to a body that leave minimal or no findings at autopsy,” he said.
He did allow, though, that there were some irregularities in the Lamo case, including something that he had never seen before: On Lamo’s left thigh, under his clothes, Kipper found a sticker with a name and an address. Finding a sticker on a dead body was a first for him. The sticker read: Adrian Lamo, Assistant Director, ProjectVigilant, 70 Bates Street, NW, Washington, DC. “We took the sticker off; there was nothing under it,” he said, adding, “no needle marks.”
This seemed like a clue. Company records in Florida establish that Uber, the same man whom Lamo called during the Manning affair, incorporated ProjectVigilant in 2011. Uber was the person on the other end of those Skype calls Lamo’s ex-wife had overheard all those years before. ProjectVigilant had nine corporate officers and directors. Uber was one of them; Lamo was another.
When we started calling the others, we got some peculiar answers, especially from a man named Duane Johnson, who was listed as the company’s director of science and technology. Johnson is a professor at Iowa State University and, before we called him and asked about it, he had never heard of ProjectVigilant. After we sent him the incorporation papers, he speculated about how his title may have been created.
The papers were “using a title that was closely related to my title at the time — I was chief research officer of a laboratory,” he said. Not just any lab; he was chief research officer at the Ames Laboratory, one of the Department of Energy’s national labs. He also noticed that his contact address in the paperwork was the address for the campus student union. “I’m not sure how they chose me, but certainly it was misappropriated with some kind of intent,” he said.
So from the outset, there was something a little “off” about ProjectVigilant. Other officers or directors we called said they had heard of ProjectVigilant, but they declined to speak on the record because they had signed nondisclosure agreements. Some of them were former government officials from the Justice Department and DHS. One, former NSA official Ira Winkler, agreed to talk.
Winkler is now the president of a company called Secure Mentum. He’s a delightfully geeky guy who helps companies beef up their cybersecurity by probing their systems for vulnerabilities, something known as red teaming. It sounded a little like what Lamo used to do, but Winkler is doing it legally. Winkler said he met Uber at a hackers conference and after a quick conversation, Uber asked him to be part of this company.
He was made director of intelligence and Lamo was supposed to report to him. The animating idea for the company was to use volunteer hackers like Lamo to find bad people on the dark Web and then use ProjectVigilant as a vehicle to report them to the authorities.
“It was supposed to look for illegal, immoral actions on the Internet that pertained to foreign intelligence, terrorism, child exploitation,” that sort of thing, Winkler explained.
But if Lamo ever discovered anything criminal during his trips to the dark Web, he never passed it along. Winkler never received anything from him. “What ProjectVigilant did was absolutely nothing, as far as I can tell,” he said. If it had a mysterious connection to the government — aside from listing former government officials as officers or directors — we couldn’t find it.
Lamo did receive money from the government, but it was from the Defense Department and appeared to be small reimbursements for travel expenses related to his testimony at Manning’s court-martial. The official documents we saw said that Lamo’s relationship with the government ended in July 2011. He did have a military email address for a short time, but it was unclear how it was created. He told some of his friends that he had devised a way to create his own .mil email addresses, but if that was the case, that hole in the system was eventually patched. We saw emails that he had sent over the years asking people in the military if they could help him get a .mil address again.
The way Lamo came to be living in a senior living facility can be traced back to an incident about a year before his death. Bill Scroggin had set up a camera in his office. He put it on motion activate. “Kind of like fishing for catfish on trotlines,” he said. “You put the bait on there and you come back and you check it four or five hours later and see if you’ve got anything.”
The “fish” he caught was Lamo, slipping into the office with his flashlight. Bill and Debbie Scroggin believe he was looking for some medications to steal. “The temper got a hold of me and I literally blew up,” Bill Scroggin admitted. They packed Lamo up and he went to a nearby homeless shelter. Debbie Scroggin found him an apartment a few weeks later. It happened to be a senior living facility; anyone with a low income could qualify to live there.
In Lamo’s tax returns, he was declaring less than $1,000 a year in income. He was on public assistance, and the Scroggins appear to have helped him out with the rest. “We gave him a coffee maker. We gave him some furniture,” Debbie Scroggin said. “But I was like, ‘Adrian, don’t you want to buy a mattress, a bed?’ No, the couch was fine. So he didn’t even have a bed in his apartment.”
On March 14, 2018, the manager of Shadybrook Senior Apartments found Lamo’s body. He was lying on a pile of clothes in the bedroom and when she saw the blood pooling under his fingernails, she pulled a medical alert cord in the apartment. The first responders found an apartment in complete disarray — huge piles of trash, dirty dishes, pills and powders everywhere. The medical examiner took photographs and then loaded Lamo’s body into a van.
Debbie Scroggin called Lamo’s father and then went out to the apartment to tidy it up a bit before he arrived. “One of the things I did that I probably shouldn’t have done is I threw away all his empty prescription bottles,” she said. “Adrian only called his dad when he had good news. Like after I taught him to make lasagna, or to tell him about Christmas presents.” She didn’t want Lamo’s father to see how his son was living or how many pills he was taking. She was trying to protect them both from the reality of what Lamo had become.
The memorial service was a small, hastily arranged affair. Only a handful of people were there. “I was the only one of Adrian’s friends; no one, you know, his age, no one who knew him besides his father for more than a few years,” said his friend Blake, who made the trip from Washington to attend. “Just knowing that had I not gone, that no one besides the people in Kansas and his father would have been there … that baffled me.”
Blake said Lamo wasn’t so much forgotten as unforgiven. “People tended to associate Adrian with the Adrian who snitched on Manning,” Blake said, choking up. “Not the Adrian who did a whole bunch of cool other stuff.”
Dr. Timothy Rohrig is Sedgwick County’s chief medical examiner, and when he began to read through the chemicals found in Lamo’s bloodstream, he saw it was a long list of prescription and over-the-counter drugs: clonazepam, etizolam, flubromazepam, Benadryl, chlorpheniramine, citalopram, gabapentin, some decongestants and anti-diarrheals. It wasn’t enough to kill Lamo, Rohrig said, but he was likely in a fairly sedated state.
That didn’t surprise Debbie Scroggin. “He would overmedicate because his anxiety was so high,” she said. “There were times when he would … come up to have dinner and he’d fall asleep in his food. Literally face down in his food.”
They were working on the problem, she said. His doctor was in the process of weaning him off some of the medications, including reducing the three different benzodiazepines he was taking. That is of particular interest because about a month before Lamo died, the FDA came out with a medical alert — a warning against mixing benzos with kratom. The combination had been linked to dozens of deaths.
“A few assessable cases with fatal outcomes raise concern that kratom is being used in combination with other drugs that affect the brain, including … benzodiazepines,” the alert read. Rohrig said Lamo had a handful of what he called designer benzos in his system, some of which weren’t available by prescription in the U.S.
“The most common way of getting these particular ones is basically off the Internet,” Rohrig told us. “You can order them and have them shipped to whatever address you want.” Debbie Scroggin assumed that lots of the pills and supplements coming into the house were in those packages addressed to Adrian Alfonso.
Because kratom isn’t regulated by the FDA, it’s impossible to tell whether Lamo was ingesting potent doses of it one day and weak ones the next. It can change that much from batch to batch. “It’s a strange drug,” said Dr. Bertha Madras, a professor of psychobiology at Harvard Medical School and a former member of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. “It has some of the characteristics of pure opioid.”
And while Madras couldn’t say exactly what killed Lamo, she did allow that people who mixed “natural” substances like kratom with prescription drugs were essentially conducting their own human experiments. “They have no clue what they’re putting into their body and what the consequences could be.”
So this is where all the evidence pointed us. The kind of hacking that killed Lamo wasn’t the Internet kind; everything we learned pointed to that thing that worried Fisher, his wife, so many years earlier: His body hacking — the constant intake of pills and powders and liquids — is likely what did him in. “I think he lost track of what he was taking,” Debbie Scroggin told me. She is sure it wasn’t suicide.
“We had long conversations in the car about all kinds of stuff; it was a safe place to talk. I asked him once if suicidal thoughts happened and he told me he was too much of a narcissist to do that.”
In his last voicemail to Debbie Scroggin a few days before he died, Lamo sounded fine. “I’m not ignoring you on purpose,” he told her. “I had trouble with my phone. Give me a ring or a note when you can. My phone service is active again. Love you, bye.”
That was the last time the Scroggins heard from him. But the message cleared up a mystery. Hackers had noticed that Lamo hadn’t been on the Internet the week before he died. The absence fanned a number of conspiracy theories. But the reason was simple: Lamo hadn’t paid his cellphone bill, and he used his cellphone to get online.
In retrospect, as we retraced Lamo’s steps during the last two years of his life, it is clear there were no assassins lying in wait, no government officials eager for a briefing. Lamo was profoundly alone.
He left a voice note to himself hours before he died. He had twisted his leg and was, in his words, in agonizing pain. Given everything we had uncovered it is possible that Lamo’s last night went something like this: After spending some time on the computer and having dinner he took something to help him relax and maybe ease some of that muscle pain. He went into the bedroom, lay down on the clothes, curled up, and just stopped breathing. It wasn’t natural, suicide, homicide or completely undetermined — it was an accident.
And that leaves just one unsolved mystery: that address label found on Lamo’s thigh, the one that read Adrian Lamo, Assistant Director, ProjectVigilant, 70 Bates Street, Washington, DC. We searched the property records, previous owners, renters. ProjectVigilant was never registered there. But there was one name I did recognize: Andrew Blake, the friend of Lamo’s who flew to Kansas for the memorial.
“That’s an address that I lived at for a brief time and Adrian stayed with me occasionally off and on,” he told me, adding that he didn’t even know the sticker existed until he read about it in the autopsy report. “That’s when I laughed and that’s actually the first time in the weeks after his death where I actually felt a bit of closure.” He said it felt like a joke or a signal from his old friend.
“That ProjectVigilant sticker, I think maybe it was where he put his hopes,” Murphy now believes. “And it didn’t go anywhere.”
Perhaps Lamo’s real ProjectVigilant was himself. To try to find his place in a world that had gone one way after he went another. Oddly, had he stayed alive just a bit longer, things might have been different for him.
Assange’s extradition hearing is scheduled for February 2020, and if Lamo had still been alive, the prosecution would likely not have needed to compel Manning’s testimony; Lamo was there too. As it is, Manning has said that she told the authorities everything she knew during her court-martial investigation. They say she may have more to say about her interactions with WikiLeaks than has been previously disclosed.
I asked Manning, through her lawyer, if she forgave Lamo for everything that happened, and she said something surprising: She said there was nothing to forgive. In a handwritten note she passed to us she added, “I’ve never had any ill will toward Adrian at any time. I’m more mad at the government for using him.”
Had he lived, Adrian Lamo likely would have been preparing to testify in the Assange case recounting what Manning had told him about that “crazy white haired” guy all those years ago. And he would have been where he thought he was happiest: back in the spotlight.
As special correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston develops programming focused on the news of the day and issues of our time. Previously, Temple-Raston served as NPR’s counter-terrorism correspondent, reporting from all over the world. In that role, she covered deadly terror attacks in the U.S. and abroad, the evolution of ISIS, and radicalization. While on leave from NPR, Dina independently executive produced and hosted a non-NPR podcast about adolescent decision making called What Were You Thinking.
NPR’s Adelina Lancianese contributed to this story.
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