Murder, Incorporated? The Targets Were Capitalism, and Officer Mobilio. The Accused Is Dead Serious About His Quirky Defense — (Washington Post)

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Washington Post

By William Booth, Washington Post Staff Writer

Monday, April 4, 2005

COLUSA, Calif.

The coming revolution against the United States government was announced on the Internet via a manifesto by a self-described “proud and insolent youth,” a college sophomore who sought to be our leader. This was to be the spark:

At 1:27 a.m. on Nov. 19, 2002, Officer David Mobilio of the Red Bluff Police Department was working the graveyard shift when he pulled his cruiser into a gas station in his quiet little farm town. As he stood beside the car, the 31-year-old husband and father of a toddler was shot three times, twice in the back and once in the head, at very close range.

Beside Mobilio’s dead body, someone left a handmade flag with a picture of a snake’s head and the words “Don’t Tread on Us.”

A well-chosen spot for an ambush. That is what investigators later concluded, especially when they learned the suspected assailant had Army Ranger training. A lonely crossroads. Poorly lit. No station attendant on duty. No witnesses. It was a killing that might have never been solved.

That is, until a confession appeared on the Internet. Six days after the shooting, a manifesto appeared on more than a dozen Web sites operated by the left-leaning Independent Media Center.

It began: “Hello Everyone, my name’s Andy. I killed a Police Officer in Red Bluff, California in a motion to bring attention to, and halt, the police-state tactics that have come to be used throughout our country. Now I’m coming forward, to explain that this killing was also an action against corporate irresponsibility.”

The tract — which managed to mingle an almost chirpy tone with leftist cant — was signed by “Andrew McCrae,” later found to be an alias for Andrew Mickel, a student at a liberal arts college who before enrolling had served three years stateside with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.

Mickel explained that “prior to my action in Red Bluff, I formed a corporation under the name ‘Proud and Insolent Youth Incorporated,’ so that I could use the destructive immunity of corporations and turn it on something that actually should be destroyed.” The name is a reference to the novel “Peter Pan.” “Just before their final duel and Capt. Hook’s demise, Hook said to Peter, ‘Proud and Insolent Youth, prepare to meet thy doom,’ ” Mickel wrote.

“Now, Peter Pan hates pirates, and I hate pirates, and corporations are nothing but a bunch of pirates,” he wrote. “It’s time to send them to a watery grave, and rip them completely out of our lives.”

Mickel wrote that he was incorporating to shield himself from prosecution. He urged everyone to join his board of directors. His stock would be free. He called for insurrection. A national strike. Mass resistance. “But don’t do anything you’re uncomfortable with,” Mickel added, “and don’t pressure anyone else into anything they’re uncomfortable with.”

If this was a prank, it would be inane. But there was Mobilio, who would be hailed at his memorial service as a “fallen hero,” lying in a puddle of blood.

The capital murder trial against Mickel began 10 days ago in Colusa, a county seat an hour’s drive south of the killing. The trial was moved here because of publicity in Red Bluff.

Mickel, who just turned 26, sits at the defense table dressed in jeans and open-collared shirt, with a neat pile of manila folders and a composition book stacked in front of him. He looks like an attentive student ready for class.

He is tall, lean and jailhouse pale, and with his jutting chin and beaked nose, he looks avian, like a heron or crane, all angles and limbs. His eyes are not a madman’s eyes, but they look dilated, nothing but pupils, and when he turns to face you, he stares. In the antebellum courthouse, surrounded by sheriff’s deputies, the stare is merely awkward. Imagine, though, those black eyes at night, with him holding a gun.

If convicted, Mickel faces a possible death sentence. He has waived his right to counsel, insisting that he represent himself in court.

The bizarre case raises all kinds of questions about the mysterious motivations of Andrew Mickel — is he just some self-obsessed middle-class brat, or is he the most cold-blooded kind of domestic terrorist? Or maybe both?

Not to mince words: Is Mickel crazy? That’s what his friends think. His parents contend he is mentally ill. And if he is unbalanced, they argue, their son should not be allowed to serve as his own attorney, which is only going to lead, they fear, to a speedy guilty verdict and a sentence of death, which is what the prosecution is after.

Mickel’s parents think their son is like Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Guilty, but sick.

Then there’s the other disturbing possibility: What if, as Andrew Mickel maintains, he is sane, is exercising his free will, is fighting for a cause he believes in, until the bitter end? Like another infamous defendant, Timothy McVeigh. Only in Mickel’s case, it is a jihad from the far left.

‘Gone Kaczynski’  If you are a nice, normal, decent mom and dad, and your son claims he assassinated a police officer in a revolt against multinational corporations — what do you do?

Desperate, the Mickels sought help and advice from one of the few people who share their experience: the Unabomber’s brother, who like the Mickels, turned in his family member to the authorities.

As Karen and Stan Mickel, churchgoing college professors, saw it, their son had somehow “gone Kaczynski.”

“I just see these remarkable, these eerie, similarities between the two cases,” says David Kaczynski, the brother of Ted the Unabomber, who is serving four life terms in a maximum-security federal prison after pleading guilty to mail bombings — fueled by his hatred of technology and psychiatry — that killed three people and maimed two. (Ted Kaczynski agreed to a plea bargain to save himself from a possible death sentence after he fought to represent himself and deny his lawyers the opportunity to present evidence that he was a paranoid schizophrenic. David Kaczynski is now an anti-death penalty advocate.)

Mickel’s manifesto shares with the Unabomber’s a persecuted, elaborate grandiosity, as well as heroic rhetoric (“if this be treason, make the most of it”) and a call to revolution (“Teenagers! Smash it while your youth still helps you to see it!”).

And like Kaczynski, who got the New York Times and The Washington Post to print his manifesto, Mickel used the media: in his case, cyberspace.

“It’s almost crazy,” David Kaczynski says. “That this is justice and that you have here a mentally ill defendant who refuses to let the most pertinent information be presented.”

And crazy is what this case is about, at least to the defendant’s distraught parents.

But seen another way, as the prosecutors do, Mickel — with his stubborn stoicism, his cold calculation, his military training, his anti-government diatribes — seems a cousin to McVeigh. Mickel sees himself as the vanguard of revolution. McVeigh thought the same thing. It is as if Mickel, in his thinking, had gone so far to the fringe left that he started to look a lot like the fringe right.

In his opening statement to the jury, the Associated Press reported that Mickel said, “I want to tell you that I did ambush and kill David Mobilio.” The police officer’s widow was weeping in the courtroom. Mickel did not express remorse. He has pled not guilty.

Instead, according to the Associated Press, Mickel held up a ball that was black on one side, white on the other and told jurors they were getting only one side of the story. He promised to provide his side during the trial. Mickel is scheduled to begin his defense on Tuesday. “I’m going to have to tell you that stuff later,” he told the jury. “I don’t have a sound-bite defense.”

A Torrent on the Web  In the days after his manifesto showed up online, the Independent Media Center sites where it appeared were alive with messages debating the act.

A writer in Seattle urged “solidarity with cop killers” and celebrated that “another one bites the dust.” A poster in Washington, D.C., suggested that Mickel, with his military service, might be a government “agent provocateur” engaged in “a disinformation ploy” to discredit the aims of the left. Somebody in Oregon wrote, “I’m not worried about the dead cop — [expletive] him.” Instead, the message continued, “I’m worried about playing into their hands. Shooting that cop will be remembered as the first major step in publicly criminalizing anti-corporate activism.”

Other voices emerged. “So now he’s some kind of martyr? He’s a cold-blooded murdering coward,” wrote one from Seattle. Someone else worried that the independent media sites, which are open forums and generally take a left-leaning stand against the Iraq war, the Bush administration and excesses of global corporate capitalism, was serving as a kind of “incubator . . . a magnet for deranged losers.”

The angry rhetoric — the applause for cop-killing — harks back to the days when anti-government militias and McVeigh arose from the far-right fringe. Some of Mickel’s friends suspect he entered an echo chamber of anti-government talk and that it served as an outlet for some kind of violent urge growing inside him.

In cases of sensational crimes, friends and families of killers try to understand what happened by mining the past for telling signs. “I don’t want to pretend to understand how anyone would do something like this,” says Griffin House, a lifelong friend of Mickel and now a musician who lives in Nashville. “It’s just scary to think how far he went over the edge, how deep he got into it.”

But, House says, “I guess I’m talking to you because here is someone I knew as a kid and I don’t want this vicious picture painted of him.”

Mickel grew up in Springfield, Ohio, the middle of three sons raised by Karen and Stan (she teaches math; he teaches Chinese). By all accounts, loved and indulged. Not a loner, not a joiner, either.

A strong, lanky kid, Mickel never got into fights. No dope. No beer. He dated girls, but no one recalls a major romance. Andy Mickel was in Drama Club; he acted in school plays, performing the role of Tiresias, the blind seer, in “Oedipus Rex.” Intelligent, he was bored in high school. It annoyed him, he didn’t like sitting in class all day. He made crummy grades.

“I don’t know if anybody has bragged to you about him,” House says, “but Andy was one of the funniest, brightest people you’d ever meet in your life.”

Ben Poston, a friend who continues to correspond with Mickel in jail, recalls that the two formed a kind of Dead Poets Society while they were in high school; they called themselves the “Stowaway Journeymen,” and Mickel’s secret name was “Flying Courage.” The two would go to a park and read aloud Robert Frost and Walt Whitman, and Mickel would read his own poetry.

“He was an inspiration for me in high school,” says Poston, who is now a reporter at an Ohio newspaper.

While Mickel’s friends went to college, Poston says he believes Mickel went into the Army to challenge himself, mentally and physically. “Just another way that Andy thought out of the box,” says House.

When Mickel finished his three years of service at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, rising to the rank of specialist, he came home and dumped his fatigues and gear on a porch and told his buddies they could have whatever they wanted. He got in his maroon Mustang and headed west. He was moving on.

To Evergreen State College, a liberal bastion in Olympia, Wash., where students do not get letter grades and are free to pursue independent study. In his freshman year, he took a class called “Barking at the Moon” with professor Sara Rideout Huntington, where they studied the use of metaphor and read a Cormac McCarthy novel, watched Susan Sontag films and delved into the meaning of kitsch. Afterward, Mickel spent a year on “an individual contract,” as Evergreen State calls it, working on his writing under the guidance of Huntington.

At first, Huntington recalls, his work was filled with abstractions, musings about God and free will and society. Then he started writing stories of “adventures,” riding on freight trains or breaking into abandoned houses.

Mickel studied anarchist texts and was interested in social justice issues, but Huntington says a lot of the students do that. In that way, he fit right in at Evergreen State.

“I just didn’t see this coming,” Huntington says. “I wish I can say he was insane, maybe that would explain this, but he didn’t seem to be. He was hardworking, polite, conscientious, respectful. Obviously, someone who does this is out of their mind. But I didn’t see it.”

Mickel went to the West Bank and Colombia with human rights groups. He became interested in the Palestinian cause and the U.S. role in Latin America. He joined rallies against the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund.

His close friends knew that Mickel suffered from depression, underwent counseling and took antidepressants.

His parents have been wary of talking with the press because their son is refusing to speak with them, and they are afraid of alienating him further at a time when he might need them most. With both Stan and Karen Mickel on the telephone, Karen read a statement: “We are in anguish that this tragedy occurred. Andy suffered from and was treated for depression during his childhood and through his teenage years. But we never imagined he would turn to violence. There were no signs of it happening.”

His parents believe that their son’s depression must have taken a turn for the worse — into paranoia or delusion or schizophrenia.

Poston says in his letters with Mickel, his friend spoke of his depression as sometimes “debilitating” and confessed that he struggled to stay focused, to get up in the morning.

A family friend, Mary Patton, says, “I think he is a very sick young man and we as a nation are still failing our people with mental illness.”

But when pressed, Patton admits she doesn’t really have any evidence to support her diagnosis, except, of course, the fact that Mickel shot a cop, bragged about it and is now holding up a black-and-white ball in a courtroom in California.

Live Free or Die 

Several days after the slaying of Mobilio, Mickel flew from Washington state to New Hampshire and checked into a Holiday Inn in Concord, across the street from the statehouse

The Mickels spoke by telephone with their son the day before his arrest. During their conversation, according to others who have knowledge of the phone call, Andy Mickel confessed to the killing. His parents turned him in.

“You know, in many criminal cases, people won’t step up and say what they know, and this is their son,” says Springfield Police Chief Steve Moody, who was the first investigator to interview the Mickels. “Even though he did this horrific act, even though they love their son. They did the right thing.”

In one of his online postings before he was arrested, Mickel says he chose New Hampshire because its state constitution contains a passage offering what he interpreted as the right of citizens to revolt: “Whenever the ends of government are perverted and public liberty manifestly endangered and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may and of right ought to reform the old or establish a new government.”

Mickel was arrested the next day at the Holiday Inn. For hours he was surrounded by a SWAT team, which tried to coax him out. Finally, they agreed to Mickel’s request to allow him to speak with a local reporter, Sarah Vos of the Concord Monitor, who was handed a telephone in the hotel lobby and told by agents just to listen. Vos told reporters at the scene that Mickel said, “I killed a cop in Red Bluff, California, in an effort to protest police brutality” and asked her to read his declaration of independence posting. And then he came out with his hands up.

At his New Hampshire arraignment, Mickel appeared shirtless, wrapped in a blanket, with a bandage around his head. Police told reporters he had declared himself a political prisoner.

His parents hired an attorney, Mark Sisti, to defend him and Sisti quickly sought to challenge Mickel’s competency. Sisti got a mental health expert to examine Mickel and his writings. That report was sealed by the court, Sisti says. His client fought him all the way.

“Significant psychiatric disorders were identified,” is all Sisti will say of the sealed report. The lawyer says the judge in New Hampshire ruled that the court did not need to hear evidence on Mickel’s mental competency because it was an extradition hearing. As Sisti sought to file an appeal with the New Hampshire Supreme Court, Mickel was shipped out to California, and the matter of competency was dropped.

A Prisoner’s Story  From jail, Mickel has corresponded with friends. In one letter, he insisted that he was fighting for everyone’s rights and warned his friend not to judge him. Mostly, though, his letters are chatty.

But Mickel sent his friend Poston a copy of a story he had written, titled “The Just Barely Short of Holy Bible (The Story of Uz) by Andy Mickel.” The text is a jumble. Biblical. Hectoring. Violent.

Over the 20 pages, the “Author” puts the “Character” through anguish and torment — attacked by monster birds “with their giant razor beaks,” the protagonist covered in boils and blood, “castrated and paraded before lovely women.”

At one point, the Character says, “I have been sent by ANDREW, Author of the Story. Thus saith He — Let My People Go!”

Then the Author Andrew becomes God.

Later, the text breaks into large print, capital letters: “JEHOVAH!!! YOU IDIOTIC WHORE!!! YOU MAGGOT!!! YOU CAN’T UNDERSTAND THIS, DOWN HERE!!! YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING, YOU TYRANT!!! YOU DON’T LOVE ME!!! YOU DON’T LOVE ME!!!!! BUT I DON’T CARE, BECAUSE I HATE YOU!!!!!”

Toward the end, the Character is hanged on his “new age” crucifix. “That’s how the story ends — Character went to Hell,” Mickel wrote.

But there is a coda, where the Character enters a kind of Heaven “without boredom, without depression.” On the last page of his story, Mickel scrawled a crude, sad-eyed cartoon face with a screaming, open mouth, and in the back of the figure’s throat, Mickel inked, “I’m finished with exams.”

‘Something Important’ 

A week before the start of his trial, Mickel agrees to speak with a Washington Post reporter at the Colusa County jail. He is brought into the visiting room, wearing an orange striped shirt, orange drawstring pants and slippers. In the beginning, he looks nervous and shy. He carries a manila folder and a pen and pad.

Through bulletproof glass, speaking over an intercom, Mickel produces diplomas from his time in the Army and holds them up to the smeary window. Basic training. His Ranger School course. Airborne jump school. His honorary discharge. He looks his visitor in the eye, but is evasive in his answers.

How did he like the Army?

“Good and bad,” Mickel says without any real emotion. “I enjoyed it. Lots of good people. But pretty regimented.” He shrugs. Like, whatever.

How did he pick the assumed name McCrae? (One of his friends back in Ohio guessed that it was a reference to “Digger McCrae,” a comic book super-thief.) “Where did you get that?” he asks and shakes his head. Now he looks perturbed. No, Mickel says, he chose the name from the character Augustus McCrae, the ex-Texas Ranger in the Larry McMurtry novel “Lonesome Dove.”

Why is he representing himself? “From the beginning,” he says, “I knew that’s the way it had to be.” Why? “I do think I’m doing something important.” He looks like he has a secret he is just dying to tell. But he won’t.

One of his friends says Mickel told him he was amassing a document — hundreds of pages long — that will explain all. Mickel has referred to this still-unreleased manifesto as “the Whopper.”

Mickel won’t divulge the Whopper’s contents. He won’t answer questions about his case’s similarity to McVeigh or Kaczynski. It all starts to feel like a tease. That there is no further explanation. That his Internet postings are about it.

Mickel interrupts and asks his visitor’s angle on the case. “All my friends think I’m insane and they don’t understand,” Mickel says. Then he watches the reporter jot that down and says, “Don’t write that part down.”

The insane part or the friends part? he is asked. Mickel warns the reporter that he is not some “lone wolf” or “some crazy Ted Kaczynski.”

Then what is he? Mickel is asked. What’s your defense? “I’m not going into that,” he says. “It’ll all be out there in court.”

He admits that he suffers from depression, but is dealing with it. Is he taking medication? He’s not going to get into that. “I’ve learned a lot about myself while in jail,” he says. “Not to sound cheesy, but it’s been a growing experience for me.”

Later in the 30-minute interview, Mickel tries to explain his cause. “Everyone thinks I did this to get media attention and to read about myself in the newspaper,” he says. That is “absurd,” he says. “I do think I’m doing something important and that people understand what this is about. I want the media to cover this for that purpose. Not for me.”

What does he think of the coverage so far? “I don’t think they like me,” Mickel says. And in this moment, he seems like a big, dumb, very dangerous kid.

So why wasn’t another psychiatric evaluation performed? Because no one asked. That is the way the judicial system works. Mickel had pushed his parents away. They have not hired another lawyer.

In California, Mickel’s request to represent himself was granted by a judge in Tehama County, who could have independently ordered a mental exam but did not.

A Question of Competency 

The district attorney prosecuting the case, Gregg Cohen, declined to be interviewed for this article, but in the hallway of the courthouse in Colusa, he said there had not been any competency hearing for Mickel “because that was dealt with in New Hampshire.”

In pretrial proceedings, Colusa County Superior Court Judge S. William Abel did not raise the issue of competency, nor has Mickel, nor has the attorney James Reichle, who was appointed to serve as Mickel’s “advisory counsel.”

Reichle says Mickel meets all the legal requirements of mental competency: He is aware of his surroundings, the charges and the possible penalty, and engaged in his own defense. “And the law is that if you are competent enough to waive the right to an attorney, then you are competent enough to represent yourself,” Reichle says. “A normal person could ask how could anyone sane do this, but that is not a legal issue.”

As for Mickel’s depression, Reichle says: “Everybody in America is on Prozac.” 

Reichle, a former prosecutor, now semi-retired, takes a libertarian stance on the case — Mickel remains adamant that his history of depression should remain out of bounds, Reichle says, and he believes the defendant should have that right.

“He is sensitive about it because he wants to make a statement and he doesn’t want the jury to see him as some crazy wacko,” Reichle says.

Of course, his parents are going to say he’s crazy, Reichle says. But Mickel “is extremely bright,” his advisory counsel observes. “He just thinks differently from you and me.”