Read Saving Gary McKinnon Online

Authors: Sharp, Janis

Saving Gary McKinnon

To Wilson, my husband, the love of my life, whose love, care, optimism and humour kept me going through the darkest of times. Without him life would have been infinitely harder, much less interesting and much less fun.

To my son Gary, a talented and extraordinary man who I love dearly and am proud to call my son, and to Lucy, whose light and laughter shone into his life.

hen the news broke that a young man from north London called Gary McKinnon was to be extradited to the United States for hacking into computers there and leaving behind him some rude remarks, I was as puzzled as anyone. What had he done that could not be dealt with by the British courts? Why was it so serious that years after the hacking the American authorities, all the way up to their Attorney General, were still pursuing him?

It gradually became apparent that the authorities were hunting him for a crime that, as far as I know, is still not on the statute books: causing the United States government deep embarrassment. In the meantime Gary, to his bewilderment, had suddenly to fight to remain in Britain and avoid the possibility of being locked up in an American penitentiary, labelled a national security threat. And anyone who has followed what has been happening in Guantanamo Bay over the last decade will know that once ‘national security’ is involved in the United States the chances of a fair trial – or even a trial at all – become minimal.

It was Gary’s mother Janis Sharp who led the ultimately triumphant battle to halt the extradition. Without her courage and determination, Gary would undoubtedly now be behind
bars – or not with us at all. In this book, Janis tells us about Gary’s childhood and his curiosity about UFOs that led to his eventual hacking of the NASA computers, how she first learned of his arrest, how he came to be diagnosed as suffering from Asperger’s, and how the efforts to save him slowly built into one of the most admired – and successful – campaigns for justice that many of us can remember.

The book paints a much fuller picture of Gary and of Janis than we have ever had before. It catalogues the highs and lows of the rollercoaster ride to halt the extradition. It also acts as a fine example of how to mount a campaign when all the odds seem stacked against you, and provides a fascinating insight into how politics, the law and the media work in Britain.

Janis Sharp is a remarkable woman. That someone should dare to take on the mighty authoritarian institutions that control our lives, with no prior experience of doing so, should be an inspiration to us all. As injustices grow in the wake of the ‘war on terror’, this book is essential reading, not only as a political thriller and a personal story, but also as an eye-opener to the way our freedoms can be threatened. Bravo, Janis!

Julie Christie

June 2013

ow did this happen? I mean, out of all the people in the world, why us?

It was 19 March 2002 when my son Gary McKinnon was arrested by the Hi-Tech Crime Unit. Ironically, I had said to my husband Wilson, Gary’s stepdad, just months before: ‘Isn’t it amazing that Gary has reached the age of thirty-five without getting into heavy drugs or into trouble of any kind?’

I should have known then – once you start patting yourself on the back something happens to make you wish you had kept quiet. Maybe we had tempted fate into deciding we’d had life too easy.

Just hours before the phone call from Gary I was snuggled up in bed next to Wilson, thinking I could happily stay there forever.

It had been the same as any other morning – being woken by our dogs barking and Wilson bounding down the stairs to let them out.

Drinking tea and gazing through the patio window as the sun filtered through, I thought how much I loved life, loved watching the dogs running around in the garden, the fish swimming in the pond and the birds eating the berries from the tree. I was
blissfully unaware that these moments of peace were about to be snatched away.

‘Wilson! Let’s take the dogs out.’

‘OK, I won’t be a minute,’ said Wilson as he headed for the bathroom.

I switched on my computer, knowing that Wilson’s minute means he disappears into a black hole and emerges half an hour later, book in hand, lost in the story he’s been reading.

I’m still in awe of how via the internet I can access the most intricate details of virtually any subject from across the globe. I’ve always been good at absorbing information; having the library of the world at my fingertips is something I never take for granted.

‘I’m ready, dogs out,’ called Wilson, standing in the doorway all wrapped up and looking like a Viking Santa Claus as he absent-mindedly stroked his white beard.

‘Have you got the keys and the phone?’

‘I have,’ said Wilson, still lost in thought.

‘Then let’s go.’

Dogs in tow, we walked through the trees, their branches held out like arms for woodland creatures to perch on and to shelter in, breathing peace into the atmosphere of nature’s cathedral.

As Wilson told me in detail about the story he’d been reading, we were transported into another world, as our hounds ran like deer through the woods.

• • •

Arriving home we heard the phone ring, missed it. It rang again. It was Gary.


‘Hi Gary.’

‘Mum, don’t get upset. I’ve got something to tell you, but don’t worry.’

‘I’m worried, tell me!’

‘I was arrested.’

‘Arrested? What do you mean, arrested? Why would you be arrested?’

‘For hacking into NASA … and the Pentagon.’

‘What! NASA? The Pentagon? How could you have hacked into the Pentagon?’

I was gripping the phone so tightly the blood was draining from my hands as panic came in waves. I was wishing he would laugh and say he was joking, but Gary tells the truth – that’s just the way he is.

The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach was pulling me deeper and deeper and I instinctively felt this was way more serious than Gary realised.

‘I was searching for information on UFOs. Don’t worry, Mum. The police from the Hi-Tech Crime Unit are really nice; they’re computer guys just like me.’

Oh Gary, they’re not like you, and you need a lawyer.

‘They told me they’d been monitoring my computer for months and as I hadn’t done any damage I was looking at six months’ community service. It’s OK.’

I wanted to ask him how he could have been so stupid. I wanted to shake him and wake him up, but most of all I wanted to wrap him up in my arms to protect him: he was my son and an innocent to the core.

That’s the thing about being a parent: your child is your child no matter what age they are. Their troubles are your troubles and you somehow find the strength to move mountains to protect them.

‘I’ll get you a lawyer, Gary.’

‘I don’t need one; I’ve told the Hi-Tech Crime Unit everything and they said they might give me a job after all this, as they need people like me.’

Oh Gary! Gary, this is America we’re dealing with, this is Goliath.

I wanted to scream and tear my hair out at his naivety.

‘I’ve always told you, if you were ever in trouble to ring me and I’d get you a lawyer. Why didn’t you?’

‘I didn’t want to worry you.’

worried me! Where are you?’

‘I’m on my way home; they said they’ll let me know when they want to speak to me again. I have to go.’

A wave of relief swept over me knowing that at least he was free: they didn’t have him, he wasn’t a prisoner, he was free.

It seemed ironic, as when Gary was younger he wanted to work for the police and I had talked him out of it. I was afraid of the violence in London and that people he knew might distance themselves from him, the way people often tend to do with the police. Now he had been arrested I started to question every bit of advice I’d ever given him. Maybe if I’d encouraged him to join the police he wouldn’t be in this position now and would be working for the Hi-Tech Crime Unit instead of being arrested by them.

‘Maybe’ this, ‘maybe’ that, could have, should have, if only…

It’s funny how when things go wrong we tend to keep going over the past, trying to work out how we could have avoided being in the place we’re in now, even though we know it’s too late to change things.

We used to say Gary was thirty going on thirteen. That annoyed him, but he’s always been naive and young for his age, although clearly intelligent.

‘What are we going to do, Wilson?’

‘There’s nothing we can do, we’ll have to wait and see what happens.’

‘We can’t wait! This is NASA and the Pentagon we’re talking about. How could Gary have hacked into the Pentagon? It’s mad. Apart from anything else, surely Pentagon security has to be the best in the world?’

‘You’re pacing, Janis.’

‘I never pace.’

‘You do now.’

‘Maybe Gary should go and live with his dad in Scotland for a while and they’ll forget about it. I want him to be somewhere safe.’

‘He can’t, he’s on bail.’

‘I don’t like this. If he got six months’ community service that would be fine but I can’t see it somehow.’

Wilson was calm. Wilson is always calm and I was glad of it at that moment as I had gone straight into panic mode. I wished my mum was still here – she always had good instincts and would have known what to do.

y mum, Mary May Macleod, was the heart of our family; and like the sun our lives revolved around her. Her eyes mirrored her soul. She had the most wonderful imagination and sense of playfulness and filled the house with music and laughter. She was half Irish and amazingly used to dream about our family’s babies before they were born and before anyone realised they were pregnant.

It’s said that many Celts have the gift of second sight and I know that in our family prophetic dreams are an accepted part of our lives. However, my dad, an engineer, had a practical approach to life and a fear of anything described as supernatural, so we were never allowed to speak about anything out of the norm when he was in earshot.

My dad was Donald John Macleod from Stornoway, the main town on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. His family lived on a croft in an area that survived by self-sufficiency. They spun their own wool, fished in the sea, grew their own food and kept their own animals to provide a source of cheese, milk and eggs. My dad spoke only Gaelic when he first arrived in the big city of Glasgow in his teens. He was a proud, hardworking man who, in true Highland fashion, would
not drink a drop of alcohol on a Sunday. He enjoyed cooking us all a healthy breakfast, and tried to encourage us to eat things like kippers, which to a child were pretty unappetising.

My dad was fascinated by the moon landing and had a passion for astronomy, taking us all out onto the veranda one night to view the passage of a comet, which was a magical moment for us.

My mum didn’t know she was pregnant with me as her periods hadn’t stopped, but she then had what the doctors thought was a miscarriage. They said no baby could have survived as she had lost everything, but unbeknown to them, there was a determined little girl still in there clinging on for dear life.

I was born dead, my mum had haemorrhaged and her life was in immediate danger. She was adamant that the doctors should attend to me first but they had decided it was too late for me and were working on my mum as a priority. Hearing my mum’s pleas for her baby’s life, a young nurse held me in her arms and refused to give up as she persistently tried to breathe life into my rapidly cooling body until finally I gasped for air. The last thing my mum heard before slipping into unconsciousness was the sound of her baby, crying. She said I was meant to be.

• • •

I was born in Glasgow as Janis Thomasina Macleod, the youngest of three children. We lived in a place called Gilshochill, not far from Maryhill.

One of the earliest and most haunting memories of my childhood was standing up in a metal cot in a children’s home, holding onto the sides and crying and crying for my mum. Even now, just touching on the memory, tears well up, blurring the letters on the page.

My dad came to visit me in a children’s home he had been forced to put me into temporarily when my mum was seriously ill in hospital and there was no one at home to look after me. He had my seven-year-old sister Lorna in tow.

My memory of this is vivid. I could hear the nurse’s voice saying, ‘She won’t eat, and just stands in her cot looking at the door and won’t stop crying.’

‘Take her home, Daddy,’ Lorna said pleadingly.

‘I can’t, I’ve got to go to work.’

‘I’ll look after her, Daddy.’

‘You’re too young, and you’ve got school.’

‘But Mrs Clarke from upstairs will help me. Please, Dad. She needs to come home, we can’t leave her here.’

My sister Lorna was fighting for me; she knew I was scared and she wouldn’t give up until she had persuaded my dad, who thankfully relented and took me home.

The next memory I have of that time was when, months later, my mum, who had been seriously ill, came back home from the hospital and was standing in the darkened hall of our old ground-floor tenement flat in Glasgow. Lorna was holding me in her arms with her pigtails brushing my cheek and I remember I felt angry at my mum because she had left me and I clung to Lorna. Then I heard my mum’s voice, warm and familiar but filled with sadness, saying, ‘She doesn’t remember me.’

I reached out, to be lifted up by my mum and held in the comfort of her arms. Home was home again and at the age of one I was back with my mum where I belonged.

Who knows how I can remember that far back, but I can. Maybe it’s the memory of this traumatic childhood experience of separation from my family that led to me feeling even in adulthood that I had to be in control of certain situations.

I was incredibly attached to my mum; she was so different
from anyone I’ve ever known. When my sister, brother and I were little she used to spread thick polish on the floor and then tie rags onto our feet and we would slide around on the floor, laughing and singing and falling over and getting up again and sliding around some more until we had polished the floor to a high shine while having the most amazing time. She was brilliant at inventing the most ingenious ways of doing things.

In those days television was so new that it was rare for anyone in Scotland to have one and as children we mostly played outdoors. Some of our play was quite entrepreneurial. The older children would chop up wood while we younger ones tied the wood up in bunches, selling it door-to-door to get money to buy sweets or toys.

We occasionally went into the local chapel when it was empty and, regardless of anyone’s religion, we would light candles and then ask God if we could take a few of the candles for our homemade den and some of the holy water in a small container. God always said yes, of course, and the few times the priest saw us he would tell us off gently, with a smile and sometimes with a wink. The doors of churches and chapels were always left open in those days.

The older children would boast to friends and neighbours that the holy water had spiritual powers, which we wholeheartedly believed. Some children would offer us sweets or sometimes, more appropriately, angel scraps in return for a few drops of the holy water with the magical powers.

Scraps were essentially like Victorian paintings of cherubs, children and animals printed on thin pieces of shiny paper that we’d keep in pages of books and then swap or trade with each other from our beloved den.

When it rained we played in our den and when there was thunder and lightning and the atmosphere seemed sinister,
we’d sit inside our den with the candles lit, or in the enclosed stairway of the flats, and the older children would tell us ghost stories that scared the life out of us. We’d all either dissolve into fits of laughter or scream and run home as fast as our legs would carry us.

Getting caught in the rain and coming home soaking wet and sitting around the blazing coal fire while your wet clothes were drying was so comforting. Staring into the flames, I could see images of anything I cared to imagine, and I loved that.

We would put bread on the end of a very long, large metal fork and hold it over the fire until it was toasted. Before going to bed our mum would bathe us in a large tin bath in front of the fire, which was the absolute centre of our home.

In those days men in Scotland shied away from showing their affection towards their children. It was rare for dads to hug or to cuddle their children, but I used to sit at my dad’s knee and he would dry my hair with a towel and I’d never want it to end. That was his way of showing his affection.

• • •

The older children used to teach the younger ones all the skills they had learned. Lorna taught me how to make tablet, a Scottish sweet a bit like fudge, only more brittle.

Fridges were virtually unheard of then, so we’d put the tablet out on the windowsill in the cold night air and leave it to set. It tasted good even if it was sickly sweet and bad for our teeth.

We also made toffee but managing to do it without getting your fingers burned was an art and gave a sense of self-satisfaction when you got it right.

My brother Ian was the eldest of the three and the quietest. Ian could draw well and tried to teach me but I was never any
good. Ian once drew an excellent portrait of our dad sitting in his chair reading the newspaper. My dad didn’t really react and didn’t praise Ian, which I thought was a shame as the drawing was so good.

Whenever the weather was fine we would wander with our friends and have picnics in the fields and make buttercup and daisy chains. When it was cold we would roast potatoes over the glowing embers of a campfire the older children made. That taste is something I remember to this day.

We’d pick and eat wild blackberries and no matter how many we ate there were always loads left over to take home for our mums to make jam. Our clothes were saturated with bramble juice but we didn’t care; it was fun and the juice washed out.

Some of the older people in the allotments would ask the children to help them with their gardening and would give the children carrots and turnips to munch on. They called the turnips tumshies, and we would eat them raw. Can you even imagine children wanting to eat raw turnips nowadays?

One day, when one of our group helped themselves to a turnip without being given permission, the man from the allotment chased us and we all had to run for our lives. It seemed exciting at the time and the relief of getting away safely made us giggle until the tears rolled down our faces.

My dad had an allotment and everything he touched seemed to grow to a huge size; he was forever winning prizes for his vegetables and flowers and we always had loads of fresh fruit and vegetables to eat. Perhaps it was because he was brought up on a croft in a pretty bleak part of the world, where unless you had such talents, survival would have been difficult.

Although I didn’t inherit his green fingers, I did inherit my dad’s love of the outdoors.

When I was little I felt like a free spirit, as much a part of
nature as the deer that ran in the forest or the eagles that flew in the air. I wouldn’t have traded my upbringing for the world.

Ever since I was a child I’ve cared desperately about neglected animals. When I was three years old I was playing in the back court in Glasgow. An old lady had put a litter of kittens in the dustbin and put a large rock on top of them and I could hear them crying. Neighbours were standing around looking and shouting at the woman, who was at her window, but no one was doing anything and I couldn’t understand why the adults were all just standing there and wouldn’t save the kittens.

The older children were at school so couldn’t help me. I used every bit of strength I had to try to remove the rock but I couldn’t budge it. I ran to the house and begged my mum to come and save the kittens, but a neighbour told her that it was too late: they were beyond help.

The kittens were hurt and crying and I was too small to help them. I was heartbroken and cried myself to sleep that night. I hated feeling powerless and wanted to grow up quickly.

I felt far too young when I attended my first primary school. I was five years old and dearly missed my mum, even though she would come up to school to see me at playtime and would pass me sandwiches through the railings.

I would sit at my desk gazing out of the windows, longing for the freedom of the outside. I wanted to run in the fields with the wind in my face, instead of being trapped in a classroom wasting my days away.

I always thought it strange that young children, geared to run and jump and laugh and play, were confined to a schoolroom and made to sit still at a desk for seven hours a day. To be at an age when you are full of the joys of life and bursting with energy, and then be forced to suppress that energy seemed odd to me. It was like being put in a straitjacket.

School was a shock to my system and I became quiet and shy when I was there. When my sister Lorna started secondary school I felt so lost and alone that I walked several miles to seek out her school. I have no idea how, at five years old, I could have found my way through miles of busy streets to a school I had never seen, but by sheer luck my sister was one of only two girls out in the playground when I arrived.

In those days I would sometimes see groups of children hanging around outside pubs their parents were in, waiting for money to buy a fish supper. It was a reflection of the times that even some very young children fended for themselves, usually going around in groups with siblings and friends, the older children always looking out for the younger ones.

Times in Glasgow were changing and when the old Victorian tenements where we lived were earmarked for demolition, we moved to a flat in a newly built development on the outskirts of Glasgow. My parents loved having a modern kitchen and a bathroom with hot running water and an indoor coal bunker, but my dad missed his allotment and we all missed our friends and tight-knit community.

I remember after we moved my mum and I heard a man singing in the communal garden of our new flat. Looking out of the bedroom window we saw it was a busker who used to make a living singing in the back courts of our old tenements; as the population moved, he was searching them out in an attempt to continue to make a living. He was a proud-looking man with a strong voice, and he held his cap over his heart as he sang. It was sad, as he was a really good singer, but apart from my mum I don’t think anyone gave him money, and we never saw him again.

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