AUGUSTA, Ga. ― A collection of framed Beatles record covers adorn the living room wall of the house where 25-year-old government contractor Reality Winner lived until late last week. One room is empty, save for a rug where she practices yoga, a book titled “The Art of Peace” and prayer beads. In her bedroom, a blanket with a giant picture of the Pokemon Pikachu is laid neatly on her bed.
It doesn’t seem like the house of a mastermind bent on bringing down the government.
“I want people to keep in mind that she’s a human being, that she did serve her country, that she would never hurt anyone,” Winner’s mother, Billie Winner-Davis, told HuffPost in a sit-down interview Thursday morning. Her parents have come to Augusta from their home in Kingsville, Texas, to stand by their daughter.
The portrait they paint of her is a far cry from the profile prosecutors sketched just hours later in U.S. District Court.
Authorities say Winner intentionally accessed a highly classified document about Russian interference in the U.S. election while working for Pluribus International Corp, a National Security Agency subcontractor, on her work computer in Augusta. They say she printed it out and shared it with a news site, The Intercept. Prosecutor Jennifer Solari said Winner had also described in notebooks that she wanted to “burn the White House down” and live in Kurdistan or Nepal.
Winner’s parents, who are staying for now in their daughter’s carefully decorated house, said they knew her to be selfless and dedicated, intent on helping her community as well as the people she had worked with as a linguist throughout her young career. They are adamant about her innocence and strongly stressed their belief that her case is being blown out of proportion.
“This is a 25-year-old girl who served her country with admiration and distinction. But she’s now the poster child for every bad thing that happens, and the government is going to prosecute her as if she’s the number one threat to national security, and she’s not,” Winner’s stepfather, Gary Davis, said.
Lance Keck, 29, became fast friends with Winner when they were teenagers. They met on Gaia Online, an anime avatar-based forum. They kept in touch over the years.
“It comes as a huge shock,” Keck said of the allegations. Winner’s friend knows her to be a fun person with an “absurd sense of humor.”
Though they haven’t talked in some time, he said, he thought of her just last week when he was cleaning out his house in Minnesota and came across a shoebox filled with old notes from his pen pal.
“Generally she seemed very collected and very strong and confident,” Keck told HuffPost.
Since being detained, Winner-Davis says her daughter has found a sense of community in prison. They’ve rallied around her, she says of Winner’s fellow inmates, and have vowed to protect her amid the complicated circumstances she finds herself in. Winner told her mother that when a reporter showed up at the prison, the inmates shielded her from photographs. When she had used up the limited number of phone calls she could make from jail, her cellmate was quick to surrender hers. “She said they will take care of her,” Winner’s mother said.
In her last free call from jail, they had laughed. “She said, ‘Mom, I’m wearing orange,’” and I said, ‘Well, I bet you’re rocking it,’” Winner-Davis said.
Winner was born in Texas and received her unusual legal name, Reality Leigh Winner, from her father, who died in December after a long bout of medical crises. His death, Winner’s stepfather told HuffPost, had been both a sorrow and a relief.
“She was home with us when he passed away,” Winner-Davis recounted. Despite his poor health, Winner and her father had always been close. “She loved him, he loved her, they were very bonded and close,” Davis said.
“I know her father had a lot of health issues, and that certainly upset her while that was going on,” Keck said. “During that, she was a little less collected, but I almost always looked up to her as a role model to a certain degree.”
After finishing high school in Texas, Winner joined the Air Force, determined to become a linguist like her older stepbrother.
She learned Pashto, Farsi and Dari. She had started to teach herself Arabic even before joining the service. ”She had started ordering books and education materials. We came home one day and she had yellow stickers in Arabic all over the house. She had started self-teaching herself the language,” Davis recounted.
Her work with foreign languages and far-away countries brought her joy, her parents proudly said. She was attached to a unit of Afghans “and would assist them in writing reports,” they said. She even hoped to deploy to Afghanistan.
But Winner ended up leaving the Air Force and taking a job as an intelligence contractor in Augusta.
While her stepfather told The New York Times after her arrest that she was a lonely in the new environment, he stressed to HuffPost that the community in the small town was friendly and tight knit.
Exercise provided her with a rhythm. Winner, passionate about CrossFit, also worked as a yoga instructor. She believes yoga is the way to a peaceful world, her mother said.
“Whatever she does, she does it 100 percent. She wants to help that culture, those folks. You look around here, she’s got crosses on the walls, Hindu stuff, she does yoga,” Davis said. “She’s not a radical Muslim; she’s not anything like that. She’s just a young woman who wants to help everybody she meets. She wants to be a positive influence. She feels that every person is an instrument of change and can make the world a better place.”
Winner’s passion came across on her social media platforms, which highlight her love of animals and fitness on Instagram as well as show her strong dislike of President Donald Trump and his policies on Twitter.
Prosecutors say it was while working in Georgia for the NSA that Winner obtained the document detailing Russian efforts to derail the election. According to the prosecutor, she admitted as much during a conversation with FBI agents over the weekend ― a conversation in which she also talked about yoga and music.
Authorities say they figured out it was Winner who passed along the information by tracking who accessed and printed the information. They also found records of her contacts with the Intercept from her home computer.
During Thursday’s explosive court hearing, Winner pleaded not guilty and was denied bail.
Solari told the courtroom that Winner told the FBI she had purposely sought and printed classified information, and gave the FBI access to her phone, which reportedly had pictures of the NSA document.
Prosecutors allege that during a call from jail, Winner plotted with her mother to highlight her innocent, peaceful appearance in court. In that same call with her mother, which was recorded, she reportedly said that if she did not make bail, she would “go nuclear to the press.”
In another phone call from jail, to her sister, Winner said the document she was accused of leaking was “kind of an important one,” Solari added, and said she planned to defend herself by playing “that card, being pretty, white and cute, braid my hair and cry and all.”