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Killer Sought Solace Online

Before Orange County shootings, 19-year-old pleaded for help and pondered suicide.

November 01, 2005|Kimi Yoshino, Mai Tran and Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writers

In the weeks before 19-year-old William Freund donned a cape and mask and went on a shooting rampage in his Aliso Viejo neighborhood, he reached out for help on the Internet.

He wrote more than two dozen online messages in October, asking for a "real life" friend and saying he was contemplating suicide. He also threatened to start "a Terror Campaign to hurt those that have hurt me."

The messages paint a portrait of a troubled young man struggling with Asperger's syndrome, a neurological disorder described as a variant of autism that hampers people's ability to interact socially. He revealed his anguish and frustration on a website, wrongplanet.net, used by people with Asperger's.

In a prophetic message written Oct. 16, about the "Terror Campaign," he also said, "My future ended some time ago." Other postings included "Everybody hates me" and "I feel like I need to kill myself." He also disclosed that he had bought a 12-gauge shotgun and had gone online to buy ammunition.

Members of the online community for Asperger's tried to reassure Freund and offer suggestions, and volunteer moderators tried to find his parents.

Their efforts failed.

On Saturday morning, Freund put on a dark cape and paintball mask and entered a neighboring house, killing Christina Smith, 22, and her father, Vernon, 45. He then shot at a house across the street and tried to fire at a neighbor, but the shotgun jammed. Then he walked home and killed himself with the shotgun.

Orange County sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino said investigators did not know what sparked the shooting or why Freund targeted the Smiths. "We're looking into his mental health at the time of the shooting," he said.

An autopsy completed Sunday showed that Freund died of a single gunshot to the upper torso. Toxicology tests are being conducted, but Amormino said, "We don't expect drugs and alcohol set off his bizarre behavior."

What may be the best clues to what set him off could be the messages Freund left behind in postings on wrongplanet.net. The website was created by people with Asperger's syndrome and intended as a place they could post comments, share experiences and talk to one another in online chat rooms. It also offers articles about the disease but is not intended to be a authoritative medical source.

Those with the disorder are often described as loners who have trouble communicating and may not fit in socially.

To the outside world, people with Asperger's are sometimes merely presumed to be rude, although the condition is caused by a neurobiological disorder. Depression and suicidal thoughts often afflict people with Asperger's, but violent behavior is rare.

The syndrome affects more males than females, and although the number of people with Asperger's is unknown, some experts estimate that 1 in 250 people has at least a mild case. Experts agree that it is subtler than autism but can often be emotionally crippling.

Freund tended to keep to himself, although he worked for a while repairing computers and fixing viruses, said his former employer, Forrest Fuster, 24, of Mission Viejo.

"He was incredibly smart, but he lacked social skills severely," Fuster said. "He was a very deep thinker."

In his online profile, Freund described himself as an only child of adoptive parents, a student at ITT Technical Institute in Anaheim who enjoyed "computers, role playing, fantasy, pugs, Food, guns." He graduated from Aliso Niguel High School in 2004, the same school as Christina Smith, who graduated in 2001.

His online messages were filled with spelling and grammatical errors, alternately depicting a self-aware person desperately seeking help and a frustrated, angry man who wanted to lash out at others.

On Oct. 15 he said he had tried suicide before. "Ive Tried Everythink from asphxia, To lethal gases, Inert Gases To full suspended hanging ... my minds Sick With depression."

The next day, he said that if he made it to Halloween, he planned to equip himself with body armor, an airgun and a laser to "just scare any little kids that try to destroy my pumpkin ... and guess what I have A real shotgun. It's gona be a fun Halloween," he wrote.

On Oct. 19, he asked for references to a mental hospital, saying that he needed counseling and social skills training. He also said he had no friends. He wrote that he wished he had some, emphasizing it with 75 exclamation points.

Alexander Plank, 19, the founder of wrongplanet.net, said volunteer moderators who monitored messages had been concerned about Freund's postings and took action.

"People at our site tried to contact his parents, but apparently there are a lot of Freunds in Orange County," Plank said. There are 38 Freunds registered to vote.

Moderators also blocked Freund from posting links to pro-suicide websites, said Plank, a freshman computer science major at George Mason University in Northern Virginia.

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