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The Cyber World Shut Out O.C. Loner Too

Aliso Viejo teen who couldn't make friends turned to the Internet only to be rebuffed. He killed two neighbors, then took his own life.

November 06, 2005|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

This is the story of a young man who couldn't make friends.

He was mocked and bullied. He had trouble looking people in the eyes. He struggled to carry on a conversation and thought his parents and his doctor misunderstood him.

He was filled with hurt, and maybe anger too.

For companionship, he turned to the Internet, an anonymous world where he hoped his awkwardness wouldn't show. He searched friendfinder.com and other sites for someone to talk to. But even there, he was belittled and rejected.

Last weekend -- his brain awash with depression and despair -- he took a shotgun, went to a house in his Orange County neighborhood and killed a man and his daughter. Then he went home and killed himself.

Some who had crossed paths with 19-year-old William Freund wondered what they could have done differently. Former classmate Tiffany Key spoke up on the Internet:

"Think about your interactions with him. Were they positive? Or were you one of those kids that made his life hell? If you did, then please change your life. This is your wake-up call."

*

For as long as Key can remember -- at least back in middle school -- Freund was a social outcast.

When he walked through the halls, people harassed him. Sometimes, mockingly, students would put an arm around him and loudly announce things like, "Hey, everybody, this is William. He's my friend," said Key, who graduated from Aliso Niguel High School with Freund in 2004 and now attends UC Irvine.

If he sneezed or blew his nose in class, people laughed.

He wore a big, bulky jacket and people laughed.

When he walked down the hall, he ignored the students punching and kicking his backpack. Some, Key said, ruthlessly used Freund as the butt of jokes.

"He wouldn't get aggressive. He would never retaliate," she said. "He would just take it, day after day."

Key said she and her friends tried to reach out to Freund, inviting him to participate in group projects. But because so many people were insincere with Freund, "when somebody would try to be genuine, he was so very defensive," she said.

Tolerating such bullying is a common characteristic of someone with Asperger's syndrome, a neurological disorder that authorities said was diagnosed in Freund when he was 16. The disorder, a variant of autism, makes it difficult for people to interact socially. For some, the sickness can be emotionally crippling.

"People with Asperger's syndrome want friends desperately," said Stephen M. Edelson, director of the Oregon-based Center for the Study of Autism. "But they just don't have the social behavior skills."

In Freund's case, it was "almost as if he was afraid to open up," said Tio Lavranos, 19, another former classmate. "Every time I tried to talk to him, he really wouldn't respond too much," he said.

After graduation, Freund worked part time at a computer repair shop in Corona del Mar. He also helped his father at the family-owned print shop.

"He seemed to be out there doing stuff, but he didn't have much of a personal life with friends," said Forrest Fuster, his former employer. "He did a lot of work and no play. All he did personally was play on the computer."

His social skills were so stunted that he sometimes seemed rude. Once when he finished repairing a computer, he didn't say a word but simply attached a note to the keyboard saying, "You're welcome." When he answered the business phone, he greeted callers with a curt, "What do you want?"

Like Lavranos and Key, Fuster tried to befriend him. He invited him to watch movies, play video games or paintball. Freund turned him down, every time. "I reached out," Fuster said, "but he didn't receive anybody."

*

Instead, Freund passed countless hours alone in his computer-filled bedroom. One high-speed computer he proudly pieced together with parts his parents gave him for graduation.

In a cyber world where anyone can assume any identity, he took on various characters, role-playing in Doom 3 and other online games, Fuster said.

He also pleaded for help. And for a friend.

He looked on websites such as friendfinder.com and agelesslove.com, crafting pitiable pleas for camaraderie.

"I've never really had a friend," Freund wrote in one of his online profiles. "I've never had someone I can share more intimate conversation with, or just have a good time with. I want to experience doing things together with a 'buddy,' even having fun which I never had."

He never had a girlfriend. "I do not have a place of my own but do not consider it a problem as Nobody has ever been over in all my life."

For a while, it seemed his online posts were harmless enough.

He chatted in February about the movie "Napoleon Dynamite" and television shows, mostly reruns of "The Twilight Zone," "The Outer Limits," and other sci-fi programs.

He posted reviews of online businesses. He bought and sold video games and paintball supplies on EBay. He asked questions about guns, such as where in California he could shoot buckshot at a range.

It should have been easier for Freund to fit in on the Internet.

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