ROCKVILLE, Md. — Considering that he was being sued, and considering that this court date was the culmination of two and a half years of legal warfare, Aaron Walker seemed to be enjoying himself. The attorney and blogger was the first witness called by Brett Kimberlin, a felon and political activist who was convicted of a series of bombings in the late 1970s and who now insisted that Walker and his conservative friends had defamed him. Kimberlin, who looks and softly speaks like a miniaturized clone of David Strathairn, could not lay a glove on his tormenter.
“Mr. Walker,” asked Kimberlin, “is it true that you wanted to insult the Prophet Mohammed?”
Walker’s attorney objected to that, and Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Eric Johnson insisted that “the Prophet Mohammed is not on trial,” so Kimberlin moved on.
“You called me a pedophile,” said Kimberlin. “I’m going to let you tell the jury why you think that’s true.”
Walker obliged. He cited a story from a 1995 biography of Kimberlin, about a girl who “was ten years old when you came into her life,” and he added that Kimberlin once wrote songs “about adults having sex with teenagers.” He quoted from criminal charges filed (later dropped) by Kimberlin’s wife, accusing her husband of seducing her as a teenager. Walker’s co-defendants—engineer/blogger W.J.J. Hoge, reporter/blogger Robert Stacy McCain, and conservative strategist Ali Akbar—looked at each other in blissful disbelief.
Hours later, the court would dismiss Kimberlin’s lawsuit. The bloggers would return to their lives, and Kimberlin—if he wanted—could go back to running his nonprofit, Justice Through Music. But nobody would recover the countless hours spent on the Kimberlin Saga. It started as a spat between a few writers and went on to involve a U.S. senator, dozens of Republican congressmen, a Fox News commentator, SWAT teams in two time zones, Barbra Streisand, and whoever Kimberlin decided to add to a federal RICO case. His current targets include James O’Keefe, Michelle Malkin, Breitbart.com, Glenn Beck’s websites, and Simon & Schuster.
Inside the conservative media bubble, Kimberlin is the bogeyman in an epic battle between the forces of progressivism and justice, between censorship and free speech. Kimberlin’s allies have accused conservatives of trying to turn him into the next Bill Ayers, a villain that Democrats have to answer for. Outside the bubble, it’s a confounding and minor story—perhaps a case study in how the right’s new media, which does not trust the traditional press, can get endlessly lost down rabbit holes.
This particular hole was dug in the early 1970s. When Brett Kimberlin was a teenager, living in Indiana, he sold drugs. The law caught up with him; he was unwisely evasive about exactly which drugs he sold. He was convicted of perjury, served 30 days, and went back to a swashbuckling career in contraband. In 1978, a 65-year old Speedway, Indiana woman was shot dead, and police started asking if Kimberlin played a role. Within a month, bombs were going off in Speedway. One of them mauled a man who would later commit suicide. After a trial at which six witnesses were hypnotized (the cops had just taken a seminar), Kimberlin was convicted of the bombings; later, he’d be sued for the wrongful death of the victim. He would lose that case and refuse to pay damages.
But in prison, Kimberlin became a decent lawyer and a fantastic self-promoter. In 1988 Kimberlin claimed that he’d sold marijuana to a young Dan Quayle, and that Republicans were using the prison system to silence him. It was a fantastic story that bubbled into the mainstream media and was reported out at length by the New Yorker’s Mark Singer. Kimberlin even agreed to collaborate on a book about his story. When the dogged Singer proved that his source was lying, he wrote a different kind of book.
Kimberlin survived. By 1994, he was out on parole, traveling to Ukraine, meeting the woman who’d become his wife. By 2004, he had remade himself as a “voter integrity” activist, warning that electronic polling booths could be rigged and that George W. Bush might have stolen his second term. It took a while for reporters to realize that, yes, this was the same Brett Kimberlin who’d been mentioned in Doonesbury when he spun the Dan Quayle yarn.
Yet Kimberlin didn’t really interest conservatives until 2010. Bloggers Mandy Nagy and Patrick Frey noticed that the co-founder of a voter integrity site was the so-called Speedway bomber, and started blogging to that effect. Was there a new Bill Ayers on the left? They were just asking questions.
Too many questions. Very soon, Kimberlin e-mailed Frey about his blog posts. “I don’t want to get into a pissing match with you,” he wrote, according to an exchange posted by Frey. “I have filed over a hundred lawsuits and another one will be no sweat for me.”
Frey was an attorney, though; and Kimberlin was getting even more static from a liberal blogger named Seth Allen, who—and there was no nice way to put this — did not act or write rationally. Kimberlin sued him. In 2011, Aaron Walker offered Allen “a bit of free legal advice.”
So Kimberlin turned on Walker, quickly discovering his weakness. Angered by the threats to South Park and Jyllands-Posten for portraying the founder of Islam, Walker had encouraged bloggers to draw their own Mohammads. This turned into “Everyone Draw Mohammad Day” blogosphere-wide protests that Walker joined under the less-than-total pseudonym “Aaron Worthing.”
In a January 2012 motion in Montgomery County court, Kimberlin exposed Walker’s name, address, and employer, outing him as the man behind the Mohammad blog posts. Then Kimberlin informed police that there was “a very real probability that Mr. Walker could be subjected to serious harm or death now that his identity has been exposed.” Days later, Walker went to court to seal the motion. At the time, Kimberlin argued that he was trying to get a judge to see how unfair the negative blogging had been to him.
“He wants to post stuff that happened 32 years ago,” said Kimberlin of Allen. “You know, he dug up 32-year-old mug shots of me that I had never even seen before, that had never been posted.”
“Well, that doesn’t constitute defamation,” said the judge. “It’s all true.”
At the end of that hearing, according to Walker’s testimony on Tuesday, Walker and Kimberlin left through the same door. Kimberlin told Walker to leave him alone. Walker promised to “tell the truth” about him.
“The truth is you didn’t want my testimony,” said Walker. “You just wanted my identity.”
“And I got it,” said Kimberlin, according to Walker’s testimony.
The two men stood in a rest area outside the courtroom. Kimberlin pulled out an iPad. Walker grabbed it away. “I knew he was the Speedway bomber,” he testified in Tuesday’s trial, “and I didn’t want to see what he could do with [the iPad].” Kimberlin called in security, then won a peace order against Walker. A confused judge, for whom the Internet appeared to be an impossible mystery, decided that blogging about Kimberlin constituted violation of the peace order.
This was Walker’s “Spartacus” moment, as the conservative blogosphere rose in solidarity—someone even created an “I am Aaron Walker” badge for websites and Twitter. Frey, one of Kimberlin’s original attackers, revealed that he had been SWATted, the victim of a dangerous prank in which someone’s phone number is spoofed for a 911 call that sends a militarized police force through his door. RedState’s Erick Erickson had also been SWATted, and Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss asked the Department of Justice to look into his case. Eighty-five House Republicans echoed him. Both Erickson and Frey wondered why this happened after they’d written about Kimberlin.
Kimberlin denied any involvement, and no court has contradicted him. But the people who’d been writing about “the Speedway bomber” panicked. Robert Stacy McCain moved his family from Maryland to an “undisclosed location,” declaring that he was worried about what “the Speedway bomber” might do and that supporters of quality journalism needed to hit his tip jar. Ali Akbar, whose National Bloggers Club had created a legal fund for Walker, saw his 2007 arrest for credit card fraud splashed across pro-Kimberlin websites. Hoge joined in, waging a proxy battle against a liberal blogger who accused Walker et al. of being scammers.
And this was how, on Aug. 11, Aaron Walker and his co-defendants ended up on the 9th floor of the Montgomery County circuit court. There was Akbar, a nattily dressed African-American who talks through an underbite. There was McCain, a white Southerner who talks without pause through tobacco-colored teeth, and who has been pilloried by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a former “member of the neo-Confederate hate group League of the South.”
This designation had not altered his sense of humor or the way he talked around reporters.
“We’re lookin’ to get the OJ jury for Ali,” joked McCain.
The two defendants rode the elevator to meet with Hoge, sitting placidly, and Walker, who informed Akbar that they needed to buy a copy of a transcript from the last Kimberlin trial.
“Kimberlin usually runs in at the last minute,” said Walker. “Oh, wait, no. There he is.”
The terror of the blogosphere appeared carrying two briefcases stuffed with printouts of blog posts and tweets. Kimberlin walked past the men he was suing, noticed that the courtroom was closed, and retreated to the other side of the rest area. It was there, Walker pointed out, that the two of them had the overblown “confrontation” that had now taken over his life.
Kimberlin was only eager to present his case to me before proceedings began. “It’s just disgusting,” he said, after I identified myself as a reporter. “It’s just sick. I want them to leave me alone. You know? Just leave me alone. Let me raise my kids and be a husband and run my nonprofits. It’s just crazy. They put my picture on Pedobear—just this morning, one of them tweeted that. This meme, from 4Chan. Can you believe that?”
Once the proceedings had begun, it became very clear, very quickly, why Kimberlin was better off in court than in the wilds of the Internet. In a courtroom, he could control what was known about his past, and what a jury was allowed to consider. He could, theoretically, present himself as a model citizen who made a mistake while obscuring what the mistakes been.
But Kimberlin overreached early and often. The “pedophile” trolling from the blogosphere was based on a few distinct stories. One: Mark Singer’s book had made Kimberlin’s interest in one young girl look downright creepy. Two: A post-prison Kimberlin had written songs about sex with teenage girls, explaining to a reporter that “every guy who’s seen a good-looking teenage girl has thought about it.” Three: In 2013, as the blog war raged, Kimberlin’s wife filed charges against him, alleging that her husband had sex with her, before marriage, when she was 15 years old, and attempted to have sex with her 12-year old cousin.
In court, Kimberlin was both outraged at the “pedophile” claims and slippery about whether they were defamatory.
“Were you ever arrested for a sexual child abuse charge?” asked the judge at one point. “Did they say you were arrested for that?”
“They say I am a pedophile,” said Kimberlin.
“If you’re charged, it’s an arrest. Is that what they say?”
They had not said that. Kimberlin paused before repeating himself. “They say I am a pedophile.”
“My question is, do they say you were charged with being a pedophile? It’s not a hard question.”
“It kind of is,” said Kimberlin.
“If they say you are something you are not, that’s one thing,” said the judge. “If they say you were arrested, that’s another thing.”
The courtroom spent most of the afternoon like this—listening to Kimberlin, representing himself, describe a reformed citizen being relentlessly smeared by “tea bag” right-wing nuts.
“I’m a father,” Kimberlin told the jury. “I’m the founder of a nonprofit. I’ve worked with the State Department. I’m also a musician, a composer. I’m composed music for different movies, independent movies. I create a lot of videos that have gotten millions of views.”
And, as he admitted, he was a felon—a reformed felon. Kimberlin told the lengthy story of how he met his wife in Ukraine, and then pointed at the four bloggers who’d “ruined our lives.” The jurors could “send a message” that bitter, defamatory blogging and tweeting was unacceptable.
“It’s what’s causing all this grief,” said Kimberlin. “Yesterday, Robin Williams died because of depression. I didn’t want that to happen to my wife.”
“Objection,” said defense attorney Patrick Ostronic, wearing a look of disgust.
“Sustained,” said the judge.
So Kimberlin moved on, telling the jury his version of the Aaron Walker story. “Mr. Walker asked people to send him these vile, nasty pictures of the prophet Muhammad,” he said. “Our soldiers are getting killed overseas because of this. Benghazi—why did Benghazi happen? Because some nut defamed, blasphemed, the Prophet Muhammad. Osama bin Laden? That was his rationale for killing Americans, because the people of America defame Muhammad.”
When it was his turn to speak, Ostronic warned that Kimberlin was trying to “enlist” the jury in a silencing of free speech. Akbar decided, on the spot, to represent himself. (“Ali is a champion debater,” McCain told a reporter.) He wanted to tell the story his own way. To do anything else would have wasted an “opportunity to speak the truth about Brett Kimberlin and his past. I want this jury to affirm the First Amendment.”
Kimberlin spent much of the rest of the day attempting to prove that Walker was unreasonably obsessed with him and that he had defamed him. His alleged tormentors spent the day explaining that they wouldn’t have written so much if they weren’t being sued. A jury watched as Kimberlin grabbed copies of tweets or blog posts, submitted them to the defense team, handed them to the bench, and asked Walker to read or confirm them—a repetitive ballot of print-outs. As Kimberlin’s mother and youngest daughter watched, Walker was told to read a tweet in which he pronounced a joke “so funny that Kimberlin pulled out of his preteen girlfriend.”
Kimberlin finished with Walker, and moved on to the bloggers who’d simply gotten involved because they saw an obscure, decent-seeming guy locked in a war with “the speedway bomber.”
Akbar used his time on the stand to mock Kimberlin some more. Yes, Akbar had put up a website at BomberSuesBloggers.com, and yes, it was to raise funds to defend against Kimberlin. But the money had not been distributed to Kimberlin’s accusers online. “The National Blogger’s Club has raised a ton of money to support bloggers and their relief fund,” said Akbar, but the “Bomber” site had been a failure.
“You are a little-known, infamous terrorist,” Akbar added.
When he called McCain to the stand, Kimberlin handed McCain a print-out of a 2009 blog post about how to get traffic, and asked him to read tip number four: “Make some enemies.” Kimberlin, having made his point—this guy was starting a fight to make money—tried to take back the document. McCain snatched it and kept reading.
“At the same time, however, don’t confuse cyber-venom with real-world hate,” said McCain, giving a drawled, dramatic reading of one of his favorite posts. “Maybe Ace of Spades really would like to go upside Andrew Sullivan’s head with a baseball bat, I don’t know. But at some point you understand it’s just blogging about politics, and you start wondering if maybe it shares a certain spectator-friendly quality with pro wrestling. For all we know, Ace is spending weekends at Sully’s beach shack in Provincetown.”
McCain plunked the document back on the witness stand. “A sense of humor is not a crime in this country,” he said.
Kimberlin had one argument left. He grilled McCain for a post and a tweet he’d written, making fun of how the Washington Post had covered his eldest daughter Kelsie when she won a song contest. McCain contested the question—the article he’d mocked was “about you,” not the daughter, and that was the point.
“Did you tweet that my daughter is a girl who can’t sing a lick?” said Kimberlin.
McCain had, but the point of this argument was fading fast. After the last blogger left the stand, Kimberlin retrieved his 15-year-old daughter Kelsie from the rest area, where she’d been kept to avoid hearing the previous testimony. This was Kimberlin’s last gambit, to prove that an innocent person had been bullied by proxy by these awful bloggers.
“You’re my daughter, right?” asked Brett.
“Yes,” said Kelsie.
“Do you have a music career?” asked Brett.
“Yes I do,” said Kelsie. “Taylor Swift has been involved with me, and she’s tweeted some of my videos.”
“So, are you considered a child prodigy?”
It went on like this, as Kimberlin asked his daughter to describe how she’d been bullied and mocked. When he was done, he gave his daughter a kiss on the forehead. The defense had no questions. They were too busy filing their motions. Akbar took one last opportunity to stand and tell Kimberlin that he was a pedophile.
Shortly thereafter, the judge ruled against the plaintiff. Akbar and McCain raced out of the courtroom, recording a celebratory Vine in the elevator. There was a reason for their haste: Halfway through the trial, a tall man in jeans and a T-shirt showed up and took a seat at the back of the room. He was holding an envelope, containing a subpoena for Akbar concerning the RICO case Kimberlin was still pursuing against him, Michelle Malkin, Glenn Beck, and scores of media types who’d broadcast the stories about him.
Over to the side of the rest area, Hoge had his computer open and was typing away. McCain, who’d left with Akbar, was calling supporters to report that he’d won.
“These guys are going to come out today and say I’m a pedophile,” said Kimberlin. “And tomorrow, I can file another lawsuit against them. And now I know what I need to do. It’s going to be endless lawsuits for the rest of their lives. And that’s what it ends up being. I sue them. They sue me. They come into court. I sue them. They come into court. That’s the way it is.”
Two weeks later, Kimberling filed a motion for issuance of judgment, in the hope of getting a new trial. Akbar shared the news with supporters on a Rally.org fundraising page.
“We need your help,” wrote Akbar. “Please donate to the Bomber Sues Bloggers fund.”