An American-Israeli Jewish teenager, accused of making a slew of anti-Semitic bomb threats in the US and elsewhere, is escorted by police, as he leaves a courtroom in Rishon Lezion, on March 23, 2017. (AFP/Jack Guez)
AFP / Jack Guez
Reporter's notebookExclusive: Times of Israel visits M. in Ayalon Prison

JCC hoax bomber’s mental state clouds relationship between crime and punishment

20-year-old’s tough treatment at hands of guards appears to be based on his rap sheet, but raises questions about whether his autism is being taken into account

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

AFP / Jack Guez

For most inmates at Ramle’s Ayalon Prison, visitation hours are held in an open, cafeteria-like room where detainees sit beside their loved ones and hug them goodbye at the session’s end.

But for M. — a 20-year-old Israeli-American convicted in June of hoaxing US JCCs and other targets around the world with thousands of bomb threats — visits take place on separate sides of a glass divider, where he speaks to his parents through a corded telephone.

Such precautions aren’t taken for just any prisoner. The threats made by M. — whose name remains under gag order and is instead referred to in many Israeli broadcasts as the “Ashkelon Hacker” — led to numerous school evacuations, to planes making emergency landings, to fighter jets scrambling. In some cases, he allegedly threatened to execute children he claimed to be holding hostage.

I accompanied the detainee’s parents to their weekly visit Thursday morning expecting to meet that M. But the young man waiting behind the glass window could not have been more different from the suspect one might have imagined after reading his rap sheet.

M. has autism.

While every case is unique and many prefer to say that no one is defined by their diagnosis, for M.’s parents this is the first thing they want you to understand about their child.

G. and S., the parents of alleged bomb hoaxer M., at their home in Ashkelon, April 26, 2017 (DH/Times of Israel)

The moment M. saw us from the other side of the glass, he began to wave in that manner only young children do, using just his wrist.

He likely would have been more excited, but as the 20-year-old slowly began opening up about his treatment inside the prison, it quickly became clear why that wasn’t the case.

The 30-minute visit revealed the until-now-hidden result of actions taken by an Israeli legal system that, M.’s parents argue, is bent on demonstrating that it will show no mercy in dealing with their son for generating such havoc around the globe.

If that means placing a 20-year-old diagnosed with a severe developmental disorder in a maximum-security prison, so be it.

The bedroom of alleged bomb hoaxer M. at his home in Ashkelon, April 26, 2017 (DH/Times of Israel staff)

Crying out in pain

So there sat M. — alone on the other side of the glass, uncuffed for the first time in hours — opposite his parents, who spoke to him through a pair of telephones as three armed guards looked on.

“How are you, M.?” asked his worried-sick mother, S. (the names of his parents have been gagged as well).

“I’m okay,” her son responded solemnly. “They’ve improved my conditions over the past few days” —  guards had began cuffing him with his hands in front instead of behind his back.

“How’s your wrist?” asked S. “Show it to me. Does it still hurt??”

The young man lifted his wrist to show largely faded marks that he claimed were caused by one of the prison guards who twisted it while he was still shackled, digging the metal cuffs into his skin and, his parents believe, causing a bone to break.

That incident had taken place two weeks earlier, when a pair of probation officers paid a visit to the prison to prepare a report on M. that will be presented at his sentencing hearing on October 9.

M.’s father, G., asked him to recall what had happened, and the detainee reluctantly complied.

He said the officers had asked him to explain why he had committed such crimes. “I told them because I wanted others to have fun,” M. said, in a line consistent with the defense he gave throughout the trial, suggesting he did not comprehend the gravity of his actions.

G. and S., the parents of alleged bomb hoaxer M., at their home in Ashkelon, with medical documents; one of the maps drawn by M.; and an MRI of his brain, April 26, 2017. (DH/Times of Israel staff)

Evidently unsatisfied with the answer, M. recalled how the observing guards cuffed his hands behind his back and began to twist. “I cried out in pain,” he said.

G. and S. told me that their son has repeatedly asked to see a doctor, but has been refused. They filed a police complaint against the guard, but he has remained assigned to M.

A bad birthday

Last Saturday, M. turned 20. His parents had planned to wish him a happy birthday during their daily call, but the phone never rang. When it finally did, two days later, M. told his father that he had spent most of his birthday tied to his bed.

Sitting at a cafe near the prison following our visit, G. played a recording of the phone call in which his son shared how he had been afraid of receiving another beating from the same officer who had hurt his wrist. When the guards came to his cell for their nightly inspection on Friday — a day before his birthday — M. asked if he could go to the “pillow room,” where inmates at risk of self-harm are sometimes placed.

The lawyer of the young Israeli hacker, suspected of sending bomb threats to Jewish facilities across the world, shows the court an image of a tumor in her client’s brain, at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court, on March 30, 2017. (Flash90)

After he was refused, M. recalled to his father how he told the guards he was going to hurt himself.

“He doesn’t understand the consequences of making such threats,” G. said, while also clarifying that his son has indeed tried to take his own life on a number of occasions. The prison, in turn, has placed a guard with him for close to 24 hours a day, according to the father.

But apparently that precaution wasn’t enough; M. said he spent the next 18 hours, from 9:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. the next day, tied to his bed — “like Jesus Christ,” his mother piped up, as she shook her head in disbelief.

“If they keep him in there any longer, he’s going to die,” said S., shaking in her seat in the coffee shop, as she lamented the guards’ refusal to let him out of his cell for more than 30 minutes a day.

Not eating since 8:42

Back at Ayalon, G. asked his son if he could recall other recent instances of abuse at the hands of the guards.

M. began to get agitated. “Can we talk about something else?” he pleaded.

That “something else” ended up somehow being me. M.’s demeanor changed almost instantly at the opportunity to talk to a new face.

The suspect brought for a court hearing at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court, under suspicion of Issuing fake bomb threats against Jewish institutions around the world, on March 23, 2017. (Flash90)

He inquisitively asked where I was from and what I do for a living. On three occasions while his mother was asking him questions, he asked her to pass the phone back to me — a stranger he had never met before.

His parents were concerned the presence of a reporter might spook the guards, so I was told to refrain from asking questions about the charges against M., or from conducting the conversation as an interview.

I asked M. how he kept up his spirits behind bars.

“I’m hopeful that I will be released soon,” he said simply.

In an attempt to keep the conversation light, I asked the young man what his favorite foods are at the prison canteen.

“I don’t plan on buying anything on Sunday, because I plan to go on a hunger strike again,” M. replied plainly.

His father explained that M. had carried out the measure at the end of the previous week, for four days.

M. specified that he had stopped eating “at 8:42” p.m. last Wednesday evening, providing a level of detail common for someone with his condition.

M. recalled how, by Monday morning, the effects of the hunger strike had overwhelmed his body and he began eating again, But, as his father had relayed to The Times of Israel last week, the 20-year-old said he planned to go on a hunger strike once more.

Illustrative photo of police tape at the JCC in Nashville, Tennessee, after the community center received a bomb threat on January 9, 2017. (Screenshot: The Tennessean)

“Until they improve my conditions,” said M.

What remorse?

The young man stuttered often and spoke with a lisp. During our post-visit stop at the nearby Ramle cafe, his parents explained that those are among the more benign effects of a brain tumor which, they argue, has played no small role in clouding M.’s judgment over the years.

S. said that the tumor’s symptoms have grown more severe since her son was incarcerated nearly a year and a half ago, but the prison has refused to let him see a neurologist.

Medical records documenting the tumor were presented to the court by the defense during the trial, but they went unmentioned in the verdict; as did testimonies from over 10 psychiatric experts brought forward by the defense, who argued that M. should not be held responsible for his actions.

The final ruling against M. even left out a court-ordered report in which a clinical psychiatrist from the Welfare Ministry concluded that he “could not distinguish between good and evil.”

Ultimately, Judge Zvi Gurfinkel acknowledged M.’s autism diagnosis, but concluded that it did not serve as a “warranty” absolving him from responsibility.

Among other things, the ruling relied on a line that the Tel Aviv district psychiatrist included in his report on behalf of the state, in which he quoted M. as telling him, “I realize that this isn’t a game, and I’m sorry.”

M.’s parents have utterly rejected the possibility that their son could have made such an admission.

Citing an interview he and his wife gave to The Times of Israel the month after his son’s arrest, G. asserted that “M. does not know how to apologize. He doesn’t understand what remorse is.”

Attorney Yoram Sheftel (Flash90)

The detainee’s attorney, Yoram Sheftel, said he had asked for proof that the admission had been given, but was told that the district psychiatrist had lost the notes from the relevant evaluation.

M.’s parents said they plan on raising the various omissions from Gurfinkel’s “illegitimate” ruling at a Supreme Court appeal that will be filed immediately after sentencing is handed down.

‘Nobody is asking who paid M.’

G. called the trial “one big conspiracy,” arguing that the state’s haste in prosecuting came in lieu of asking the difficult questions involved in his son’s case.

The father asserted that M. had not been phoning in bomb threats entirely on his own volition. Rather, the young man had posted a price list for his intimidation services online. Using bitcoin, customers could commission the threat of a “massacre at a private home” for the equivalent of $40, a call threatening a “school massacre” for $80, and a bomb threat against a plane for $500.

G. noted how his son never did anything with the money — further proof, he believes, of M.’s hazy motivations in carrying out the crimes.

While being careful not to excuse any of his son’s actions, G. pointed out that “nobody is asking who paid M.”

“Everyone is satisfied with pinning the entire thing on a boy with autism and ignoring the fact that there are people behind every one of those requests,” he charged.

While declining to elaborate, G. said that the public would be made aware of the names “in the near future.”

The Ayalon Prison complex in Ramle, central Israel, Thursday, February 14 (photo credit: AP/Ariel Schalit)
The Ayalon Prison complex in Ramle, central Israel (AP/Ariel Schalit)

“This has destroyed our lives,” the father said at the coffee shop; yet it was clear that the two of them were not done fighting for their son.

Life is beautiful?

The insistence on remaining hopeful was also apparent in the manner in which they ended their visit with M.

In the final minutes, S. started telling her son about a young man named Ben Megarry, a 19-year-old with autism, who was similarly convicted of phoning in nearly two dozen hoax bomb threats to schools in the UK.

But the British version of the story saw Megarry avoid jail time, instead receiving a sentence of two years’ probation, along with 70 hours of community service.

The case was similar to that of M., featuring a young man wreaking havoc from his own bedroom, while seemingly unable to comprehend the consequences of his actions.

“I wanted to give him a reason to be hopeful,” S. recalled after the visit, though, at the time, it didn’t seem clear that M. had understood.

As the parents exchanged some final words with their son, a guard entered the room and began shouting at them. “I’ve already told you 20 times to finish up, and you’ve been ignoring me,” he barked.

G. and S. looked at each other in shock, as neither of them had heard the guard attempt to get their attention more than once.

An ambulance exits the Ayalon Prison in Ramle (photo credit: Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
An ambulance exits the Ayalon Prison in Ramle. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

“I plan on passing this along to the higher-ups,” the guard continued.

G. and S. did not say a word, fearful of further upsetting a guard who could easily be among those responsible for their son later in the day.

Rushing their goodbyes, the parents placed their palms on the glass, as M. did the same on the other side.

As they walked out, they sneaked one last glance through the window, to see their son being cuffed and ushered away by guards in the opposite direction.

Just above that window hung a finger-painting with the phrase “Life is beautiful.” At best, it could have been a tactless reference to life on their side of the glass, though hopefully they didn’t notice it.

The mother of an Israeli-American teen allegedly behind hundreds of threatening calls and fake bomb threats to Jewish institutions around the world speaks to Channel 2. (Channel 2 news)

Responding to claims of mistreatment of M. by Ayalon Prison guards, the Israel Prisons Service (IPS) issued the following statement:

“The course of [M.’s] detention has been characterized by complex behavior, including attempts at self-harm, violence against others, property damage, and repeated attempts to escape legal custody. In addition, during the course of his detention, the detainee continued to use the public telephone to harm public safety.

“In order to protect him as well as the public order, strict security guidelines were issued, which balanced the IPS’s obligation to hold him in legal custody… along with the need to take his special circumstance fully into account. Throughout his detention, many attempts have been made to integrate him into therapeutic processes, but the detainee has not cooperated. It should also be clarified that the detainee’s family’s requests are handled professionally and on a daily basis. At the same time, investigations conducted as a result of these inquiries — including ones by external agents — have not found fault, or evidence of their claim.”

For their part, G. and S. responded with the following statement:

“The IPS and the State of Israel have ignored the recommendations of medical experts who have stated that M.’s place is not in prison, but rather in a rehabilitative institutional process. As a result, they exercise excessive force and violence [against M.], which they whitewash in an alarmingly professional manner. Each of our claims has not been investigated and instead has been closed in a fashion typical of a Third World country. We, his parents, fear for his life.”

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