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Saving Justin Berry

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Tim Richards, 2005.  

Even more mystifying than the payouts were the allegations by a computer expert hired by the defense, who analyzed hard drives and records and presented evidence that, as Berry was preparing to return to the business, Eichenwald had high-level administrative access to JustinsFriends, which would have allowed him to closely monitor the site’s business. If true, the allegation suggests many things: reportorial zeal, or a kind of journalistic sting, perhaps; not to mention personal motives that would be hard for anyone but Eichenwald to understand.

Eichenwald has yet to address this allegation specifically, but he’s denied doing anything illegal in reporting the story. His legal team moved to seal the records, but they were finally released last month. “All I can say is that there are troubling events and circumstances in advance of the launching of this site,” Strianse tells me, “involving whoever was involved in assisting Justin Berry, and then deciding to get Tim Richards involved for whatever technical support and assistance he can bring.”

Ingrassia is reportedly furious over Eichenwald’s failure to disclose the payments. “We trusted him to disclose all pertinent information,” he says in a statement. “The subsequent disclosures about pseudonyms and payments have been disturbing, and we have said so. Kurt’s behavior, and particularly his failure to be candid with his editors, violated the paper’s standards.”

Though Eichenwald’s lawyer denies he purchased photographs, Eichenwald has admitted to the $2,000 check. While not denying that he made other payments, he says he has “no independent memory” of any of the PayPal expenses. However, Theresa does remember the payments.

Eichenwald says that his epilepsy causes severe short-term-memory disruptions—it seems Michael, his anthropomorphized disease, hadn’t been dispatched after all. He produces a statement his neurologist has issued confirming the condition. Financial transactions are particularly vexing for him, he says. Eichenwald says he has covered for his lapses over the years with memory-enhancing techniques, like reading documents out loud or taking more detailed notes than others in his line of work. But in personal matters—which he insists the Berry rescue had been during the time he was sending money—he is less meticulous and therefore more forgetful. “People think I’m a scatterbrain,” he says.

“The number of coats that he’s lost,” adds his wife, sitting beside him on the family sofa one evening. “Or he comes home with one shoe.”

“One shoe in my suitcase,” he corrects her quickly. “Let’s not create images that aren’t necessary! But the flip side is, look, people in our profession, there are people who are stupid. There are people who are drunks. There are people who are lazy. I learned Enron’s accounting. People think I came into that knowing it. I didn’t know what structured finance was—that’s the basis of the entire Enron case.”

In fact, during our many interviews, he showed an astonishing command of detail (hundreds of dates, names, and events that animate the Berry story fill his head, as do chapter-and-verse citations from many other stories he’s worked on).

Now Eichenwald is in a trap at least partly of his own making, and he sees danger everywhere. “I was told these people are relentless, that they never stop,” he tells me in his Dallas office. “That they will torture you till you are destroyed or dead,” he says. “I put my son at risk! Because I chose to save somebody else’s kid! Do you have any idea how guilty I feel?” He thought about installing a panic button in the house or buying a gun. Instead, he got a second dog. “A three-legged dog was not enough protection,” he confided a few days ago. “My children are scared all the time, because they see me falling apart. My wife holds together. But that doesn’t keep her from sobbing in the middle of the night, ‘I wish to God we’d let him die.’ ”

For legal reasons, Justin Berry’s lawyer has instructed him to break off all communication with Eichenwald until after Richards is sentenced. The young man today attends college, runs a small Web-development business, and misses the man he credits with turning his life around. “He’s a wonderful guy, and seeing him get criticized makes me sick to my stomach,” Berry says.

But Eichenwald, for whatever complex reasons, is stuck in the world Berry escaped—caught in the gravity of youthful sexuality, which distorts everything it touches.

“I didn’t do this for a news story. I didn’t do this to get people arrested. I did this because I thought this person was desperate … And now I sit here, desperate. And I don’t know how to get out of it.”


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