In the Woods

Lawyers, police, forensic psychologists and Internet folklorists have all tried explaining why two girls from Waukesha nearly stabbed a third girl to death. All have fallen short, and the horrific saga sparked by Slender Man remains an enigma.

There was a girl who lived in a room in West Bend. The surrounding building was a government facility, white-walled and gray, and the girl, who had dirty blonde hair that spilled over her shoulders, wore purple plastic-framed glasses, along with the clothes provided by the facility.

Every day, the staff brought her daily allotment of cleaning supplies, and she swept and mopped the room, which was a more complicated procedure than it sounds, because she’d often keep the floor covered with her drawings and papers, something to make it feel less empty. She also had books she was fond of, including a few about cats that she took to school with her, a classroom in the same building staffed by a single instructor and assistant. She walked down the hall with her hair pulled over her eyes, and the staff knew to watch for ants, which she fed meal scraps in her room, and sometimes carried with her to throw at the other students.

The girl, now 13 years old, had been here for about a year and a half, including most of 2014 and almost all of 2015. She rarely made friends, and when the other boys and girls asked her to play Monopoly, she said no and stayed sitting by herself. There were always new kids coming and going, as this was Washington County’s juvenile lockup, and most were here only a few weeks, not long enough to grow pale and skinny like the girl. To eat, she’d walk back down the hall to her day room and crouch under a table, as she preferred, playing and nibbling from a tray. The facility dispensed vitamins to help her grow and develop, but she still looked underfed to her mom, who, in visiting the facility, could only speak to her through a glass window. Occasionally, an officer would drive the girl down to Waukesha County for a short, in-person visit.

Illustration by Brian Stauffer.
Illustration by Brian Stauffer.

To outside observers, the girl lived alone in her assigned dormitory and day rooms, the TV often muted and dialed to cartoons or The Weather Channel, its animated data beaming updates on tropical storms and temperatures. But to the girl, her pod-for-one was alive with personalities and sleepovers, during which she was the hostess, sometimes sleeping on the floor, where ants following scent trails nosed about for bread. Her guests included Voldemort, the arch-villain from the Harry Potter series, whom she called “Voldie”; Bellatrix, a dark witch from the books; Severus Snape, a moody teacher at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry; Raphael, one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; and Maggie, the oldest of the girl’s characters.

She laughed to herself, rocked back and forth, and jumped back, making cat-claw hands, whenever an officer opened the door to her pod. She drew pictures, made lists of what was wrong with her father, tore his shape out of family photos, and wrote missives to her imagined friends, including one to Voldemort that she left in an unaddressed envelope. She disliked compliments, though she occasionally accomplished something worth complimenting while using the limited means available to her. She once folded, ripped and colored interlocking pieces of paper to make a dollhouse with doll clothes, a CD player with a slot for CDs (which she also created and labeled), along with paper tables, a paper cell phone and a tiny remote control. The girl’s mother ended up taking the whole structure home to the family’s condo in Waukesha, which is about an hour’s drive to the south.

Most of the other children lived together in pods of four, and their cells had skylights that brightened at dawn, a sign of the outside world missing from the girl’s room. Her fellows were needy, asking for things they couldn’t have, bored and homesick. But the girl, who rarely saw the sun, prided herself in having “Vulcan powers” like Spock from “Star Trek,” meaning she could control her mind and emotions no matter the situation. The staff periodically inspected her drawings for signs of distress or suicidality, and found only evidence of an elaborate theater that had been unfolding for months, one that she feared medication would rob of its players, especially Maggie, who had been with the girl since elementary school. Although hers might sound like a private situation, it has unfolded in the most public of ways, as on May 31, 2014, Morgan Geyser almost succeeded in stabbing her 12-year-old friend to death.

Morgan first came up with the idea to attack 12-year-old Payton Leutner as a gruesome application to join a league of sick “proxies” run by the Internet boogeyman Slender Man. But it was Morgan’s co-defendant, Anissa Weier, another student at Horning Middle School in Waukesha, who was the first to read about the creature online. Morgan had known about him for only a few months when the two girls carried out the attack in May 2014, each performing a specialized role in the planning and execution of the stabbing. Anissa was, at crucial moments, the taskmaster, expediting plans to murder their friend, and Morgan became the sinew, the one ultimately capable of lashing out when her co-conspirator lacked the nerve. Acting alone, neither may have assembled the requisite motive, opportunity and willingness to turn an online fantasy into attempted murder.

Without Anissa, Morgan may have never heard of Slender Man, an online horror meme the former had gotten to know through the Creepypasta Wiki. As a repository related to another site, – a derivative of “copy paste” and “copy pasta” – it contained a lightweight form of Internet storytelling that self-replicates on message boards such as 4Chan. Its quick yarns, stripped of all bylines or credit, can build up into a sort of communal mythology. And in October 2013, when a Minecraft video on YouTube led Anissa to Creepypasta, she was 11 years old and didn’t know better than to tell schoolmates about Slender Man, whom she saw as more of a dog-eared legend to defend rather than the self-reflecting and disturbing fan fiction he really was.

Physically, he’s a cross between Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and an accountant, a tall, faceless figure with tendrils growing out of his back and long, spindly legs. His greatest power may be the willingness of fans to Photoshop him into the backgrounds of old photos, looming over children, as if Dickens had veered into Asian horror. The other kids chided Anissa for believing in him, and teachers regarded her as a “quirky kid” still wrapped up in childish fantasy.

Anissa was no problem child and got good reviews from those same teachers, the kind of authority figures with whom she often developed close relationships, even closer than those she had with her peers. Much later, when Milwaukee-based psychologist Anthony Jurek put her through a battery of personality tests, he was taken by how hard she worked to please him. She spent a half-hour on the appointment’s drawing exercises, about twice as long as the usual kid, and produced an exacting family portrait in which she stood tall next to her father and close friend, William Weier.

Her parents’ divorce, set in motion in 2012, had disturbed her to the point of affecting her classroom behavior, which improved after she joined a small support group at school that folded in early 2013. Jurek rated her personality as somewhat immature and neurotic-introspective, too slow to stand up for its own interests. “She’s the kind of person who will put her needs second to those of her friends,” he said.

Unlike Morgan, Anissa experienced little in the way of hallucinations leading up to the attack. Sometime after she began reading Creepypasta, she started to see a dark figure in the wooded areas that her school bus passed, a form “in the branches,” according to Jurek. “It was not a specifically defined hallucination. … The word I might describe it is a visual illusion.” Another psychologist who evaluated Anissa, Michael Caldwell, concluded that she was suffering from schizotypy, a milder form of psychosis in which a person has a “diminished ability to determine what’s real and what’s not.” The condition facilitated a belief in Slender Man that became so entrenched, this normally passive kid began launching into arguments with her classmates, all as a lonely believer, until she thought to involve her friend Morgan.

Morgan’s grip on reality seems to have weakened further, as she spent hours, alone, online, trying to prove Slender Man existed. During recess, at school, she collected bugs to throw at the other kids. Another time, she played with blood from a scab until a teacher told her to stop.

Anissa, who had just turned 12, and Morgan, still 11, formed a close bond over the fantasy character. In December, the two agreed, at Morgan’s suggestion, to kill another friend, Payton, to ingratiate themselves to him and become loyal proxies, or underlings, an interpretation of the Creepypasta corpus that can best be described as impressionistic. Something about Morgan’s brain had also proved fertile ground for the Slender Man myth, and she began filling notebooks with strangely consistent drawings of a long dark figure, sometimes with a repeating symbol, an eye with an X through it, and captions like, “He watches.” Morgan had filled her room at home with papers, as she later would her jail cell, related to “Star Trek,” Harry Potter and The Hobbit (“The Hobbit best book in the world,” she wrote on one drawing). An Advanced Psychology textbook sat in her closet, and on a drawing of her family, she’d labeled herself “Me (Mental Patient).” In other pictures, she rendered vomit, bloodstained clothes and a band of knife-wielding kids with the caption, “Donate your organs.”

At some point, Morgan presented to her father, Matthew Geyser, “evidence” that Slender Man existed, and he appears to have brushed it off, being a horror fan himself. At home, Morgan played a lot of make-believe in her room and in the basement with action figures given to her by her grandfather, sometimes imagining that Voldie was joining in. Prior to the stabbing, the only mental condition for which she’d ever received treatment was a brief encounter with depression. Her symptoms went away after she stopped taking a steroid medication, prednisone, for her asthma. Like Anissa, Morgan was a sharp kid, good at schoolwork and fond of a reading teacher in whose classroom they often stayed after school to help clean.

But unlike Anissa’s situation, Morgan’s teachers and parents were missing something big. Psychiatrist Ken Casimir, who evaluated Morgan after the stabbing, testified that she had been experiencing “vivid dreams” since age 3 and had struggled in kindergarten with a strange cognitive phenomenon: feeling that she’d done something wrong when another student got in trouble. In third or fourth grade, she began to have visual hallucinations, multicolored images that appeared on walls, as well as tactile ones of imaginary friends or ghosts that would come up and hug her. In the months leading up to the attack, Morgan’s grip on reality seems to have weakened further, as she spent hours, alone, online, trying to prove Slender Man existed. During recess, at school, she collected bugs to throw at the other kids. Another time, she played with blood from a scab until a teacher told her to stop. And for an assignment to give a speech on a dead famous person, she selected Hitler. Only after a teacher pulled her aside did she replace him with Russian space pioneer Yuri Gagarin.

Psychological testing by Casimir found a slight anti-social tendency in Morgan, more so than in Anissa, and a diagnosis of childhood-onset schizophrenia (starting before age 13). Immediately, this framed her case as a statistical anomaly. Of all the diagnoses possible under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, childhood schizophrenia is among the rarest. Prior to Morgan, the psychiatrist said, the youngest person for whom he’d ever diagnosed the psychotic disorder was 17 or 18 years old. Given the extreme rarity of childhood onset, the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland has a long-running program that attempts to identify, study and treat as many of these children as possible. Over some 24 years, it’s found only 135 of them (as of October 2014), and that’s after reviewing about 4,000 potential cases, an average of 166 a year.

Judith Rapoport, the chief child psychiatrist at the NIMH, says childhood schizophrenia is “enormously over-diagnosed,” with the ratio of mistaken diagnoses to valid ones at about 60-to-1. “A lot of kids have transient hallucinations and delusions,” she says, phenomena that don’t necessarily add up to the clinical definition of schizophrenia. In Morgan’s case, Rapoport says, she seems to be functioning too highly, keeping up with school for the most part, and maintaining relationships with friends, all of which line up against a label of schizophrenia. “Part of the definition is a deterioration in functioning,” she says. “Our cases don’t have friends in school. The other kids are really put off.” Young lives are turned upside down in a way that’s generally impossible to hide from teachers, peers and parents.

Rapoport finds it “odd” that, as a schizophrenic child in elementary school, Morgan could have hidden her disorder so successfully from everyone around her. Instead, she could be suffering from some kind of unspecified psychotic disorder, Rapoport says, and the label “chronic hallucinosis,” a descriptive term simply meaning chronic hallucinations, is always available. There’s also the benign childhood phenomenon of invisible companions to consider, she says, even if Morgan’s cast of characters seems to grow larger all the time.

Although useful for pursuing a “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict under Wisconsin law, childhood schizophrenia is a grievous burden, medically speaking, as it tends to affect sufferers for the rest of their lives and resist treatment. Rapoport couldn’t recall another instance in which a young schizophrenic child had involved another child in a delusion, given how “they tend to be very isolated.” Caldwell’s opinion is that Anissa’s schizotypy and Morgan’s schizophrenia fused together into an uncommon – but not unheard of – condition called shared delusional disorder.

“Typically, you have one person who has a very serious mental illness,” he testified during a court hearing, “and they develop a very close relationship with a second person.”

The two girls whispered on the school bus about how to kill Payton, who went by the nickname Bella and, by all accounts, was well-liked and just happened to be the person most convenient for them to attack. Morgan even described Payton as her “best friend since fourth grade” during a police interrogation, a time span much longer than she and Anissa had been close. But unlike Anissa, Payton hated Creepypasta stories and had resisted all of Morgan’s attempts to get her interested in them.

Morgan was the first to conceive of murdering her “best friend,” but Anissa helped plan the attack, devising so many schemes that Morgan complained of having a hard time keeping track of them all. Morgan proposed taking advantage of her annual birthday sleepover in May, when she’d be allowed to invite two friends as guests, an opportunity to isolate and murder Payton. To prepare, it appears they jotted down a list of “Supplies Nessecary” [sic] in one of Morgan’s ubiquitous notebooks: pepper spray, a “map of forest,” a camera, a spray bottle, the will to live, flashlights and weapons. Another list covered how to deal with the various fictional characters they might encounter after traveling to the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin to meet with Slender Man, including a figure from Creepypasta called “Jeff the Killer.”

When an investigator searched Morgan’s room, he found a spiral notebook with all of its pages torn out, except for one. It read: “The plan is set. No turning back now.”

When Morgan pulled up her jacket, flashing the knife tucked into her waistband, Anissa’s hands began to shake. “Dear God,” she thought. “This is really happening.”

The precise motive for attacking Payton went through so many revisions and reconfigurations, both before and after the crime, that it’s more or less impossible to settle on a single, succinct version. The girls, especially Anissa, wanted to demonstrate that Slender Man was real. They wanted to join him. They wanted to pacify him, to prevent him from attacking their families, a delusional fear they both shared. These rationalizations were still shifting in and out of favor as the May 30 sleepover began on a warm afternoon, with the three girls playing a computer game called The Sims at Morgan’s house before her father drove them to Skateland, a roller rink where bright lights play across the ceiling. Anissa had arrived at the sleepover prepared for a much longer journey, her overnight bag packed with spare clothes, granola bars, water bottles and pictures of her family, whose appearance she didn’t want to forget after traveling to Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

Morgan was already having qualms about going through with the attack, which they’d planned to carry out in accordance with one of their preconceived stratagems: Set an alarm for the middle of the night, duct-tape Payton’s mouth shut, stab her in the neck, wrap her in sheets so it looked like she was sleeping, and run away. Early in the evening, Anissa pressed that it was “necessary” to carry out the murder, Morgan told police, but “I wanted to see if I could put it off.” The girls would remain in debate over when and how to kill Payton right up until Morgan inflicted the first wound.

Home from Skateland, the girls played around on tablets and computers, and as they climbed onto the top bunk of Morgan’s bed to sleep, she neglected to set her alarm per the plan. When Anissa woke up anyway at around 1:30 a.m., Morgan said she didn’t want to do it now, so they went back to sleep until morning came and they all played dress-up, Morgan taking on the role of the “Star Trek” character Data, an emotionless android. With Payton in the bathroom, changing into a pink princess costume, Morgan and Anissa hatched a new M.O. They’d lure her into the women’s bathroom at David’s Park, a block south of Morgan’s parents’ condo, and stab her there, where the drain in the floor would catch her blood.

During a special breakfast of doughnuts and strawberries, Morgan hid a steak knife under her jacket, a narrow, 5-inch blade with a slim black handle, and asked her mom, Angie, if they could all play outside. At some point, Anissa and Morgan applied lipstick to their lips, then took one of Angie Geyser’s old purses and filled it with family pictures, more mementos to keep for their lives as Slender Man proxies. A bit more than two football fields stretched between the Geyser condo, part of a complex of low brown buildings, and David’s Park, a small neighborhood playground that’s home to a baseball diamond and convoluted playground equipment painted in primary colors.

Wearing a white T-shirt and black fleece, Payton walked ahead of Anissa and Morgan, who was dressed rather warmly, in a white jacket, for temps in the 70s. Anissa was dressed somewhat ruggedly as well, in winter boots and a blue sweatshirt, and when Morgan pulled up her jacket, flashing the knife tucked into her waistband, Anissa’s hands began to shake. “Dear God,” she thought. “This is really happening.” After playing on the slide, the girls sang songs and wandered into the women’s bathroom, one half of a small cinder block structure. Anissa had taken the knife from Morgan and concealed it behind her leg, while Morgan tried to pin back Payton’s arms, to expose the “weak spots” for Anissa to stab. But Payton fought off Morgan. Feeling queasy about the weapon, Anissa stepped into one of the stalls and returned it to Morgan, who tried grappling with Payton a second time, only to have a panic attack, at which point the intended victim ran outside.

Anissa stayed behind, petting Morgan like a cat to comfort her, and the former suggested a third and final plan: Lure Payton into the “woods” and stab her there. They would call it “documenting some birds.” Or, hide and seek. The girls seem to have used both explanations. Either way, all three meandered down Big Bend Road, past houses to where the street turned into gravel. There, the road bordered a thin tangle of forest, less a natural area than a strip of land that a neighboring subdivision had not yet swallowed up, the kind of backyard escape that adults tend to overlook.

Turning to rocks, Big Bend Road creates a hideaway on the edge of Waukesha’s sprawl, protected by goldenrod and other low scrub, a lost pocket within earshot of the Les Paul Parkway, which curves to the south.

Not unlike Anissa, Payton had a reputation for being eager to please, which might explain why she followed the girls into the woods and ran to “hide” with Anissa while Morgan played the role of seeker. When Payton crouched down next to some rocks, but refused to go prone at Anissa’s suggestion, the latter pushed her over and sat on her. “I can’t breathe!” Payton yelled.

By the time Morgan got there with the knife, Anissa had already let Payton go, afraid that her shouting would draw attention. Under police interrogation, the aspiring proxies gave slightly different accounts of what happened next. In Anissa’s more detailed version, Payton crouched, playing with twigs and flowers as her attackers passed the knife back and forth behind her back, debating over who would use it. Ultimately, as with the entire plot, the stabbing became a collective exercise, with Morgan promising to attack only if Anissa told her to.

When Anissa instructed, “Go ballistic, go crazy,” Morgan, who had already devised a violent animal character for herself to use as a proxy, said, “Don’t worry, I’m just a little kitty cat.” Next thing Anissa knew, Morgan had tackled Payton and was stabbing her, and Payton was screaming. Police later counted 19 wounds from her legs to her torso and thumb, the longest of which were 2 1/2 centimeters. The blade pierced the girl’s liver, pancreas and stomach, and it nicked her heart, just a millimeter away from a major artery. Morgan later told the police the “stabby, stab, stab, stab” didn’t feel like anything, and all that filled her head was her friend’s screaming, until Payton yelled, “I hate you. I trusted you.” The blade never struck her face, but the physical shock of 19 stab wounds temporarily robbed her of her vision, and later, police reported, her voice, as she could only answer yes or no questions from her hospital bed.

Still in the woods, Payton warned Morgan and Anissa to not touch her. The bleeding girl struggled to her feet and wove between the trees, grabbing onto their trunks for balance. Afraid someone would see her and call 911, Anissa grabbed Payton’s arm and guided her deeper into the forest, where the victim lost her footing and fell down. Morgan dabbed at one of the knife wounds with a large leaf, and Anissa, glancing around for Slender Man, advised her to lie still and be quiet so she’d lose less blood. Misleading her again, the attackers said they’d go get help and shuffled off through some bushes, headed for Wal-Mart, where they planned to fill up their water bottles.

The girls debated about the blood on their clothes but agreed “it’s Wal-Mart,” and probably nobody would notice given the low fashion standards Morgan had seen at In the women’s room, they scrubbed their clothes at gray, sloping sinks with automatic taps and refilled their water bottles before wandering back outside. Distracted, Morgan left behind her fingerless black gloves, favorites she had previously worn everywhere.

Meanwhile, Payton had dragged herself to where Big Bend Road crossed with a residential street, and a passing cyclist found her, covered with blood but still possessing enough strength to call out: “Help me! I’ve been stabbed.”

When a fire department responder asked who had done this to her, Payton told him: “My best friend, Morgan Geyser.”

Morgan and Anissa half-expected Slender Man to materialize in front of them and half-expected him to wait for Payton to expire. “The bad part of me wanted her to die,” Anissa told police. “The good part of me wanted her to live.” Morgan would later admit that “she was sorry,” but noted that at the time of the stabbing, “It was weird. I felt no remorse.”

As temperatures pushed into the 80s, the girls ambled across Waukesha, half in the mood of the attack and half out of it. The national forest receded into the background as they crossed a cemetery, and Morgan, claiming to have memorized a map, called out left and right turns to Anissa, who was watching the sky and counting the hawks she spotted, a total that eventually reached 10. “Can we go home yet?” she asked, growing hot and angry with Morgan, who snapped back, “If you do that, you’ll spend your life in prison. Either that or be executed.” Arguing, sobbing and singing songs to each other, they traveled at least 5 miles to a Steinhafels, an enormous furniture store off Interstate 94. Reaching its entrance is a journey through a menagerie of furniture-themed sculptures, including a metal chair half the size of a house.

Inside the store, escalators delivered them onto the air-conditioned sales floor, where they were greeted with a Saturday-afternoon spread of free cookies, lemonade and fruit snacks. Eating and drinking what they could, they also took some fruit snacks for later and topped off their water bottles in the lobby. Still carrying the old purse filled with family pictures and the knife, they walked across nearby Redford Boulevard and sat down for a moment to rest in the grass, with the bag on the ground between them. Until now, Morgan had protested that stopping was too risky, that they needed to keep moving. She was right. These two 12-year-old girls had become Waukesha’s most wanted fugitives, and at about 2:30 p.m., the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department found them sitting on an incline with the old purse like they’d gotten lost during a game of make-believe.

Anissa quickly warmed to the officers and said, “You will think I’m crazy. Some people were going to kill my family unless I did something very bad.”

Morgan had hoped to leave out the part about Slender Man, to protect her relationship with him, but she started talking once it became clear that Anissa had already broached the subject. Both initially maintained their belief in him during interrogation, and Anissa explained that “Zalgo,” another Creepypasta character, also has his own proxies. “He’s supposed to be this demon with seven mouths.”

Also jailed at Washington County Juvenile Detention, Anissa quickly lost her belief in Zalgo and Slender Man, and instead became an eager follower of her own legal case, taking such detailed notes during one hearing that a sheriff’s deputy unlatched her handcuffs. Morgan’s belief, however, has remained steadfast since the day of her interrogation, when she said Slender Man watches her, can read her mind, can teleport wherever he pleases and visits her in her dreams. He doesn’t use technology because it doesn’t work around him, and he emits a dangerous “sigma radiation” that can give you “slender sickness.”

Morgan prefers to doodle during hearings, and during an important one in summer 2015, she sat slouched over in a dark sweatshirt and skirt, moving her hands and swiveling back and forth in her chair. Of concern to her defense is how her shackled appearance has already shifted from that of a 12-year-old child to a much-stared-at 13-year-old teen. “Morgan has become a public spectacle,” her defense lawyer, Anthony Cotton, wrote in a filing, “with onlookers being denied entry to court because of capacity restrictions.” Some of this traffic has come from the steady attendance of relatives on all sides, including Payton’s parents, grandparents and other relations, regulars at hearings for either girl’s case. And they’ve continued to attend, even after Payton’s remarkable recovery allowed her to return to school in the fall of 2014.

One of the legal quirks of the Slender Man saga is that if prosecutors (then led by Brad Schimel, now Wisconsin’s attorney general) had originally charged Morgan and Anissa with attempted second-degree intentional homicide, rather than first-degree, the proceedings would have remained in juvenile court, and very little of this would have ever come to light. They could have emphasized the protect-their-families motive over gaining Slender Man’s favor, thus sidestepping months of intense debate over whether the girls’ cases should remain in adult court.

On Aug. 10, 2015, Judge Michael Bohren ruled that they’d stay in the adult system, siding with the prosecution’s argument that the girls, particularly Morgan, presented too great a threat to public safety to be released scot-free at age 18 or, if they were sentenced under the state’s Serious Juvenile Offender Program, at age 25. Lawyers for both Morgan and Anissa are fighting hard to overturn this decision, and earlier this winter, were still waiting for a decision from the state’s Court of Appeals. As long as the cases remain in adult court, a deep archive of written documents and interrogation tapes remains open to the public, and has been pored over by media and other observers. Along with information taken from court proceedings, these materials were used in constructing this story’s account of the crimes.

For Morgan and Anissa, the immediate ramification of adult court is that it offers fewer resources, such as counseling, than the two girls would have in the juvenile system, which is more focused on rehabilitation. As of fall 2015, all of Cotton’s attempts to find a facility where Morgan could receive intensive mental health treatment had failed. In late 2014, with Bohren’s approval, an officer drove the girl to the Winnebago Mental Health Institute, a state-run mental hospital near Oshkosh, where she’d spent four months not long after her arrest. But this time, the hospital turned her away, saying it had no legal basis for taking her. Later, Bohren nixed a plan to have Morgan treated at the Milwaukee Academy in Wauwatosa, saying it wasn’t secure enough.

Cotton has repeatedly complained that Morgan receives no medication or mental health treatment at Washington County, other than the periodic evaluations needed to advance the case against her. Even at Winnebago, doctors held off on medicating her, they said, because they wanted her to be alert enough to participate in competency examinations. Cotton raised the possibility of private care after an April hearing, but in a July brief, he again stated, “Morgan does not receive ongoing care for her psychiatric condition. … There are no doctors or psychiatrists on staff at the Washington County Juvenile Detention Center.”

Morgan’s mom wants her to receive medication, but Morgan herself has opposed it. “Antipsychotics would take away all of my friends,” she told a social worker on the day of her 13th birthday. “I like hearing Maggie. Maggie is always there, and it would be like way quiet.” Morgan claimed to not miss her family because that would be illogical and not “Vulcan.” Missing things would “speed up entropy,” she said. “You know, evil.”

Of all the experts to examine Morgan, Ken Casimir, former medical director at Winnebago, has been the most alarmed by her illness, which he feels is schizophrenia. In one interview with Morgan, he asked her what she’d do if she went home, and Slender Man began to communicate with her again, and she said, “If he told me to hurt more people, I’d have to do it. If he told me to break into someone’s house and stab them, I’d have to do it.”

“When your fixed delusion tells you to kill people,” Casimir later testified, “then schizophrenia becomes a dangerous illness.” He favors keeping Morgan in the adult system so the state will have more leverage at age 18, when her schizophrenia is likely to intensify.

One outcome of the adult system – prison – presents a deleterious environment for people with schizophrenia, experts say, as a milieu where fear haunts all parts of life, and many mishaps, including suicide attempts, are treated as infractions and punished. Another prominent Wisconsin psychiatrist, Ken Robbins, evaluated Morgan and recommended the juvenile system for her, along with medication, on the basis that if she’s “treated properly, her likely recidivism is very low.” Anissa’s chances for further violence are also “extremely low,” according to Caldwell, who notes that she doesn’t fit in with the other kids at juvenile detention. “They find her crying in her room from things people have said,” he says. In one incident, a fellow resident called her a “f*cking bitch,” and in another, a “monster” for her alleged involvement in the stabbing.

A nonprofit law firm based in Philadelphia, the Juvenile Law Center, has considered weighing in on the Slender Man cases, as it has in others involving juveniles’ rights, including the “Kids for Cash” scandal that embroiled Luzerne County, Penn. Chief counsel Marsha Levick says the Wisconsin girls should be tried in juvenile court, given their young age and the decades of prison they could face in the adult system. “This is precisely who the juvenile justice system was established to help,” she says. “Prosecuting children under the age of 15 as adults is something that is really working counter to our current understanding of adolescent development.”

As of fall 2015, Morgan’s situation remained that of a girl living alone in a jail cell, conversing with beings that aren’t really there. “She has a right to mental health treatment,” Levick says. “Doing nothing is not an option.” Both she and Caldwell say isolation has even more ill effects on children than adults.

Held in adult court, the trials of Morgan and Anissa would become public spectacles, with a spotlight that would grow to engulf Payton. Family members would be seated across an aisle a few feet in width but miles apart psychologically, a divide touched by tragedy on all sides. During a September 2014 special on ABC’s “20/20,” Payton’s mother, Stacie Leutner, was asked if she thought about the Geysers or the Weiers. “I think about the other parents all the time,” she said. “I can’t imagine what they’re going through. I can’t imagine getting that phone call and hearing those things, knowing it was the person that you loved and you trusted.”

Matt Hrodey is a senior editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at

‘In the Woods’ appears in the January 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.