Man at His Best

The FBI Accused Him Of Terrorism—He Couldn't Tie His Shoes

Peyton Pruitt had been diagnosed with mental retardation, autism, and attention deficit disorder. He functions at the level of an eight-year-old child. And he's been accused of aiding ISIS.

BY JESSICA PISHKO | Sep 9, 2016 | Culture

Benedict Evans

UPDATE: Today, September 8, the St. Clair County Circuit Court found Peyton not guilty by reason of mental defect. The court remanded him to a state mental-health facility to receive a Least Restrictive Environment recommendation. According to his lawyer, Peyton will either be confined to a state hospital, placed in a mental-health group home, or be released to go home—possibly with stipulations. His defence team plans to then push for acquittal.


Tony Pruitt was in the middle of a shift at a tattoo parlour in Oxford, Alabama, when his cell phone rang. An FBI agent was on the other end, asking him to come to the St. Clair County Sheriff's Office in Pell City at 9:00 the next morning to answer a few questions.

"What's this about?" Tony demanded, his drawl deepening as his concern grew. He has lived in Alabama his whole life. His arms are covered in intricate inked sleeves of crosses and biblical phrases in Hebrew. He's an evangelical Christian, a firm supporter of the Second Amendment, a onetime long-haired member of a Christian rock band Ruach—Hebrew for "holy spirit"—and now a professional marksman. His most notable experience with law enforcement up to that point was helping the sheriff install 911 communication systems for the county when he worked as an electrical engineer.

The FBI agent reassured him that it wasn't a big deal. In fact, he said, Tony would "probably laugh" when he found out what this was all about.

The next morning, November 13, 2015, Tony arrived at the sheriff's office, a small clapboard building across the street from the county courthouse. He was led into a room by an FBI agent and an officer with the Northern Alabama Terrorism Task Force, a joint project between local and federal law enforcement with a focus on domestic and international terrorism. They showed him a screenshot of the Facebook page of a person named Usamah Anthony and asked if he'd seen it before. Tony replied that he didn't know any Muslims.

The agents said they believed Peyton, Tony's mentally disabled son, might be involved.

Tony asked for a lawyer and was told that if he decided such action was necessary, the representative would have to be there that day. Their questions could not wait any longer.

The agent assured Tony they weren't trying to set him up. Overwhelmed and hoping that cooperation would clear up what he still thought was a misunderstanding, Tony agreed to allow the agents to search his home and question him and his children.

At their request, Tony took the agents to his home on the outskirts of Pell City to pick up Peyton, eighteen, and his daughter, Cassady, twenty-three. On the ride back to the sheriff's office, Cassady was afraid and kept saying she hadn't done anything wrong. Peyton, as usual, remained stoic.

The agents said they believed Peyton, Tony's mentally disabled son, might be involved.

At the office, Peyton, Tony, and Cassady were separated for individual questioning. Peyton, wearing a wrinkled blue T-shirt and a disheveled cardigan, was interrogated on his own—no Tony, no lawyer.

Tony says that Peyton has been diagnosed with mental retardation, autism, and attention deficit disorder. He functions at the level of an eight-year-old child. He's never lived on his own, has never had a job, and can't tie his own shoes. He lacks motor coordination and cannot button a shirt or put on a belt. He has unruly dark hair that he never combs and a vacant stare behind Coke-bottle glasses that he obsessively pushes up his nose. He speaks slowly, haltingly, and he has a tendency to rock his chair back and forth when he is anxious and to pace when he is excited.

Peyton was wary during the interview. When asked if he knew what a lawyer was, he said he wasn't sure. After signing away his right to an attorney, he was asked whether he knew a person named Usamah Anthony, based on records related to the case. The question made Peyton uncomfortable, and he froze under the pressure, drinking two bottles of water instead of responding.

Meanwhile, a team of FBI agents searched Tony's house—with his permission—atop a hill on a nine-acre pasture and wooded property five miles away, a converted mobile home set into a cement foundation. Tony says they confiscated Cassady's iPad, three household laptops, a PlayStation, two toy swords, and a paperback copy of Inside ISIS by journalist Benjamin Hall found on top of a dusty bookshelf.

Peyton's interview stretched on for four hours. When he was finally reunited with Tony, an agent informed them that the Sheriff was taking over the case and that Peyton was under arrest for providing support for an act of terrorism. They had evidence, the agent claimed, that Peyton had sent bomb-making instructions to someone he thought was a member of ISIS. Tony put his head in his hands and began to cry.

The recommended bail amount in Alabama for a Class C felony, the charge that Peyton was facing, is USD2,500 to USD15,000. The judge on duty that day assigned Peyton's bail at USD1 million.


When Peyton was five, Tony, certain that something was wrong with his son, took him to a developmental psychologist at Children's Hospital in Birmingham to be evaluated. The resulting medical report described Peyton's difficulty focusing on tasks and his lack of motor coordination. When asked to draw a picture, he could draw only a single line. He was diagnosed with cognitive deficits and attention-deficit disorder.

This wasn't the family's first brush with disability. Their oldest child, Patrick, was a healthy boy; today, he's twenty-eight years old and lives with his wife and their three daughters in Texas. Cassady, however, suffered from a developmental impairment from an early age. Her case is less severe than Peyton's; today, she lives on her own, cooks her own meals, and works as a prep cook in a restaurant, though she cannot drive or manage a bank account.

At first, Tony took Peyton's diagnoses in stride, doing his best to keep his son's education on a steady path forward. Peyton was placed into special education at the local public school. But the program didn't have sufficient resources, according to Tony, and Peyton fell further behind. By law, Peyton's condition could have qualified him to receive one-on-one assistance, but Tony says such services were not offered. Teachers passed Peyton from grade to grade—a formality in special-needs education—but he never learned to multiply single-digit numbers. He wasn't a disciplinary problem; he was just barely there.

Frustrated with the lack of support, Tony pulled Peyton out of school in 2009—"he was bringing home seventh-grade homework but was at a second-grade level," Tony says—and began homeschooling him.

Peyton wasn't a disciplinary problem; he was just barely there.

In 2012, when Peyton was fifteen, Tony and his first wife—the mother of his three children—got divorced, and Tony received full custody. Until then he'd had a white-collar job, working as a government contractor on projects involving camera systems and outdoor warning sirens. But with two special-needs children to care for, he needed a more flexible job that allowed him to be at home more often. So he took lessons from the owner of a tattoo parlour and soon began working there part-time.

In 2013, Tony hired an elementary school teacher who worked with special-needs students to tutor Peyton three times a week in reading, writing, and math. Tony and she eventually fell in love and got married in March 2014. Tony and the children moved in with her. Shortly after, Patrick moved back into the house on the hill. Cassady and Peyton split their time between the two households.

According to Tony, spending time at his childhood home was Peyton's choice as much as anyone else's—he wanted computer games, not companions. There, Peyton slept during the day and stayed up at night, using two nearly broken computers to spend hours online.


As soon as Peyton was taken to the St. Clair County Jail in Pell City, Tony begged the sheriff, Terry Surles, to let him see his son. Surles, a barrel-chested Southern gentleman who's held his position for five terms and counting, allowed the two to meet in his office for an hour while he stood watch. Peyton insisted on sitting in Tony's lap and prattled on about what he would do when he got home as Tony sank deeper into desperation—how could his mentally handicapped son be accused of such atrocious behaviour?

Tony returned to the jail the next day and spoke with a nurse who, through tear-soaked eyes, recounted how Peyton hadn't been able to fill out his paperwork naming his next of kin and medical conditions such as allergies. "He doesn't belong here," Tony recalls her and female jailors saying.

Nevertheless, Peyton remained in jail—in solitary confinement, not because he was a risk to others but because he was in danger among the general population. There, he had next to nothing in his cell. Tony's wife tried to bring Peyton colouring books so that he could have something to do, but her request was denied.

On December 22, 2015, a hearing to formally charge Peyton took place. The FBI was no longer leading the case; it handed over the matter to the state without giving Tony or Peyton a clear reason why. What was clear was that such a move is unusual: According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch and Columbia Law School, nearly five hundred individuals were prosecuted for terrorism or related offences in U.S. federal courts between 2002 and 2011. Peyton is not the first mentally disabled person to face terrorism-related charges in the U.S.—the report outlines eight such cases in the ten years that it covers. But terrorism experts I spoke with said that it's atypical to file state charges against someone accused of colluding with terrorists, especially given Peyton's mental acuity. "When looking at ISIS in America, it's important to think of it as a spectrum," says Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University's Centre for Cyber & Homeland Security. "Given the state-level charges and Peyton's apparent cognitive issues, he falls more in the category of a would-be ISIS misfit than a true ISIS recruit."

Hughes maintains a database of all U.S.-based ISIS recruits, and Peyton is not included. He says that Peyton's is "a bit of a tough case to look at" because of "the state charges, the mental issues.”

St. Clair County's elected district attorney, Richard Minor, led the prosecution. Minor has deep roots in the community: His brother, Judge Robert J. Minor, sits on the Pell City court, as does Minor's brother-in-law Judge Philip Seay, who is scheduled to preside over Peyton's trial. Minor has spoken publicly about the dangers that the Internet and social media pose to the youth in his community. According to documents relating to the case, the prosecution seemed to be gathering evidence in support of the argument that Peyton is an ISIS-friendly Rain Man, mentally incapable of most things but extraordinarily gifted at one: terrorism.

During the preliminary hearing, Peyton sat on one side of the courtroom with his lead counsel, Carl Gibson Holladay, a public defender assigned to the trial earlier that month. Tony was there as well, dressed in a dark suit. He has a round, pale face with light eyelashes and eyes ringed with red. He has attended court each time Peyton has made an appearance.

The judge at the preliminary hearing, Alan C. Furr, heard from Thomas Dixon, the sheriff's chief investigator, who testified for the prosecution to support the allegations that Peyton was a terrorist. Under cross-examination, Dixon testified that he had no independent knowledge of anything Peyton had done, and that he was basing his testimony solely on Peyton's statement to the FBI. "I know what I was told, sir," he said.

The prosecution seemed to be gathering evidence in support of the argument that Peyton is an ISIS-friendly Rain Man, mentally incapable of most things but extraordinarily gifted at one: terrorism.

Holladay's goals that morning were twofold: First, he moved to dismiss the charges as unsubstantiated, arguing that the prosecution had not presented any evidence beyond the FBI interrogation. Second, he pushed to have Peyton's bond reduced, given his disability. Over the course of two hours, the court heard from Peyton's teachers, his caretakers, and the pastor from his church, who all addressed Peyton's mental conditions.

Judge Furr denied both of Holladay's motions. The terrorism charges moved forward.

Tony says that shortly after the preliminary hearing, he ran into Dixon, who had just testified against Peyton, outside of the jailhouse. He told Tony that putting his son in jail was just part of his job. Dixon put his hand on his chest and said, "If you could only see my heart. I have lost many nights of sleep thinking about you and your family." Tony says they prayed right there on the sidewalk.


Tony is fifty-one, has high cholesterol, and recently had malignant carcinomas excised from his back and ankle. "I need my kids prepared for life after Dad," he says. Peyton couldn't hit a nail with a hammer, let alone brush his teeth or buy groceries. So in the fall of 2014, Tony enrolled him at the E.H. Gentry Facility in Talladega, Alabama, a rehabilitation program for adults with sensory disabilities that focuses on independent living. Cassady had done well there in a vocational program a year earlier. Peyton, more dependent than his sister, was placed under twenty-four-hour supervision.

Gentry, on a tree-lined campus twenty miles southeast of Pell City, is a state-run facility that's part of the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. Republican governor Robert Bentley—whose fear of an ISIS attack within his state is so strong that he's proudly turned away Syrian refugees in need of a home—is an ex officio member of its board. (Bentley is currently embroiled in a fight against impeachment after it was revealed in March that he was having an affair with a senior advisor.)

Peyton was enrolled in three programmes—Basic Academics, Independent Living, and Work. He also had access to a computer, and to the Internet. He'd always been drawn to antiauthoritarian sites: The hacking group Anonymous interested him because of its dedication to preventing animal cruelty. In an anime group, he was drawn into a conversation about the work performed by Russian hackers. Then he discovered ISIS.

In an interview I conducted with Peyton in March 2016, he gave two reasons for his newfound fascination with the terrorist group: "At Gentry…the staff would always watch the news in the mornings, and they talked a lot about Islam on the news." Also, he said, he liked to friend people from the "Friend Suggestions" feature, and a growing number of those people happened to be Muslims who opposed Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Peyton had always been drawn to antiauthoritarian sites. Then he discovered ISIS.

According to records relating to the case, Peyton altered his Facebook page to fit a new persona. He deleted his non-Muslim friends and changed his listed name to Usamah Anthony, a hybrid of Osama and his own father's name. At the behest of some of his new online friends, he joined Wickr, an instant-messaging app popular with dissidents because of its strong encryption capabilities. Through chats conducted on both platforms, Peyton communicated with more than one person who claimed to be interested in or affiliated with ISIS.

According to someone close to the investigation, he professed that he wanted to enrol at a Tunisian university so that he could cross the border into Libya and join a terrorist group. He sent one recipient a link to an article from Inspire, Al Qaeda's official English-language magazine, that contained bomb-making instructions. These chats could be a linchpin for District Attorney Minor's case against him.

Many of Peyton's messages bear remarkable similarities to phrases and sentences found in articles floating around the Internet, according to someone close to the investigation: lines from Al-Baqara in the Quran, speeches by Chicago Imam Sheikh Mohamed Elimam, and quotes from Junaid Hussain, a notorious hacker and ISIS recruiter who died in August 2015. Whether Peyton understood the meaning behind the messages he allegedly sent is at the core of his defence.


On April 15, 2015, one of Peyton's instructors at Gentry, Debbie Gilliam, wrote an incident report stating that she'd found him watching videos of beheadings. She wrote that she asked Peyton if he "agreed with ISIS." He allegedly responded that he "was neutral" but that he "likes Osama bin Laden and hates Christians," and that he thought there would be another 9/11.

A meeting was held with Gentry's director of security, Michael Hubbard. (He and all other Gentry employees refused to comment for this story.) Hubbard sent a notice on April 20, 2015, to the regional FBI office in Montgomery, Alabama.

According to internal Gentry emails, an employee relayed Hubbard's instructions to Peyton's teachers to observe him for other signs of interest in terrorism. In one email, another employee asked, "Safe to assume dad will not be involved?"

"I hope not!!!" Peyton's caseworker, Suzy McCullough, responded. Perhaps this was because, according to documents relating to the case, Gentry staff thought Tony was difficult to deal with and "a very unique individual." The year before, there had been a standoff over a boy Cassady was dating—Tony didn't approve of Cassady leaving campus to stay at his place, but Gentry staff said she was an adult and could do as she pleased—the aftermath of which bled into Peyton's stay. Furthermore, the staff thought that Tony underestimated Peyton. Several employees said that they did not approve of his habit of talking about Peyton's disability in front of him.

In any event, McCullough got her wish: Tony was never notified.

According to internal Gentry emails, shortly after, four classmates informed a teacher that at a Gentry-sponsored outing to Walmart intended to teach students about using money, Peyton purchased the book Inside ISIS—the same book the FBI would later find in Tony's house.

By May 2015, Peyton's hygiene had declined; he began hiding his soiled clothes in a closet, and they were discovered by a caretaker because of their smell. He went for days without bathing. His socks and shoes were thrown out because they could not be salvaged with soap. "He was regressing," Tony says. "On one visit I asked him when was the last time he had bathed, and he told me it had been four days."

The longer Peyton was at Gentry, the more problems Tony noticed with his son's care: They bought Peyton the incorrect shoe size. They didn't help Peyton put on a smock in art class, so a lot of his clothes were stained with paint. Even though progress reports from Gentry indicated that Peyton was doing well—he was talking about taking driver's ed and his instructors thought that he was adapting to school—Tony disagreed.

Angry that another institution had failed Peyton—especially one that was tailored to handle challenging cases like his—Tony pulled him from the program. Peyton moved back to the house on the hill.

Even then, no one—not teachers, not administrators, not Gentry security—told Tony anything about Facebook or ISIS or the FBI.

By then, Peyton's older brother, Patrick, had joined the military and moved out of the house with his family. Peyton and Cassady still spent some time at their childhood home. Cassady made dinner and they had a Labrador retriever puppy that Peyton loved to play with. Tony says he was there, or Peyton was with him, most of the week. He shopped for his children's food and paid their bills, and when he wasn't with them he called up to fifteen times per day. The home had a security system complete with cameras, and a next-door neighbour checked in on them from time to time.

No one—not teachers, not administrators, not Gentry security—told Tony anything about Facebook or ISIS or the FBI.

After Peyton left Gentry, he had no job, no school, and no friends, freeing him up to continue his alleged online life as Usamah Anthony. Then the FBI arrived.


In February 2016, James Gallini took over Peyton's defence. Gallini, whose daughter was diagnosed with autism, is a special-needs attorney, more used to dealing with vulnerable kids than with cases involving the FBI. To help with the trial, he brought on board two criminal-defence attorneys, Edward A. Merrell and Kenneth Baumann; all three are working pro bono. Gallini has strong opinions and expresses them loudly. In a written statement on the trial, he began with "We live in the worst version of Seinfeld's 'Bizarro World' where our governments on every level are engaging in flagrant acts of deception, theft, lying, assault, murder, brutality, injustice, and nepotism." He has ambitions to one day run for governor. There is nothing subtle about the man.

In March, Peyton entered the Pell City Circuit Court with a dozen other inmates, chained at both wrists and ankles, bedecked in orange-and-white-striped uniforms, the white sections so worn they were nearly brown. The courtroom was half full, and Tony sat straight-faced and alone in the front row.

Peyton had been in the county jail for four months. Despite the bracing late-winter day, he wore a broken pair of orange plastic shower sandals and a T-shirt. His discoloured toenails were untrimmed and curved toward the floor. Once seated, he looked straight ahead, his eyes only occasionally drifting to his father.

As with the public defender's failed motion in December, Gallini's primary goal that day was to persuade the judge to green-light a full battery of psychological and intelligence tests for Peyton that would demonstrate the severity of his limitations. Gallini hoped to show that his client wasn't competent enough to stand trial, never mind knowingly offer material support to people he believed were terrorists. The fixations of disabled youth, he explained to the judge, are proof of their disorder, not an argument to negate it. "This is prosecutorial overreach," he said.

Stepping off the platform when his name was called, Peyton looked down with surprise, as if he'd forgotten the shackles. A bailiff put out her hand to catch his elbow so that he didn't fall. Judge Seay, district attorney Richard Minor's brother-in-law, quickly disposed of Gallini's pretrial motions sotto voce, giving permission to defer a plea and to conduct a competency exam to show the extent of Peyton's disability. Gallini retained the right to request that Peyton get youthful-offender status and have the trial adjudicated in juvenile court, since the alleged crime was committed when he was eighteen. (The age of adulthood in Alabama is nineteen.)

Afterward, I met with Peyton and his lawyers in a small conference room in the courthouse. When I introduced myself, Peyton was indifferent. He was hesitant to talk; Gallini had to repeat my questions to prompt answers. Peyton paused for uncomfortably long stretches, his brain flipping to find the right words. He was so difficult to understand that I repeated his answers to make sure I'd heard him correctly. He never asked me who I was or why I was there.

Peyton's chains clanked as he rocked from side to side. He didn't deny his interest in ISIS. He said it stemmed from his opposition to Syria's president because "it's very clear that Assad has committed many crimes." Peyton said he wanted to "live according to Sharia law." When asked to describe what that meant, he could only remember the rules that "non-Muslims must pay a tax to live in an Islamic land" and "that homosexual people are killed." He claimed to have read "eight chapters" of the Quran, but "I don't got any of it memorised.”

Peyton paused for uncomfortably long stretches, his brain flipping to find the right words.

He did, however, remember a pledge in support of ISIS he claimed to have invented at the prompting of someone he communicated with online. He recited it without hesitation: "All praises due to Allah. Peace and blessings be upon his servant Muhammad.…I pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. I will obey him. Allah is my witness." This was the most I had heard him say at one time.

At the end of our conversation, Gallini told Peyton he would ask a nurse to look at his infected big toe. He wasn't wearing socks; he said he'd left them in the shower. He stared down at the black nail as if he hadn't noticed it before. When he smiled, half of his teeth were stained brown.


Shortly before I saw Peyton, he'd been moved to the Ashville jail, about twenty miles down the road from the Pell City jail, because it houses inmates closer to his age, Tony says. Peyton was again placed in a solitary cell without a television, a radio, books, or blank paper. This move did not necessarily make him safer: In June, Tony says, another inmate assaulted him. Peyton just took it.

With Sheriff Surles's blessing, Peyton has received special privileges. He's no longer in solitary. The jail staff has adopted him as a son of sorts. One older man who sweeps the jail's hallways has been teaching Peyton hymns. Peyton is allowed to watch television while the other inmates are locked in their cells. According to Tony, Sheriff Surles "is the best sheriff in the country. He goes to bat for my son every single day." (Surles did not return a request for comment.)

Peyton receives regular schooling from the St Clair Board of Education and autism-specific services through a private group called Behavioural 1. Both are the result of a lawsuit Gallini filed in February seeking to enforce the state's legal requirement to provide Peyton with educational services until he is twenty-one.

Tony is allowed to visit Peyton, separated by a glass partition, for twenty minutes each Saturday. The first time they spoke, it took several minutes for Peyton to understand how the phone receiver worked.

Tony suffers along with his son. He's terrified of the attention the trial will bring to his family; his twin sister won't go on the record about the case for fear of losing her job. In anticipation of potential legal fees, Tony sold his house on the hill and his nine acres of land for well below the market value. He was in what he described as "panic mode," parting with the house so quickly that he didn't have a chance to remove the furniture—almost everything was donated to charity.

On June 4, psychologists Glen King and Karl Kirkland issued the results of the examination Gallini had petitioned for, and Judge Seay had granted, in March. In the section labeled "Forensic Assessment," King wrote, "All the information available to me indicates that Peyton Pruitt has a mental defect, mild to moderate intellectual disability (formally known as mental retardation)….The defendant gives an account of the circumstances surrounding the offence that indicates that he was experiencing a mental defect, mental retardation, such that he was unable to appreciate the nature and quality of his actions or the wrongfulness of his acts."

The report's findings are scheduled to be presented in court today, September 8, at which time Judge Seay is expected to determine whether the trial should move forward. In the meantime, Peyton is alone, other than the jail staff with whom he speaks. He goes outside for thirty minutes twice a week, the three-hundred-square-foot yard his only opportunity to feel sunlight fall on his face.

From: Esquire US.