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[00:00:01]

From WBCSD Chicago, it's this American Life, I'm IRA Glass. So with the rise of Kuhnen and all the various conspiracy theories and fake news out there, lots of people around the country have had to figure out what to do when a loved one starts believing, starts being consumed by something that is not true at all.

[00:00:19]

The easy choice, of course, do nothing. It's really hard to change anybody's mind about anything, especially somebody whose beliefs are not grounded in reality. But some people choose to intervene. Like in our story today, we first put on the air before the pandemic, before the current news cycle, the parents in the story. They thought they were close to their son, who was doing really well in school. Things seemed fine anyway. It's the whole hour of our show today, a story we call Chip in my brain.

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David Kestenbaum tells what happened, which begins with basketball. It would probably be wrong to say that Cody Treybig loved basketball at the beginning, it would definitely be wrong to say he was good at it. He wasn't at all. He was good at World of Warcraft, though.

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The video game, I sometimes I still almost cry, like thinking about the first time I walked in the Stormwind, the capital human city, and the music changes. And you see these like beautiful, huge castle. And you're walking in and it's like it's just really it's amazing.

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Cody says he wasn't exactly avoiding physical activity. The game was just super fun. He and his friends would all log on, go on adventures together. As someone who used to play a lot of video games, it felt like bad etiquette not to ask who his online character was, Cody told me.

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And knowing him a little bit now, this seems entirely appropriate. He was a paladin, which is a holy night who can fight, but also he's nice cast healing spells when his co adventurers get hurt.

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Cody eventually built them up to level 60 as high as you can go.

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I was just really proud of having six eight to Lightford gear, which was nothing but all of which is just to say that sports were not Cody's top priority in gym class when they'd have to run laps. He'd always be at the back basketball.

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Somehow, though, he kind of liked his dad had played when he was growing up so early on in third grade, Cody found himself on this local youth league team.

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I was not very athletic at all. I remember being at basketball games, my friend Daniel, and we'd be talking about World of Warcraft like, well, the game was going on on the bench.

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OK, well, from Mom's perspective, I thought he was adorable.

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That's Mom Drew Treybig. And here's dad, Jimmy Treybig.

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He he wasn't real aggressive. He's in the middle of the court watching everybody run back and forth. And if he got the ball he and someone wanted, he just give it to him.

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He would he would just so sweetly hand it off to another player. I didn't really have a problem with that, to be honest. At that age, he was little. I thought, this is my dear, sweet boy. He'll get it. He'll get it eventually. But it bothered him, you know, after a while that the boys were making fun of him. Drew describes herself as a kind of helicopter mom, which seems right. While I was there talking to Cody, she kept mommy us.

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Are you guys hungry? How about a smoothie? I'm going to get one. True says the whole family is kind of kooky. Whenever someone was leaving, they'd be sure to say I love you to the other person. And I don't mean leaving the house, just like leaving the room. Cody's dad, Jimmy, says he had a hard time getting his father to say, I love you. So this is their fix. The tribe live in Texas and the outskirts of Austin.

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Jimmy was an early tech entrepreneur. He founded a company that made the computers that ran ATM machines. So they had a nice house on a big piece of land. There were cows around, but no neighbors you could walk to, which Jimmy told me he regretted. As it happened, there was an old basketball court out behind the house. So they decided to get Cody some lessons, like instead of a piano teacher or something, get him a basketball teacher.

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His dad found someone through the local youth league, a guy named AJ Cutty's in third grade at the time. So so I remember the first meeting.

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He came in the front door and he was just very friendly.

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You know what I remember feeling at the time?

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Tall, six foot six. I think I probably asked him, oh, my God, can you dunk? And he's like, oh, yeah, I can dunk.

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He said they used to call him Springs was his nickname because he dunked a lot. So that first day AJ walks in, they all hang out by the front door. Cody is shy, but AJ gets right down on his level. The two of them go out to the basketball court talking the whole way when they get there.

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Cody can't really even do a lay up and they just like, OK, we can fix this. Let's do some basics. He teaches Cody this drill where you stand just to the side of the basket, trying to bankert enough this magic spot. Then you get the rebound, go to the other side and do it again, back and forth, back and forth.

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And he would put his hand through the hoop and act like a little monster dragon or something like squiggle his fingers around, like, you know, feed the monster, feed the monster. So, you know, I thought that was pretty fun.

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AJ works with Cody two days a week, then three days a week. Sometimes other kids come over so they can all train together.

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And it's great mom would bring out snacks for everyone or if other kids weren't around, mom or dad would get drafted.

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We would stand there and pretend to be a player on the other team so that they could, you know, ah, he told us to like try to move in to that or try to steal the ball or, you know, so we could kind of be silly doing that, too.

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Right. Is that fun? Yeah. Yeah, it was really fun, but not on the hot days. So I don't want to do this is too hot.

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Word spreads around town about this great basketball trainer.

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Other parents hire him, but AJ and Cody, they have something kind of special. They just click and they have this way of being around each other. That seems sweet.

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When AJ was working with Cody, they would trash talk on the court, which I always thought of as involving a lot of swearing.

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But AJ taught Cody this really hilarious kind of trash talking, just messing with someone, asking weird random questions in the middle of the game. Hey, what you have for breakfast?

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Like he would act like my. Mom sometimes, like he would talk in my mom's voice and be like, OK, how do you make the shot, you know, time to make this, let's go. You know, like, let's get in there and try hard, you know?

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And that would obviously kind of crack me up and it would be hard to focus. But he played constantly. If the family went on a trip, he would deflate a basketball, stick it in the suitcase and reinflated after they arrived.

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When you're a kid, you want there to be something that you're special or even just a little good at, because as a kid, you start off being terrible and everything. That's like the definition of being a kid. So when you meet someone who helps you get good at something, it can feel amazing. Could you remember this one afternoon, maybe fourth grade on the court out back where it all just felt perfect? We were just doing jump shots and I was like making like all of them, like never done like making all of them.

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And one of my brother's friends, like, had come to hang out with my brother and he was up at the top kind of watching us. And I noticed that. And I was like to me, like he was older and cool and like I was making them and he could see I was making them.

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And I just like this pride, just like it's something. I loved the shooting and I was doing good at it.

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And I just remember feeling like I was like, yeah, floating on air.

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Like, you think it was really nice. And JJ was there. Yeah. Yeah. He was coaching me. He was rebounding and giving you the passes. The next year Cody got the MVP award for the school team. In some ways AJ was like a big kid himself.

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Drew says he often seemed more comfortable with kids than adults. And as Cody gets older, he and AJ really start to become friends. After his games, Cody would always call AJ to tell him how it went, which kind of drove my parents nuts, actually, because they wanted to talk to me after the game in the car.

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And I would, you know, be talking to AJ on the phone.

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The whole way home was just shows like how close we you are. You know, AJ would sometimes pick Cody up from middle school. Cody started to listen to the music. Do you listen to young M.C. Bust a move as a favorite when Cody went out clothes shopping with his mom, picked out clothes that looked like things AJ would wear simple solid color t shirts.

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Cody fell in love with basketball and he kind of fell in love with AJ.

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I would hug him and tell him I loved him. Yeah, I mean, I would I would jump up, you know, and hold me in the air or whatever. Yeah. And tell him I loved him. Yeah. I would get sad when he left, you know, I was very want, but I was shy.

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But once I got to know people, I got very attached to them.

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There's something Cody wrote about AJ that kind of sums up how he felt and also weirdly foreshadows what was to come. It's from early on a school assignment to write about your hero. I had Cody read from it. Some people in fourth grade might have picked their heroes because they're national celebrities, but I picked mine because he has made me a better person.

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Runs through how they met the way a fourth grader would. Ding dong goes our doorbell. Here is the here. I close my eyes and hoped. Then the door open. Hey, Cody, he said with happiness. Hi, A.J., I replied.

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The essay ends with an interview Cody asking AJ what seemed like innocuous questions. Where did you grow up? What was your favorite subject in school? And then these two questions.

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What values do you think are important? And he says, communication and thy shalt not have any gods before me and do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Did you have a hero in your life? Yes, Christ. Is it hard to get back in the mind of yourself writing this when you wrote this? It's very hard because now you know, I know kind of what was going on, you know, and so it's, it's pretty sad, I think.

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Fast forward to the morning of February 7th, 2012. Cody's in ninth grade. He and AJ have been hanging out for six years. Here's Drew Cody's mom.

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At that point, I was driving Cody to school and I don't remember why, but I dropped him off. And and just as I'm getting ready to leave, my friend whips into the spot next to me. And so I put my window down. She put her window down and she's sobbing. She she's not even the tearing up kind of person. And she handed me she said, oh, my God, oh, my God, you need to see what AJ has done.

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I found some transcripts with my son. Here they are.

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They were instant messages between the woman's son, Lucas and AJ. AJ had been coaching Lucas, too, and they've been typing back and forth over Skype.

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Lucas, his mom had printed them out and I read them and it was as if my entire body went numb.

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Sort of still really hard to talk about.

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They didn't seem to be anything physical going on. The messages were about religion, but not any religion that Drew is familiar with stuff in the Bible, but also things that were definitely not in the Bible.

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Some of it seemed really out there and scary. I knew I had to get home and she told me, she said, go home right away. You've got to check Cody's Skype transcripts. And I'm an Apple person. I really don't know anything about the P.C., you know, the Skype. You know, it's not the keyboard. I mean, everything seems different. So I can say to her, like, I don't know if I'm going to be able to do it.

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I couldn't get home fast enough because I knew in my heart it was going to be terrible. I got home, nobody was here. And I went to Cody's room and his Skype log was up. So he must have been on it that morning right before school.

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She sits there at Cody's desk and starts to read. Cody and AJ had been messaging and Skype, sometimes late into the night and clearly trying to hide it from her. The first pages are from some night when she'd been threatening to take his phone away. Cody writes to AJ: "How do I communicate with you without technology?" AJ: "Please turn off everything and remain calm as possible. This is just for tonight." Cody: "Should I give them my phone if they ask for it?"

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AJ: "Delete everything and give it to them." She keeps reading and it gets even stranger; rapture Illuminati, there were there were references to all these things, biblical or religious, that I had that I was just astounded by.

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It was like Cody and AJ were living in this other world and it was vast. Some mix of science fiction and stuff inspired by the Bible, particularly the Book of Revelation. At the time, Drew couldn't piece it all together. But as best as I can tell, this is the basic outline of it starts with standard evangelical beliefs about the rapture, the end of days when a select group of people will suddenly disappear from the earth, go live with God and everyone else is going to be left to suffer.

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Who will be saved and who will be left behind? Well, the devil is trying to capture as many souls as he can.

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And here's where the sci fi stuff comes in. The devil is operating through a powerful and secret society called the Illuminati, the Illuminati and built a self programming supercomputer somewhere in Belgium called The Beast. At some point, the Illuminati is going to try to control people by implanting a computer ID chip, an RFID chip in everyone's hands or foreheads. This chip, it said, is what the Bible has been promising.

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The Mark of the beast, a high tech version of 666. If you get an RFID chip implanted, well, you are definitely not getting saved.

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In the transcripts, AJ and Cody go back and forth about RFID chips a bunch at one point, AJ writes, it's here this coming up year it'll be mandatory for all armed forces, followed by medical field than everyone else.

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What it does to the body is in human Cody. What do they do to your body? A.J., you lose mind control, why do you think I took time to study the mind with you, Cody? How does it do that, A.J.? Oh, here we go.

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Are you sure you want to know the truth?

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Cody, yes, I do. Then the Skype blog indicates AJ call them to talk.

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You can see how he was manipulating by reading it. Yes, there's more.

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But I guess if you're not ready to hear it, I mean, he you could see him how he would reel a child in.

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AJ, right. For now rest.

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I have so much more to show you, but you have class tomorrow.

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In some places the conversation seems very middle school, except they're texting about the apocalypse and one of them is 36 years old. Like this time, AJ is talking about how he's preparing to assist other followers of the Lord. And Cody compares the whole thing to a movie, Cody.

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So it's like you're that guy from The Matrix who rescues Neo and takes him to the refuge underground. AJ, you must be talking about Morpheus. Cody Yes. That guy. AJ, how do you know I'm not Neo Cody?

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But Neo never goes and rescues people from The Matrix. AJ But he does show them the truth.

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The most alarming part for you reading this is that he seems to be trying to slowly separate Cody from his family to drive a wedge between her and her son.

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At one point, AJ is telling Cody that his parents are influenced by, quote, the other side.

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One of the first things I had read that popped up was him telling Cody to call CPS Child Protective Services.

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Yeah, Child Protective. And to fake that, we were abusing him. Cody had been asking AJ what he should do if his parents tried to make him get in RFID chip implanted.

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AJ writes CPS one phone call, nine one one. You can easily claim abuse, which is not a lie because they would be forcing you into hell. Tell CPS nothing about the chip, stress potential harm to your body and yelling.

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Drew reads this and worries that Cody is about to run off with AJ.

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You can just see in this sweet little innocent Colt Cody saying, you know things like, well, I think I have some money in a savings account. And then, you know, because he's telling him we're going to he and Cody are going to need a lot of money. Drew calls Jimmy, her husband, who rushes home.

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I was really afraid and I was obviously been going on a very long time. The Skype transcripts only went back a month, but they eventually learned from Cody that he and AJ had been having conversations like this for years right there in the house, right under their noses. Drew and Jimmy call the police, but it's unclear if there's anything they can charge AJ with.

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They decide for sure they need to cut off all contact with AJ, which they worry will upset Cody, they don't know how much of all this religious stuff he really believes, but they know he loves AJ.

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They need time to figure things out, so they just leave CODI at school for the rest of the day, he's going to classes, doesn't know any of this is happening. They call a friend who's a lawyer and they make a plan.

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When the school day is over, Drew will pick up Cody and also his friend Lucas, who had been messaging with AJ. She'll pretend like everything's normal, but she'll take them directly to the lawyer's office where Jimmy and the other kids parents will be last period of the day. Last class I had off period, no class. And I was texting AJ like about something I'd seen on the Internet. And I think he replied, and there was a normal day.

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And my mom, my friend Lucas and I were, you know, hanging out before my mom came and picked me up. And I think we had a basketball session that day with AJ Plan. And my mom said, I'm going to drive both of you guys to the to our house to play.

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They were so happy that day when they got in the car. And all I'm thinking is, oh, my God, it's just in a couple of minutes when I have to turn left. So I kept thinking about this, just going to all come crashing down. And I don't know if I'm strong enough to do this because I'm still barely keeping it together.

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So that was fine. It was normal. And we were going home and instead of turning right, we turn left. And Lucas and I were, you know, you know what's going on, where we where are we turning left? And my mom wouldn't answer us and we could tell something was weird. So immediately Lucas and I are like, what is going on? My mind immediately turned to, oh, my God. Like maybe my parents are taking me somewhere to implant RFID chip in me.

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So I'm starting to think about how are we can you get out of this car that the other little boy almost jumped out of the car and I had to beg him to just please not jump out of the car. They had done nothing wrong. They weren't in trouble. They were going to be OK. But I couldn't tell them for twenty minutes. That's all I kept saying. We're texting AJ like, what's going on? You know, what's going on?

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Like, we were kind of frantic. She took us to, I guess, our family lawyer at the time office and sat us down and and they informed us that they had found Lucas's Skype transcripts of AJ.

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And that prompted my parents to look at my computer. And they found my Skype transcripts with AJ and that they were going to fire him.

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I wouldn't be allowed to see him anymore. And he wasn't allowed to talk to us anymore.

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So, I mean, my world blew up. My world blew up. It was I don't know how else to put it. My world just blew up.

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Looking at Cody, though, Drew couldn't tell what was going on with him.

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He didn't cry. He didn't yell when they got home. She says she tried to talk to him about all this, but he wouldn't talk. They got him a therapist right away. The lawyer told A.J. he was fired and to stay away from the tribe because the family sent the school a photo of AJ, told them to watch out for him. AJ sent an e-mail to the tribe's lawyer, threatening to sue them if they said bad things about him.

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Cody had been a high honor student, but the next day he got a 24 on a test after school, he'd go to his room, stay in there and go to sleep. In the mornings, his parents would break down, they'd say, please just come home to us today. Don't run away with them. Of course, one of the weird things about this whole situation is that before this could, it seemed totally normal around the house, just as regular self.

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When I first heard this story, I honestly didn't know what to think. It seemed incredible that all this could be going on and that no one would notice. How did this happen and why did they do it? The tribes thought he was grooming Cody for years in some evil plan to control him and pull him away from the family. But maybe AJ was just a devoted religious guy with unconventional beliefs. We reached out to AJ who declined multiple interview requests then just before we went to air.

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He did finally agree to talk. So we have some tape of him, which you'll hear later has a different version of most of this.

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But here's the story from Cody and his family's perspective, those years were life in the tribe. A household felt totally ordinary. Here's what Cody says was actually going on. Cody says the first time he and AJ talked about religion was back in the sixth grade. AJ been coaching him for a few years. And this one day, AJ starts talking about that video game that Cody loved, World of Warcraft.

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We were in my garage and that's where we had some workout equipment at the time. And he just turned so serious.

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Suddenly he's telling me, you know, Cody, the things in your World Warcraft game, these demons, these warlocks, these all these things, they're real and they're all around us all the time.

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And it's not good that you play that game because when you play that game, these things, they can come into you and, you know, those things come from hell.

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It's a spiritual war going on around us all the time. You just can't see it. Only some people can see it. I can see it. I just remember it. You know, it was truly terrifying.

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How did he seem?

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He seemed like a compassionate like he was looking out for me, like telling me this information that I needed to hear.

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And he's saying that's why you need to stop playing that game. That's why you need to start reading the Bible. That's why you need to go to church. That's where you need to start praying. That's why you need to start understanding these things and thinking about these things and maturing. So it was to me, it was like he was protecting me from these these terrible things. As for how this could all stay secret, this first conversation didn't. When other kids came over to play basketball that day, Cody disappeared into the house.

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He started to cry and he told his mom, Cody tells me there's a computer in the sky.

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It's going to kill me. I'm like, what's what are you talking about?

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Drew says people have asked her now why she didn't fire AJ on that day. She says she tries to be open minded about religion. People believe all kinds of things. AJ seemed like a good guy. So when Cody tells his mom, we've got to cancel World of Warcraft, she's like, no, we don't.

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Cody's telling me that. I never told him that the game was evil. And why why was I allowing him to play an evil game?

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Well, I remember almost laughing about that. I'm like, how do you love this game? You know, this is so silly. It's it's not evil. It's it's just a game. And I'm going to go talk to AJ because this is ridiculous.

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Drew says she went out to talk to AJ, who is coaching the other boys. She said, what did you tell Cody? He's really upset, you know.

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Oh, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to upset him. You know, he misunderstood me. I won't ever do it again. I'm so sorry. And I explained to him, I said, well, we're going to have a problem. If you do that again, you're hired to be a basketball coach.

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So do you think that you can not talk about those things? And he assured me that he could pretty much immediately they did talk about religion again. And this was a moment if you rewind the tape when things might have all gone differently, Cody could have believed his mom that all this stuff was ridiculous.

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But instead, he wondered why his mom didn't want him to learn about this stuff. He adored AJ and the stuff AJ was saying. If it was true, it seemed really important, like it's hard to think of anything that could be more urgent. Could he cancel this World of Warcraft account, stop playing, and he says after that day, their basketball session started changing. AJ told Cody he wasn't really there to teach him basketball.

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That didn't really matter. He said he was sent there because he, AJ was one of the chosen and Cody was special. He would either he would either just start and say, you know, that, you know, God had instructed him that it was time that he shares this new thing with me or he would just start the whole thing off by just sighing and going. They have eyes, but they can't see they have ears, but they can't hear, you know, if only if only they knew, if only they knew and be like what you know, and he would make it such a challenge to get that information out of him, he'd be like, you're not ready.

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You're not ready. It was like a story being revealed in many chapters about this whole world around them that was invisible to most people. If you only knew who I am, AJ would say AJ said he could see demons gathering around the house, but when he came over they'd flee because they were afraid of him.

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AJ said he sometimes saw demons around the basketball court while they were playing, and then sometimes he would pause in the middle of sessions, just look into the field in the distance and then smile and then keep going in the session and like, as if he'd seen something, as if he'd seen something he would say.

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Like when he was talking to my mom, he could see the devil behind her smiling. And he would tell me this about other clients. You had to this other client, you know, there's his dad's part of the Illuminati and the demons are flocked at his house. And when he went there, the demons would scream and run and they hated it. And they went there and and he told me as soon as that family fired him, he saw the kid that he was working with age 10 years in one day and start getting sick and depressed all the time because the demons were finally able to flock to that kid and attack him because he wasn't there to protect him anymore.

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Cody's dad's office had a particularly bad feel about it. AJ said there was a statue of a snake in it. He said that was a sign of the Illuminati as it happened. That's where Cody and I were doing this interview. The snake was there on the table.

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It's just one of those corporate we did it kind of things from the sales team at his dad's company. But in Cody's mind, everything around him started to have a double deeper meaning to it.

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There's a Bohemian Grove in California where the Illuminati worship a 40 foot statue of an owl. And Cody, why do you think your dad takes two week trips to California? Where do you think he's going? Do you really think he has business for two weeks there? Who has business for two weeks? That's not normal.

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Is there really a 40 foot statue of an owl in California? Oh, no, I really I don't know.

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There is a general Bohemian Grove is this enclave for the rich and powerful. Presidents have been there, but Cody's dad says he's never been. The things AJ said were hard to disprove, especially if you're in sixth grade. AJ said he could see people talking about him when he wasn't there, but he could see people's dreams sometimes read their thoughts and those demons around the house.

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He said they're spreading. That one was particularly alarming. When you were playing basketball, did you imagine, like little demons all around that you couldn't see? Yes, it was horrible for me because because my seventh and eighth grade, he started talking to me about the rapture and how the rapture could happen at any second. And and to me, in my mind, he said, once you're spiritually sound, once your soul's good, you'll see the things I see.

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So I was waiting for the day when I could see the demons. And so I would go to the court sometimes and just look and just why can't I see it?

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Why can't I see it? You know, please, guys, show me like I'm not doing enough.

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There is an urgency to the whole thing, A.J. said there were signs the rapture might happen during the upcoming Olympics, which meant the Illuminati were going to be trying to implant everyone with RFID chips. There was very little time left. How do you have that going on in your head? And then you get up in the morning, like eat breakfast with the family, chat about whatever they're joking about, and then go to school. And like every second was not normal.

[00:29:10]

It was, you know, I would walk around school and I would think all these idiots, you know, they don't see what's really going on in the world ending so soon. I would spend my off periods walking around the school looking for the Illuminati symbols, as you told me, or around St. Stephen's. I would spend my office researching articles. He showed me about how my dad's ham radio is proof that he's part of the Illuminati and that he's listening in on people's conversations using his antennas.

[00:29:35]

Um, was there any part of you that questioned it that was like that? Doesn't sound like that's possible.

[00:29:42]

I think for me at the time. It was it was so scary that I wouldn't allow myself to question it. I can't explain, like, how the way it was real to me, it was like I'm in this real battle that's happening everywhere. I know something that nobody else knows. I'm special. And God chose me, right? It's like you're put in this fantasy world. It's like it's hard to explain the way it built you up, but simultaneously broke you down.

[00:30:21]

I mean, but it was also this part of you to build you up like, you know, you are this person like and he did it in such a way, like I just was so real to me. It's funny, it's at a time I feel like it's at a time where we're just kind of forming your worldview as a kid, you know what I mean? And like, someone snuck this really messed up version of it into you.

[00:30:50]

Yeah, I talked to some other kids who are around at the time. They said AJ talked to them about this stuff, too. One of them told me he sees himself as a skeptical person, but he still found himself wondering, maybe AJ knows something.

[00:31:07]

AJ would call him on his cell phone during school and say something like, are you in a secure location? It was scary, but also kind of exciting. Like you were a secret agent. But Cody was the one AJ spent the most time with. And he believed that all his friends told me they had no idea. In his head, it was like, quote, He was living inside a movie and as it turns out, it is an actual movie from 1972 called The Rapture.

[00:31:33]

That's where this whole story about a supercomputer called the Beast in Belgium connected to people being marked with numbers. That's where it comes from.

[00:31:41]

I wasn't able to get a copy of the film, but we were able to find an LP which has a kind of radio drama version of it in the style of War of the Worlds.

[00:31:50]

The computer will assign each citizen of the world a number for use for all buying and selling. We're setting it up so that every person will be tattooed with an invisible mark. I've already had my number tattooed on my hand and forehead. That's amazing.

[00:32:09]

I tracked down the screenwriter, a Christian author named Joe Musser.

[00:32:13]

He said some of the promotional material for the movie was in the form of fictional news stories, which some people thought were real.

[00:32:19]

They got passed around in churches and even published in one Christian magazine.

[00:32:23]

He wrote in to say, Hey, you messed up. This isn't true, but it was too late.

[00:32:27]

For some years later, the idea of a supercomputer in Belgium called The Beast, it's still around. Cody says he would wake up in the morning and check CNN to see if the rapture had happened, because you know for sure it would be on the news.

[00:32:42]

Things AJ said were terrifying, but the only safe place was with AJ. So instead of running away, he'd go back to him. My own thoughts weren't safe.

[00:32:51]

I had this tic where I was so afraid that I would say I hate God in my head that if I I had to talk constantly in my head, I had to say the phrase, I love God so much. God is so amazing.

[00:33:07]

I love him so much like, you know, love God, love God.

[00:33:10]

And that would be every waking hour of my day. I would have to say that constantly threat in my head or else I was afraid I would let the phrase I had got out and then I would be I would go to hell forever. I wasn't even safe with my own self. Cody hit all this from his parents for three years, and just like in basketball, you had codes so your teammates knew what play you were running. He and AJ had one, too, he might say, you know, even in front of my parents or something.

[00:33:43]

Hey, you know, I was talking to my friend John the other day and he told me he had, you know, 12 points and four rebounds in a game. And I knew that meant go read in the Bible.

[00:33:53]

John, chapter 12, verse four.

[00:33:57]

Cody's mom says she did notice Cody was more interested in religion. He would pester her to let him talk to AJ about religion. She said no. At some point, Cody has to get baptized, his mom worried that might mean that AJ was still talking to Cody about religion, which he'd promised not to do, but Cody insisted, no, no, this is just something I want to do. So they said, OK. Drew says, in retrospect, of course, all this looks very different.

[00:34:22]

I feel like as a mom, how could I not know? This little boy thought he was going to die every day, every minute of every day. I mean, how could I have not known that?

[00:34:38]

I mean, it's like Cody's been living in this world that is not the real world. But you are also living in this world. That was not the real world because this was going on and you didn't know it, right? Right.

[00:34:52]

You know, the specialists and the psychiatrists and all, they'll tell you that you have to forgive yourself. I guess I just don't. I think my focus is just still on Cody. I talked to some experts about cults and brainwashing, and when I told them the story, they reacted the way doctors do when someone comes in with what they think is an unusual set of symptoms, but that the doctor seen 100 times, there's no official definition of a cult, but they all said, yeah, that sounds like one.

[00:35:31]

Cults often promised the key to understanding the whole world. Followers are pressured to keep everything secret.

[00:35:36]

The whole thing gets built up gradually so it becomes hard to back out without admitting you were wrong the whole time. At the top of it all is a charismatic leader. I asked of cult leaders, knew they were called leaders, the answer sometimes. These experts told me perfectly healthy people with no history of mental illness fall into cults, part of what makes the whole thing work is that the leader introduces something to be afraid of while also providing the solution to that fear, which creates this really strong bond.

[00:36:07]

That technique, of course, is used in lots of places.

[00:36:09]

Advertising political campaigns here is just all turned up to 10. Cody's dad told me that this experience helped him understand those stories in the news about parents who wake up one day to discover one of their kids has disappeared and gone off to join ISIS. The one thing the experts told me felt unusual about this case to them is that it seemed to be what they called a one on one cult, one leader, one follower. Those can be particularly hard to undo in a very real way.

[00:36:38]

It was as if someone had implanted a chip in Cody's brain.

[00:36:53]

David Kestenbaum, coming up, Cody's parents try to get the chip out of Cody's brain, which, as you might expect, is really hard. That's in a minute.

[00:37:02]

Chicago Public Radio when our program continues. It's this American Life, I'm IRA Glass today show Chip in My Brain Today show is a rerun from before the pandemic and the first half of today's show.

[00:37:17]

If you're just tuning in, we heard how Cody Treybig got all kinds of sci fi religious beliefs from his basketball coach.

[00:37:23]

And this half of the show, his parents try to get him to unbelieve that stuff.

[00:37:27]

Again, here's David Kestenbaum, Cody says in the initial therapy sessions, actually, for most of the first year, part of him was super angry, like, why do I have to go to a therapist? There's nothing wrong with me. The problem is with you, he'd have these tantrums.

[00:37:43]

His mom, Drew, would watch him hole up in his room for hours and she just have to wait. Sometimes she'd say, please, please talk to me because he would just explode. Why can't I be with AJ? Can't we all just sit down with him and work this out? Instead of getting better, there were just these reminders of how deep in this world he was like this one day took Dru totally by surprise. They were preparing to go on a special family trip they had planned ages ago.

[00:38:08]

They're going to go to London for the Olympics, which remember was the very event A.J. had said might mark the end of days when the rapture could happen, which meant the Illuminati were going to be trying to implant everybody with RFID chips.

[00:38:22]

Drew didn't know any of that at the time, but the morning they were getting ready to go, Kudi would not get out of bed.

[00:38:28]

So I got I lay down next to him and I put my arms around him and I said, Cody, we really need to leave for the airport. I said, we need let's just throw some clothes on you.

[00:38:44]

You know, your suitcase is packed. Let's just go. And he told me he couldn't. And just the weakest voice, almost like he'd given up. He said, Mom, I can't because I'm going to get killed. Drew and her husband Jimmy told me they both felt like, OK, here is a moment where we can show him prove to him that none of this is real. Just come to the Olympics, you'll see.

[00:39:09]

But he wouldn't go. He couldn't do it. The fact that Cody thought we were going to die if we went there, that was a hard thing to understand. So, I mean, no matter what the logic was mentally, so there was something that it didn't matter how we talked. So afterwards you would have conversations like that about many different things that you couldn't really understand.

[00:39:37]

How do you convince someone that their whole world view is wrong? Cody's therapist take was that you couldn't Cody was going to have to decide for himself. Maybe if you could take away the fear and the anxiety, it would allow his mental immune system, for lack of a better word, to function, Cody would start to examine the idea of a supercomputer in Belgium and the Illuminati and think it all through for himself.

[00:40:01]

Back then, lots of things were triggering a kind of terror in Cody if he trip on something or miss foul shots. Well, AJ told them that was a sign the devil was close by. The therapist gave Cody Ways to calm himself down when he felt that panic coming, breathing exercises, simple facts to focus on. I'm around people who love me. One councillor who has handled cases like this put it in this way that really stuck with me, he said, you have to help the fly find its way out of the bottle.

[00:40:30]

The idea being that a fly in a bottle doesn't know it's in a bottle because the walls are transparent. But if you can get it to see the bottle, it can find its way out. The fly in a bottle is a reference to something Wittgenstein wrote and he was talking about philosophers. But whatever I found a useful. Cody's therapist never told Cody that what he believed was wrong. He just ask questions, tried to create a place where Cody felt safe to talk about these things and to think about them.

[00:40:59]

Cody did start to question things. Instead of reading about RFID chips and the Illuminati, Cody started reading debates between atheists and religious scholars online. He grew to love Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. But unbelieving something is hard. You don't want to give up that special thing that you're a part of. It was really hard for me to to get back to normalcy in life and recognizing that this is all there is to it. It's just life. And you make your own meaning, you know, to get to the point where I realized that there wasn't this special thing that I was a part of.

[00:41:42]

It's just it was made up over time.

[00:41:47]

It seemed to be working. Cody started having these moments where he would feel at peace, little islands of normalcy where he wouldn't have crazy thoughts. Cody remembers driving home after this one therapy session for that like one car ride.

[00:42:00]

Like, I was like happy. Like I was happy and I just wanted it to last forever. And I thought maybe it would.

[00:42:11]

And, um, you know, of course, once you start to think, oh, I'm happy, and then I hope it doesn't go away, and then you start to scare yourself and then it's over.

[00:42:23]

Cody says his sophomore year, he was still deep in the world that AJ described junior and senior year. He was probably half in, half out. Like if you asked him if he believed in the Illuminati, he would say no. But it was like some deep part of him still did.

[00:42:36]

He kept having these intense episodes of panic and anxiety. When I Cody's friends told me that Cody wouldn't talk about how deeply he'd been affected and how the stuff was still with them, but they could tell he was having a hard time, we tried to help him, one said.

[00:42:50]

But what do we know? We were 18 years old. Could he had to take a medical leave from high school, then he went back, finished, he applied to college, got in and he thought, if I can do this, if I can go to college and get through that, it'll be like a certificate of sanity, a sign that I'm going to be OK. It was just two hours from home, his mom told them, call any time I can get in a car and I'll be there in just two hours.

[00:43:20]

Things seem to be going OK for a while. But she knew he was struggling and then she got a call. I can't do it anymore, he said. I can't do it. She drove to get him, went to his dorm room, which is when she saw how he'd been living.

[00:43:35]

Kudi had mentioned her that he had raised his bed, which he thought meant that he'd converted it into a loft or something to make more space, but that wasn't it.

[00:43:43]

He'd raised it a tiny bed and was sleeping under it in this little space.

[00:43:48]

When I walked in there and I saw how my son had been sleeping for months and months and months, there were maybe inches. Inches from I mean, I don't even know how he could have slid under there. It was the space was so small from the ground to the bottom of the bed, and I realized that was a hiding spot. He wasn't sleeping. He was hiding. That was his version of it. I mean, he was literally hiding and that's where he was living.

[00:44:24]

And I remember thinking when I saw that, I mean, I said I said, Cody, this is where you been sleeping. He said, your mom and I didn't want him to see me get upset. So I walked out of his room and I broke down because I thought, we're going to he's he's not going to make it. We're going to lose him. And I don't mean figuratively. We are going to literally lose this kid. We are going to lose him, Cody later said he had thought about killing himself.

[00:44:54]

It seemed like it might be the only way to make this stop. Cody and his mom drove home together. It had been four years at this point, four years of, as Cody puts it, trying to fix his own brain.

[00:45:13]

Sometime after Cody moves home, his parents tell him there's something they need to talk to him about. They're pretty sure it's a bad idea, but they feel like they have to tell him because if he wants to do it, he needs to decide soon. It involved the court and not a basketball one.

[00:45:29]

They told Cody if he wanted to, he could try to sue AJ. It was a long shot.

[00:45:35]

The law doesn't have a good way to deal with cases like this. After all, no one was kidnapped. No money was stolen. Cody says nothing physical ever happened. All they done was talk and in fact talk about religion, which is specifically protected in this country. It's in the Constitution. Cody's parents had done some research and the best route seemed to be to sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The legal description of what they would have to show was daunting.

[00:46:03]

The conduct had to be, quote, so outrageous in character and so extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency and to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.

[00:46:16]

If Cody chose to do it, the whole thing could take years. Cody would have to be in a courtroom with AJ. He would have to relive the whole thing in detail in public while an opposing attorney tried to derail him. In the end, he might lose or put another way, AJ might win. And there wasn't much time to think about it, Cody's birthday was was coming in just a couple of weeks and the statute of limitations was going to run out.

[00:46:43]

So he would need to decide within the next. Two, two and a half weeks before his birthday, Cody thought about it and one day before his birthday, he filed the paperwork to go ahead.

[00:47:04]

There was over a year of legal wrangling, but this past September, it went to trial. I was there for the beginning of it. Cody had all kinds of worries leading up to it. What if he had made all this up? He said that actually crossed his mind. Or what if when he told all this to the jury, they thought there was something wrong with him instead of AJ? Cody had panic attacks in the days before the trial.

[00:47:25]

It was like he'd slid backward, but he took the stand in front of the jury. The first day I can remember so vividly. We were in my we were in my weight room and. Cody's lawyer said this was a case of, quote, the secret manipulation and isolation of a young boy he called, what happened? Psychological torture and what turned out. I looked at the jury, but they were impossible to read. They sat there totally expressionless.

[00:48:02]

Cody was on the stand for over seven hours, but then his part was done.

[00:48:07]

Would you state your name for the record, Sir Arthur Laurents, Jr.. And you go by AJ. Yes. And here finally is a dude.

[00:48:19]

He was neatly dressed carrying a Bible and yes, tall, barely fit in the witness stand.

[00:48:24]

My lower back is killing me. It's tightening up and apologize for that. If you need more space, we can move those two notebooks and that little table will fall down. If that's not what I meant, like this entire wooden thing, I can't remember.

[00:48:41]

How tall are you, sir? Six. Six. OK, Mr. Lawrence, have you ever been convicted of a felony? No. Have you ever been convicted of a misdemeanor? No. That's AJS attorney there. He has AJ how he'd grown up.

[00:48:59]

I had great parents. Mom and dad raised me old fashioned way. Respect elders. Yes, sir. No, sir. Yes, ma'am. No, ma'am. Private property. Christian education. Pretty cool life, A.J..

[00:49:19]

I went to college for a bit, said he tried out for the NBA's developmental league, but didn't make it. So he became an athletic trainer, often teaching kids. He said families loved us. They were really happy with his work, including Cody's family. It went fantastic. I was a little bit shocked of. Cody's ability to get things quickly and understand them, especially his vocabulary, while power, his basketball skills, when he started with, he could dribble.

[00:50:03]

I think when I first saw him, the first assessment I did with him, it was he dropped like the most he was able to deliver consecutively, like three dribbles.

[00:50:11]

He was not good.

[00:50:14]

And of course, his lawyer asked about his religious beliefs. When did you first learn about the rapture and the tribulation? Sorry, it kind of got emotional there. I just remember Miss Ward. I really love that teacher. She introduced to me that in Central Assembly in the sixth grade, about the same age Cody was when AJ started talking to him about religion. One of the big questions I had going into the trial was whether AJ had actually believed all the religious stuff he told Cody.

[00:50:52]

One possibility was that AJ would just say, yes, we talked about the Rapture, the Illuminati, RFID chips, all that stuff is real. I was trying to save him. Cody pointed out that if you really did believe it all, why wouldn't you just testify to that in court? That is not what AJ said. Cody's lawyer asked AJ about the Illuminati. A.J. said, yes, he had discussed the Illuminati with Cody, but not as a secret society that ran the world.

[00:51:19]

I discussed it in a context that I do believe that there are fraternities, sororities that will cling together and assist others, and that possibly could be a society that he sees on the Internet known as the Illuminati.

[00:51:41]

Of course, in his Skype messages, A.J. said something very different. He really seemed to believe in the Illuminati. He wrote, quote, The Illuminati will kill you if you don't do as you're told, give the system problems and you die or live with their mark.

[00:51:55]

Cody's lawyer also asked about RFID chips over Skype, AJ had told Cody the chips cause you to lose mind control, quote, It's imperative that you know what, this chip does three exclamation points.

[00:52:08]

But on the stand, AJ downplayed that, didn't say the chips were the mark of the beast. He talked about them like they were just some new technology he'd read about online.

[00:52:16]

I had found a link online. I believe it was done at the University of North Carolina. And also there was another link out of Alberta, Canada, I believe, that said there's biometric technology, it's here. It'll store your information, et cetera, et cetera, and all your stuff.

[00:52:40]

Would you be surprised if this was interpreted as something different than that by a 14 year old boy after all this?

[00:52:51]

I'm not surprised. Now. I take it you're by the way, you're laughing about this, that you think it's funny that this was taken very seriously by a coyote to the impressionable age of communicating with? Know what?

[00:53:07]

I do take this very seriously. I mean, this is a court of law. What I'm implying, counsel, is before I didn't really think nothing of this this Skype or anything that it can escalate to this level, because this is where Cody said they had talked about religion for years.

[00:53:24]

AJ said their conversations have been minimal, a matter of hours total.

[00:53:28]

He said when they did talk about religion, it was because Cody had asked, do you feel like you owe any apologies or medications you had? Such as? Well.

[00:53:37]

So let's go ahead and just jump to the end of everything. I pondered on this, and I'm looking at all of this and the jury and everybody here, counsel. And I really wish I could turn back the hands of time. And taken Mr. and Mrs. Treybig Cody to church a lot more. So that they can see and they can understand that there are a lot of others in this for a lot of other Christians that share my same views and opinions about the Bible.

[00:54:32]

So then they wouldn't classify me or label me as being a mean or evil person. This all took place in an old courtroom in Austin, I was struck by the smallness of it. There's basically no one in the audience. Very few witnesses took the stand, Cody, his parents, his therapist and AJ. The main piece of physical evidence was those Skype transcripts, 25 pages long. This is the system we've come up with for settling disputes between people.

[00:55:11]

We get a bunch of strangers together. The jury just have to decide what they think happened and how bad it was. Cody's lawyer in his closing statement said they weren't asking for a specific amount of money in damages. But he said Cody's therapist fees had totaled over 76000 dollars and the jury could add whatever they thought was appropriate for mental anguish. An attorney in his closing statement said no one could know for sure why Cody was so strongly affected, thousands or millions of Americans share his religious beliefs.

[00:55:42]

He said, why don't we have mental hospitals filled with kids who are terrified of the rapture? The jury, still totally expressionless, recessed on Friday to deliberate was what happened beyond all possible bounds of decency? Was it atrocious and utterly intolerable in the civilized community? That evening, I got this voicemail from Cody, hey, David, this is Cody and wow, we we won. The jury came back unanimous and I'm just so happy. I want to sing.

[00:56:21]

I want to shout. I want to dance. I'm just. For so long, he was this mythical figure in my life that I couldn't touch. It's amazing and I'm the happiest I've ever been in my life. And that's all I can say. There is one thing Cody did not mention in that message, the amount of the judgment the jury awarded Cody just four dollars in damages, basically the minimum, one dollar for medical care, one dollar for mental anguish, etc.

[00:56:57]

.

[00:56:58]

Which seem weird, like they agreed that AJ done this thing that was beyond all possible bounds of decency when it came time to put a dollar figure on that, their answer was four dollars. We talked to five members of the jury after the trial. So I can tell you what happened. The presiding juror who they picked to lead the discussion and who happens to be a judge in real life told me they started with a quick vote to see where everyone stood.

[00:57:21]

Seven jurors were yeses ready to hold AJ liable, three were undecided and two or no's. So they debated and read through the Skype transcripts and they took another vote. Ten yeses to undecideds, both of them men. The presiding juror told me two things seemed to win over the last two. One was the mothers on the jury who just kind of went to town, and the other was this idea of awarding just four dollars in damages. And everyone kind of like that idea.

[00:57:50]

For some, it was a way to acknowledge that maybe AJ had known the harm he was causing legally. They only had to determine that his behavior had been reckless, not necessarily intentional. It seemed to some of the jurors that AJ actually believed the stuff about RFID chips and all that. But for a lot of the jurors, the four dollars was a way to help Cody put this behind him, Cody's family didn't need any money and they figured if they picked a large dollar amount, yes, that would punish AJ, but he probably wouldn't be able to pay it.

[00:58:18]

Would you just drag this whole thing out? More legal stuff? Maybe AJ would appeal and everyone would have to go through this whole thing again. So for dollars.

[00:58:28]

I'm not sure that's how the jury was supposed to think about things, but it's what they did. After the trial, some of the jurors hugged Cody or came over to talk. One told me he also tried to find AJ to say good luck, but he'd already left.

[00:58:42]

I usually think of courts as deciding who goes to prison or how much money someone owes someone else here. It was doing something much more basic, just saying who is right? Deciding for the record what actually happened.

[00:59:02]

As I said after the trial, AJ did finally agree to talk to us. Hey, David, this A.J., this is he.

[00:59:11]

The thing I was most interested in was what was it all about? What did he say? All that stuff to Cody. But in our conversation, A.J., basically denied saying those things, he said, quote, made it all up or exaggerated. He told me he stood by everything he said in court 100 percent, and he's planning to appeal the ruling.

[00:59:29]

So I took a different approach. Forget about what he said or didn't say to Cody, did he believe those things somehow in court? No one had asked him that simple question. So can I ask you about RFID chips? Like in court?

[00:59:42]

It seemed like you were saying you viewed RFID chips as just some new piece of technology to store data about you and that you'd said Cody, a link to some news story. But then in the Skype transcripts, Cody writes, What do they do to your body? And you write, you lose mind control. And also you have this whole discussion with him about what to do if his parents make him get an RFID chip implanted like so.

[01:00:00]

So which is it, do you think? RFID chips are just little computer chips. So you think they're the mark of the beast that the Illuminati want to implant in everyone?

[01:00:08]

How familiar are you with radio frequency? If you're in broadcasting, you should know quite a bit. So tell me tell me something about Radio-Frequency. Tell me something that's useful here about radio frequencies. Well, the thing about it is you're interviewing me. I'm not intervening you. I'm not here to educate you about radio frequencies.

[01:00:30]

I'm just asking you a question. You seem to say that there's something important I should know about radio frequencies that would help me understand this.

[01:00:36]

So. Well, let's let's start off with what they are. Radio frequency identification is what it is. OK, you have a credit card probably in your pocket and it has a chip in it. Yeah.

[01:00:48]

So is that all you think it is? Do you think it's the mark of the beast also? And that's something the Illuminati want to implant in everybody and will control your mind. Do you believe that?

[01:00:57]

Well, first of all, in a court of law that I would object to, that's called compounding.

[01:01:01]

OK, well, do you know if you're going to ask me a question, OK? I mean, ask me a specific do you believe in my mouth and don't leave me, OK? Do you believe I really wish you wouldn't do that.

[01:01:10]

Do you believe RFID chips are could be the mark of the beast?

[01:01:17]

I believe that it could be a potential prequel to the marketplace based upon what it says, what it states in scripture, I told A.J. what the experts told me, that this seemed like a one on one cult. He said he's not part of any cult. How do you feel about Cody now? Elaborate.

[01:01:46]

I don't know. I mean, are you angry at him? I feel sorry for him. I feel sorry for him. I really do. I'm really disappointed. I'm sad. But you know what? Life is about choices. So he's on Judgement Day. He'll have to stand before the father.

[01:02:03]

And that's that's vengeance is that of the father.

[01:02:13]

If you ask me what I make of all this, after listening to four days of testimony, reading through the trial documents, interviewing the family and other kids and age for two hours, I think AJ believes all the stuff he told Cody. I found someone who knew AJ before all this was said. He talked about RFID chips and the Illuminati all the time with enthusiasm. I think the appeal for AJ is the same as it was for Cody. It's a story he is at the center of.

[01:02:40]

I think he's learned how to present it in a way that draws people in. And Cody was a sweet kid who adored AJ. I went to visit Cody after the trial. It did seem like the court case had put some final piece of this thing behind him. It was like Cody had gotten over his fear of the rapture and the Illuminati, but he still had a much more ordinary fear.

[01:03:03]

He was afraid of a person. But in court, A.J., did not seem supernatural. He seemed very human. You look at him and you say you're just a guy, you're just a person. Is part of why this was so powerful for you that you lived for so long with this totally other version of how the world was. And here's a time where you finally decided what is real. And I've shown it to a bunch of other people in this in this very setting where we are supposed to decide what is real and what happened.

[01:03:36]

And they said, yes, that's exactly that's exactly it.

[01:03:44]

You look back and you just can't believe you can't believe that the things you're saying actually happened. It's crazy stuff to me now. It's crazy stuff. And then it happened to you. It's it's like. It's it's it's weird. I think those are the words of a fly, finally looking at the bottle from the outside. David Kestenbaum is the senior editor of our show. Michael, we were a small wave and Michael. There's nothing to believe in, Michael.

[01:04:34]

Our clothes do not have sleeves, you may think that we are naive, but there's a lot of you are even Michael. Well, today's program was produced by Neil Drumming staff for this rerun includes Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Dana Shivashankar, Kimberly Henderson, mechanic Alvin Malath, Jonathan Mann, he, Vrba Parker, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Stottlemyre, Tierney and Diane Will.

[01:04:55]

Our senior producer for this episode was Brian Reed, our managing editor with Susan Burton. Digital production help on today's rerun. Ari Sapperstein, special thanks. Today to Dan Burton, Mira Musser, Alexander Stine, Joe Smart, young novelist, Julie Pouffe, Luke Quinten, Marco Gonzalez, Clayton Hoover, Gabriel Marquez and Kelly King. Our website, This American Life Dog, This American Life, is delivered to public radio stations by parks, the Public Radio Exchange.

[01:05:20]

Thanks as always for the program's cofounder, Mr Tony Malatya.

[01:05:23]

You know, he always gets so sad when he sees a garden gnome.

[01:05:28]

They have eyes, but they can't see. They have ears, but they can't hear. I'm IRA Glass, back next week with more stories of this American life. Michael. Next week on the podcast of This American Life, a group of black lives matters, protesters who are joyful and loud and social media savvy not to, like, bastardise, commercialize what we do, but like people have called us, like the summer jam or Coachella of protest.

[01:06:21]

I'm just saying, like, they have they have they really I mean, multiple people.

[01:06:31]

It's because it's a vibe like but as time passed, three of these friends, three of these capable, idealistic protesters ended up in very different places. That's next week on the podcast on your local public radio station.