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Leak suspect’s mom says feds took jailhouse comments out of context

The words sound a lot like a confession: "Mom, those documents, I screwed up."

During Reality Leigh Winner’s bond hearing last week, Assistant U.S. attorney Jennifer Solari told the world that the 25-year-old federal contractor charged with leaking top-secret documents to the news media uttered those words to her mother during a recorded phone call from jail.

But did Winner really fess up to her mother? Did her parents spend a week publicly defending her in one media interview after another, knowing she had confessed?

At this stage in the case, it's impossible to verify.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution circled back with Winner's mother in a phone interview Tuesday, and she disputed Solari's characterization of the phone call. Billie Winner-Davis said the federal prosecutor took her daughter's words out of context and that she still believes in her innocence.

"It’s too perfect of a package" she said. "I believe that my daughter is innocent, and I believe that she didn’t do this. I think somebody did their research on her, and they found the perfect person to set up."

Winner, a former Air Force linguist, worked for a private contractor at Fort Gordon's NSA center before her arrest. She is charged with leaking a top secret document on Russian attempts to hack U.S. election systems to the news media. The report summarizes an attempt last year by the Russian security services to hack a Florida-based election software provider, and then use that information to attempt to gain access to the voter registration systems of several unnamed local governments.

Click here to read the AJC’s in-depth Sunday story on Winner’s journey from rural, south-central Texas to a jail cell in east Georgia.

Winner-Davis said the "I screwed up" conversation took place early on June 4, the day after FBI agents searched her daughter’s Augusta rental home and, according to court documents, obtained a recorded confession from her. Her mother said she spoke to her daughter just as she and her husband were leaving their Kingsville, Texas, home to make the drive to Augusta.

"I was asking my child if she knew what she had been charged with," Winner-Davis said, "and that was her response. If you hear the entire recording, you’ll hear it a little bit differently.

"You won’t hear that my child told me, 'Mom, I did this.' You’re going to hear her telling me what she’s being charged with."

In the hearing Thursday, Solari — flanked by the district’s Acting U.S. Attorney James Durham — convinced a judge that Winner poses too great a flight risk to be released on bond. Solari brought up that fugitive WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has expressed admiration for her, that Winner recently traveled alone to Belize, and that among her writings in seized notebooks was, "I want to burn the White House Down … find somewhere in Kurdistan to live. Ha-ha!"

The prosecutor also spoke of recorded jailhouse calls, including one where Winner allegedly told her sister that she would play the card of being "pretty, white and cute," and another where she allegedly coached her mother to tell the news media that she feared federal agents might make her disappear. (Winner-Davis partly conceded that on the witness stand.)

But Winner’s alleged comment to her mother about "documents," in the plural, did more damage, convincing U.S. Magistrate Judge Brian Epps that she may have uploaded more top-secret documents. “We don’t know how much more she knows,” Epps said.

And then, there were the notebooks. Though Solari told the judge that the government wasn’t suggesting Winner had become a jihadist or a Taliban sympathizer, she painted Winner as just that. She quoted notebook passages where Winner wrote fawningly of Taliban leaders, referring to one leader’s "Christ-like vision," and saying she wanted to travel to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, Nepal or Mexico.

Her mother said Tuesday that she hasn’t seen those notebooks and didn’t know her daughter kept journals, but those passages may have been quoted out of context, too.

At the end of her service in the Air Force, Winner received an Air Force Commendation Medal, a mid-level military decoration, for assisting in overseas airstrikes that helped kill and capture hundreds of enemy combatants. Aside from a tweet sympathizing with the Iranian foreign minister, most of Winner's social media posts reflect a Trump-despising Bernie Sanders supporter, not a wanna-be terrorist.

"She was not a Taliban sympathizer in any way, shape or form, or an Isis sympathizer," Winner-Davis said. "Knowing my daughter, there was a lot more in that journal, and Ms. Solari did not want the media or anyone else knowing everything that was in that journal."

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About the Author

Johnny Edwards is a member of the AJC’s investigative team, focusing on the private sector and state and federal regulation. He has worked at the newspaper since 2010.