For those of you wondering what I’ve been up to in Madison, here’s a sampling. It’s an article I wrote for Isthmus newspaper about a guy who, after a series of misfortunes and unfornunate decisions, decided to check out of life. Enjoy!
The first letter to Fundamental Pete’s Ass-Jammery arrived in late September, but sat in the WSUM studio’s mailbox for several weeks before the show’s host, Pete Hnilicka, got around to opening it. It was a response to a choose-your-own-adventure bit that the college radio talk show had recently aired. The adventure left off with Hnilicka and a co-host in their old dorm room with two dead hookers.
“Dear Ass-Jammers,” wrote Rajib Mitra, an inmate in Dane County jail who was allowed to have a radio because he was in a low-security area. “I was sorry to hear about your dilemma involving the dead hookers. Having been incarcerated for the last 6 1/2 years, I’ve overheard several conversations about disposing of hookers’ bodies, and this is what I learned…”
Mitra then weighed the pros and cons of the fictional adventure’s suggested plotlines, including one that involved dumping the bodies in Lake Mendota. Mitra, 32, cautions that no matter how well weighted down, the bodies would invariably float back up, arousing the ire of the Badger men’s rowing team. He suggests they dump the bodies instead in Lakes Monona or Wingra, as the rowing team “is sick and tired of having to circumnavigate floating hooker corpses.”
Mitra’s dark humor resonated with Hnilicka, 31. “We thought it was the coolest thing that there was this guy in jail listening to us,” says Hnilicka. “He was certainly our most engaged listener. He’d write letters to us and bits for the show.”
From last September until his death in April, at age 33, Mitra wrote a series of letters to Hnilicka, and to Annie Nüggett, a frequent guest on the show. The letters, copies of which were obtained by Isthmus, were written as Mitra awaited trial on eight counts of possessing child pornography and two counts of child exploitation.
The charges, filed in December 2009, came as Mitra neared the end of an eight-year federal prison sentence for hacking into Madison’s police radio system in 2003, causing periodic blackouts. Mitra maintained that the interference was unintentional.
During that investigation, encrypted files on Mitra’s computer suspected of containing child pornography were discovered, but authorities were unable to access them until 2009. Normally, the statute of limitations would have prevented Mitra from being charged. But when he moved out of Wisconsin, due to his federal imprisonment, the limitation’s clock stopped ticking.
In his letters, Mitra, facing an additional 53 years in prison, claims the charges were a big misunderstanding involving a girl he’d dated who lied about her age. “In all seriousness,” he wrote Hnilicka, “your show brings me joy at a time in my life when little else does.”
The letters mine the depth of Mitra’s despair, revealing a gifted man who felt pinned beneath the unrelenting motions of the justice system. “It’s a sad, sad story,” says Hnilicka. “It’s disturbing that I’m a part of it.”
But some who knew Mitra best have little sympathy. “Everything bad that happened was the result of bad decisions [he] made,” says his ex-girlfriend “Paula,” who asked that her real name be withheld. “Who was Rajib Mitra? … Rajib was both a funny, clever individual and [a] horrible person.”
A federal offense?
Rajib Mitra was a quiet child raised in Brookfield, an affluent Milwaukee suburb, in a home with two parents who indulged their son’s insatiable interest in computers and radios. At 18, he published a paper on security pitfalls in the widely used Unix computer system. His mother doted on him and his father paid his way through college.
“He was not a party man,” says Rajib’s father, Samir Mitra, 77. “I don’t remember him having any close friends, except for that girl.”
In 2000, Mitra graduated from the UW-Madison with honors and a degree in computer science. In 2002, he enrolled in a master’s program at the university and began dating Paula, who he met online. It seemed that if anything stood between him and professional success, it was his crippling shyness.
“When it came to computers, he was brilliant,” recalls Paula, now 24. “He was fully capable, but underdeveloped emotionally. I don’t think he knew how to connect with people. I don’t know that he knew how to be a person.”
Mitra’s bright future dimmed on Nov. 13, 2003, when police raided the 23-year-old’s North Orchard Street apartment, arresting him for interfering with police radio transmissions. On Halloween night, police, fire and paramedics were prevented from communicating with each other on three occasions due to blackouts. On Nov. 11, someone began attaching sounds of a climaxing woman to police radio dispatches. Police traced these transmissions back to Mitra.
During the raid, police seized radio equipment, manuals, proprietary Motorola software downloaded from a Russian radio hacking site and audio files from sexsounds.org.
Mitra quite likely expected a slap on the wrist. He hadn’t stolen anything or damaged critical infrastructures. And twice in the late 1990s, he had been charged with similar offenses in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties. One case was deferred; the other drew a fine.
But in post-9/11 America, the FBI treated the interference as an act of domestic terrorism. Mitra was indicted under federal computer hacking statutes, recently strengthened by 2001’s Patriot Act and 2002’s Cyber Security Enhancement Act. In February 2004, a jury rejected Mitra’s claim that the radio interference was accidental and a judge sentenced him to eight years in federal prison.
“They treated him very harshly,” says Simar Mitra. “They made a mountain of a molehill. The judge had no understanding of being human.”
And in fact, many did see Mitra’s actions as a prank gone awry, not terrorism, and questioned the government’s rationale for indicting him on such a serious offense. The government reasoned that because the radio system used by police contained a computer chip, federal law applied. Experts testified Mitra’s interference wasn’t possible without first overriding the chip. An appellate court affirmed the government’s position and Mitra’s sentence.
William Stevens, a Michigan attorney who handled Mitra’s appeal, says his client’s troubles were also compounded by rigid sentencing guidelines that don’t distinguish pranks from sabotage. “The feds had no sense of humor about it,” says Stevens. “Once you’re caught up in the system, the possibility of forgiveness isn’t good.”
‘My soul isn’t dead’
The first time Mitra tuned into Fundamental Pete’s Ass-Jammery last July, he heard Annie Nüggett read one of her dour poems. The tragicomic absurdity of Nüggett’s prose amused and captivated the inmate. In December, Mitra asked whether Nüggett was acting when she told listeners her tales of woe were true.
“If not, I don’t know if I’ll be able to laugh at the girl’s sad poetry anymore,” he wrote.
Nüggett, 26, was touched. “I try to read my words with a sense of humor, but he heard them for what they were,” she says.
“I couldn’t believe that he’s sitting in jail feeling sorry for me. We bonded over the ways we suffer.”
Aware that Mitra was listening, Nüggett did what she could to lift his spirits. She dedicated a song to him and often began her Poetry at 11 bit by telling him “hello.” She expressed fondness for his meticulous penmanship. One night, Nüggett read “This Mother Nazi,” a poem about breaking free from negative influences. At the end, she briefly paused before asking into the ether, “Mitra, if tomorrow you woke up in Hawaii, free on the beach, would you cry?”
Mitra responded with a letter that, unlike those he wrote Hnilicka, was filled with anguish.
“On each of the last 2,490 nights, I have gone to sleep wanting to wake up in Hawaii,” he wrote. “And on each of the last 2,490 mornings I’ve awakened a little more heartbroken to find myself still trapped… just hearing your question made me burst into tears. That’s a good thing, because it proved that my soul isn’t dead after all.”
Mitra wanted his story told, but discouraged his radio friends from discussing the child porn charges on-air, assuring them, “I am not sexually attracted to children… When I first met [Paula], she told me she was older than she actually was.”
He suggested he’d been threatened after they had discussed the charges. “As I learned early Monday morning, people do listen to your show… even people in my sleeping area,” he wrote. ”In the rumor mill of jail, a story that starts as “16-year-old girlfriend” can morph into “8-year-old nephew.”
Mitra instead urged Hnilicka to resume the choose-your-own adventure series that had prompted his initial letter to the show. “After all, it has been a couple of months now, and if you don’t do something about those hooker bodies soon, they’re really going to stink,” Mitra wrote. In December, Hnilicka used Mitra’s scripts, giving him a writing credit.
As his trial approached toward the end of his federal sentence, Mitra was optimistic that, come spring, he’d be vindicated and free. In a letter dated Jan. 3, Mitra thanks Hnilicka for visiting him in jail.
“With any luck, I hope to meet you again in a couple of months under more comfortable circumstances,” he wrote. “If there is any sense, any balance, any justice in this world, I am going to win this trial.”
‘In his own way he loved me’
Mitra met Paula online in January 2002. He was 23 and she was, he believed, 17. Soon he was driving eight-hour round trips to visit her in Steven’s Point. He showered her with gifts and paid for their dates. On at least two occasions, he snapped naughty pictures of her. At one point, she promised to love him forever. But while planning their Hawaiian vacation, Mitra learned Paula was actually 16.
“He nearly broke it off with her at that point,” says attorney Jon Helland, who represented Mitra during his child porn trial. “It was she who told him that age doesn’t matter. Both of their parents were aware of, and had no problems with, the relationship.”
Paula admits all this, including having lied about her age, but says there were bigger problems with the relationship. Mitra, she says, once spit on her and was often verbally abusive. “Some days he loved me more than anything, on others I was a pain the ass.”
When a friend of hers died in a July 2003 car wreck, Paula accused Mitra of being indifferent to her grief. He responded, via email, “I care but I think you would be used to your friends dropping dead by now. You need to learn to deal with recurring issues.”
Miraculously, the relationship rebounded when Mitra went to prison in May 2004. He and Paula wrote each other love letters and talked frequently by phone. In December of that year, Paula quit the relationship for good, but kept in touch until 2007, when she met her future husband.
In prison, Mitra did his best to keep tabs on her, having another girl he’d met online mail him copies of Paula’s blog posts. In 2006, he sued her over a financial matter. After she gave statements to police in 2009 that led to his child exploitation charges, Mitra demanded his mother call her and find out why she had betrayed him.
“I know in his own way he loved me,” says Paula. “I know I was on a pedestal. Despite my best effort, Jeeb never hesitated in reminding me… how I was a liar through his eyes. I had told him that I would love him forever. He hung onto that until the very end.”
In prison, Mitra also obsessed over the computer seized by police in 2003, writing several letters demanding that it be returned to his mother. Madison computer crimes detective Cynthia Murphy made a bit-by-bit copy of Mitra’s hard drive, wiped clean the original, and returned it.
Convinced that Murphy was out to get him, he sued her personally in 2006. He also wrote Police Chief Noble Wray asking if Murphy was investigating him. Wray wrote back, “Rijib [sic] Mitra is not currently under investigation by the Madison Police.”
At the time, he wasn’t.
Murphy declines comment because the investigation into Mitra’s death is ongoing. But during a hearing last December, Murphy testified, “If there hadn’t been so much constant attention, [the case] probably would have disappeared into my caseload and been forgotten.”
Guilty as charged
At his trial in January, Murphy explained how, in 2009, she learned a technique that allowed her to decrypt the files in the folder Mitra had labeled “pornbad.” She also accessed two sexually explicit photos of Paula, who Murphy remembered was a minor when questioned about Mitra’s radio hacking. She contacted Paula, who confirmed that Mitra had taken the photos.
“I didn’t even care about the pictures,” says Paula. “It was the other stuff they found that made me look at things in a new light.”
In addition to the photos, Murphy accessed eight files with titles like, “Preteen Girl is Raped by 16 yo brother” and “daddy rapes drunk sleeping daughter.” She recognized the “Dee & Desi” file as originating from a known child porn series.
The state offered a plea deal that included 18 years imprisonment, which Helland rejected. “He got slammed the first time,” says Helland. “To slam him again for something that happened eight years before wasn’t fair.”
His parents didn’t attend the trial. “He stopped talking to me, because he was embarrassed,” says Samir Mitra.
The state argued that Mitra knew the files were illegal because he had segregated them in a folder labeled “pornbad.” Helland countered that “bad” meant that the files were corrupted, that Mitra couldn’t access them, either. But computer data revealed that some of the files had been opened not long before his 2003 arrest.
On Jan. 12, Mitra was convicted on all 10 counts.
Mitra, in his next letter to Hnilicka, assailed the judicial system, accusing all involved, even his attorney, of conspiring against him. He thanked Hnilicka for reading a news article about his conviction. “Though the words ‘up to 53 years’ are weighing heavily on my mind,” he wrote.
In a letter to Nüggett, Mitra is unusually introspective. “Shyness is a horrible affliction because it robs one of the potential friendships and opportunities that make life worth living,” he wrote. “For people such as … me, who have already lost so much due to forced isolation, the isolation caused by shyness is even more pernicious.”
While being escorted into court for his sentencing on April 28, bailiffs scolded Mitra for glancing sideways at those seated behind the defense table. After an emotional plea for leniency, Mitra was sentenced by Dane County Judge Maryann Sumi to 6 1/2 years in state prison, five of which were for taking the pictures of Paula. Upon his release, he was to register as a sex offender and would be prohibited from using computers.
But Mitra had had enough and made plans to check out of the Dane County jail.
“I’ve been sentenced to 6 1/2 more years of heartbreak,” Mitra wrote Hnilicka hours after the sentencing. “If you can imagine that – 6 1/2 years of heartbreak on top of 7 years of heartbreak – you’ll never have to wonder what was going through my mind.”
‘He deserved a second chance’
After lunch on Friday, April 29, the day after his sentencing, Mitra kicked a doorstop from beneath a janitorial closet door, which closed, but didn’t latch. The closet had been opened for post-meal chores. Forty-five minutes later, Mitra slipped into the closet undetected and hung himself from an exposed pipe.
It was only the second time in the last five years that a Dane County jail inmate has successfully committed suicide, in 278 attempts.
A sheriff and medical examiner visited Mitra’s parents in Brookefield. “It did not surprise me,” says his father. “He could not live without the computer.”
Paula learned about Mitra’s death from her victim’s counselor. “I cared about his well-being,” she says. “I don’t know if he had changed, but I didn’t want him to kill himself. There’s no joy, but it’s nice to know I don’t have to be afraid when I’m out with my kids.”
That Sunday, a sheriff’s deputy phoned Hnilicka, but wouldn’t say why he wanted to take a letter Mitra had mailed Friday morning into evidence. But then Hnilicka saw an online bulletin about an inmate who had killed himself. Hnilicka broke the news to Nüggett before that night’s show.
“At his sentencing he looked so desperate and empty,” she says. “He suffered so much in his life. The way they treated him in court was sick. He deserved a second chance.”
Mitra’s four-page letter arrived Monday. “Dear Pete,” it began. “By the time you get this I’ll be beyond the WSUM listening area… There are a lot of people in this world who seem thoughtless, heartless, cruel and oblivious to anything I try to say, but you are not one of them.”
His heartbreak over what he saw as Paula’s betrayal was palpable. “[She] suggests that because I spit on her one time during sex, I must not have really cared about her,” he wrote. “It’s called lubrication, and most women would appreciate it.”
If happiness visited Mitra during the final hours of his miserable life, it came when he disobeyed the bailiffs and snuck a fleeting glimpse of a certain someone at his sentencing, a moment he describes in the postscript to his final letter.
“They wouldn’t even let me look to see who was sitting behind me,” he wrote. “I wasn’t able to find my parents or you, but a young woman with brown hair and glasses did catch my eye. I hope Annie Nüggett can find lasting happiness in her life.”