The first-known facts were shocking enough: a 12-year-old Wisconsin girl, covered in blood, crawled out of the woods and told a cyclist who found her that two friends had attacked her.
The case took a stranger turn when the girl’s friends, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, both 12, revealed to police why they had taken Payton Leutner into the woods after a sleepover and had stabbed her 19 times. They wanted to please someone they called the Slender Man.
Weier, now 16, and Geyser, 15, were charged with attempted homicide. On Thursday, a judge sentenced Weier to 25 years in a mental health hospital.
The case has long been in the national spotlight and raised questions about mental health issues and treatment. It also posed a basic question: What, or who, is Slender Man?
Where did Slender Man come from?
Slender Man, also referred to as Slenderman, is a tall, spindly, faceless fictional character born out of a Photoshop challenge in 2009 in an online forum. The challenge: Take normal photographs and add paranormal themes, like ghosts, into them, all the while trying to make the doctored images look real.
For the challenge, forum user Eric Knudsen posted black-and-white images that showed Slender Man with unnamed children. From there, the fascination with the online villain only grew.
Irene Taylor Brodsky, director of “Beware the Slenderman,” a documentary that examines the 2014 attack on Leutner, told BBC that most children in America know who Slender Man is.
“I think children have a very dual idea of what Slenderman can be,” she said. “He can either be this ruthless killer, or he can choose special children and protect them, so he is a guardian angel as well.”
How does Slender Man relate to the case?
Defense attorneys and psychologists said that the two girls came to believe internet folklore about Slender Man so strongly that they thought he would kill them or their families if they didn’t attack Leutner.
In 2014, the two girls took Leutner into the woods in Waukesha, a Milwaukee suburb, with the intent of killing her.
Geyser since has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. During her plea hearing, Geyser told a judge that she tackled and then stabbed Leutner: “Anissa and I took [Leutner] in the forest and said that we were going to play hide-and-seek. Anissa said that she couldn’t do it and that I had to.”
Experts have testified that Weier was suffering from what is known as “shared delusional disorder.” She was influenced by Geyser and was unable to ascertain that the fears that she shared with Geyser weren’t based in reality.
“This sounds crazy, because it is,” Weier’s attorney, Maura McMahon, told the jury. “This was a real being to this child, and she needed to protect those around her. At 12 years old, she had no way to protect herself from [Slender Man] except for Morgan’s advice, and they swirled down into madness together.”
What happened to their victim, Payton Leutner?
Leutner underwent multiple surgeries, leaving her with scarring across her body. Her mother, Stacie Leutner, wrote in a recent victim impact statement about how her daughter has worked to recover. The teen has returned to school and has tried to make friends.
“But she was different,” her mother wrote. “She was more reserved and more cautious. She held everyone at arm’s length and never let anyone get too close. She immersed herself in school in an attempt to distract herself from the uncertainty of her life; everything she knew about her home and her family was different.”
What role has mental illness played in the trial?
The girls’ mental health issues were a cornerstone of arguments made by their defense attorneys.
Shared delusional disorder, which Weier experienced, is rare and generally not experienced between friends but rather found in married couples or family members.
Geyser’s mother, Angie Geyser, has talked in media interviews about how she didn’t initially see signs of mental illness in her daughter.
Half of all chronic mental illnesses are thought to be present by age 14, but the symptoms can go unnoticed until a child is older, sometimes well into adulthood. This is especially true when symptoms of mental illness present at the same time a child is going through puberty, and parents mistake the symptoms for typical teenage moodiness or rebelliousness.
It’s important to note that research has found the majority of people with mental illnesses aren’t violent.
What will happen to Anissa Weier?
She was sentenced Thursday to 25 years in a mental health facility.
Earlier this year, Weier pleaded guilty to attempted second-degree intentional homicide. At the time, a jury agreed with Weier’s attorney’s claim that Weier wasn’t criminally responsible for her actions because she was suffering from a mental illness during the attack on Leutner.
Under Thursday’s ruling, Weier will be supervised until she is 37 but may not have to spend the full 25 years in a facility. She could be released earlier, but will have to spend at least three years in a state mental health hospital.
What’s next for Morgan Geyser?
In October, Geyser pleaded guilty to attempted first-degree intentional homicide, with an agreement with prosecutors that she isn’t criminally liable and instead belongs in state mental health care.
She is expecting to be sentenced in February. Prosecutors have asked she be given at least 40 years in a mental health facility.