The hunt for answers in Reality Winner’s hometown

KINGSVILLE, Tex. – The public library here did not have a copy of the H.M. King High School yearbook from 2010, the year Reality Winner graduated, but Gloria Bigger Cantu knew where I could find one.

“Hang on, let me call my friend,” she instructed, then dialed and handed over the phone. Her friend (who didn’t want to be named) owns a local shop and her employee (who also didn’t want to be named) graduated in 2010. I bet she has that yearbook, Cantu’s friend said. I’ll tell her to bring it tomorrow.

Reality Winner, in yellow, appeared in a soccer-team photo in her high school yearbook.

Sure enough, the next day we were standing in the shop, flipping through the pages. Reality Winner appeared in the composite of senior photos, a soccer team photo and a roundup of baby pictures but wasn’t quoted anywhere and wasn’t among the signatures.

“I guess she wasn’t very social,” the yearbook’s owner said.

But the people in Winner’s hometown sure are. I’d never met Cantu before strolling into the library – she overheard me asking for the yearbook and offered to help. Her friends didn’t know me from Adam but were happy to lend a hand, as were lots of other residents I’ve met last week.

Winner’s hometown, it seems, is on the hunt for answers like everybody else.

In the days after the 25-year-old federal contractor was arrested and charged with sending government secrets to a media outlet my colleagues Jeremy Redmon, Scott Trubey, Hyosub Shin and Johnny Edwards hustled over to Augusta, where Winner was indicted Thursday. I flew down to Texas to see what I could find out about her past.

Sunday’s AJC shared details that have emerged in court documents, the bombshell Thursday hearing and during interviews with people who have known Reality since childhood here in Texas and more recently in Georgia.

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The reporting process in this town of about 26,000 two hours north of the Mexican border has been singular. I’ve never encountered a tighter-knit, friendlier town or people more willing to help a stranger. Time and again people would stop what they were doing to make phone calls or scroll through their contacts list in an effort to assist.

Even people who didn’t want to be quoted provided insight and suggested others to contact and some who had never heard the name Reality Winner until she appeared in news reports offered helpful guidance.

Former Kingsville city manager J.F. Garcia, right, was having breakfast with Bob Mills the other day. They hadn’t heard of Reality Winner but Garcia scrolled through his phone until he found a contact he thought might. Photo: Jennifer Brett

“I have never heard of this young lady,” former city manager J.F. Garcia said over breakfast at El Tapatio. But he figured his daughter Kathy Longoria, a former art and music teacher, just might, and provided her number.

“She was quiet,” Kathy said when she called back a little while later.

Her son and daughter went to school with Winner and her sister but didn’t know them well. “If my daughter hadn’t said, ‘You know her mom,’ I wouldn’t have remembered.”

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We talked with Longoria from the office of the Kingsville Record and Bishop News, where managing editor Tim Acosta was nice enough to let me dig through the print archives (Winner showed up twice, in a sports-section piece about the high school tennis team and a 2010 graduation special section) and commiserated when I said I wasn’t finding many people who knew her well.

“You’re in the same boat I am,” he said. “You would expect in a small town that someone would know her. It’s a little strange.”

Reality Winner, second from right, appeared in a tennis team photo in 2009.

 

People who have known Winner describe an athletically gifted, extraordinarily intelligent young woman who was focused and driven but not terribly social.

“She was odd. She was quirky. She was always to herself,” a former fellow soccer teammate said. “I don’t remember her having a best friend.”

The former soccer player is a recent Texas A&M-Kingsville graduate now headed overseas for graduate school; with foreign travels in her near future she didn’t want to be named in a story about alleged NSA leaks.

Juan Carlos Gonzalez played on H.M. King High School’s tennis team with Winner.

“She was a real aggressive tennis player,” he said. “I remember she had a lot of court tantrums when she was losing.”

The team was a friendly bunch although Winner never missed a practice she wasn’t much for socializing afterward.

“I think she was viewed as like, don’t mess with her. don’t make her mad,” he said. “I played against her a couple of times. I tried not to make her mad.”

Given Winner’s dedication to physical fitness, I figured she’d probably worked out at a gym in town. On a hunch I stopped into a local CrossFit, where a lunchtime group of workout buddies weren’t familiar with her but suggested checking Clydesman out instead.

Two minutes after I walked in out of the blue gym owner Michael Chapa – who had seen Winner a number of times over the holidays while she was in town – was on the phone to some of her classmates and current gym clients who have known her.

“I was in shock” when media reports about Winner started surfacing, said Raquel Oviedo. “When I saw her on the news I was like, ‘Oh my God, I know her!'”

But like so many we talked to, she didn’t know her well.

“She was really reserved and quiet,” said Oviedo, who worked out with Winner at Clydesman Fitness on the town’s main drag. “When we did talk, we talked about CrossFit.”

Chapa called a few people over mid-workout to see if anyone there had thoughts to share.

“When someone works out here I like to find out about them,” said Chapa, who didn’t get far trying to chat up Winner. He’s in the National Guard and pointed out a few other military folks after Winner said she’d been in the Air Force, in case she felt like connecting with fellow service members. She didn’t.

“I tried to spend time with her,” Chapa said. “She would spend a good two hours (working out). She was not messing around.”

Clydesman Fitness owner Michael Chapa is as friendly as he is buff, and he likes getting to know his clients. He didn’t get far trying to chat up Reality Winner. Photo: Jennifer Brett

Winner’s mom and stepfather, Billie and Gary Davis, have been in Augusta since the arrest, meeting with her lawyers and conducting interviews with journalists. No one answered the door at homes near the Davis home, a peaceful swath of acreage located miles off a rural highway in unincorporated Ricardo, south of Kingsville.

Back in town Kingsville native Mary Lee Grant, who’s worked as a journalist and recently completed a PhD in history, spent half a day squiring me around. One stop was at the home of a local resident who didn’t want her name used, but who cheerfully hopped on the phone, beating the bushes to find anyone with information. That led me to a few former elementary school classmates who remember Winner as a quiet grade-schooler at Epiphany Episcopal Day School.

“It’s been the talk of the town,” Jacqui Westbrook said of the buzz surrounding Winner’s arrest. Other than recognizing Winner’s photo and unusual name (it was her father’s idea) she couldn’t come up with much to add. Mando Cavazos, who graduated a few years ahead of Winner, was at a similar loss.

“She always seemed like a happy girl,” he said. “Always smiling. That’s really all I know about her.”

Reality Winner’s family home is located miles off a rural highway, in a peaceful swath of acreage. These residents live down the road. Photo: Jennifer Brett

 

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