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When friendship fools you: My best friend turned out to be a criminal and I didn’t see it coming

Milam's Musings

Willa Cather, one of the great American authors, said, "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before."

One of those few, but enduring, stories is the act of human betrayal.

History is replete with these tales and figureheads: Judas, Benedict Arnold, Guy Fawkes, Brutus, the Rosenbergs and more. But I don't need to rattle the saber of history to encapsulate my tale of betrayal.

The best, perhaps most unusual way to begin this, is with Ricky Jay, one of the world's greatest sleight-of-hand magicians.

He's an artist with hand movements, dictation and skill that deceive the eyes.

From an early age, I gravitated toward this kind of magic in my desire to know, "How did he do that?" The showmanship, the sleight-of-hands, the grandiose spectacle, all coalesced into, well, something magical, something to be seen, even if ironically, one wasn't seeing all that there was.

As I entered my teen years, magic manifested in a nuanced way: the magic of the Internet. Somehow, the combination of zeroes and ones produced videos, instantaneous messages and all the world's information at my fingertips. Today's science is yesterday's magic, after all.

These zeroes and ones also redefined friendship.

Now, I could become friends with people I'd never seen in person. The virtual had become the reality. Through this medium, I met a group of friends that would become as real as any of my "real life" friends.

One friend in particular, Mr. W, had entered that undefinable nebulous rank of "best" friend. We conversed daily, sharing common interests, traded ridiculous humor and parsing serious issues. Queue Toy Story's "You Got a Friend In Me." When you step back from it, friendship is a lot like magic. It's hard to put your finger on it, but with some people, you just click. They're your the-world-is-ending 4 a.m. text message, your comfort zone and your safe place of secrets unshareable with other bipeds.

In a way, friendship - a sort of love in its own right - is a sleight-of-hand, isn't?

It's a lot like how when you read over your own writing, your brain fills in the gaps, so that typos slip through.

With a friend, you tend to gloss over deficiencies, subsume them into your worldview of them. Yeah, they have these blemishes, but you love them anyway.

After all, once you're clicking, separation seems unthinkable.

This was my fatal flaw in my friendship with Mr. W. And it was the leverage he needed to betray me and others who knew him.

At present, Mr. W awaits trial under an FBI investigation for two counts of distribution of child pornography across state lines.

But, that's merely what he got caught for.

In subsequently released public documents of the government's case against him, it's revealed he had previously traded child pornography in 2010.

We met in person for the first time on April 6, 2013 in New York. He was arrested for the first time three days prior in Mobile, Alabama for "sexually assaulting a juvenile minor," according to

Court documents indicate those charges were dropped.

Court documents reveal the breadth of his Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde operation. His Dropbox account includes a folder entitled, "Been With," - "which has 78 sub-folders and 974 files of individuals he claims to have 'been with,' including several sub-folders that have images of boys who appear to be under 18 years old who are either nude or engaged in sexual activity."

Documents also note that Mr. W admitted, "among other things, that he used his Dropbox and Gmail accounts to trade child pornography and that he is sexually attracted to minor boys."

And, admitted to sexual activity with three minors. Discovering the arrest report in 2013 was enough to drop my jaw, but these explicit details made me queasy.

This was someone I turned to when I felt I could talk to nobody else. This was the person with whom I shared some of my most intimate of secrets.

This was someone I would've done anything for. And here he is, laid bare by the FBI as this utter stranger to me.

I found myself like the kid growing up watching magic, asking, "How did he do that?" That soon became, "Why did he do that?" A college-educated, liberal, well-spoken, "best friend" had become the antithesis to everything I sought in a friend.

Worst of all, aside from the fact of the crime, is that I didn't see it. In hindsight, it's like watching Fox's "Magic's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed" and having that, "A-ha!" moment over and over again.

A part of me thinks someone with warier eyes to his act would've seen it; that I was too oblivious, an easy mark for a master carney. However, he had fooled a great many people beyond me. I was just one of the closest.

He was Ricky Jay. He was performing a masterful sleight-of-hand. That's the faith I understand friendship, and ultimately, love to be built upon.

A certain sleight-of-hand, a certain acceptance that you'll trust this person, even if your brain glosses over the gaps. A certain faith.

I had faith in my Internet-delivered friend. I trusted him. I thought he was my best friend. Now, I think, I could find 15 other people, probably more, who would say he was their best friend, too. He had that way about him.

Then I see his mugshot, his sunken eyes, his week-old beard, and the orange jumpsuit. I see the stranger.

It's simultaneously the realest thing I've ever been involved in and the most surreal, mind-bending, Dateline-special-fiasco.

Sometimes faith is rewarded in a lifetime of friendship and sometimes, it's betrayed, as just another retelling of a familiar, all-too-human story.

After such a deep betrayal like that, it's natural to ask whether you can ever trust someone else again. Or perhaps more importantly, whether you can ever truly know someone. What lurks beyond the sheen of friendship? Of love?

In a way, that would be its own type of betrayal. To turn away from these lofty things - love, friendship, connection - that makes us human because it got too hard or because the connection with one was severed.

There are and will be more friends, more connections and more leaps of faith. There must be. Anything else would be a sleight-of-hand on ourselves.

And if there's one person wise to our tricks, it's ourselves.