How did my son end up halfway across the world trying to kill Donald Trump?
An interview with the mother of Michael Sandford
“It’s the foreign office, we’ve found Michael.”
Lynne Sandford was elated after hearing the news that her son who had been missing for a month, halfway across the world, had been found. When she was told that he had been arrested, her immediate assumption was that it would be for a minor offence.
One month on, she recalls what she heard next as “the biggest shock of all time.”
After posing as a Donald Trump fan seeking an autograph, Michael Sandford had tried to take a police officer’s gun and shoot the Republican nominee. His mother Lynne now has even more questions than answers after 12 months of erratic contact with her son. And now a campaign has been launched to raise money to bring Michael back to the UK for trial, and uncover the truth.
Michael, her 20-year-old son, who lived with her in their home in Surrey before leaving for America a year ago, suffers from a number of serious mental health conditions and is currently locked up in solitary confinement for 22 hours a day in a Las Vegas jail. Handcuffed, shackled, and reportedly on suicide watch, it’s a situation Lynne describes as “heartbreaking”.
Lynne had reported her son as a missing person a month before the Republican Presidential candidate’s rally that would see her son facing 30 years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. This was after a year where “there were a lot of things that didn’t add up,” beginning with her son moving to New Jersey to visit a mystery girlfriend but then developed into Michael driving across America and sleeping in a car that his parents didn’t even know he had bought. “My knowledge of US geography wasn’t great but I knew [Las Vegas] wasn’t anywhere near New Jersey, which was where he was supposed to be.”
Michael had been allowed to travel across the Atlantic on the condition that he returned home to visit regularly. “The first clue that something was up was six weeks after he went there, he had promised to come back for his little sister’s third birthday, but he said that he couldn’t come as he’d heard that there was a warrant out for his arrest in the UK.”
No such warrant existed. Who had told him this? Michael wouldn’t say. Lynne explains that Michael’s autism means that he’s quite a private person. Just as they hadn’t pried too much into details about the girl, all they know is that her name was Lauren, who had moved back to the USA and Michael had flown over to visit because “being young you don’t want to have to tell your mum everything.”
Even after extending his stay in America past the allotted time on his travel visa, Lynne’s concerns grew on the rare occasions that Michael would call them via Skype. He would only ever show just his face and always with a white-walled background, “It just seemed odd that he wouldn’t show more of himself or show us around where he was.” Attempts to bring him home had proved unsuccessful as Michael is over the age of 18 and there was nothing that the American authorities could do.
After a “crazy and hellish” few weeks of dealing with two sets of lawyers across two time zones, thousands of miles apart, Lynne has decided to start a crowdfunding campaign to not only try and find the answers to explain the past 12 months of her son’s life, but also to ensure that her son faces justice in a system that takes into account his serious and complex health issues.
“Something, somewhere is very, very wrong for this to have happened to him. For someone to change to the degree that he has, and I think that has to be a massive consideration in this.
“Don’t get me wrong I know what he attempted to do was a bad thing but it’s just completely uncharacteristic of him, he was always a very gentle person, he didn’t pose a threat to anybody.”
A son described as “thoughtful and sensitive”, who had never mentioned to his family and friends anything about politics. Cards with messages of support started arriving that confirmed Lynne’s disbelief that her “quiet” son, who had a passion for building his own robots and would no doubt be watching the revamped series of Robot Wars, found himself in a Nevada jail, charged with attempted murder of one of the most controversial politicians.
“He’s never mentioned politics, not to me, family, his friends, nothing, ever.” Even with a motive, Lynne can’t understand that her son, “who has had a tremor in both hands since birth that makes his hands very shaky,” wouldn’t have been able to do what he is accused of.
“That’s not just me being a mum saying that. I’ve known him all of my life and I even approached one of his best friends and I said look you’ve known him in a different way to how I have as his Mum, has he ever given you any clue or insight that he could do something like this? He said no, never. Never.”
Not only does Lynne believe that the UK justice system will better understand Michael’s needs and be more sympathetic to his mental health conditions, the jail that Michael is currently in prohibits face-to-face visits. Even after paying for expensive air fares they would only be able to talk to him via video-link.
Complications and issues with Michael’s current imprisonment extend further than geographical challenges. Michael has only been able to speak to his mother once, the jail phone Michael is attempting to use is having issues connecting with international numbers despite assurances from American authorities, the British foreign office and Michael’s public defender that there shouldn’t be any problems. The only other contact that Michael has had with his family is a letter. Despite a number of attempted written correspondences, Michael has only received one and Lynne has received none that her son has sent back the other way. This struck his family as odd, as if something more sinister was going on.
Michael’s case has been passed on by the American secret service, after they have declared that this was not an act of terrorism, but then what was it? Along with the plethora of questions that need answers, another reason for the crowdfunding campaign is to raise awareness that Michael’s mental health must be taken into consideration throughout the entire judicial process.
Throughout the interview Lynne remains direct and matter of fact in the face of the unimaginable. Admitting with clarity that of course she knows that what her son did was wrong, but that it is not as simple as that.
Michael’s public defendant has had to explain to her a whole different set of protocols and laws, and that the initial investigation, called ‘The Discovery’, should have been completed two weeks ago. This investigation will reveal crucial details such as what happened to Michael’s personal belongings; his wallet, his phone, his car, his passport. The fact that the investigation has not been concluded suggests to Lynne that the American authorities are no closer to putting together the pieces than she is.
A friend put Lynne in touch with a lawyer who is offering the family reduced legal fees, and Lynne also tells me that the foreign office are now much more involved with the case. However, the need for the crowdfunding campaign is because there are still legal fees to be paid on the other side of the Atlantic, and Michael’s complex health issues mean that “any medical care here would be free when it costs quite a lot over there.”
Lynne’s wait for answers will continue, but she is determined to get her son back.
“Ultimately we want to bring him back here, and yes raising awareness [of his mental health conditions] is the first part of that.
“If people are kindly willing to give a small amount to help us pay the legal fees here it’s just so heartbreaking to know that he’s thousands of miles away, in a cell 22 hours a day, and he can’t even speak to us. He was only 20 in April, he’s still young. I mean for anyone it would be hard, but he’s not the sort to be able to cope with being in a rough US prison.”
There are 2,525 miles between New Jersey and Las Vegas. We may never know the events that took place in between a “sensitive and gentle” son arriving in New Jersey and him allegedly trying to shoot Donald Trump.