On October 4, 2012, then 19-year-old Josh Pillault got into an argument on Runescape. Another player called Pillault insane and told him to commit suicide. The argument only escalated from there, and at some point in his response, Pillault said he would "level" local Mississippi high school Oxford High. Pillault also alluded to the Columbine shooting, and said he could not "wait to blow brains out of skulls."
Four days later, on October 8, 2012, the FBI arrested Pillault in his home in Mississippi. According to his case file, he was charged with "knowingly and willfully communicating a threat by means of the internet, an instrument of interstate and foreign commerce, concerning an attempt to kill and injure individuals and unlawfully damage and destroy buildings by means of fire and explosives." (Note: Pillault's case file says he was arrested in October 2014. This is an error. The correct dates can be found in the FBI's records of the arrest.)
In the trial that followed, in which Pillault eventually pled guilty, he was sentenced to six years in prison, which, as his case file says, is "forty-eight months longer than the advisory guideline range" normally used when sentencing youth of Pillault's age. In the years that followed, Pillault visited nearly a dozen prisons and transfer facilities. Most of those visits were brief, strictly for evaluations or transfers, but he stayed in three different prisons for extended periods: one in Butner, North Carolina; one in Talladega, Alabama; and one in Marianna, Florida.
Pillault was only recently released from prison and a subsequent period of house arrest. Earlier this week, he released a video about his experience in prison and his side of the trial. I also spoke to Pillault via Discord to hear more of his story.
"I decided to take my case to trial based on actual innocence," Pillault tells me, "but was informed by my court-appointed attorney that the law at that time merely stated that if the words are spoken, it is a crime. So I waited in jail about nine months before I actually pleaded guilty, because I was very determined, but decided the odds of conviction were too high."
Pillault does not deny that he made those threats. As he said in his video, "I trolled him, went as hard as I could to get a reaction out of him, and I accidentally made the government very, very upset." However, it was just a bad joke to him. Pillault maintains that he never had any intention to act on the threats. "I do not and have never had any intention of killing a human being," he said.
Pillault's case has been compared to that of Justin Carter, a 19-year-old Texan who was charged with making a terrorist threat after he told a Facebook friend that he was "going to go shoot up a school full of kids and eat their still, beating hearts." Carter was imprisoned, which sparked an uproar in juvenile justice spanning multiple years and petitions. In comparison, Pillault's case, the circumstances of which bear a remarkable resemblance to Carter's, was relatively quiet.
If you've ever used the internet, you're familiar with this kind of behavior. The access and anonymity that online communication provides makes it easy for people, especially young people, to get angry and make regrettable statements. Online culture, particularly where it intersects with videogames, has a history of—putting it mildly—regrettable statements. Game developers are routinely barraged by death threats, sexual harassment and other vile messages. You don't have to look very hard: the makers of No Man's Sky, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Minecraft, Call of Duty and countless other games have received death threats following unpopular changes or decisions.
Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens all the time. However, Pillault's case stands out because of the evidence that led to his inordinately severe sentence.
The FBI examined Pillault's computer and, according to the case file, found "numerous documents pertaining to the creation of bombs and other explosive devices." The file says his computer also had folders containing pictures and information about the Columbine shooting and several serial killers. Additionally, the FBI said his YouTube history showed that Pillault had searched for a game called "Super Columbine Massacre RPG," as well as "instructions on how to make a sawed-off shotgun and information about Molotov cocktails."
Super Columbine Massacre RPG was released in April 2005. Developed using RPG Maker, the 16-bit turn-based RPG recreates the titular shooting: you play as gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and battle enemies like "Preppy Girl" and "Jock Type" using guns and explosives. Its retro visuals are peppered with digitized photographs taken from coverage of the shooting, including images of Harris and Klebold. Super Columbine Massacre RPG was widely criticized upon release, with many arguing that it exploits and trivializes tragedies like Columbine. Similar games have run into the same criticisms in recent years. Hatred, an isometric action game about a mass murderer, was pulled from Steam Greenlight in 2014, but later reinstated following a personal apology from Gabe Newell. More recently, Active Shooter, a tactical FPS about school shootings, as well as everything else from its developer and publisher—respectively Revived Games and Acid—was removed from Steam.
Pillault tells me that the other evidence mainly came from a text file he'd downloaded called Jolly Roger's Cookbook, a manifesto similar to the more famous Anarchist Cookbook. Pillault says he was never interested in bomb-making techniques, but was instead after information like how to game vending machines or hack phones. A quick look at the table of contents of Jolly Roger's Cookbook shows that such topics are indeed included.
As for the files on Columbine and serial killers, Pillault says researching such tragedies is par for the course in his family. "Most of my family has been in criminal justice or law school in one form or another," he said in his video. "Since I was a relatively young child, we've discussed killers and serial killers. We were always kind of curious what could go so wrong in a person's life to make them think that this was OK. I had no intention of finding out for myself what it may feel like to do these things to other people. I just had a bit of an interest in the macabre."
Pillault's mother, Stacy Harkins, supported this in a March 2018 interview with The Outline. "The same way other families discuss whatever their hobbies are, that was like our hobby," she said.
Nevertheless, two of Pillault's ex-girlfriends testified against him. Both said that Pillault was especially obsessed with Columbine, and that he had planned out how he would attack Oxford High in a notebook. Pillault again denied this, and when he testified, he "stipulated to the fact that no weapons, bombs, incendiary substances, materials that could be used to make bombs, or drawings of attack plans" were found in his house. He also reaffirmed that he and the other player had just been "trolling" each other, which he defined as "saying random things to upset" people.
Carter and Pillault's cases are not rare or isolated. People have always been careless and senseless with their words online—perhaps more so today than in 2012 when Pillault was arrested. Just this week, Battalion 1944 player SUSPC7 threatened to shoot up the studio of developer Bulkhead Interactive—going to so far as to reference the recent YouTube HQ shooting—because he hadn't received the unique weapon skin he won in a tournament. When confronted, as you'd expect, SUSPC7 said "it was just a joke." Of course, even when there is no intent to act on it, making this kind of threat is never funny. Bulkhead settled the incident with an infinitely better joke, so it never went to the police.
One of Pillault's girlfriends came up when I spoke with him. He was explaining his history of substance abuse (in his video, he says he was drunk when he made the threats), and told me that he had "a very kind and loving girlfriend" who he "had manipulated into being an enabler" of his alcohol and drug addictions. At the time he made the threats, Pillault says his alcoholism was "at its lowest point and was very, very brutal."
Pillault says he began abusing alcohol and marijuana when he was 14. By 15, he was using cocaine and various pain pills. By 16, he was "regularly taking powerful pain pills and psychedelics such as mushrooms and LSD." At 17, he became "very badly addicted to inhalants."
He also entered rehab for the first time when he was 17 (since his release from prison, he's begun attending Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings). "This was when I first tried to stop drinking, which is a road I have swerved across for many years now," he says. But rehab didn't stick, and by the time he was 19, Pillault "was abusing opium and psychedelics, speed and inhalants, absolutely anything I could get my hands on."
"Addiction was a major part of my stormy mindset at the time of my arrest," he tells me. "I have never claimed I was a perfect guy in those days. Far from it: I was extremely dissatisfied with the way my life was headed. But murder and mayhem never once crossed my mind, that was never an answer to me."
Of course, we know how the court ruled. The prosecution pushed for a six-level enhancement, which resulted in Pillault's lengthy sentence. Pillault appealed his case on the grounds that the sentence failed to account for "the nature and circumstances of the offense," but it never bore fruit. Not long after his appeal failed, he was sent to his second prison.
Pillault says he spent most of his sentence reading and playing music. "All of the prisons I attended had musical equipment programs and each had a band room," he said in his video. "I spent many hours playing instruments—drums, bass, piano, guitar. I also read approximately 1,000 books, many of them multiple times. I've got every single detail of the entire Harry Potter series memorized."
"I read the autobiography of Malcom X, which was a very influential book on my life," he said. "He said 'turn your cell into your school and your monastery.' I was trying to look at it as a form of self-improvement, and I really think I did get my mind together in there, and in a lot of ways that I might not have at such a young age were it not for my incarceration. Don't get me wrong: I'll never thank the prosecutor and judge for what they did to me … To be honest, it ate my soul out of my chest. Prison is demoralizing, it is heartbreaking, and it is brutal."
Even leaving prison wasn't easy. "I basically laid around doing nothing," Pillault tells me, "scared of seeing my old friends due to their negative habits and the things I had at stake, returning once a week to take a [urine test] at the halfway house and receiving random visits from them." But with help from the folks at Dismas Charities Residential Re-Entry, who Pillault can't say enough good things about, he's slowly been getting back on his feet.
Pillault is now 25, a (relatively) free man, and staying with his mother once again. He's learning to drive. He plans to start college this year, which he hopes will help him find a career in the music industry. He'd also like to dabble in YouTube while he looks for a more stable job. And yes, he's still playing Runescape (now Old School Runescape).
"I want to continue attending AA and NA meetings and make sure that I never get back where I was, because the clarity that I managed to find through meditation and introspection during my time incarcerated has given me an entirely new outlook on life," Pillault says. "I'm not 100 percent positive about the longer-term desires, but freedom is at the core of them, because I would hazard a guess that I value it more than the average American 20-something."