KINGSVILLE, Tex. – You’ve heard small towns described as “tight-knit.” Here’s what that looks like in the place Reality Winner, the 25-year-old at the center of a national firestorm amid allegations she leaked government secrets, is from.
Nick Harrel III celebrated his 65th birthday at Harrel’s, the downtown drug store his family has owned for 101 years Wednesday morning. Everyone who happened to be sitting in the soda-shop section in the back, including a reporter visiting from Atlanta, received a piece of cake and most everyone sang “Happy Birthday.”
After he blew out the candles, Harrel resumed playing dice and chit chatting with cafe regulars Clyde Allen (who wore a customized T-shirt in his friend’s honor) and Hal Dantone. All three are happy to talk to anyone who stops by but neither had ever heard the name Reality Winner until she made national news.
“Nobody knows her – and we know just about everyone,” Allen said.
Harrel was puzzled at the name itself at first: “When I heard ‘Reality Winner,’ I thought, is that a TV show?”
Driving up and down the county roads here, about two hours north of the Mexican border, stopping in shops and restaurants locals frequent and visiting the homes of longtime residents who appear to know everything about everyone doesn’t turn up much more.
“I have never heard of this young lady,” said former city manager J.F. Garcia, holding court with a different set of regulars at a restaurant called El Tapatio. His daughter, Kathy Longoria, a former elementary school art and music teacher, knows Winner’s mom and remembers meeting Winner – barely.
“She was quiet,” said Longoria, whose son and daughter knew Winner and her sister through school. “If my daughter hadn’t said, ‘You know her mom,’ I wouldn’t have remembered.”
Winner attended graduated from H.M. King High School in 2010. She was an avid athlete and was in ROTC during her time in school.
Juan Carlos Gonzalez was on the tennis team with Winner.
“She was a real aggressive tennis player,” he said. “I think she was viewed as like, don’t mess with her. Don’t make her mad.”
A former classmate who played soccer with Winner recalled similar drive.
“She was a great athlete; she was our go-to goalie,” she said. “She was always ready to defend.”
The former soccer player, a recent graduate of Texas A&M University – Kingsville, did not want her name used due to the nature of the allegations Winner faces, because she is soon headed overseas for graduate school. She was concerned about speaking publicly about a matter involving the National Security Agency with foreign travels on the horizon.
Neither Gonzalez nor the former soccer player said they had known Winner very well personally and both described her as keeping to herself.
“She was always this very serious person,” Gonzalez said. “She was kind of doing her own thing.”
Mando Cavazos graduated in 2007, a few years ahead of Winner. He recognized her (and her unique name) immediately when news of her arrest hit media outlets but couldn’t recall many specifics about her.
“She always seemed like a happy girl,” he said. Always smiling. That’s really all I know about her.”
Winner has been active on social media; her now-shuttered Facebook page brimmed with posts ranging from pet pictures and silly selfies to strident political discourse. She also posted messages that reflected emotion over her biological dad’s recent death or her ambition to excel at physical fitness.
“I still find myself making time to call you in the evenings or jotting down notes or stories to tell you next time we speak,” she posted on Instagram in tribute to her father. “Somehow, though, I feel like you are a little closer, here, among the pyramids you used to endlessly tell us about, and always hoped to see. It’s like I have a little piece of you here with me. I miss you, Dad.”
She expressed frustration in another post: “I think it’s okay to admit that I struggle with anxieties and sometimes that makes the bar much heavier than it actually is,” she wrote. She quoted Scripture in a Palm Sunday message and once hash-tagged a photo of herself, “Naturally ugly.”
She left an apparently fainter mark in her hometown.
“You would expect that in a small town that someone would know her,” said Tim Acosta, managing editor of the Kingsville Record and Bishop News, who’s having about as much luck reporting on his town’s now-famous name as we are. “It’s a little strange.”
He was kind enough to let us dig through the newspaper archives, where Winner appeared twice: Once posing with members of her high school tennis team in 2009 and again as part of the newspaper’s graduation section in 2010. The newspaper’s online site turned up a couple of other brief mentions, another sports item and photo from when she completed US Air Force basic training in 2011.
Winner, 25, has been charged with sending to the news media a classified government report about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, the AJC’s Jeremy Redmon reported. The U.S. Justice Department announced her arrest Monday, about an hour after The Intercept reported that it had obtained a top-secret NSA report about Russia’s interference.
Davis, her stepfather, told the AJC’s Scott Trubey she is “a patriot.”
No one answered the door at Winner’s family’s home here Wednesday morning (her mom and stepfather have been in Georgia in the days following her arrest on Saturday) or at neighboring homes.
Signs posted along a fence down the rural country road from where Winner’s family home is read, “Warning: If you can read this, you are in range,” and “No trespassing. Are you going to listen to me in English? Or do I have to speak 12-gauge.”
One area resident, who unlike others we met didn’t want her name shared, did provide some insight. Winner attended a private, faith-based elementary school as a grade-schooler. The resident took a break from her quilting to scours her contacts in search of people who remembered Winner from either that time period or more recently. Again, with little luck.
Before we set out to pursue other avenues, the helpful lady’s husband walked in the back door. He already knew who was talking to his wife; someone from the coffee shop had called him to let a reporter was making the rounds.
That’s what it’s like in Reality Winner’s tight-knit hometown.