Morgan Lane Arnold, an emotionally frail 14-year-old freshman, navigated the hallways of her Howard County high school each day filled with anxiety, unable because of a learning disorder to decipher the social cues, jokes and emotions of her peers.
Her preferred environment, often accented by a Japanese anime soundtrack streaming through snug earplugs, featured a mix of fairies, mermaids and vampires, according to her mother. They were the protagonists of a digital realm where she said she was "practicing making friends" through role-playing games and social media.
"Her electronic communication devices were her world," Cindi Arnold said in an interview last week, the first extended comments since Morgan and her boyfriend were charged with murdering her father, Dennis Lane, in his Ellicott City home. "That is how she felt comfortable interacting with her peers."
Court records and interviews portray a girl who had struggled in social situations since she was a young child. Morgan, now a Mount Hebron High School student, could be standoffish. She sometimes made animal noises when she was stressed. And she could react emotionally to small sensory irritations such as scratchy clothing.
Morgan had periodically seen a counselor, though the treatment was interrupted in 2009 amid a custody dispute between her parents. Though Arnold felt her daughter needed more intensive therapy, friends Lane named as character witnesses and the records say he was unconvinced.
Mary M. Kramer, the court master who oversaw the dispute, wrote in her findings that disagreements between Lane and Arnold meant they "no longer get along with one another, no longer cooperate, no longer communicate, and Morgan no longer gets therapy." She recommended that they share custody.
Arnold said she's struggling to understand how her daughter could be connected to such violence. The early-morning stabbing death of Lane — a prominent blogger and businessman — shocked the Howard County community. "I certainly never saw it coming," she said.
Police arrested Morgan and Jason Bulmer, a Mount Hebron sophomore, on May 10. Bulmer allegedly stabbed Lane sometime after 4 a.m. Investigators have not released a motive for the killing.
According to charging documents, Bulmer told police that Morgan came up with the plan to kill her father. He said his 5-foot-2, 90-pound girlfriend unlocked a sliding glass door in Lane's home and urged Bulmer through electronic messages to sneak in and kill her father as he slept.
Lane's fiancee, Denise Geiger, was also targeted but was unhurt in the attack, police said. She called 911.
Morgan and her boyfriend are being held without bail on charges of conspiracy and first- and second-degree murder. Cindi Arnold said she has visited her daughter in a forensic psychiatric unit at the Howard County Detention Center and has talked to her on the phone through a plate of glass.
The Catonsville woman is desperate to protect her daughter, who was previously diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and Asperger's syndrome. People diagnosed with Asperger's are on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.
"My entire focus is on loving my daughter and just holding her in my thoughts and my heart with absolute and total love," she said, holding back tears. She can't help but wonder what more could have been done — by her and Lane, by school officials — to ensure that her daughter had all the resources she needed to feel comfortable and safe.
Court records from the custody dispute show that she and Lane disagreed on how to raise the girl, resulting in the dismissal of her therapist. For years, Arnold said, her daughter was educated in Howard County public schools without an individualized education program, which students with severe disabilities routinely receive.
"I was the only one who felt like she needed extra support," she said.
At 11, Morgan was struggling with the transition from elementary to middle school, according to Howard County court records from the time.
Her mother described her then as a shy, nervous child whose hair was falling out because of anxiety. The girl would bark and growl like an animal when she was stressed at school.
Her father questioned his daughter's diagnosis on the autism spectrum, suspected that his daughter and her mother were locked in a co-dependent relationship, and felt young Morgan needed more socialization, according to the records.
Dr. Cynthia Wilcox, a clinical psychologist who treated Morgan before being relieved of the role by Lane, testified in the case that Lane "expects more of Morgan in terms of emotional sturdiness," the records show.
Arnold acknowledged those differences and disruptions, and wonders what they meant to Morgan. Above all, Arnold said, she and Lane cared about their daughter.
"He really wanted his daughter to be happy and a high achiever, and I think struggled with the fact that she wasn't what he envisioned, who he wanted his daughter to be," Arnold said. "But he loved her."
Baltimore City Councilman James Kraft, an attorney who represented Lane in the court case, declined to comment.
Kirk Christopher, a former neighbor listed in the custody case as one of Lane's potential character witnesses, said in an interview that Lane shied away from diagnoses but was a great father. "I'd come by any day, any afternoon after school, and he'd be upstairs covering the homework with Morgan."
Christopher, whose daughter played with Morgan when the girls were younger, said Lane recently told him Morgan had a medical diagnosis that he wanted to act on. "He didn't want there necessarily to be a label there, but was always aware there was a problem and was always willing to look for ways to work through it," Christopher said.
Arnold said Morgan recently started therapy again, after Lane began coming to terms with the teen's Asperger's. And as Morgan had moved into adolescence, the physical manifestations of her Asperger's syndrome and anxiety — picking her nails, biting her lip, fainting when she felt overwhelmed — had begun to subside.
She had turned her stress inward, joining online fantasy worlds like Minecraft, a game in which players can create landscapes and shape interactions with other players, Arnold said.
Although she was hyper-sensitive to others and to harsh stimuli such as rough fabrics and loud noises, Morgan made it to eighth grade without an individualized education program, which ensures a more complete offering of specialized instruction, her mother said.
But even after receiving such a program at Mount Hebron, Morgan felt "lost," Arnold said. "She was overwhelmed. The sounds bothered her, the crowds of people bothered her."
Staff at the school understood Morgan and assigned her a counselor, Arnold said.
"They were right on it," she said.
'Her first boyfriend'
One day, Morgan told her mother she had a boyfriend: Bulmer. She had met him online playing Minecraft, and he turned out to be a fellow student at Mount Hebron. The two shared classes.
Arnold discussed the relationship with her daughter — what was and wasn't appropriate behavior — and eventually met Bulmer and his mother.
Her daughter is emotionally only about 11 years old, Arnold said, and Bulmer acted younger than his age as well.
Bulmer's father has described him as "slow" in school, but couldn't be reached for this article. His mother has declined to comment on the charges.
Morgan and Bulmer seemed to have a lot in common. They were both very "fantasy-oriented," Arnold said, and Morgan seemed happy.
"She really responded to somebody caring about her," Arnold said. "He was her first boyfriend."
Christopher, Lane's friend, said he met Bulmer with Morgan and Lane at a neighborhood party in December. The two teens were standoffish — not unusual for Morgan, he said. Lane told him he didn't like Bulmer.
"Dennis said, 'He's older, and that's a problem,'" Christopher recalled. "He said to me that night, 'I don't like the kid.'"
As time went on, Arnold said she heard more about vampires, and eventually her daughter mentioned Satanism. The word, while extreme, didn't alarm Arnold, though she did have conversations with her daughter about it.
Morgan had always learned about the world through temporary fascinations — at one point dinosaurs and later fairies, Arnold said. This time it was vampires and the devil, things many kids these days have interest in, she thought.
"She had this idea that there was a 'dark side,' and she was curious about that. I saw this as another exploration. I thought it was a phase," Arnold said. "Everybody's watching the 'Twilight' series, and I saw it as part of the cultural mentality of that age group."
Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, who has studied teens' social media use, said interest in vampires these days is not surprising, given that they are the subject of hit TV shows such as "True Blood" and the "Twilight" movies.
"What kid isn't into vampires right now?" Rosen said.
A mention of Satanism could also be a "manifestation of culture," or a sign of "something more serious," he said. Rosen said it is important for parents to talk to their kids about disconcerting social media posts.
Quiet in school
Current and former classmates of Morgan said they were surprised by the criminal charges, describing her as quiet but sweet.
Morgan let few peers into her world, classmates said, and had only one close friend, Sarah Fuss, before her relationship with Bulmer began in the fall. Fuss has also said she was shocked by the accusations.
"She would never talk — only if someone would talk to her," said Christopher Wilcome, 15, who attended elementary, middle and high school with Morgan. "She never liked to open up to anyone, didn't want to interact with people."
Classmates said Morgan wore cat ears in middle school, told others she was "half-cat, half-human" and sometimes meowed at them, actions they found unusual. Her interests in animals and fairies were seen as those of a younger child, but she wasn't bullied because of them, classmates said.
In high school, Morgan ditched the cat ears and started wearing black, telling people she was "goth," classmates said.
In November, Morgan and Bulmer started dating and displayed their affection in the hallways. Like Morgan, Bulmer was a loner, classmates said.
If Morgan had problems with her family, it was not visible to her classmates.
Arnold has spent the past week trying to avoid the news media with the help of loyal friends and neighbors. She's been planning how best to visit and help her daughter, whose initial court appearance in scheduled for May 24.
She worries that the world sees Morgan as a monster or a "spoiled brat" — she was charged as an adult — instead of the special-needs child she is. Arnold wonders whether psychiatric medication, which Morgan was never prescribed, would have made a difference.
Morgan will be represented by Joseph Murtha, a nationally known criminal defense attorney with Lutherville-based Miller Murtha & Psoras. Murtha sits on a panel of attorneys contracted to represent public defendants whose cases are too complex or present a conflict for public defenders.
Murtha said last week that he was still getting familiar with the case and declined to comment further.
Assistant public defender Janette DeBoissiere will represent Bulmer, said Carol Hanson, Howard County's public defender. DeBoissiere did not return a request for comment.
Geiger, Lane's fiancee, who was described in the custody case as having a "strained" relationship with Morgan, declined to comment as well.
Arnold asked that people in the community allow the cases of Morgan and Bulmer to unfold.
"I think that people can be very quick to judge, without having all the information," she said. "These kids are very fragile. They need our compassion."
Baltimore Sun reporters Carrie Wells and Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.