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.