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Mental illness, right-wing conspiracies seen as volatile mix for Joshua and Sharyn Hakken

Joshua Hakken, 35, and his wife Sharyn Hakken, 34, were booked into the Hillsborough County Jail on April 10 on a variety of charges after kidnapping their sons Cole, then 4, and Chase, then 2, and fleeing with them on a 25-foot sailboat to Cuba.
Joshua Hakken, 35, and his wife Sharyn Hakken, 34, were booked into the Hillsborough County Jail on April 10 on a variety of charges after kidnapping their sons Cole, then 4, and Chase, then 2, and fleeing with them on a 25-foot sailboat to Cuba.
Published Aug. 17, 2013

TAMPA — In April, Joshua and Sharyn Hakken, college-educated engineers who were hiding with two boys and an elderly rat terrier on a sailboat moored west of Havana, ventured ashore looking for help.

Sunburned from a 300-mile sea voyage, the couple had shed most of the trappings of their former middle-class life on Sterling Avenue in South Tampa. Joshua Hakken, 35, had grown a tangled, auburn beard that looked like an accessory from a costume shop.

"We cannot safely return to the United States and are seeking political asylum in your country," the Hakkens wrote in a letter explaining their predicament to the Cuban government. They claimed to have uncovered a shocking fact through their engineering jobs: U.S. officials were secretly trying to control Americans' minds with chemicals spread from airplanes.

"After these discoveries … we were subjected to multiple attacks from our own government," the Hakkens wrote. "These attacks included surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA), hacking of our personal computers, microwave radiation weapons attacks, drugging of our food, false imprisonments and the kidnapping of our two small children."

The three-page letter was part of a cache of documents the Tampa Bay Times obtained last week after a judge ordered the disclosure of prosecutors' evidence — what attorneys call discovery material — in the Hakkens' criminal case.

The documents chart in unprecedented detail the world view that took the Hakkens from a quiet neighborhood north of MacDill Air Force Base to a cramped boat rocking off the coast of an island autocracy.

Joshua and Sharyn Hakken are now charged in Hillsborough Circuit Court with kidnapping their sons and sailing with them to Cuba after a court stripped their parental rights.

The Hakkens claim to have met with a Cuban attorney, but it is unclear whether they delivered their asylum letter to any foreign officials. Within days of their arrival at Hemingway Marina outside Havana, Cuban authorities gave the United States permission to apprehend the family and extradite them to Florida.

The boys, 5-year-old Cole and 3-year-old Chase, are living in Tampa with their maternal grandparents. The grandparents also gained custody of Nati, the 15-year-old dog who had gamely endured a week before the mast.

The newly released evidence could transform the Hakkens' legal terrain, perhaps most significantly with indications both parents suffered mental illness.

Federal, state and local law enforcement records depict them losing their hold on reality — ranting about mind control and secret government plots to poison them — in a downward slide that was likely accelerated by heavy marijuana use.

The documents also shed further light on the vexing topic of the Hakkens' personal politics. Described as "antigovernment" by authorities, the couple have assumed a status close to that of folk heroes among some conservative commentators.

Investigative reports and the Hakkens' own writings suggest the couple did subscribe to several conspiracy theories popular among right-wing extremists. But experts say the extent of what FBI records describe as the Hakkens' "paranoid ideation" suggests that psychiatric problems, not political convictions, drove their journey across the Gulf of Mexico.

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"These are people who are mentally unbalanced, who are attracted, perhaps because of their personal paranoia, to conspiracy theories," said Mark Fenster, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law and author of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture.

Roots on the right

While the Hakkens' beliefs sound outlandish to the unpracticed ear, some of their ideas have a recognizable lineage among political extremists.

Once confined to fringe ideologues in the John Birch Society and 1990s militia movements, such concepts have experienced a renaissance among tea party activists leery of government.

In a July 2012 Facebook message to an acquaintance, for example, Joshua Hakken made ominous reference to a U.S. atmospheric research station in Alaska — called the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program — that conspiracy theorists believe secretly controls the planet's weather.

"If all hope is lost, head to the four corners in the Hopi reservations but stay the hell away from Denver International Airport," Hakken wrote, according to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement report. "They're using HAARP to detonate underground ICBMs throughout the Midwest."

Fears of HAARP and "chemtrails" — the airplane exhaust patterns the Hakkens highlighted in their Cuban asylum letter — are common discussion topics on some tea party Web forums. Both made the Southern Poverty Law Center's 2010 list of the radical right's 10 most popular conspiracy theories.

The FBI assessment notes that Joshua Hakken also thought he "was destined to be a member of the Illuminati" and that he and his family "had to disappear so that they could not be found by the Illuminati."

The Illuminati were an 18th century society of Bavarian freethinkers, believed by conspiracy theorists to endure and clandestinely steer world politics. They are often associated on the radical right with a "New World Order" working behind the scenes to establish global, totalitarian government.

Despite such influences, experts say it could be a mistake to overemphasize the Hakkens' political convictions in light of the prominent role psychiatric problems played in their saga.

"We often see mentally ill people who have absorbed one or another shard of conspiracy theories from the extreme right," said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. "But the governing rule is their mental illness."

Fenster noted that the logic of the Hakkens' antigovernment views appeared to break down in their decision to seek refuge in a communist country.

"Some of the things that they seem to be afraid of are the same things the tea party (activists) are afraid of," he said. "But then they go to Cuba. What?"

Insanity defense?

The documents released in the Hakken case leave little doubt that mental illness, along with a combustible view of government, was a major factor in their saga.

While at the U.S. Air Force Academy, the FBI assessment states, Joshua Hakken "felt the Air Force was trying to 'poison' the minds of cadets." A similar theme emerged from 34-year-old Sharyn Hakken during a June 2012 encounter with police in Louisiana. She was found ranting about her brain being "reprogrammed," according to records.

Dr. Francisco Fernandez, chairman of the psychiatry department at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine, said recurring worries about mind manipulation are a symptom of psychotic disorders.

Heavy marijuana use, Fernandez said, can "unmask and aggravate" such conditions. For the Hakkens, regular drug use may have been a catalyst in their break from society, according to the newly released records.

Joshua Hakken lost his engineering job last year because of "erratic behavior and continually coming to work smelling of marijuana," according to the FBI assessment. "While the reported marijuana use may serve as a sedative to Josh and Sharyn, it is also possible that it could exacerbate any mental illness," the assessment states.

Since the disclosure of evidence in the case, the Hakkens' attorneys have been guarded about defense strategies, which could also be complicated by another revelation.

Joshua Hakken told police officers last year he beat and choked his wife to remove "spirits" that "would take over her body and talk through her," the records show. If Sharyn Hakken asserts her husband coerced her into criminal acts, such abuse could lead to a split in what has been a joint defense.

The psychiatric problems on display in the newly released documents could also be invoked by the Hakkens to help their cases.

Defendants with mental illness can tack in two directions to avoid prosecution: arguing they are incompetent to stand trial or presenting an insanity defense.

In the first circumstance, a judge must rule the defendant is so severely impaired that he cannot understand court proceedings or communicate effectively with a lawyer. The accused is then typically sent to an institution for treatment with the goal of restoring competency.

Under the second scenario, defendants assert that mental illness blinded them to the consequences of their crimes or prevented them from realizing what they did was wrong. This is the argument more likely to arise in the Hakken case, Tarpon Springs criminal defense attorney Jerry Theophilopoulos said.

"It definitely looks like it's going to go through an insanity type of defense, based on the history of the individuals," Theophilopoulos said. "If they knew what they were doing, did they actually know that it was wrong? I think that's what's going to come into play in this case."

Peter Jamison can be reached at or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.


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