Of Dragons, Wolves and Sheep: The Murder of an Internet Anti-Celebrity
“Starblade,” as Matthew Paul Finnigan called himself, had cried wolf too many times. Threats of suicide were regular occurrences on his LiveJournal, Fur affinity, and Twitter accounts. Few took it seriously when he wrote that someone else wanted to kill him.
Matthew’s mother, Patricia Finnigan, is not fond of the educational system that her son was put into. She told me about Matthew’s history.
As kids on the autism spectrum sometimes do, Matthew had problems being social and seemed to lack sufficient awareness of those around him. But he was also remarkable. In kindergarten, his mother recounted, he got frustrated in math class because it was too easy for him. While the class was still learning addition, Matthew had incredibly mastered multiplication.
Online, Matthew was known as “Starblade,” along with a host of other aliases accumulated as each one built up a bad reputation. He frequented the websites of a subculture called “furries,” or fans of anthropomorphic animals. The community consists of party enthusiasts, social outcasts, animal artists, roleplayers, costumers and others, but it is centered on animal characters. “Starblade” is Matthew’s character, a “coconut-flavored dragoness.” Matthew was also “Otherkin,” which is similar to furry but distinct in that Otherkin believe that they have a non-human soul. Matthew believed that he was literally a dragon on the inside.
Matthew met with furries in real life as well, and had no more respected of a presence. A furry who calls herself Synn recounts a story illustrating his general mannerisms, taking place at a friend’s birthday party. Although Starblade was not invited, the event was temporarily posted in public on Meetup.com’s Bay Area Furry Meetup Group website. Matthew came anyway and, right in front of the birthday boy’s mother, drank some soda, spilled half on his beard and shirt, and then dropped the half-empty cup on the floor, stepped over it and walked away.
His journal and forum posts were considered dramatic and sometimes threatening. He is even accused of stalking people. He is most infamous for creating the meme “Fuck you, I’m a dragon!” based on a debate forum responses which have since been deleted. He was so consistently over-reactive that when he insisted that people were stalking him, or when he threatened to kill himself, few of the readers took it seriously. He posted multiple times a former boyfriend had threatened to kill him. On August 24, 2010 he posted this to an on-line journal site at starblade-enkai.livejournal.com:
Furry 3 [Referring to himself] receives death threats.Nobody listens. They offer no means to escape this furry’s impending doom and likely no pity when the furry is eventually killed.Tell me again why furry is considered full of good, caring people?
He also faced the many challenges in real life. But friends and family write on memorial pages that he had a genuinely kind soul, felt remorse for those he wronged, and was just trying to do his best being dealt a challenging hand. “He just needed so much help in his life,” Patricia said.
Children on the autism spectrum, depending on how high-functioning they are, can need specialized education. Some subjects they may excel at, but they might have problems understanding the subtleties of human emotions and interaction. There are programs designed to help these students learn in a group environment. Matthew was placed in several of these as a child.
He attended a school called Marchus in Concord, California, for students with special needs. He was bored with the teachings as they only taught to the lowest California high school graduation standards. Since other students had disabilities ranging from physical disabilities to mental retardation and criminal violence, the situation, as described by his mother, was far from a warm, nurturing one. Instead he was preyed upon by bullies, exacerbating his social problems.
Patricia is particularly familiar with the challenges of educating children who are not neurotypical. Her own mother was a special education teacher who taught autistic kids. When the school system started lumping the emotionally disturbed and children with nonverbal learning disorders with the autistic ones, the class was so disruptive that Patricia’s mother gave up on teaching.
When he graduated high school, Matthew and his family found what they thought would be a great arrangement for college. They visited Monterey, California, and Matthew fell in love. He enjoyed the beach, and there was a community college, a California State University campus, and a private university, the first of which he ultimately enrolled in. Matthew’s parents were concerned, though, that he wouldn’t be able to adjust on his own to college. They were initially relieved to find a program called College Living Experience (CLE), which is designed to help students with learning disabilities and other challenges transition to life on their own.
One semester, Matthew overloaded on classes, and the stress drove him to a bout with what was diagnosed as temporary schizophrenia. He was given treatment and medications supported by the state. However, Patricia recounted, once someone accepts clinical help from the state, they and their family lose certain rights to decide treatment. On February 25, 2010, he posted his feelings on Livejournal.
I need some place to go, where people aren’t deciding what’s best for me. What’s best for me is strangely enough what’s worst for me. Prison is more desirable than when they can throw me into the retard pit. I just want out.
It was difficult to tell which of Matthew’s actions were a result of the bout of schizophrenia, which were his autism, and which were just a result of being a bullied and sensitive teenager. Still, he eventually got off of the schizophrenia meds and was considered cured. He even started expressing remorse for the drama he took part in online and posted that he wanted to make amends.
College Living Experience
College Living Experience seemed like a program that could lead Matthew in the direction he wanted to go while at Monterey Peninsula College. According to the website, the program “provides intensive assistance to students of with varying abilities. Some students have autism spectrum disorders, including Asperger’s Syndrome. Others have conditions such as dyslexia and ADD/ADHD or social and emotional maturation issues.”
“CLE offered everything that they really needed for him to succeed, everything that kids on the autism spectrum don’t really get naturally,” Patricia said.
College Living Experience does not list their costs on their website, and declined to comment on this story, but a fact-sheet of resources for students with learning disabilities lists the program costs as around $30,000 per 12-month period. The program is private and operates off-campus, and provides a variety of services, including housing and academic and social mentors. This program is where Matthew met James Torrey Hill, who is said to be emotionally disturbed. Hill has been officially diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and cognitive and anxiety disorders.
Matthew may have seen himself as a dragon, but his mother saw him as a lamb: gentle and somewhat vulnerable. Patricia said that putting James Torrey Hill in the program was “like putting a wolf in with sheep.”
The mugshot that appeared in newspapers in 2010 looked little like the suspect I met two years later Monterey County Jail. I saw a chubby, pale kid in a newsbrief about the crime, and the same picture was on an identification bracelet he wore. In the picture he was heavy, with short hair and a large hole in one of his earlobes, made by a wide-guage earring. Now he sat behind thick glass with a phone to his non-modified ear, with glasses, long hair, and minus 60 or so pounds.
He’s called “Torrey,” his middle name, by most, and he tells me some people in jail have nicknamed him “Magician” and “Big Bird.” When he first came into jail he wanted to be called “Phoenix.” Not because he shares a soul with the mythical creature; in fact, he had never even heard of furries or Otherkin before I mentioned them. But he like the symbolism of the Fire Bird.
“I’m like a Phoenix rising from the ashes,” he explained, smiling and gesticulating. “I’m on a path to becoming a better person.”
Hill and Finnigan had attended Monterey Peninsula College together, and although they had no classes together, they met at CLE. The two had dated for a short time, but were friends at the time of Finnigan’s death.
According the the Monterey County Herald, Hill had a preoccupation with killing someone and made it his life’s goal. The Herald reported that Hill said he was “sick of school,” “sick of life” and “might as well go to jail.” I asked Hill if any of these claims were true. “One thing I have learned in here,” he said, “is that newspapers lie all the time. They’ll just make up whatever they want to sell newspapers.”
Hill pled not guilty by reason of insanity, but in 2014, three-and-a-half years after the initial complaint, Hill was found sane and guilty of first-degree murder in the Monterey County Courthouse. He is currently serving a mandatory minimum sentence of 25-years-to-life, plus one year for using a knife in a crime.
Virginia Hennessey of The Monterey County Herald, as well as other news sources, reported details from a hearing. According to the published articles, the incident was described in court as follows.
Matthew went over to Hill’s apartment and played some video games. Hill testified that he had gone into the kitchen and got a knife, which Hill hid up his sleeve.
Later, officer Jeff Gibson responded to a 911 call in which he heard the voices of both Hill and Matthew, reporting a stabbing. Matthew had asked Hill to call the police, but Hill testified that he refused because he wanted to see Matthew suffer. Gibson testified that Hill came to the door with blood on his shorts, and that a bloody knife was found in a kitchen trash can. Matthew was found bleeding from a stab wound and was flown by helicopter to a hospital in San Jose. He bled for two hours before he was declared dead.
During a recess in the hearing, the mothers of both Hill and Matthew went into the bathroom and sobbed.
Synn remembers that she was at a weekly furry get-together when she first heard about Stablade’s death. She recounted this story on Facebook chat.
here’s something funny (maybe) but sad. Most of us were at chicken [a monthly furry get-together] when we heard starblade was dead. We had seriously been telling funny awkward starblade stories the week before. Some fur, I can’t remember who, comes up to a group I’m with and says “starblade is dead!” We all laugh and someone said “if only!” Then the first person assured us it was true and he had seen it on the news. We were silent for a few seconds then all burst into laughter. He became the butt of a ton of jokes, there was no “too soon” period for him.
When Matthew his prediction of homicide came true, the responses were mixed. Many posts on his pages are private, have been deleted or the writers banned from the websites on which they wrote. On October 6, 2010, an anonymous user wrote on Starblade’s livejournal:
Even I, who hated you with the best of them, fucking cried.
You were always genuine and unfiltered. You always said what you felt. But for once, Starblade, you were disturbingly prescient.
Nobody should have to die this way. Nobody should ever have to be jealous of Furry #2, and nobody should feel fated to be number #3. Starblade was going to die, he knew he was utterly doomed, and here he was writing an obituary for himself.
Nobody gave a shit.
I’m really sorry.
After that, another anonymous comment, possibly by the same user:
I’m also sorry that the only place that you found solace and a sense of belonging, a place where people understood and shared your interests, in [sic] couldn’t wait to be rid of you.
Some posted that they were genuinely glad about Matthew’s death. Others didn’t post anything publicly, but still hated him very much. Others were upset at the death of any member of the fandom, and still others said they won’t miss him, but he didn’t deserve this.
His family and friends held a funeral service in Danville, California, near his family’s home. In lieu of flowers, they asked for a donation to the Matthew Paul Finnigan Scholarship Fund. I tried to send a letter to the donation address, but it didn’t go through. I asked Patricia where that fund was going.
“Well, we were going to use the money to help another student get into CLE,” she said. “But now there’s no way in hell we’re going to do that!”
The fund has now been established to help autistic students who plan to research cures or management of autism, or to help adolescents on the autism spectrum. The fund grants $1,500 to one student annually. Each year, a winner is announced on May 12, Matthew’s birthday.
Matthew’s family hopes for some small justice, in that more care will be taken to improve the standards for how people on the autism spectrum will be treated in education. The furries have gone on their way; they continue to attend conventions and draw characters. The dragon is dead, but there’s no hero to this story. And there’s no more time for Starblade to make amends or find peace or acceptance.