Following Suicide, Neighbors Recall Web Genius as Reclusive
CROWN HEIGHTS — The suicide of the young web genius Aaron Swartz, who hanged himself on Friday in his Brooklyn apartment, left his neighbors in a quiet state of confusion two days later.
Swartz, who was 26 and discovered by his girlfriend, was lauded as a web activist and internet genius for his developments, among them a company that became Reddit, despite ongoing legal battles that defined his strong beliefs that web users should have free access to information on the internet.
But to neighbors the famous young man, who was dating and discovered by Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, an activist and the executive director of an online-based corporate accountability group called Sum of Us, was almost invisible.
Several residents who lived under the same roof as Swartz, in a Crown Heights luxury apartment building called The Plex, were in the same booming industry, but had no clue they shared a doorman.
"I knew of him but I never saw him in the building," said Richard Kohn, 39, a building resident who works in web development for a spirits company called Diageo. He knew of Swartz from his many accomplishments, but only discovered he was a neighbor after the news reporters began showing up.
He said the building, which has a Facebook page, hosted a lot of social gatherings, like rooftop barbecues, but that Swartz never attended.
"I knew of him well," he said. [When I learned of the death] I said '[Expletive] you were here?'"
Another neighbor, Larry Fine, 32, a systems engineer who has lived in the building for more than a year also knew of Swartz, but had no clue the young man lived three floors up from his apartment.
"I knew his reputation. I rode the elevator with him half a dozen times but I had no idea who he was," said Fine. "He was in my field — he was a great inspiration to many people in my field. I use Reddit every day."
Swartz was found Friday morning hanging by his neck in what the medical examiner's office confirmed Sunday was death by suicide. He had used a belt, and fell from one of the apartment's inner windows, where his girlfriend found him, the NY Daily News reported. He left no note, according to the paper.
A doorman would not confirm if Stinebrickner-Kauffman lived at the seventh floor apartment, but a statement released by Swartz's family on Saturday expressed grief on her behalf as his partner.
"We are in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing," read the statement.
"He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place."
The family also blamed some of Swartz's despair on the prosecution he was facing: a trial on federal felony charges against which he'd plead not guilty — and which posed a possible sentence of up to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million — was starting in February.
"Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death," read the statement, which accused the U.S. attorney's office of pursuing "exceptionally harsh" charges, all to "punish an alleged crime that had no victims."
"Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost."
Outside The Plex, on Sullivan Place, no memorials graced the sidewalks, and no candles or posters hung around the outside of the glass-fronted building.
Funeral services were set for Tuesday, January 15 in Highland Park, Illinois, with details at http://rememberaaronsw.com. The site is accepting contributions of fond memories, donations of money, and donations of code. The site will also update with information about memorials to be held in major cities in coming weeks.
None were planned as of Sunday for New York.