Death of a NetHead

New Times Los Angeles, April 29, 1999
By Mark Ebner

BETWEEN BONG HITS AND BEER, Philip Gale brooded over ending his young life. Outside his apartment, marrow-chilling March winds scoured the streets of Cambridge's seedy Central Square. Inside the cramped walk-up, the air was hazy from the Camel Filters he'd been chain-smoking. Gale, a 19-year-old computer prodigy and MIT junior, had loaded his CD player with enough angst tunes to make anyone a little suicidal: the electronic frigidity of Kraftwerk and the pseudo-industrial hair-pulling of Filter.

The last disc Gale's CD changer spun that night was Steel Pole Bathtub's musical mindfuck, "Scars from Falling Down." He zipped a windbreaker over his T-shirt, adjusted his trademark neon-orange watch cap atop almost matching carrot-colored hair, and strode out of his room, the music still blaring behind him. He walked over to Massachusetts Avenue, nearly gridlocked by Friday-night partyers, and headed for the MIT campus. Climbing a massive staircase at the main gate, Gale headed down MIT's main pedestrian thoroughfare, "The Infinite Corridor." He carried an expensive, new digital sound recorder.

It was Friday the 13th -- the birthday of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Scientology had played a big role in Gale's life, although he had by then broken with the church. Both his parents were committed Scientologists; his mother was the national spokesman for a Scientology front group that seeks to ban the practice of psychiatry. Born in L.A., Gale had been sent to a Scientology boarding school in Oregon, where he'd honed his extraordinary gifts as a computer geek. As a 16-year-old MIT freshman, he'd written a key computer program for EarthLink, the Pasadena-based Internet provider created by Sky Dayton, another Scientologist.

For weeks, Gale had been asking classmates how to get to the roof of MIT's tallest structure, the Earth, Atmospheric & Planetary Sciences building, more commonly known as Building 54 or the Green Building. His friends thought nothing of it, recalling the annual ritual of dumping pumpkins off the roof, to watch them splatter 18 floors below. In a more recent stunt, MIT students had arranged the Green Building's classroom lights in the shape of an Oscar statuette in tribute to the movie Good Will Hunting. But Gale didn't have a prank in mind. Apparently unable to get to the roof, he entered an empty classroom on the 15th floor.

Inside, Gale switched on his digital recorder and began scribbling on the blackboard. In his bold hand, he wrote out Newton's famous equation for how an object accelerates as it falls. Next to it he sketched a stick figure of a man throwing a chair and signed his work, "Phil was here." Then he picked up a wooden chair and flung it through a large plate-glass window. He calmly wiped glass shards off the sill, stepped onto it, and heaved his six-foot-two-inch frame into the wintry night. The recorder didn't pick up any screaming.

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