Elizabeth Lavin


Online and Out of Control

She was a Plano high schooler. He lived in Kosovo. Only the FBI kept them apart.

When she was a student at Plano West Senior High, Mackenzie Baldwin fell in love with a man she’d met online. She talked with him secretly for more than a year, until he convinced her to leave her family, fly to Kosovo, and marry him. With the help of the FBI, John and his wife, Stephanie, stopped their daughter from making the worst mistake of her life. Now John and Mackenzie have written a book together, Almost Gone, published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster. D Magazine sat down with the Baldwins in mid-November, just as their book was coming out.

D Magazine: You just returned from doing NBC’s Megyn Kelly Today. Did you guys enjoy the trip to New York?

Mackenzie: It was fun. I thought Megyn was really, really nice and really pretty.

John: I was nervous, but it was a great experience. She was very interactive with us during our segment, between shots. She has young kids, so I think she could relate to our story. I thought the interview went really well. Our phones blew up. We had a lot of people praying for us and encouraging us. It was very affirming, all the way around.

D Magazine: Let’s start at the beginning. In 2013, Mackenzie, you were at your friend Madison’s house, playing around on the online chat service Omegle. How did that work?

Mackenzie: A lot of people my age at the time were on it. It was just a way that people killed time. You would have some sketchy people, but a lot of times it was almost like a confidence booster. Somebody would be like, “You’re really pretty.” You would be like, “Oh, thanks.” Juniors in high school, girls or whatever, we live for that stuff.

D MagazineJohn, did you know that this was a normal way that they would pass the time?

John: No. I knew that she was just hanging out at Maddie’s, but no. She’d had a great junior year, and I had a lot of confidence in her decisions.

D Magazine:You were pretty strict, though. You didn’t allow her to take her laptop up to her room.

John: Yeah, we had some household rules that we thought were common sense. We had computers only downstairs so that we could observe what they were doing. But whenever they’re away, there’s not much you can do about that other than trust that she’s doing the right thing.

D Magazine: You weren’t doing the right thing, were you, Mackenzie?

Mackenzie: I didn’t do it responsibly. This guy came up, and he was really nice, good-looking. So we just started typing back and forth. It’s like Skype. There is sound if you want it, but normally people don’t use the sound. We just started communicating, and it was fun, and I talked with him for two hours. And then finally I had to go, so I was like, “OK, I’m going to go.” We exchanged Facebooks. I thought that was that.

D Magazine: At that point you’ve already made a leap, because now he knows your last name and where you live.

Mackenzie: Right, yes. Not very smart, of course.

D Magazine: You still thought at that point that he was in New York?

Mackenzie: Yeah, he had told me he was in New York. A couple days later I asked him about it, and he said, “I’m actually from Kosovo. I’m sorry. I just wanted to seem more relatable.” That was the first red flag that I dismissed.

D Magazine: How many of those red flags do you think there were in the 14 months that you communicated with Aadam?

Mackenzie: I would say a good five that were bright red. Looking back, I’m like, “Probably should have seen that.”

Wild story: John and Mackenzie at home with Indy the macaw, Cleo the cat, and Maverick the dog

D Magazine: John, when did you get an inkling that something was up?

John: Mackenzie’s junior year was fantastic. She had a large group of friends that were over here frequently, playing Xbox, playing in the park, hanging out. Just normal stuff. She was really, really happy, and her grades were good. Then, toward the end of her junior year, we began to see less of them. Stephanie and I said, “Hey, we haven’t seen anybody. What’s going on?” She said, “I’m busy or whatever.” That was probably the first thing that we noticed.

D Magazine: Then she asked you if she could buy a copy of the Quran.

John: When she asked for the Quran, that got our attention. I was surprised more than anything. I had to really think about that. The first thing that Stephanie and I talked about was, “Well, she didn’t have to ask us. She could have gone out and just bought a Quran wherever.” I really felt that from a spiritual standpoint, a lot of kids like Mackenzie—or even myself—grow up in the church, and it’s not until your late teens that you start to ask, “Why do I believe that?” Honestly, I didn’t think it would last two weeks. The thought of her jumping into a religious study for more than two weeks—I just didn’t think too much about it.

D Magazine: Mackenzie, what was going through your head at that point? How long had you been communicating with Aadam?

Mackenzie: A couple months. When Aadam and I first started talking, I noticed he didn’t push religion on me. We’d be talking and he’d say, “OK, I need to go pray.” He had to do it five times a day. I said, “That’s kind of nice.” I believed that if you have a religion, that is a pretty core part of who you are. I felt like we were getting to know each other, and a way to really get to know somebody is to know their foundation, especially their religious beliefs. I was like, “To get to know you better, I’ll go ahead and look into Islam.” That’s how it started. That’s part of what made it so subtle and so hard to see, because originally it wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m lonely. I need to find somebody.” It was just, “Let’s just be friends.”

D Magazine: You had this big group of friends. You had a boyfriend at the time. You didn’t look like the picture of what we think of as somebody who would fall for any sort of scam.

Mackenzie: It’s interesting. At the very end of the last chapter, we had a licensed professional counselor write about this. She explained that there are traits that normally people would look at and say, “Oh, she’s really independent. She’ll never get sucked into that.” Some of those same traits actually do make you susceptible. I felt like I had it all under control. I felt like I could turn off the computer whenever I wanted. But then you start getting feelings, and you don’t want to turn off the computer.

D Magazine: John, when did you first really start to worry?

John: I would say late summer. It had been going on for about three months, and we saw such a change in who she was and so rapidly. She was always fun-loving like what you see now. Very outgoing. Seeing that change in a matter of weeks was concerning. Then the discussions around religion persisted. We were going from, “Oh, hey, this is going to be a cool little comparison,” to having some pretty sharp discussions about it. We were arguing about things that we’d never even discussed before.

D Magazine: At that point, you weren’t aware of Aadam.

John: No, we didn’t know about Aadam until just before she was about to leave the country to meet him. We had no clue that was going on. We were just dealing with what was in front of us.

D Magazine: Mackenzie, when did you tell Aadam that you loved him?

Mackenzie: We met online in April. I would say five, six months. About the time that I started becoming more interested in Islam. Because there was a point where I wanted to believe it. I would try to rationalize things that in my mind didn’t really make sense, but I wanted to believe it because that was the only way we could be together. He told me, “If you’re not Muslim, we can’t be together.”

D Magazine: To be clear, though, there was never any point where you felt like he was trying to radicalize you?

Mackenzie: No, it wasn’t anything like that. I always wondered why he tried to convert me, you could say, because it wasn’t radicalization. Then I realized that, like I said, religion is a foundation for a lot of people. If you can change somebody’s foundation, then they’re basically yours. If you single-handedly can completely wipe out what a person leans on, then they’re leaning on you, and that’s what happened. He was able to wipe out my original foundation and then started building a different one. Then the only person that I really had that I really trusted or had contact with was him at that point.

D Magazine: You had shipped him a phone, and you were talking and FaceTiming.

Mackenzie: Yes. Part of it, too, was I had been talking to him long before my parents knew, or long before my parents started seeing signs I was off. It quickly moved from there. It was pretty fast.

D Magazine: How did the FBI get involved?

“I felt like I had it all under control. I felt like I could turn off the computer whenever I wanted. But then you start getting feelings, and you don’t want to turn off the computer.”

John: I got a phone call from a friend of mine. I said, “Hey, what’s up?” He was a very polished professional, but he was at a loss for words. He said, “Look, let me ask you a question. Has Mackenzie ever mentioned anything about Islam?” It surprised me that he would even know that, because I hadn’t talked to him about it, but I said, “Yeah, she has. This is something we’ve been dealing with for quite a while. Why do you ask?” He was at a loss of words again. He goes, “Well, John, I don’t know how to tell you this other than just tell you straight up. She’s engaged to marry a guy, and I think he’s Muslim. She’s preparing to leave and marry this guy.” His daughter had told him all this.

D Magazine: It sounds like a bad joke. How did you feel?

John: It felt like a loud noise going off too close to your ear. All you hear is a ringing. You can just feel this dread come over you, that something like that could happen, that she would leave without telling you. I went to a park by myself just to get my mind together. All these thoughts were flooding in like pieces of a puzzle falling into place. Things started making sense about what we had seen over the months. I called Stephanie and I told her, “We’ve got to get her passport. At least we know she can’t leave right away.”

D Magazine: The passport was just one part of it, though.

John: We realized we had two problems. First thing, we had been dealing with it as a rebellion, because she was 18 and wanted her independence. I was trying to love her where she was. I didn’t like what she was doing, but I wasn’t going to blow up the bridge between us. Then we came to realize that this wasn’t rebellion at all. She was being manipulated, and she was a victim. She was in a lot of trouble, and she didn’t even know she was in trouble. We had to find a way to stop her from leaving, but more important, we needed to figure out a way to stop her desire to leave. By this time, we figured we had somewhere around 20 days or so to do something about it. In the end, three of her friends told us what was happening. They all said the same thing: “I couldn’t live with myself if she left here without us doing something.”

D Magazine: But how do you go from that to the FBI getting involved?

John: A friend of mine said that maybe we could get law enforcement engaged. Maybe we could convince them it’s a foreign nationalist, that maybe there’s something that Homeland Security can do, put her on the no-fly list.

D Magazine: But nobody has committed a crime.

John: Right, nobody has committed a crime. But you know what? Sounded good to me. We talked to a friend of ours who worked at DFW Airport, because he’d spent some time in that part of the world, and we felt like he knew stuff. He talked to the chief of police at DFW, and he was the one who reached out to the FBI and said, “I think you guys need to interview them.” By then we’d done a search of Mackenzie’s room. We found a few things that corroborated what we had been hearing. Stephanie had access to her bank account. She saw a financial transaction that was an odd amount. We thought we were secure with her passport, and then it dawned on us that maybe she’d expedited a second passport. When we pulled up the website—the cost of getting her passport, a birth certificate, and expediting—it came up to exactly that dollar amount that was there. And she had a P.O. box it was all being delivered to.

Mackenzie: Ordering the second passport was what got the FBI involved. That was technically illegal.

D Magazine: Do you remember when you walked in that door and saw the three agents sitting at your kitchen table?

Mackenzie: I had just finished my last high school exam, and I walked to my car. My mom was there, and she said, “Three FBI agents are at our house,” because my parents were supposed to act like they didn’t know why. She said, “Do you know why?” I said I couldn’t think of any reason why the FBI would be there. We walked in the door, and I saw agent Kevin Sheridan. He is a tall, large man. He said, “We’re going to ask you a lot of questions, some of which we already know the answers to.” He pulled out my Miranda rights and said, “This is what we use to take you out in handcuffs. We don’t want to do that, but that’s what’s going to happen if you lie.” Then they just proceeded to ask me questions like, “What are you doing? Who are you talking to? What are your plans?” I felt like I was telling my parents this for the first time, and it was obviously very difficult.

D Magazine: Your parents are pretty good actors, as it turns out?

Mackenzie: Yeah. Honestly, they looked shocked. But to hear me telling the story was very difficult for them.

D Magazine: Do you consider this more a cautionary tale about technology and social media, or about Islam?

Mackenzie: It’s definitely a cautionary tale about the internet, but, honestly, it’s not just the internet. We always say that this could have happened whether it was Islam, Hinduism, or just any theism. It doesn’t matter. The person doesn’t even have to be religious. The tactics that he used specifically happened to involve Islam, but that doesn’t matter. That’s not the story. The story is how somebody was able to manipulate somebody the way that he did. I want people to read this story and have a new understanding about the dangers of technology and chat rooms and whatever it may be, but also toxic relationships. This story, in my case, it was an online relationship, but it follows the path of any toxic relationship. I hope that somebody can read this book, and they’ll say, “Oh, my God, my boyfriend is doing this to me, or this person is doing this to me,” and understand maybe some ways to get out of that.

Under Cover: A friend heard John and Mackenzie tell their story, then put them in touch with a Dallas literary agent. Almost Gone was published in November by Howard Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

D Magazine: Here’s a thought experiment. If you’d met a white guy from Des Moines, Iowa, online, and if he had convinced you to fly there without telling your parents, that would be scary. But do you think you would have a book if it weren’t Kosovo and if the guy weren’t Muslim?

John: Probably not a book, but we would have had a story. I think that we would have handled it the same way.

Mackenzie: I would add to that. I don’t think the Muslim part has much to do with this. I do think him being foreign and that it was a different country has a lot to do with it, because it is an extreme. I think the key part here is that it was a foreign country. Doesn’t matter which foreign country, just a foreign country.

D Magazine: Is it frustrating not to know exactly what Aadam was up to? There never was a definitive answer, like, “This guy is a sex trafficker.” We’re unsure in the end about this mysterious character and what his motives were.

John: That’s very true. But I don’t find it frustrating. Look, his motives—she was a high school student. She was being manipulated. He was encouraging her not to tell anyone what was going on, and it was a relationship that was just strictly online, and she was going to leave the country, go to a very dangerous part of the world without telling anybody. That is a very dangerous situation to be in. Regardless of his motives, that’s pretty sorry to do that to a kid or a family.

Mackenzie: For me, yes, it does. That bothers me sometimes. But I do also—Aadam has reached out to me since we wrote the book.

D Magazine: Why do you have to use a pseudonym for him?

John: We want to be careful. We don’t know. The FBI was pretty convinced that his actions were consistent with what they were seeing with people that were engaged in some sort of criminal activity, organized crime. They’ve seen patterns like this before. Agent Sheridan in the end would only say, “This is a dangerous part of the world, and the tactics he’s using are consistent with what we’ve seen with other cases like this. No crime being committed against Mackenzie, but she’s in a lot of trouble.”

D Magazine: You use a picture of Aadam when you do talks?

Mackenzie: We used to. Not anymore. My agent said we have to be careful. Part of it, too, it is easy for people to get hung up on the religious aspect of it, and I’ve said that that’s not the big picture here. His name was so foreign that when you would read it, it almost drew you out, you know what I mean? Like I said, I want people to be able to read it and see themselves in it. We wanted it to be where people don’t constantly remember that he is very, very foreign because we want it to feel close. We want people to be able to understand and apply it to their own situation, if that makes sense.

D Magazine: Does Aadam know about the book?

Mackenzie: I don’t believe he knows that a book is out, which is weird. I’m waiting for that, because I blocked him on everything, but he keeps getting new accounts and tries to add me on other stuff. On Instagram, he found my account and direct-messaged me. Facebook, he made a new account and direct-messaged me through that, because you don’t have to be friends. I’m just waiting. I don’t know if he knows, but he can’t get in contact with me because I’ve just blocked everything. All you have to do is Google my name, and then you read the [back-of-the-book] synopsis, and then you know.

D Magazine: Again, though, why did you decide to write the book? Because initially this whole thing was embarrassing for you guys, right?

John: Yes. When this was all over, it took several months for Mackenzie to even talk about it with us. She was in counseling, and she did that willingly. She was talking to her counselor about things. Things were a mess after all that was over. We just wanted to give her space and let her know that she was safe, but we weren’t going to push for reasons. We were just happy she was here. It took about six months, and she said, “Do you think you guys can tell me how all that went down?” We spent an evening one night, and we just laid it all out for her, about how we found out, about her three friends who told us what was happening.

Mackenzie: They wouldn’t tell me who those friends were originally. They just said three. They didn’t even say girls. Just three friends came forward. Later, each of them came forward and told me themselves. I remember Madison told me. We were sitting outside of her house, and she was like, “I was the one that came forward.” I thanked her for it, and I still say to this day, if it wasn’t for those three, I truly don’t think I would be here today. They saved my life. They’re more than just friends.

John: Those three girls put their friend above their friendship. They took action. They all said the same thing. “I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if something had happened to her.” We were very grateful.

D Magazine: So how did you eventually decide to do the book?

Mackenzie: We were going to write this book just for our family. Dad got the idea that maybe I could contribute some stuff into it, and he asked me about it. At first I was like, “What if people find the book? What if people hear about this?” I was terrified that somebody would find out. Then I realized that if you go through something embarrassing or traumatic, you can either run from it or you can own it, and I was running from it. I just decided, “OK, I’ll own it.” When I decided that, that doesn’t necessarily mean I was ready and set to publish it. It wasn’t until we started speaking to groups that I realized how impactful the story could be. We spoke to local little church groups and got great feedback on it.

D Magazine: How did you go from little church groups to an imprint of Simon & Schuster?

John: Someone heard a talk and approached us. She said she knew an agent and that more people ought to hear the story. Nena Oshman, from Dupree Miller, read it, and she called us probably the next night. She said, “Have you signed any contracts?” I said, “No.” “Did you publish it anywhere?” I said, “No.” She goes, “Don’t sign anything, don’t publish it, don’t do anything, because I want to represent you on this.” That’s how we got started.

Mackenzie: It’s funny because I get asked all the time, “How do you write a book?” I don’t know. If I wanted to write my own book right now, I wouldn’t know how you would go about sending it out there and whatnot. Part of what comforts me is that this book literally is going in its direction. It has a life of its own. We’re just along for the ride.