When Michael Sandford was led away in handcuffs from a Donald Trump rally at the Treasure Island casino in Las Vegas, he appeared confused. Moments earlier, the 20-year-old from Surrey, England, allegedly asked for Trump's autograph, then attempted to grab the holstered gun of a police officer. According to Nevada court documents, officers claim Sandford told them his intention had been "to shoot and kill Trump."
Nearly three weeks after the event, there is plenty more confusion about what took place in the run-up to Saturday, June 18. Sandford's parents say they have had little contact with their son in recent months, but they believed he was living 2,500 miles away in New Jersey. They have spoken of his long history with mental illness and suggested his actions were a "cry for help," or that he was acting on the instructions of others.
At a Las Vegas court yesterday, Sandford appeared dressed in a yellow prison uniform and wearing leg cuffs. He pleaded not guilty to one charge of disrupting government business and official functions and two charges of being an illegal alien in possession of a gun. If found guilty, he faces up to ten years in prison.
No one seems to know how this quiet young man from Surrey came to be involved in an alleged attempt on the life of a US presidential hopeful. Sandford traveled to the US nearly 18 months ago, after his family say he met an American girl in England. Officials at US Immigration and Enforcement say he outstayed his visa by nine months. Recently, he is believed to have been living out of his car.
Sandford's father, Paul Davey, told the Portsmouth News: "Since he moved out there, it became slowly harder and harder to get in touch with him. He does Skype, but it's always with a white background behind him, so you don't know where he is… He's been refusing to come back, and we were worried about him, we were in contact with the American Embassy telling them we were worried about him. The American authorities said 'he's over 18 we can't do anything.'"
At some point, Sandford drove to California, then, on June 16, traveled to Las Vegas. Police officers say he visited a shooting range where he learned to use a gun for the first time—firing 20 rounds from a 9mm Glock pistol. Investigators claim he told them he had been planning his attack for a year, and that he expected to die in his attempt. He is said to have bought a ticket for a Trump rally in Phoenix, Arizona, in case his first assassination attempt was unsuccessful.
One of the biggest mysteries of Sandford's case is his motivation. Until now, he had apparently expressed no interest in politics, either at home or in the US. At some point, this changed. According to the Daily Mail, when his father traveled to the US last week to visit his son, he was allowed to speak to him via video link: "I asked him what happened, and he would only say that if Trump was elected, it would change the world and that somebody had to stand up for America."
In an appearance on the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire show this week, Sandford's mother, Lynne, described her son as "sweet, sensitive, and calm." At 13, he was diagnosed with Asperger's. He also struggled with mental illness, developing anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and anorexia. At 14, he was sectioned. "He basically gave up on life because he felt he couldn't deal with it anymore," said Lynne.
Lynne now has fresh fears for her son's well-being. "This is not the Michael I know," she said. "I just can't get my head around it to be honest. I have been told through reading the press he faces thirty years in prison and ridiculous amounts of fines, and there is no way he would be able to cope with that… I would like him to be deported, so he can be back in the country and can get psychiatric help and that way he could see the family that still adore him. Jail is no place for him, he needs help. But not prison."
Sandford will stand trial on August 22. He is reported to be one of nearly 1,100 residents at the Nevada Southern Detention Center, a bleak, gray facility in the middle of the desert, just over an hour's drive from Death Valley. With 22 hours a day spent on lockdown, he has plenty of time to contemplate the sentence that may await him.
For Trump, any trauma after the incident seemed short-lived. While Sandford was being led away from the casino auditorium, Trump addressed the crowd from behind his lectern. "Thank you, thank you, officers," he boomed. "Thank you, people. I love Las Vegas!"
UPDATE: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated in the headline that the alleged assassination attempt occurred last night. The incident happened on June 18.
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