So many strange things float in the Pasig River. The 15-mile-long waterway, which bisects Manila, is so polluted ecologists in the 1990s declared it “biologically dead” — unable to support marine life. At times and in places, blankets of waste thick enough to stand on cover the river and its slumside estuaries.
But the big box bobbing in the water early in the morning of Dec. 23 wasn’t trash. The sky over the Philippine capital was still dark as three men, two police officers and a teenager, reeled the package in from the river. It was long, whatever it was, and heavy. Now they laid it sopping on the concrete embankment.
As the sun rose, forensic officers arrived to examine what lay inside. Covered in shattered glass and mummy-wrapped in duct tape and black plastic was the unmistakable shape of a body. Police peeled back the tape to reveal a young white woman, small and pale, flat on her back. Her hands rested on her hips. Her hair, dyed reddish blond, made a bright halo around her head. She was naked.
Police had been tipped off by a ride-hail driver. He’d grown suspicious after two customers had struggled to load a large box into his trunk at 2 a.m., then asked him to stop by the river on their way to another destination. Claiming it was “only garbage,” they dumped the package into the water.
After discovering the body, investigators headed to the place where the cab had picked the passengers up: Avida Towers, glistening high-rise condos popular with tourists on Airbnb. It was the residence of one of the two customers, an American named Troy Woody Jr. The cops discovered his apartment in disarray; the bed was broken and shards of wood littered the floor.
Neighbors pointed investigators to another condo complex, this one a 10-minute walk from the American embassy in downtown Manila. There, police found two disheveled young men: Woody and the other passenger, Mir Islam, also an American citizen. They arrested the pair just after noon in connection with the killing of Tomi Masters, Woody’s 23-year-old girlfriend.
Under the harsh fluorescent lights of the Mandaluyong City Police Station, the men cut drastically different figures. Woody looked haggard. The slouching 21-year-old was dressed in a T-shirt and athletic shorts, his unwashed black curls covering up an acne-flecked face. As they searched him, police lifted up Woody’s shirt to reveal scratches on the pallid folds of his stomach. Amid the chatter of the busy station, he could barely raise his voice above a whisper.
In a jailhouse interview with BuzzFeed News, Woody offered a preposterously vague story. He said he was “at the mall” when his girlfriend was killed — though it was unclear how he knew when she had been killed. “I carried the box with one other person,” he said. “I did not know what was in the box. All I know is I loaded a box into the back of an SUV.” He didn’t ask the other person where the box came from. He didn’t ask questions about the suspicious weight of the box because, he said, “I don’t know what a body feels like.” Asked who killed Masters, Woody said he didn’t know, but added, “It would be the person that was carrying the box. The other person that was carrying the box”: Islam.
Islam, 24, also looked unwashed, with a slacker’s stoop. But unlike Woody, the older man seemed energized by and comfortable in the harrowing situation. Standing in front of rusted white bars, his eyes shone and he spoke volubly as he told a detailed story that clearly implicated Woody. The day before, Islam explained to BuzzFeed News, Woody, his friend of 13 years, had asked for help moving after Masters had left suddenly for Amsterdam. So Islam accompanied him to a furniture store to buy a large box that Woody said he needed. Then they headed to Avida Towers, the first time, according to Islam, he had ever been there. Once they arrived, Islam said, Woody asked him to wait outside while he finished packing, “because it was a small apartment.” When he came back inside after two and a half hours of looking at his phone, Islam claimed, the box had been packed. Woody told him the box was full of “garbage” and they had to take it to a dump.
“Until the police arrest me,” he said in a faint Bangladeshi accent, “I thought I was only moving all this stuff.”
But Islam didn’t explain why they had to take the box to the dump themselves, or why they threw it in the river instead of the dump. (He did say that if the reporter would only check his phone, they would find that he had googled “Pasig river dump.”) Nor did he explain why he was so confident that the police would only find “one set of fingerprints” on the duct tape. However, he said, Woody had confessed in their shared cell to choking Masters to death during sex — that’s why the bed was broken. With cuffed hands, Islam pantomimed the act.
Each man blamed the other for murder. But, strangely, police also heard chatter and frequent laughter coming from their cell.
Though their interrogators couldn’t have known it initially, Islam and Woody each had prior experience with law enforcement. Islam had served years in prison in the United States after pleading guilty to federal charges including identity theft, computer fraud, and interstate transmission of threats. He did so while part of UGNazi, short for Underground Nazi Hacktivist Group (the name was a troll; the group had nothing to do with Nazis or Nazism). It became infamous in the early 2010s for swatting, stealing thousands of credit card numbers, and publishing the personal information of dozens of famous Americans, from Donald Trump to Jay-Z. They were not, for the most part, elite coders hacking the gibson. But they were remarkably good at social engineering, using trickery and deceit to gain access to systems and information. Woody was a core member of the same group, but had escaped prosecution because he was a minor during UGNazi’s rampant heyday.
So the men were accomplished thieves and online bullies. But nothing in their criminal pasts seemed to predict the murderous present. How had the two hackers, who for years had hid in their homes behind the anonymity of the internet, ended up here, in jail in a country halfway around the world, accused of a brutal crime?
And how had Tomi Masters, by all accounts a sweet stoner and aspiring business owner from rural Indiana, become part of this sordid world? Why would anyone want her dead?
The answers to these questions are shrouded in a long history of lies. They are big lies and little ones; lies told out of vanity and lies told out of greed; 21st-century lies and much older kinds; lies told in court and posted to social media; lies about money and status; lies about life and death; a whole blanket of lies thick enough, at times and in places, to suffocate.
She was going on a date with Mac Miller.
The rapper was Tomi Masters’ favorite musician. And somehow, for some reason, he had been Snapchatting with her. That’s what Masters told her coworkers at American Original Collective, a medical marijuana dispensary outside Lancaster, California, a working-class city at the northern edge of Los Angeles County where scrubby subdivisions finally taper into the Mojave Desert. She had the snaps to prove it — from an account that seemed to her boss, Sean DeGroff, to be official. Masters sent the account pictures of herself, and she received messages in return calling her beautiful. The two had even set up a date to meet.
DeGroff was skeptical. “You are beautiful,” he remembered thinking, “but he’s gotta be getting that shit from like 4 million chicks.” What would Mac Miller want with a budtender from Lancaster? Plus, Miller, or whoever was claiming to be him, never sent pictures with his face in them.
Still, the account seemed legit. And really, from the day he first met her four years ago, a tiny dervish trimming plants at the dispensary’s grow operation, Masters had surprised DeGroff again and again with her ambition. Unlike a lot of people trying to break into the cannabis industry, she didn’t just want to be around weed. Masters was completely reliable, and more than that, she was driven. She told DeGroff, as she had told her family in tiny Modoc, Indiana (population: 196), that she had known forever that she wanted to work in the pot business. It had helped her put on weight, which she had struggled to do when she was younger, and now she wanted to help other people. She was going to do it, even if that meant leaving the state she’d lived in her whole life and hustling all the way from the middle of the country out to California.
“She was always a ball of fire,” her father, Shawn Masters, said. “She was good-spirited, but if you crossed her, she had a real ornery side.”
Some of DeGroff’s staff felt interacting with patients was a formality. Not Masters. Customers came to the shop in the throes of chemotherapy or in the end stages of cancer. Masters would listen patiently to their stories and try to find them a strain of marijuana well-suited to their specific pain.
“She never stopped giving,” said DeGroff. “She was such a powerful, energetic, positive person. She would never run out of juice. She was always running out there with a little chipper smile.”
As they got to know each other better, Masters became DeGroff’s “right-hand man,” and, he said, part of his family. She began to date DeGroff’s friend Tyler, whom he considered an adopted little brother. DeGroff started to call Masters “little sister.” Tyler and Masters moved in together. And with DeGroff’s encouragement, she started designing a line of branded weed accessories called Trippy Hippy. DeGroff thought she was destined for big things.
Last spring, Tyler moved to Tennessee for a new job. Masters, torn between her partner and her life in California, chose the latter. They broke up. It was only a few months later, in July, that Masters said she was going to meet Mac Miller, who had told her on Snapchat that she was beautiful.
Of course, it wasn’t Mac Miller who showed up at the Dave and Buster’s in Hollywood, where Masters had agreed to meet. Instead, it was an excruciatingly shy young man who introduced himself as TJ — Troy Woody. And he wasn’t alone. Woody was so insecure that he had asked a friend named Eric Taylor to come along to help manage the awkwardness of the situation; specifically, that he had catfished his date. Taylor, a 6’7” ex-hacker, would have towered over the 4’11” Masters.
But she didn’t run screaming. Instead, she seemed intrigued. Masters told DeGroff afterward that Woody claimed to run Mac Miller’s Snapchat, and even more interestingly, he claimed to be a hacker for the government. (It’s unclear whether Woody actually gained access to the actual Snapchat account of Miller, who died in September of a drug overdose. One source close to Woody said that he had sold Woody an official-seeming account, but that it wasn’t actually Miller’s.) And there was a good reason, or at least a reason, that he had hidden his identity. Masters told a family member back in Indiana that Woody was concerned she might google him and discover his past with UGNazi. Plus, even though he had lied to her, Masters told a close friend at the dispensary, the date had been a lot of fun.
“Tomi was very sweet, very outgoing, and she could see right through TJ’s insecurities,” Taylor said.
DeGroff didn’t buy it. “I thought it was really weird,” he said of the catfishing. “I told her, ‘Tomi, I’m 10 years older than you and that’s very sketchy. You can’t be in a relationship with this person.’”
But Masters and Woody quickly became inseparable. They kept up a constant chat, as Woody sent her snaps of huge wads of cash, of bottles of Dom Pérignon, of a Rolex on his wrist. He took her to meals at Nobu and Mastro’s, a Beverly Hills chophouse with $60 steaks. One morning after a date, Masters came into work at the dispensary and asked DeGroff if he had ever tried caviar before. DeGroff could hardly believe it was the same woman he had known for years. What did she want, he wondered, with this insecure, overcompensating liar? Masters was, as DeGroff put it, “beyond looks,” but there was something he found strange about Woody’s face, something he couldn’t quite articulate, and something completely unsettling about the way Woody covered his mouth and chin with his hand in every picture.
Friends around the dispensary speculated: Maybe Masters liked being spoiled. Maybe Woody confessed things to her in writing that he didn’t have the confidence to say out loud. Maybe Masters thought she could help him. Maybe Masters liked being with a man she was better-looking than because he would never leave her. Maybe she was just taking a vacation from her life.
A few weeks after the two met, Masters called in sick to work, which she had never done before. One day became two, then three, then four. Masters barely responded to DeGroff’s texts and calls. As a boss he was annoyed, but as a friend he was worried. On Masters’ fourth day out of work, a man whom DeGroff described as having criminal connections came into the dispensary.
“What’s up with Tomi?” the man asked. “Why is she asking me for a gun?”
Stunned, DeGroff asked for proof. The man turned over his phone, with a text from Masters.
“There’s a hitman after me and my boyfriend,” he says it read. “I need a gun that can’t have serial numbers on it.”
TJ Woody was still a boy when he began his career as a criminal on the internet. This was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because when his crew got busted for the first time, he was still too young to go to federal prison. But it also meant Woody spent the formative years of his life immersed in an amoral, paranoid, upside-down world of like-minded young men for whom lies, crime, and betrayal came as easily as keystrokes.
Woody first met Taylor on Xbox Live in 2011, when he was 13. The two moved their friendship to AIM, where, Taylor said, Woody began to tell him about the credit card numbers he had stolen online from his home in Virginia. Shortly thereafter, the boys were separately recruited by another, older friend into a new hacking group called UGNazi. He lived in the Bronx and his name was Mir Islam.
Islam had immigrated with his family to the US from Bangladesh as a child. According to a sentencing memorandum written by his attorney, Islam developed “bipolar disorder, chronic depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and ADHD” in his early adolescence, conditions that he found relief from by “immersing himself in online gaming, chatting, and other activities…an addiction both soothing and exacerbating his mood and attention disorders.” Islam dropped out of high school and “began spending 15-18 hours a day online without interruption or parental supervision.”
Around this time, Islam started UGNazi with the intention, he said, of protesting aggressive proposed anti-piracy and cybersecurity legislation — a common refrain among internet hooligans at the time, also offered up by the hacking group LulzSec. The members took on a stupefying number of fake names. But mainly, they were Gods: Islam was Josh the God, Taylor was Cosmo the God, and Woody was Osama the God. They and other UGNazi members became masters of social engineering, the practice of using publicly available information to lie to customer service people in an effort to fraudulently gain access to user accounts. Among the group’s dozens of successful targets were Cloudflare, 4chan, and UFC.com. They broke into the billing service WHMCS by impersonating a company spokesperson, and then leaked account data for more than 500,000 people.
UGNazi had a lot of hangers-on, but Woody was part of the main cast. As “Osama the God,” he took sole credit for taking down the Papa John’s website after the company, he wrote in a tweet from the main UGNazi Twitter account, “took 2hours longer than expected to deliver my food.” But if he was bold as a hacker, he was quiet and fumbling even in group chat; a follower. Islam seemed to be able to manipulate him. When Woody once told Islam that his parents wanted him to log off from an IRC server, Islam called the Woody residence repeatedly until, beleaguered, Woody signed back on.
In June 2012, Islam was arrested outside a Dunkin’ Donuts in Manhattan after accepting what he believed were stolen credit cards from an undercover FBI agent. It was part of a massive sting, Operation Card Shop, in which the FBI set up a fake forum for stolen credit cards to ensnare so-called carders like Islam and Woody. There was no code of silence in UGNazi; in fact quite the opposite. The bust triggered a chain of accusations among its members that continues even to this day.
For Woody and Taylor, the operation was a close call. Taylor, then 15, was sentenced in juvenile court to six years’ probation. (Islam has repeatedly accused Taylor of cooperating with the government.) Woody told Taylor that he had been raided by the FBI as well. It’s unclear if he served any time in juvenile detention, or if he cooperated with the investigation.
For Islam, then 18, the arrest marked the beginning of a six-year odyssey in the federal system. Many of the records related to his case remain under seal, but it’s clear from filings in US district courts in New York and Washington, DC, that Islam cooperated significantly with the government in the prosecutions related to Operation Card Shop. The problem was, he couldn’t stop committing crimes.
While out on bail for the 2012 arrest, Islam — with the help of other hackers — paid for the personal identifying information, including Social Security numbers, of dozens of celebrities and public officials, then published it. He doxed Joe Biden, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Kim Kardashian, too. He sent SWAT teams to the homes of cybersecurity reporter Brian Krebs, NRA President Wayne LaPierre, and several others. He falsely reported an active shooter at the University of Arizona, because, he admitted in court, he was cyberstalking a woman who was a student there. The law enforcement response cost the state $40,000. Islam spent most of 2013 to 2017, the same years Masters was making a new life for herself in California, in federal facilities.
In hundreds of pages of court transcripts, Islam emerges as a gifted ingratiator, quick with an excuse, who was perpetually on the verge of redemption — if only your honor would take a minute to listen. In 2016, he wrote a letter to his sentencing judge in the Southern District of New York explaining that he had completed a reentry program and could now see the light: “I had used the knowledge and skills that I had for wrong things, now I must use them for all the right I can do. … I would like to create a new project similar to PayPal so I can help the members of my society stop getting ripped off.”
In 2017 in the Southern District, Islam argued that he had violated his supervised release only because a government-issued psychologist changed his medication. (He told the court he was taking Depakote, which treats bipolar disorder and seizures; Wellbutrin and Effexor, antidepressants; Adderall, prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; and Gabapentin, an anticonvulsant.)
In 2018 in DC District Court, he told a judge that during his time in prison technology had passed him by, rendering him benign: “I can’t even hack my own Facebook page,” he said. “I am physically harmless. Now I am virtually — well, cyber harmless. A 13-year-old playing World of Warcraft is more dangerous than me online.” He also accused Taylor and Woody of attempting to set him up “multiple times” and “planting evidence” on him.
The last accusation stemmed from a disturbing incident that took place when Islam was out of prison, briefly, from late 2016 to early 2017. According to Taylor, Islam had convinced Woody to move in with him in New York, a claim verified by court records. The men were living in a penthouse in the Hyatt at Times Square, allegedly paid for with stolen Hyatt gift cards. (A tweet from Woody’s account confirms that they were staying at the Hyatt on New Year’s, 2017.) The men’s plan, according to Taylor, who visited them, was to sell counterfeit Kylie Jenner makeup online at a markup.
During the weeks at the Hyatt, Islam grew obsessed with a woman in their hacking circles. In January 2017, Islam traveled to Maryland to see her, one of many ways he violated the terms of his release. He later told the court that he “did it for love.” According to court documents, Islam left the woman threatening voice messages in which he claimed he would frame her for a crime at her university or put child porn on her father’s computer. A federal prosecutor described Islam telling of “his angry and agitated mental state including ascribing the violent, threatening and criminal behavior to a separate personality who he called Mr. Islam…who he talks to every night.”
The prosecutor went on to explain that the voicemails had been furnished by an “Individual X… an uncharged juvenile co-perpetrator of Defendant’s crimes that were the subject of his convictions” — identified by Islam in a court transcript as Woody. The government didn’t bring charges because, as the prosecutor explained, it would be easy for the defense to argue that Individual X was biased against Islam, and technologically sophisticated enough to fabricate evidence.
Islam fully admitted in court to sending the voicemails. But between them, the members of UGNazi had created such an impossibly toxic miasma of mistrust and lies that the voicemails were tainted as evidence, considered fatally unreliable proof of his criminality. Still, he ended up back in prison. One of the conditions of Islam’s release had been to report all of his internet-connected devices to his parole officers. According to court documents, he had failed to report 21 such devices.
In January 2018, only a year after the violations occurred, after a seven-year stretch in which he was continually either incarcerated or in the middle of a crime spree, Islam wrote to the Southern District asking for bail. “The defendant is not a flight risk,” he wrote. “The defendant is definitely not violent.” The district court denied the motion.
So he finished out his sentence. And on May 18, 2018, Mir Islam was a free man.
That summer, TJ Woody arrived in Las Vegas with big plans. No longer the junior partner in an anonymous hacking collective, Woody had embraced the surfaces of the social media age. While Islam was in prison, Woody had recast himself as an influencer. He had almost 200,000 followers on Instagram. He described himself as an “Early Crypto Investor.” And, according to most everyone who encountered him between last summer and Masters’ death, he had hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of bitcoin.
It wasn’t quite clear how he had so much money in the digital wallet he would show on his phone to people he wanted to impress. No one who knew Woody actually believed he had come by it legitimately. Maybe he social-engineered a password. Maybe he bought a login off the dark web. Maybe he simply bought the bitcoin with stolen credit card numbers.
But the money seemed real enough. For about a year, Woody’s Twitter and Instagram were a catalog of a 20-year-old suburban hacker’s idea of luxury. There were pictures of his watches, a Rolex and an even pricier Audemars Piguet; a video of a loose diamond in his fingers; a BMW; a bejeweled Ferrari T-shirt; sparkling loafers.
Woody had come to Las Vegas to meet a friend he knew from the internet who promised him connections with clout — people who might be interested in investing in an ICO. Eric Taylor, his old UGNazi partner, who had reinvented himself as a fashion model and cybersecurity researcher, also drove from Hollywood to meet him. But, according to a source, no one could stay focused on business. There were late nights with drugs, and Woody made promises of payments to potential business partners that never came through.
This source was suspicious of many of Woody’s claims. The BMW in his Instagram stories belonged to a friend. The watches looked fake. He had an eyebrow-raising number of Instagram followers for someone who didn’t seem to do much of anything. (A social media audit conducted by BuzzFeed News showed only a small fraction of Woody’s Instagram followers are real.) And if Woody did have all this bitcoin, why did he flake on those payments? His entire public existence seemed tissue-thin.
In July, Woody and Taylor left for California without an ICO to their name. Shortly thereafter, Woody met Tomi Masters, and together the couple moved into Taylor’s apartment in Hollywood.
Early in the morning of Sept. 4, 2018, Woody and Masters told friends at the time, a man broke into the apartment while they were there. According to three people who talked to Woody and Masters after the robbery, the couple said that the intruder held them at gunpoint while he stole Woody’s watches, phone, and computer. Woody told Taylor he was convinced that the assailant was after his cryptowallet, which was protected with an encrypted password; without it, there was no way to access the money. Still, he and Masters were terrified — whoever it was might come back and demand the password.
It’s unclear who stuck up Woody. Masters told a close friend from the dispensary that the thief had claimed to be an FBI agent, that he had acted bizarrely, and that she thought the robbery might have been staged. Taylor said he thought the intruder could have been any of the people to whom Woody bragged about his bitcoin. That left a lot of people for Woody to suspect. Woody filed a police report at 3 a.m. the morning of the robbery, but the incident summary offered by the LAPD is light on specifics and lists an address other than Taylor’s. It’s unclear if police even investigated.
“They were very scared,” the dispensary friend said.
It was then that Masters wanted to buy a gun. When Sean DeGroff, her boss from the dispensary, found out, he texted her saying how worried he was. Masters finally called him.
“I told her she’s not in Taken, this is not in a movie, this is not your life, this is not who you are and not the lifestyle that you live,” he said.
She told him in response that she had no choice but to help Woody.
“I need to help this guy get out of the country because he lost all of it,” DeGroff remembered Masters saying. “His phone, his wallet, his ID. He has no money but he has access to hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Desperate, Masters and Woody decided to hit the road. They drove first to Ohio, where they met Masters’ father, Shawn, for dinner. Then they headed on to Modoc, Indiana, to stay for a few days with Masters’ mother. Woody made a poor impression on the family. “He was not her ‘type’ at all,” Masters’ younger brother, Mitchell Weber, wrote in an email. “He was very rude to my sister during the visit. I didn’t like it and he was very quiet.”
There were darker signs than just Woody’s surliness. According to Weber, another of Masters’ siblings “noticed bruising around Tomi’s neck,” but said that Masters begged them not to tell her parents about it. Masters told the sibling the relationship was “not as bad as it seemed.”
Next, the couple headed to Virginia, where they stayed with Woody’s family. Masters told her father that they were there to get passports. She had started to tell friends and family that they were going to go to the Philippines for a vacation.
As it turned out, Mir Islam posed a flight risk. Only two months after getting out of prison, he left the US in violation of the terms of his release. Islam slipped past immigration by claiming to be someone else: his younger brother, who is confusingly also named Mir Islam, and presenting that Mir Islam’s Bangladeshi passport as his own. According to Philippine government records, the older Mir Islam, posing as his younger brother, arrived in the country on July 24, 2018.
For some time, Islam had been trying to convince TJ Woody to join him overseas, just as he had once convinced him to come to New York. According to three sources, Woody, rattled by the robbery, was receptive. In October, Masters posted an Instagram story of her passport with the caption, “It’s that time bitches.” She then posted another story, a selfie, standing over concentric neon circles on the floor of what appears to be the Abu Dhabi airport.
“Down the rabbit hole I go,” she wrote.
But Manila hardly turned out to be as exciting as Wonderland. The couple rented an Airbnb in Masters’ name, on the 14th floor of the Avida Towers, next to the highway in Mandaluyong, a bustling city in Metro Manila. After a few days of exploration, the thrill of travel wore off. According to her father, Masters, who had never before been outside the United States, said that she thought the Philippines was “crowded” and that “trash” was “all over the place.”
She stopped venturing out of her area. She sent friends a stream of photos of the onsite pool and the plethora of nearby malls.
“She said that was the only thing to do,” the friend from the dispensary said.
It was the only thing to do because, Masters told her father, she wasn’t allowed to go over to Mir Islam’s apartment, where Woody was spending most of his time. The two took an instant dislike to each other, Shawn Masters said. She told her father that Islam expected her to be quiet and deferential while he and Woody worked on their computers, and that she wouldn’t comply.
So Tomi Masters spent long days alone, growing resentful that her boyfriend wouldn’t explore the country with her, and wondering what, exactly, he and Islam were doing.
“Down the rabbit hole I go.”
The two men were purportedly at work on a startup called Luxr. The company’s outlines are vague. Islam had recruited a Los Angeles woman named June Komori to help with the marketing; Komori described Luxr as a service that allowed users to purchase securities with cryptocurrency. But even by the anything-goes, eat your own dick standards of crypto, it was not being run professionally. Komori was Eric Taylor’s ex-girlfriend, and described herself to BuzzFeed News as a UGNazi “fangirl” and “webcam stripper.” Komori and Islam referred to each other as boyfriend and girlfriend, but had never met in real life. There was a strange performative quality to it all; at one point, Komori posted to Twitter a meme boasting of the experience of dating Islam (it showed an expensive purse and a stack of $20 bills).
Masters began to express reservations to her family and friends. According to Mitchell Weber, Masters told him that Woody and Islam had “laundered bitcoin and sold drugs” and asked him not to tell anyone about it. Weber didn’t have any more details about the scheme, though, and couldn’t clarify whether the two were selling drugs and buying bitcoin with the proceeds, or they were separate activities. A friend of Masters’ confirmed to BuzzFeed News that Masters told her Islam “was doing weird drug and bitcoin stuff.”
What exactly Woody and Islam spent their time doing is unclear, but Telegram messages from Islam to Komori provide some hints. In one set of photo messages, Woody is sleeping under a blanket with his arm wrapped around a woman Komori described as a Filipino “massage girl.” Woody and Islam may have spent some time working on Luxr, but they had gone to the Philippines, Komori said, “to party.”
Even as he neglected his girlfriend, Woody was exerting a sinister control over her life. Friends back home started to suspect he was manipulating Masters’ social media accounts. One morning, back in California, Sean DeGroff woke up to several strange messages from Masters, including a photograph of her and Woody kissing in a bathroom — something she would never send him in a million years. Other friends received far more explicit pictures.
DeGroff sent Masters a message that read, “I don’t know if you hate me or not. It’s okay if you do. I want to let you know I love you and you’re welcome here and you’re welcome home.” There was no response.
The morning of Nov. 3, DeGroff awoke to another message from Masters. This one read, “I wish I listened to you. I wish I was home. I want to be home. Please don’t respond to this.”
Alarmed, DeGroff messaged another friend of Masters’ from the dispensary who was also in touch with Masters but asked that her name not be used in this story for fear of reprisal.
“I’m going to buy her a plane ticket back right now,” the friend wrote back. “I don’t trust them. She needs to leave but I can’t tell her what to do.”
A few hours later, DeGroff heard back from the friend, who had talked to Masters. “She’s staying,” the friend wrote. “Her boyfriend ditched his friends she thought he shouldn’t be hanging around anymore. I talked to her, she’s fine. She’s staying and she’s happy about it.”
But the fighting didn’t stop. In the middle of December, Masters called her father to ask for money. She and Woody had been in a terrible argument, she said, and she had shattered his laptop. Now she needed to buy him a new one. Shawn Masters told his daughter that if they were fighting so badly, she had to come home. She told him she would, and once she left she wasn’t going back. She wanted to return to her life at the dispensary.
For Islam, the couple’s explosive fights were a source of amusement.
“Tj’s life…it’s television for me,” Islam wrote in a message to Komori. “Lol, tomi broke tjs laptop, so tj told his mom he was gonna get rid of tomi. tomi called her dad and had him send $800 to tj to buy a new laptop…LOL.” An image of a laptop broken in half followed.
Around the same time, Masters canceled her plans to return to the US for the holidays. Worried, Masters’ friend from the dispensary told Tomi that she would visit for her birthday, on Jan. 11.
In the days before Masters’ death, Woody himself wrote to the friend, which he’d never done before. He asked if she was still coming for Tomi’s birthday. “Then he never wrote me back,” she said. “And neither did Tomi.”
Early in the morning of Dec. 21, when it would have been nighttime in Manila, Shawn Masters received a text from his daughter. He had called the night before because he wanted to know when she was coming home. No one had picked up. The message was strange, clipped, and punctuated in a way Masters had never seen from his daughter before.
“hi dad,” it read. “i am. sorry i was out walking around at the mall. i’m alive still. how are you? i love you.”
There was no blood on Tomi Masters’ body when police pulled it out of the Pasig River. There were no wounds. There were no obvious signs of harm. According to an autopsy, she had died of asphyxiation, suffocated possibly by plastic or a pillow, local authorities said.
Representatives from the US Embassy visited Islam and Woody on Dec. 26. An FBI agent saw them in detention before they were transferred to another jail. The case is serious enough that neither man will be deported. Islam and Woody will stand trial in the Philippines. According to the chief of police of Mandaluyong, they’re charged with murder, a crime that carries a minimum sentence of 20 years and a maximum of life. An initial hearing is set for early February.
Here are the facts: CCTV footage showed both men loading the box with Masters’ body inside it into a taxi. When he was detained, Woody was covered in scratches, on his hands, on his forearm, and on his belly. Each man told police childishly far-fetched stories: Woody, that a box containing his girlfriend’s body had shown up outside his apartment and he had helped dispose of it without asking what was inside; and Islam, that he had simply waited outside his friend’s apartment for two and half hours while Woody wrapped Masters’ body, which he also claimed not to know was in the box. The absence of strangulation marks on Masters’ neck contradicts Islam’s story about Woody choking her to death during sex.
But the lack of directly incriminating physical evidence, combined with the men’s steadfast adherence to their mutually incriminating stories, opened up just enough space for the fog of lies and doubt to seep in; speculation, much of it tendentious, fed on scraps of fact.
Shawn Masters told the Daily Mail that Islam had come up from behind his daughter with a plastic bag while she was struggling with Woody, which would explain the scratches. But, he told BuzzFeed News, he was just supposing.
Eric Taylor told BuzzFeed News he thought there was no way Woody could have killed Masters on his own. He must have been manipulated into it by Islam, who had been pulling Woody’s strings since he was in puberty. Taylor made dark references to chat logs he said he had seen incriminating Islam, but he never produced them. Taylor and Islam had been feuding in some way or another for years; could anything he had to say about his old hacking partner really be trusted?
Mitchell Weber, Masters’ younger brother, was sure that Woody and Islam had plotted to kill his sister because she was demanding to return to the US and she knew too much about their “drug and money laundering.”
June Komori, meanwhile, was positive Islam hadn’t done anything wrong. Her boyfriend, whom she has never met in person, was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. “Joshy would never kill anyone,” she wrote to BuzzFeed News, using Islam’s hacking nom de guerre, Josh the God. “He was always very kind to me, and I’d never be able to see him doing that.”
She said she had some compelling evidence. Recently, Komori said, she received a series of Telegram messages from Islam’s younger brother. They were screenshots of messages between Woody and Islam on Dec. 22; the younger Mir Islam explained that he had his older brother’s login information, and he had access to exculpatory details. Komori shared them with BuzzFeed News.
“Please come bro,” Woody wrote. “Drop everything. Come…Pls very fast.”
Islam told Woody that he got in a cab but that he was in traffic. They exchanged several 30-second phone calls.
“You really gone be here in 12 min. Bro,” Woody wrote in the screenshot. “My arms are cut bad.” He was at a Wendy’s, he said. “I don’t wanna get arrested lol. Looking like All scratched up.”
On first glance, the messages seemed to lend credence to the idea that Woody had killed Masters in a fight, and that Islam had come only after. But also, they contradicted Islam’s story about helping Woody move. And if he had only come after the killing, wouldn’t he have asked his friend why he was all scratched up? And what did they talk about during those phone calls? Plus, the messages had no context. They lasted only the duration of the cab ride.
Given Islam’s decadelong history of lies and deceit — including his documented threats to frame people for crimes — it’s impossible to take the messages at face value. In an interview with BuzzFeed News from the Mandaluyong City jail, Islam seemed extremely eager for authorities, and a reporter, to look at his phone; the proof that he was coming to help his friend move was in his search history. Both Islam and Woody, but especially Islam, seemed capable of creating a trail of fake digital behavior, such as the strange text received by Shawn Masters the night of the 21st. If Woody or Islam were already controlling Tomi’s phone that night, it’s possible she was already dead, casting further doubt on the veracity of the texts.
Indeed, there seemed to be no limit on Islam’s ability to manipulate. While Woody and Islam were locked up in the jail in Mandaluyong, they received frequent visits from a pair of women in their late teens or early twenties. Police openly speculated they were domestic help or sex workers. Islam made reference in his jailhouse interviews to a Filipina girlfriend. On Jan. 7, a woman with a Telegram account called “Jielyn” sent several messages to Komori. One was a picture of Islam shot through prison bars, sitting cross-legged on the floor and smiling. The other was a letter. “He told me to send this,” Jielyn wrote.
“June this is Josh,” it read. “TJ has a lawyer already. I need you now june. You want me to come back to USA, well I need to beat this case here then I can be deported. If you don’t get me a lawyer I do not know what will happen June. I am counting on you. I know you truly love, I need you now more than ever. Josh.”
Mir Islam was coordinating his defense, from behind bars, between two different girlfriends, one of whom he had never met and was the mother of his rival’s child. What other messages might he have gotten to his friends and family, or to anyone else? One of Tomi Masters’ friends sought an assurance that he didn’t have access to any electronic devices before they would talk for the story — this person was that afraid of Islam. How could anyone trust any story from or about him? At the same time, how could anyone trust any story from Troy Woody, who had been wearing masks and committing federal crimes since he was a child?
From a Manila jail cell, Islam and Woody had helped create such a toxic swirl of claims and counterclaims, impersonation, manipulation, suspicion, paranoia, and fear that we may never know the whole truth about Masters’ killing. That’s certainly the case if neither man confesses — and it might still be the case even if one of them does.
It’s become common these past few years to talk about the lack of a shared American reality. This discussion usually revolves around the political polarization of the country and the death of an agreed-upon, media-anointed account of true events, exacerbated by the bad faith actors and unprecedented scale of social media. From the grave of capital-T truth have sprouted a tangle of collective claims, some of them urgent and worthy and some of them manipulative or outright false. At best, these claims can represent the completely valid experience of groups ignored by the old top-down structures of information; at worst, they can falsely represent such or other experiences while serving the interests of, say, an intelligence service or a powerful shareholder or a political party. More and more often, we cannot even agree upon what we see with our own eyes.
But there is also a splintering of reality that’s happening on a much more granular level, among individuals. As the tools of online identity curation proliferate and grow more sophisticated, so do the avenues for deception. Everyone’s familiar with the little lies — a touch-up on Instagram or a stolen idea on Twitter. But what about the big ones? Whom could you defraud, trick, ruin, by presenting false information, or information falsely gained? An infinite number of individual claims to truth presents itself. How can you ever know, really know, that any piece of information you see on a screen is true? Some will find this disorienting, terrifying, paralyzing. Others will feel at home in it. Islam and Woody existed purely in this new world of lies and manufactured reality, where nothing is as it seems.
Yet underneath this shroud of deceit rests Tomi Masters, whose ashes sat in Manila for weeks after her death. The US Embassy explained to Shawn Masters that the government shutdown caused a six-week delay in bringing his daughter home. And so without her remains, there were two memorials for Masters. One was at a restaurant in Indiana. The other was outside the American Original Collective dispensary in California, where 150 people gathered on Dec. 30. Many were patients, people whose agonizing lives Masters had made more tolerable.
“She needed love,” Sean DeGroff said. “She wanted love. She gave out love unconditionally and got so little in return.”
In the chill of the candlelit night, they talked about what their dead friend had meant to them, what she had done and what she would never get to do. And they felt love all around them, because the stories they were telling about Tomi Masters were true. ●
Kimberly dela Cruz contributed reporting to this story from Manila.
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