Internet whiz kid and Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz, facing trial in February in a controversial computer-hacking case, committed suicide in his Brooklyn bedroom, cops said Saturday.
Swartz, 26, left no note before his Friday morning death in the seventh-floor apartment at a luxury Sullivan Place building, police sources said.
His girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, found Swartz’s body hanging from a belt just inside his bedroom window, sources said.
Swartz’s death, ruled a suicide by the city medical examiner, came two years to the day after his arrest on allegations of breaching a computer network to download millions of pages of documents kept at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
His trial on federal felony charges, which carried a possible 35-year prison sentence and $1 million fine, was set to begin in February. Swartz had pleaded not guilty.
Grieving family members said the federal prosecution drove Swartz to suicide.
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” his family said in a statement. “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.”
Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, who could not be reached for comment, paid his respects to the Swartz family via Twitter.
Other colleagues remembered Swartz’s exceptional mind.
“He was brilliant, and funny,” said friend Larry Lessig, a Harvard Law professor, in a blog post. “A kid genius. A soul, a conscience.”
Swartz was a computer prodigy who designed his first website at age 13 — and dropped out of high school after just one year. At 14, he helped write the RSS program that alerts users to new blog posts.
He later co-founded the social news website Reddit, enjoying a financial windfall in 2006 when it sold to Conde Nast’s Wired Digital.
The self-educated Swartz was admitted to Stanford as a sociology major, but he dropped out after a year as well. He also founded Demand Progress, an Internet group that campaigns against Web censorship, and became known as a cyber Robin Hood — providing free Web content to one and all.
In 2008, he single-handedly made 20 million pages of federal court documents available, for free, before the government shut him down. The pages were typically sold for 10 cents apiece.
“His stunts were breathtaking,” wrote longtime friend Cory Doctorow on his blog. “Aaron accomplished some amazing things in his life.”
In addition to severe financial woes caused by his legal fight, Swartz had written for many years about his struggles with depression. He also wrote about death.
“There is a moment, immediately before life becomes no longer worth living, when the world appears to slow down and all its myriad details suddenly become brightly, achingly apparent,” he wrote in a 2007 post titled “a moment before dying.”
Neighbor Ricky Weissman, 31, said he believed Swartz lived with Stinebrickner-Kauffman in the Crown Heights home and kept a low profile.
“Not a lot of people in the building knew much about him,” Weissman said.
Swartz was indicted in 2011 after allegedly swiping 4.8 million scholarly papers and other documents from JSTOR, an archive of academic articles.
While working as a research fellow in Harvard University’s Safra Center for Ethics, he purportedly used automated software to download the data from JSTOR — based at MIT.
“We have all lost someone today who had more work to do, and who made the world a better place when he did it,” Doctorow said.
Founded in 2005, Reddit prides itself on its strong belief in free speech and allows registered users to post and vote up or down on pictures and articles visitors upload. Uploads with the most votes go to the top of the specific category of interest, known as a “reddit,” and are featured prominently on the main page.
Yet the site’s loose content rules have led to a number of controversial “subreddits” featuring underage girls and pictures of dead bodies, as well as pages titled “incest,” “Choke a bitch” and “Rapejokes.