Longform

Hack Pack

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As cops entered the house, Bobby grabbed the lead agent's arm. "Listen, the bedroom you want is the first one in the hallway," he said. "In the back bedroom, my wife is 21 days postmastectomy. She will not be happy to see you."

From Jonathan's bedroom, the agents took five computers, a cache of burned CDs, and — bizarrely — his Klingon-language dictionary. "They thought he'd used it as an encryption tool, I guess," Bobby says, laughing.

Like Albert, Jonathan had hacked into NASA's computers. But the younger hacker had gone a step further. He had intercepted more than 3,000 emails and stolen data from 13 computers. The boy had even downloaded the program that controlled the climate on the International Space Station.

On March 20, Jonathan admitted he'd hacked the government and he belonged to the Keebler Elves. Prosecutors weren't satisfied. They were angry he'd told other hackers about his bust, which meant he couldn't be used in a sting. In September 2000, at age 16, he was sentenced to six months in a juvenile facility and probation until he was 21.

Jonathan wasn't contrite. The day after his sentencing, he called the Miami Herald to brag. He sent a photo of himself in dark shades and black clothes, strutting like Neo from The Matrix, his favorite movie.

He said he'd hacked BellSouth, the Miami-Dade public school system, and many others. "All the girls thought it was cool," Jonathan told the newspaper.

His hacking, he said, had helped the government by showing weaknesses in the system. Jonathan's dad felt impressed, even if warning bells were ringing. 

"He really didn't feel that he'd done any malicious damage," Bobby says of his son. "But in hindsight, he was already showing some sociopathic tendencies. He truly felt that rules were meant for everyone but him."

In early 2007, Albert sat at a desk dwarfed by a towering mound of wrinkled cash. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in $20 bills were heaped in unruly piles as he chatted online with friend Stephen Watt.

Albert laughed as his automatic counting machine choked on the cash. "I'm trying to manually count over $340,000," Albert wrote to his buddy. "My f'n money counter just broke, 340,000, and it's all in 20s. ROFL!"

His grand criminal enterprise — which he called "operation get rich or die tryin" — had already brought regular payments of $10,000 or more from Eastern Europe, laundered through Latvian banks and then delivered by courier to drop boxes in South Florida.

In just a few years, he had evolved from hacking for fun to masterminding a series of massive online heists, to some extent with the help of Jonathan. Also involved were two of their friends from South Florida hacking circles, Stephen Watt and Chris Scott.

Albert had met Stephen when both were high school hackers. The seven-footer from Melbourne — a savant who graduated at age 16 from Melbourne Catholic High — had won admirers online by founding a hacking cartel called Project Mayhem. Chris, Jonathan's best friend at Palmetto Senior, was an overweight social misfit with a gift for computers. The four friends, according to Chris's mom, probably encountered one another at meetings of an underground hacker magazine called 2600 in 1999, when Albert was a high school senior.

Now, years later, the four had combined to hack into databases of some of the largest U.S. retailers and lifted millions of credit card numbers. They then manufactured cards using some of the stolen data. "These guys all started like me, hacking just to see what happens at first when you're still a kid," says E. J. Hilbert, a former FBI undercover agent who worked several cases connected to Albert's criminal ring. "Then you have to show off just to show what you can do. Finally, you... steal... That's when things really get serious."

But there was something the gang didn't know about their leader, Albert Gonzalez.

It had all begun after the handsome young Cuban with lively eyes and a buzzcut graduated from South Miami High in 1999. He enrolled in classes at Miami Dade College but soon dropped out to move to New York for a programming job with FortuneCity, a dot-com start-up. When the site went belly-up a year later, Albert found work with European engineering giant Siemens. A few months later, though, Siemens closed Albert's office and asked him to relocate to Pennsylvania.

He refused. Palomino says Albert had by then developed a drug habit — pot, cocaine, and amphetamines. He hooked up with a group of hackers that ran a site called ShadowCrew (slogan: "For Those Who Wish to Play in the Shadows!"). Their message board offered hackers a place to discuss topics such as "recreational pharmacy" and "physical ops." Mostly, though, it was a safe haven to buy and sell stolen credit cards.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink