Looking for Lucifer

Authorities use high-tech tactics to try to stop cyber critics bedeviling a city

Broward Sheriff's Detective Jonathan Brown lets his suspect, a veteran City of Deerfield Beach employee, know that he has the goods:

The detective has found out who left the comment on the blog.

"We have forensics, all kinds of forensics — computer forensics, for example," Brown tells his subject during a videotaped interview in a cramped, soundproofed interrogation room. "Whenever we get a case where we think something is going on, we can send it to the FBI and the FBI does some research. And I'm going to tell you, the FBI is very thorough when it comes to computer stuff. Those boys have degrees and a lot of other things.

"A lot of times, we get things that look like a Homeland Security issue and we'll send it up [to the FBI], and they'll come back to us and say, 'This is your guy.' "

The implication: That the man sitting at the small table with Brown on August 30 — Deerfield native and longtime political activist Wayne Adams — is the guy. He's the one who made what officials deemed a "terrorist threat" that supposedly sent a shiver of fear through City Hall and prompted BSO to hunt him down in cyberspace.

But this case ultimately is about more than Deerfield. It raises serious questions about free speech and Internet privacy and when, exactly, criticism of public officials graduates from a complaint to a crime.

And it raises one more question that remains a complete mystery: Who the hell is the Deerfield employee known as "Lucifer"?

It began with a comment posted on the muckraking blog Deerfield Beach Insider. From the blog's inception in August, its anonymous operator, who is widely believed to be a Deerfield employee, made waves by writing about alleged mismanagement and favoritism in the city's public works department.

The Insider's most frequent targets have been Public Works Director Carl Peter and division chief Jim Graham, who were accused on a weekly basis of corruption. Some of those charges were at least partly backed with evidence; some were just unsubstantiated rumors.

On August 8, someone anonymously responded to one of the blog's posts with a comment that prompted seven employees, led by Graham, to gather in Deerfield City Manager Mike Mahaney's office the next day and complain that they feared for their lives.

Here's the part of the comment they found unsettling:

"Nothing will be done until somebody brings in a gun and shoots up the whole place. Then watch Mahaney get off his ass and fire Carl Peter and Jim Graham! It will be too late when bodies are laying all over the place!"

Mahaney says he considered the comment a terroristic threat and contacted BSO, which began an investigation. It wasn't hard for Det. Brown to find his man.

The Insider blog is hosted by a company called Blogger, which is owned by Internet giant Google. Brown subpoenaed Google for the Internet protocol address — an ID number, essentially — of the computer the comment came from.

BSO spokesman Jim Leljedal says Google quickly complied with the subpoena. The IP address it supplied was for Wayne Adams' BellSouth account.

Just like that, the storied anonymity of the Internet was shattered.

I asked Google about its policy regarding such requests. This is how a spokesman — who oddly asked that he not be named — replied:

"Google does comply with valid legal processes, such as court orders and subpoenas. These same processes apply to all law-abiding companies. At the same time, we have a legal team whose job is to scrutinize these requests and make sure they meet not only the letter but the spirit of the law. In this regard, Google has a history of being an advocate for user privacy."

Indeed, Google last year fought the Department of Justice on a Patriot Act subpoena on the grounds that it was excessive and invaded Google users' privacy. A judge ruled in Google's favor on that one.

It's hard to argue with Google's compliance in this case or the decision by Mahaney to go to BSO. While it wasn't an overt threat, the mention of shooting up the place crossed a line and couldn't be ignored. At the least, BSO had a responsibility to make sure there wasn't somebody planning an attack on City Hall.

But I happen to be acquainted with Adams. He was a key source for stories I wrote earlier this year on the street rivalry between Haitian and African-American youths in Deerfield. I know him to be a meticulously law-abiding guy who grew up in the city and cares deeply about the place. He's a union steward who speaks out on issues large and small. Wayne Adams is the stuff democracy is made of.

"It was basically a warning about what could happen if somebody doesn't pay serious attention to the problems in our department," Adams says of his now-notorious comment.

While Adams went overboard on the blog, there are undeniable problems in the city that date back to the ignominious reign of former City Manager Larry Deetjen, who was fired last year after a racist outburst.

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