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.

Wayne Adams had some second thoughts about his blog comment.
c. stiles
Wayne Adams had some second thoughts about his blog comment.

"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.

Deetjen was dogged by allegations of corruption, mismanagement, and cronyism. Now his former loyalists who remain at the city — known to some as "Larry's Leftovers" — are under fire. Their numbers include Peter and Graham, who have been accused of poor management.

Mahaney responded to the dissension by hiring a new assistant public works director, Charles DaBrusco, a former administrator in Parkland. DaBrusco is in the process of investigating the department.

"I told him to find out what are we doing right, what are we doing wrong, and I've asked him to get specifics," Mahaney says. "I don't want to hear 'I don't like him.' I want specifics. Clearly, there are problems, but I come in with no preconceived notions. As far as I'm concerned, everybody in the entire organization comes in with a clean slate."

Even more recently, the city hired an auditor to investigate claims that millions of dollars have been misspent during the construction of a new public works building.

Adams has been a steadfast critic of Deetjen and the former manager's loyalists, whom he claims have continued a tradition of cronyism that reaches throughout the city.

He's not happy about being called to the carpet for his posted comment.

"I feel they violated my First Amendment rights," Adams says. "No public official should be beyond being criticized. This was management trying to get back at me for complaining about hiring practices."

Adams does, however, say he regrets mentioning a gun in his comment: "I never should have written that part."

On August 30, when Brown called him in for an interview at BSO, Adams says he didn't know what to expect. But the detective soon made it clear he was there to talk about the comment on the blog, which Adams didn't immediately admit to writing.

"These blogs are a chance for people to communicate, to vent...," Brown philosophized. "But when you hit 'send,' it's gone, and you can't take it back."

The detective explained his mission to Adams: "I'm the guy that's going to type this up and take it to the bosses. Now, I have to make the determination whether this is a guy who is maniacal and a liar, or am I dealing with a frustrated employee?"

Then he went into the spiel about the FBI — though it's not clear that the feds were involved in the case — and asked the key question:

"Did you write that, the blog right there? It's very important."

"I did write one, but I don't know if that's it," Adams replied.

"You know what you wrote, Wayne. Don't cross that line with me."

"If I did write it, listen to me closely: I didn't mean nothing about shooting someone."

"There's a chance you didn't write it? ... It's a hot topic with the whole city right now. It's a hot topic."

Brown showed Adams the evidence he'd compiled from Google and BellSouth.

Adams again told him that he never meant anything as a threat.

"You know what I think you meant it as? A figure of speech," Brown said, his stance suddenly softening. "It's simple mathematics here. I've heard that figure of speech before. It's a way of saying 'the shit will hit the fan if you don't do something.' "

Then Brown distinguished himself from the city "bosses":

"We work off the law; they work off politics. You're not going to get railroaded here," he assured Adams.

Brown and his BSO bosses determined that no crime had been committed, which I think was an obvious call. They forwarded their findings to Mahaney, who suspended Adams for one day without pay. The city, meanwhile, has begun a process to install new security measures in its public works buildings.

But there's still one aspect of the BSO investigation that remains a mystery: Someone calling himself "Lucifer" has sent more than 100 harassing Nextel text messages during the past year to Peter and Graham.

An example of one sent to Peter:

"U incompetent fuck! Donate your check to the Red Cross, you don't fucking deserve it."

At the end of Brown's interview with Adams, the detective indicated to Adams that he had traced the Nextel messages to his computer.

"We also subpoena text messages... and it's coming right back to you," Brown told Adams.

It was a detective's trick; the text messages couldn't be traced because they'd been sent via Sprint Nextel's website.

Adams vehemently denied sending the text messages, and Brown ultimately said that he never really suspected Adams of it. The real culprit, Brown believes, is a supervisor in Adams' department.

The latest known message from Lucifer was sent on September 28.

"Take this message to BSO motherfucker," the harasser wrote to Graham — who promptly did just that.

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