By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
Two days later, a U.S. submarine found the men in the Florida Straits and called a cutter to rescue them. Alberto Sr. lived in Chicago for a few years and then moved back to Miami to start a landscaping company. After he met Maria and the couple married in 1977, they bought the house in Southwest Miami-Dade.
Young Albert earned money during summers picking up grass clippings for his father's landscaping jobs. By age 8, he'd saved enough to buy a PC. He flashed his natural brilliance two years later when a computer came down with a virus. "It upset him that his computer wasn't working right," says Rene Palomino, a family friend who, like Alberto Sr., was a deacon at the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, and who later represented Albert as a lawyer. "That's how his fascination with what a computer is and how it works really started."
Like Jonathan's parents, Alberto Sr. and Maria began to worry that their rail-thin, pale son spent too much time online. "He was fascinated by this new technology," his sister, Frances Gonzalez Lago, says in a letter filed in court. "He would sit at the computer for hours at a time. He went from being an extroverted and talkative kid to quiet, introverted, and obsessed."
But the Cuban immigrants also hoped their son's skills could land him a lucrative career. "His dad said, 'It's better than him getting high or running around with gangs,' " Palomino recalls.
That attitude didn't last long. When the boy was still in grade school, Alberto Sr. grew so worried about his son's disobedience that he talked some friends in the local police force into helping him stage a fake arrest to try to scare him straight.
It didn't work. Halfway through his freshman year at South Miami High, when Albert was 14, real FBI agents walked into principal Thomas Shaw's office and asked to speak to the gawky kid with short-cropped dark hair.
Albert, it turned out, had been using stolen credit card numbers to buy CDs, shoes, and videogames. He'd have them shipped to empty houses for sale and then pick up the goods late at night.
He'd also been hacking for fun. Once, he'd found his way into the government of India's main site, where he left offensive jokes: "Why are your women so ugly?" and "What's with the red dot?"
But that's not what alerted the FBI. In early 1995, Albert had hacked into NASA's servers, Palomino recalls: "[The FBI investigator] said, 'We have no interest in prosecuting a 14-year-old. But we need to know: How did he do it?' "
Later that month, Palomino, Albert, and Alberto Sr. gathered in the FBI's Miami office. An expert spoke with the boy for more than four hours. "Hours in, the guy pulls us into the hallway and says, 'This kid is amazing. He's running circles around me,' " Palomino recalls.
The feds agreed to not file charges if Albert's parents took away his computer for six months. The boy returned to South Miami High, stayed out of trouble, and graduated in 1999.
But Albert was already developing a split personality. In public, he seemed like a decent student and computer savant. In the privacy of his bedroom, online, he transformed into "soupnazi" — an aggressive, macho hacker.
The summer after he graduated from high school, "soupnazi" talked to ZDNet magazine and boasted about breaking into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's system for the Keebler Elves gang. "Defacing a site, to me, is showing the admins, the government... that we own them," he bragged.
Albert was never pegged for that crime.
Jonathan James wasn't so lucky. On January 26, 2000, just before 8 a.m., Bobby James got in his car to leave for his job at county hall. He noticed a Pinecrest Police cruiser in his neighbor's back yard but didn't think much of it.
Suddenly, the lights flicked on. Bobby pulled over. As an officer walked up, three dark-tinted Lincoln Continentals screeched to a halt. His stomach dropped. "What did Jonathan do now?" the father asked.
The past year had been difficult. Jonathan had been suspended from Palmetto Senior High, where he was a sophomore, after he was caught stealing computers from a lab. Then his mother, Joanne, had been diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer. She'd recently had a mastectomy.
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.