Four Kids From South Florida Led the World's Biggest Online Identity Heist | New Times Broward-Palm Beach


Four Kids From South Florida Led the World's Biggest Online Identity Heist

Andres Torres was dozing on a couch with the blinds drawn when he heard a chorus of boots pounding the stairs. The pudgy retiree with a fringe of white hair hobbled toward the door just as quiet settled over the yellow building of one-bedroom condos. In the distance, cars hummed off the Palmetto Expressway and onto Bird Road.

Then, suddenly, a burst of husky voices sounded in the open-air hallway. A battering ram splintered his neighbor's door. Torres scuffled toward the sound, his mouth hanging open.

Federal agents in riot gear swarmed past.

"Are there terrorists in there?" Torres asked. An agent sent him back inside. The retiree watched through a crack in the blinds as the feds hauled out a cash-counting machine and computer gear.

It was May 7, 2008, just before 5 p.m. With military precision, agents at that moment were raiding five other homes. There was a red-tile-roofed house in Coral Gables, a one-story home in Pinecrest, and an apartment just south of Killian Parkway. A hydroponic marijuana grow house in West Kendall was also targeted. Cops even burst into Room 1508 at the National Hotel, a celebrity hangout at 17th Street and Collins Avenue in Miami Beach.

The lawmen confiscated more than a dozen computers and $422,000 in cash. They found evidence on the hard drives linking the computers to massive online thefts from huge companies such as T.J. Maxx, 7-Eleven, and Dave & Buster's. More than 170 million credit card numbers worth hundreds of millions of dollars had been stolen by a criminal ring stretching from the United States to Latvia, from Ukraine to Thailand.

It was the biggest identity theft case ever prosecuted. And at its heart were four gifted hackers born and raised in South Florida: Albert Gonzalez, AKA "soupnazi," had broken into NASA's systems as a teen and later worked undercover for the Secret Service; Jonathan James, known as "c0mrade," earned national fame at age 16 as the youngest hacker incarcerated; and James' best friend at Palmetto Senior High, Christopher Scott, was in custody too, as was Stephen Watt, AKA "Unix Terrorist," a blindingly smart, seven-foot-tall prodigy from Melbourne.

During trials and investigations that are still underway, extraordinary stories emerged of lavish, drugged-out parties and chartered cross-country flights on a whim. The fallout has included millions of cheated consumers and hundreds of millions in costs to businesses. For the gang, there were two-decade-long federal sentences, massive fines, and — for one member — a bullet through the head. With all its Miami-style excess, the case reeks of the cocaine cowboy days but with a sprig of new World Wide Web flavor.

"I think Albert and his crew got started like me, with hacking just for the thrill and the intellectual pursuit and basically thinking it was all a game," says Kevin Mitnick, the most wanted hacker in America before his 1995 arrest and now a security consultant. "But at some point in his life, Albert figured out he could make a lot of money hacking for profit. He liked that. And that's when everything changed."

Jonathan James and Albert Gonzalez grew up just 15 minutes apart in quiet, residential neighborhoods south of downtown Miami. Both showed an early genius for computers, and both were interrogated by the FBI in high school. The pair even seems to have joined the same online gang, the Keebler Elves.

Yet they likely didn't meet face-to-face until Gonzalez's senior year of high school in 1999.

Jonathan's dad, Bobby, is a computer programmer from outside Pensacola with a thick goatee, a twinge of a Panhandle accent, and a dry sense of humor. He moved to Miami in 1982 with his wife, Joanne Jurysta, a brunette with a dazzling smile.

Jonathan was born in 1983, the year the family settled into a ranch-style home on SW 72nd Court in a leafy enclave of Pinecrest. Three years later, they had a second son, Josh. Bobby had a good job programming for Miami-Dade County, and the boys were raised upper-middle class and Jewish, attending arguably the region's best private grade school, the pricey Temple Beth Am.

When Jonathan was 6, he began spending whole days on his dad's PC. By middle school, he had switched the family PC from Windows to Linux so he could have more control over the code.

Jonathan's parents were thrilled at his gifts but also wary of his disobedience. Once, when the boy was 13, his mother took away a computer after catching him online in the middle of the night. "He ran away from home and called to say that he wouldn't come back until he got his computer back," Bobby remembers. "We asked the police to trace the call, and he was at this Borders bookstore that was, like, four blocks away."

Later, Bobby tried more desperate measures — slicing the phone lines that ran through his son's bedroom to kill the internet. Jonathan rebraided the filaments.