Four Kids From South Florida Led the World's Biggest Online Identity Heist | Feature | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida

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

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Albert Gonzalez's parents, meanwhile, were waging a similar battle a few miles north in a Spanish-tiled home at SW 32nd Street and 64th Avenue. Their son was almost two years older than Jonathan and born to Cuban immigrants. His mother, Maria, had won a visa lottery on the island in the early '70s and moved to South Florida. Around the same time, his father, Alberto Sr., built a raft with two friends and launched it into the Caribbean Sea.

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.

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Tim Elfrink is an award-winning investigative reporter, the managing editor of the Miami New Times and the co-author of "Blood Sport: Alex Rodriguez and the Quest to End Baseball's Steroid Era." Since 2008, he's written in-depth pieces on police corruption, fatal shootings and social justice issues across South Florida. He's won the George Polk Award and has been a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink

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