When computer hacker Kevin Mitnick arrived at a Calabasas parking garage for a meeting with his friend Lenny DiCicco four weeks ago, DiCicco reached up and casually scratched his head, a prearranged signal to federal agents hiding nearby.
Quickly, with the sound of screeching tires and shouted commands, a half dozen men closed in and handcuffed Mitnick. "Len, why did you do this to me?" Mitnick asked as he was being led away, DiCicco recalled later.
"Because you're a menace to society," DiCicco replied.
Law enforcement authorities couldn't agree more. Mitnick, 25, an overweight, bespectacled San Fernando Valley computer junkie known as a "dark side" hacker for his willingness to use the computer as a weapon, has been accused of causing $4 million in damage to computer giant Digital Equipment Corp. in Massachusetts.
Described by one investigator as a sophisticated criminal whose computer was an "umbilical cord . . . to his soul," he also is charged by a federal grand jury with illegally copying Digital software valued at $1 million.
But those are just the latest in a decade-long series of accusations against Mitnick, whose high school computer hobby turned into a lasting obsession. He roved Los Angeles, allegedly using computers at schools and businesses to break into Defense Department computer systems, sabotage business computers and electronically harass anyone--including a probation officer and FBI agents--who got in his way. He also learned how to disrupt telephone company operations and disconnected the phones of Hollywood celebrities such as Kristy McNichol, authorities said.
So determined was Mitnick, according to friends, that when he suspected his home phone was being monitored, he carried his hand-held keyboard to a pay phone in front of a 7-Eleven store, where he hooked it up and continued to break into computers around the country.
"He's an electronic terrorist," said DiCicco. "He can ruin someone's life just using his fingers."
Over the last month, three federal court judges have refused at separate hearings to set bail for Mitnick, contending there would be no way to protect society from him if he were freed from his cell at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles, where he is awaiting a Feb. 21 trial date.
Not Just a Prankster
Although there is a subculture of "whiz kids" around the country who break into computers for fun, and they occasionally are caught by local authorities, they traditionally wind up with no more than a slap on the wrist or a short term in jail or juvenile detention facilities, according to Jay BloomBecker of the National Center for Computer Data, an information firm in Los Angeles.
But Mitnick is being treated as anything but a prankster. Prosecutors say he is the first person to be charged under a tough federal interstate computer crime law. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted of three counts.
Mitnick's lack of conscience, authorities say, makes him even more dangerous than hackers such as Robert Morris Jr., the Cornell graduate student who is suspected of infecting computer systems around the country with a "virus" that interfered with their operations. Morris has not yet been charged with any crimes.
Mitnick's motive for a decade of hacking?
Not money, apparently. An unemployed computer programmer, he drove a used car and was living with his wife in his mother's modest Panorama City apartment at the time of his arrest.
"He's gotten nothing out of it except jail," said DiCicco.
Mitnick's family and attorney, however, accuse federal prosecutors of blowing the case out of proportion, either out of fear or misunderstanding of the technology. Mitnick's wife, Bonnie, a clerk who met her future husband when he sent a message to her computer asking for a date, said prosecutors are portraying her husband as a technological magician who "could turn dogs into chickens."
His mother, Shelly Jaffee, a Panorama City waitress, said her son never even owned a computer and is not smart enough to pull off such sophisticated crimes. She acknowledged that he once won a $300 prize at a fair for cracking a display computer's security code, but she attributed that more to luck than anything else.
By all accounts, Mitnick was a bright but undistinguished boy in school. He enjoyed sports and fiddled around with the Rubik's Cube, a puzzle craze. He wasn't particularly good with it, said Jaffee, who was divorced when Kevin was 3. "He was just a normal, typical kid. He was not a whiz kid," she said.
In fact, Mitnick disliked school, where he was unpopular, friends said. Aloof and a loner, his appearance didn't help. He acquired the much-satirized look of the computer fanatic: shirt tail hanging out, horn-rimmed glasses and pens in his breast pocket.
"There was always something slightly out of place," said one educator who knew Mitnick as a student in a computer class.
An Interest in School