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Genius Unplugs, Puts Life on Hold : Famed Computer Whiz, Hacker Spurns Money for Existence on Street

March 19, 1989|ARMANDO ACUNA | Times Staff Writer

In the small park in front of Horton Plaza, the downtown shopping mall, the usual assortment of drifters, derelicts and screaming street-corner proselytizers are gathered on a warm afternoon.

On a patch of grass next to the historic fountain, near two watchful cops who have slowly strolled by, lies a long-haired young man dressed in a blue jacket and camouflage pants. His eyes are closed, the sun etching deeper into his tanned face.

"You Bill Landreth?" he is asked.

"Yeah," comes the soft, friendly reply, as he sits up.

"You Bill Landreth, the computer hacker?"

"Oh, yeah," he smiles.

Maybe the policeman was right. "You can talk to him, but it's like talking to a Cheshire cat," he had said moments before.

Was Known as 'The Cracker'

So begins a recent encounter with William Troy Landreth, former high-school whiz kid who, just six years ago, was an underground hero to computer hackers nationwide, who knew him only by his code name, "The Cracker."

In a highly publicized crackdown, the FBI came down on Landreth, then 18, and a handful of the other original hackers. To the authorities, Landreth was a security threat, a teen-ager who used a personal computer and telephone in his suburban bedroom in Poway to tap into supposedly secure computer networks used by the Department of Defense and National Aeronautics and Space Administration, among others.

It was 1983, the same year of the popular movie "War Games," in which a young computer hacker almost starts World War III by mistake.

Computer trespassing was still so new there was no federal law against it. The government finally turned to one of the oldest "high-technology" laws on the books: wire fraud.

Landreth eventually pleaded guilty to a single count of wire fraud, was fined $87 for using someone else's computer time and was placed on three years' probation.

The crime brought the shy Landreth notoriety, led him to write a book about his exploits--that soon will be reprinted--and provided him work as a business consultant, showing companies how to ward off computer intruders like himself.

Today, the 24-year-old Landreth spends his nights in homeless shelters, if he can get in. Sometimes, when he is organized enough to get money, he rents a flophouse room. Otherwise, a concrete doorway passes for a bed. He doesn't drink alcohol, but he smokes marijuana as often as he can get it, he says. And he prefers passing sunny afternoons lounging in the park.

Somewhere in the process of growing up, Landreth turned away from the worldly success his keen mind--IQ 163--could easily bring him. The genius that enabled him to penetrate deeply into computers led him on a search for his version of freedom--life on the streets "where it's simple to live."

His hair is brown and shoulder-length; he has a wispy mustache and he is thin for someone 5-foot-8. He is extremely polite, a trait he's always had, according to friends and family. Though he is sociable, he is introverted. He has never had a driver's license and relies on buses for transportation.

Landreth says he's been diagnosed as a manic depressive, and, after a court-ordered psychiatric exam, was prescribed several anti-depressant and mood-enhancing drugs. But they all made him worse, he says, and he stopped taking them. The last was lithium, which he hasn't had in a long time. What's remained, however, are the deep valleys of depression.

Turning on the Switch

In conversation, Landreth is straightforward and lucid, though he often punctuates his sentences with smiles and muted laughter, as though privy to inside jokes or playing a game. Occasionally, he rambles aimlessly. He is, despite his current condition, supremely confident in his ability, the talent to control computers and to be paid handsomely for doing so. All he has to do, he says, is turn on his switch.

"I could set up a data-base system for a company and walk away with a few thousand dollars for five or six hours work, and they'd never regret it," he said during one of two interviews with The Times. "The five or six thousand for five or six hours of work would interest me, but I haven't fallen for it."

He views the concept of money almost as a curiosity, though he understands the freedom it can buy--if he wants it to.

"It seems that money would look so simple to people," Landreth says. "Some people have been collecting money for a lot longer than I would be able to collect money for. . . . I didn't inherit a great deal of money that's been accumulating for several eons, so I wouldn't know how to look at money."

If money at the moment has no meaning, neither does planning for the future.

"It's difficult to say what might happen, overall. Every 30 seconds is highly unpredictable," Landreth says. "I'm usually working on a system of feedback that I don't try and second-guess. I would say that's how I'm working."

First Computer at Age 13

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