SAN DIEGO — 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.
Among them is William Troy Landreth, a young homeless man with a genius-level IQ who at age 18 became an underground hero to computer hackers nationwide. A pioneer in the craft, he was known at the height of his fame only by his code name: The Cracker.
To authorities, including the FBI, Landreth was a security threat, a teen-ager who used a personal computer and telephone in his bedroom in suburban Poway, north of San Diego, to tap into supposedly secure computer networks used by the Department of Defense and NASA, among others.
In a highly publicized crackdown, the FBI came down on Landreth and a handful of the other original hackers. 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 so new then that 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 one count of wire fraud, was fined $87 for using someone else's computer time and placed on three years' probation.
The crime brought Landreth notoriety, led him to write a book about his exploits that will soon be reprinted and provided him with work as a consultant who showed 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 said. And he prefers passing sunny afternoons lounging in a small park in front of Horton Plaza.
His hair is brown and shoulder-length; he has a wispy mustache and he is thin for someone 5-feet-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. His IQ has been measured at 163, well into the genius category.
Landreth said he has 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 said, and he stopped taking them. The last was lithium, which he hasn't had in a long time. What has remained, however, are the deep valleys of depression.
In interviews with The Times, Landreth was straightforward and lucid, though he often punctuated his sentences with smiles and muted laughter, as though privy to inside jokes or playing a game. Occasionally, his conversation rambled, then suddenly became very precise. He is, he said, despite his current condition, confident in his ability to control computers and to be paid handsomely for doing so. All he has to do, he said, 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. "The five or six thousand for five or six hours of work would interest me, but I haven't fallen for it.
"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."
Landreth, the eldest of nine children, was 13 when he bought his first computer at the local Radio Shack store, using money his parents paid him for baby-sitting. "He really took an interest in it," said his mother, Susan Fourmyle, who lives in Vista.
Both Landreth and his mother said he had much freedom as a young teen-ager, freedom to come and go and freedom to sit in his bedroom for 20 hours at a time playing with his computer. Part of the reason, he said, is that his parents were occupied chasing their own Utopian dreams, moving from Poway to Alaska to Hawaii and back to California in the mid-'80s.
Eight years ago, Landreth's parents changed their last name to Fourmyle, taking on the name of a character in the science-fiction novel "The Star's My Destination" by Alfred Bester. Landreth's father, Gulliver, formerly in the import-export business, is a fledgling science-fiction writer given to sweeping mood swings that require him to take lithium, according to his wife, Susan.
'Kind of Sad'
She said in an interview that she thinks her son, whom she rarely sees, and her husband are afflicted with similar demons. "It's really kind of sad," she said. "Billy needs psychiatric help. He needs lithium. He doesn't recognize he has a problem.
"I suggested he get treatment, but he thought we were calling him crazy and took it very negatively," Susan Fourmyle said. "I'm real concerned about him . . . what he's doing is a dangerous way to live."