Kevin Mitnick wasn't the only prominent figure in the computer hacking world closing out a major phase of his career last week. David Schindler, one of Mitnick's prosecutors, was also making something of a curtain call.
Mitnick was sentenced to 46 months in prison and ordered to pay $4,125 to the companies he victimized. After the hearing, Schindler said he is leaving the U.S. attorney's office after a 10-year stint during which he won convictions of a list of defendants that reads like a hacking hall of fame.
Besides Mitnick, Schindler also prosecuted Kevin Poulsen, Ron Austin, Justin Petersen and Lewis DePayne--more hackers than any other federal prosecutor has faced.
Along the way, Schindler played a leading role in a number of major white-collar crime cases, most notably winning a conviction of former Arizona Gov. Fife Symington on bank fraud charges in 1997.
"I've had just a fabulous run in this office," Schindler said. "I've been fortunate to have the greatest mix of cases I could ever have imagined."
Nevertheless, Schindler is leaving in October for a position as a partner in the law firm Latham & Watkins, where he will be part of the firm's vast intellectual property team and where his salary will easily exceed the $115,000 a year he earned as a federal prosecutor.
During his years as an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, Schindler built a reputation as an unflappable litigator--circumspect, forthright and respected by even his adversaries.
"He is an exceptionally talented prosecutor," said Richard Sherman, who represented DePayne and, for a short while, Mitnick. "In the Symington case, he was fighting a well-financed political giant, and he acquitted himself admirably."
There was a recent setback in the Symington case. A federal appeals court overturned the conviction, ruling that the judge in the case improperly dismissed one of the jurors. Schindler said the government has asked the appeals court to reconsider.
At 37, Schindler is about the same age as the hackers he prosecuted, and though he may not relish the thought, he has a few things in common with them. Like most, he is a native Southern Californian, unusually disciplined in his craft and with a head for the complexities of computer crime.
But unlike many hackers, Schindler was never particularly interested in technology, was fairly popular in school and came from a stable family. His father, now deceased, was a courtroom translator. His mother is an executive with a music publishing company.
Schindler earned a degree in psychology from UC Berkeley, a law degree at UCLA and joined the U.S. attorney's office in 1989. Over the course of the next few years, Southern California became a hotbed of hacking crimes, and Schindler handled the high-profile cases.
None of the cases ever went to trial. But he extracted guilty pleas from Poulsen and Austin, who had rigged radio station call-in contests to win a pair of Porsches; Petersen, who once illegally wired $150,000 from a bank; Mitnick, who swiped source code from giant technology companies; and DePayne, Mitnick's longtime accomplice.
With those cases behind him now, Schindler offered his thoughts on those defendants.
Poulsen "really generates the most complicated feelings for me," Schindler said. "He was probably the brightest, and he had the ability to create more harm. But I'm proud of him and the way he's turned his life around."
After serving his five-year sentence, Poulsen has established a budding career in journalism, writing stories for Wired magazine and columns for ZDNet.com.
Austin was "an unfortunate follower," Schindler said. "I don't think I've ever seen anybody as frightened as he was when he was arrested. It was clear he was not cut out for a life of crime." Austin now works at a computer store in West Los Angeles.
Petersen, a flamboyant hacker known for schmoozing minor celebrities and porn stars, was behind some of Schindler's more embarrassing moments. Petersen engaged in illegal hacking even while working as a government informant. When Schindler confronted Petersen about this at the federal courthouse, Petersen ducked out of their meeting, ran down the courthouse steps and became a fugitive.
"What a piece of work," Schindler said. "I don't think I've ever met a person in my life who has had so many aborted attempts at walking the straight and narrow, someone whose own arrogance has caused him to self-destruct so many times."
For his part, Petersen's occasional comments about Schindler are mostly unprintable. Petersen was recently released after a probation violation, and is now reportedly trying to start an Internet porn company.
Schindler seems to have the most contempt for Mitnick. He is a "strange, in some senses pathetic, misguided human being," Schindler said. "I don't hold a lot of confidence that he will turn his life around."