Reality Bytes

The White House-cracking cybergang is gone. Now Houstonís most notorious hacker hopes to reboot his life and return to his love: computers.

Shortly before 8 a.m., Patrick Gregory throws on his overalls, grabs his utility belt and heads to the construction site off Beltway 8. This week, the half- Hispanic, half-German 22-year-old is working on a tubing company's office building. He labors with a handful of others until 6 p.m., nailing eight-by-four pieces of Sheetrock to the walls. By the end of the day, he's covered in dust, but he doesn't mind the work.

Gregory is tough and lean, with a shaved head and a black goatee framing a mouth that his mother says moves nonstop. That's why she likes him working here; it develops other muscles besides those around his lips.

After work, depending on the day, he either chills with his friends, checks in with his parole officer, sits through a court-ordered life-skills class or heads across town to pee in a cup. This last errand is easily remedied by store-bought masking agents. Nothing will come between Gregory and his weed.

Gregory's mother visited him regularly in prison.
Daniel Kramer
Gregory's mother visited him regularly in prison.
Gregory's mother visited him regularly in prison.
Gregory's mother visited him regularly in prison.

Then the day laborer will head back home to a low-tech existence in the modern universe of computers. He's working on a building that will be filled with the latest in electronic wonders and the technicians to operate them. Even in his house, his mother spends three or four hours a night in chat rooms, typing in German to good friends she has yet to meet in person.

Gregory himself will use Tupac to drown out her tapping keystrokes while he studies the latest issue of SC Magazine, poring over reviews of sophisticated security software such as the Oblix Netpoint 6. But chat rooms are off-limits to him, as well as simple online applications for jobs that don't require utility belts.

Four years have passed since he last touched a computer. A lot has happened since then -- he's been fired from two jobs, impregnated two girls and briefly shared an eight-by-ten room with a crack dealer.

An entire generation of high-tech advancements has passed him by in those four years of exile from PCs. And it will be almost 2005 before Patrick Gregory can legally sign on and send himself back into cyberspace heaven.

Until then, it will be wallboards instead of keyboards for the high school dropout who went from being an Internet pioneer to the pirate who could boast of electronic plunders that reached into the White House.

That was the heady era when the notorious Mosthated and his gang, Global Hell, ruled the Web.

Allyn Lynd fielded the first call in late 1998: Administrators in the Dallas County Community College District were baffled over an $18,500 teleconference bill that had come out of nowhere.

A 32-year-old West Point grad, Lynd was a determined up-and-comer, a guy who left the army on a Friday and joined the FBI the following Monday. When the bureau's Dallas office wanted computer-savvy agents for its new Cyber Squad, Lynd was one of the first volunteers.

He hadn't joined the squad to combat high phone bills, but the college administrators were adamant. Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Yarbrough was also hesitant to get involved -- the feds usually don't bother with anything under $25,000. But since it was a public school, Yarbrough figured he and the bureau should check it out.

The charge was made to the Dallas system's Brookhaven College teleconference line, which offered classes over the phone for students who worked full-time or lived too far away to drive to the campus every day. All they had to do was enroll, dial an 800 number, enter a college-issued PIN and listen to their professor over the phone.

Brookhaven bought the system's software from Latitude Communications, a San Francisco tech company with clients throughout the country. Lynd poked into Latitude's network and discovered that someone had broken in and downloaded the software and customer list.

The intruder was using a stolen PIN in order to call into Brookhaven's teleconference system. That much was clear. Now all the bureau needed to do was find out who was calling and from where.

Agents got their break when an unauthorized caller accidentally kicked on the system's recording function, devised for students who want to tape class lectures. Yarbrough and the Cyber Squad now had the means to see what they were up against. It turned out to be hundreds of callers.

Once in, the callers would listen silently until the professor said "class over." Then they'd flood the channel and set up what Yarbrough calls "multiple breakout rooms" -- guerrilla bull sessions on how to crack passwords, or attack a Unix system, go after Apple, whatever they wanted. They called themselves Global Hell and used the initials gH.

"We began to realize that this so-called $15,000 case was sort of a 1-800 teen hacker chat line for hundreds of hackers around the country," says Yarbrough, now in private practice. (In the lingo of computer enthusiasts, "hackers" refers to those who use their knowledge for criminal purposes as crackers, although both terms were used in court documents and interviews involving the Global Hell activities.)

Listening to the tapes, agents discovered the leader went by the name of Mosthated. He and his cronies had transformed a sedate community college into their gang's lair.

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