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.
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.
Yarbrough and Lynd also discovered that Global Hell had a Web site where members bragged about their exploits.
The more agents investigated Global Hell, the more they saw they were dealing with something new. They had been accustomed to cracker groups forming only brief alliances, never staying together long enough to do much damage. Global Hell was different -- it was tight-knit and targeted many commercial sites. They weren't just conducting typical straight defacements of Web sites and denial-of-service attacks, which flood a site with so many hits that it crashes. This was flat-out racketeering.
Take the gang's raid on Ameritech -- one day thousands of potential customers logged on to the phone giant's Web site, only to find a topless model with the words "gH fucking owns me" scrawled across her breasts. But with Global Hell, the systems administrator would receive a phone call or an e-mail from Mosthated. He'd threaten more damage unless Ameritech, and whoever else they decided to hit, paid up.
Yarbrough calls it cyberextortion. And, he says, more often than not, the companies paid.
Global Hell's members weren't personal friends, they were just attracted through like-minded cracking. Most of the members were teenagers, but Global Hell also included a Microsoft employee, systems administrators of an Internet service provider (ISP) in San Francisco and an ISP owner in Illinois.
The more Global Hell grew, the more it tried to take on. In April 1999, Mosthated hit an ISP called 1688.com and posted the owner's banking information, including his opening and current balances. A Global Hell member named Neoh broke into Pakistan's national Web site and posted a photo of a morbidly obese woman in a bikini, seductively eyeing the camera and holding a beach ball. An uncredited member broke into Macweek.com and posted the bogus headline "Apple merges with Intel!"
Cyber Squad agents gradually gained information by monitoring the teleconference calls and located two Global Hell crackers in Dallas who became informants. Their help led the FBI closer to Mosthated and his hometown, but the stakes were quickly escalating into international proportions.
In May 1999, the accidental NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade caused crackers to break into U.S. government Web sites; Global Hell targeted the White House Internet site itself.
White House officials said they discovered the attempted breach before the crackers were able to deface anything, but they still had to shut down the site for more than a day. However, a Web site called attrition.org posted what it calls a "mirror" of the violated White House site, which reads, "Why did we hack this domain? Simple, we fucking could. Maybe this will teach the world a fucking lesson. Stop all the war."
Around that time, India and Pakistan were in a heated arms race complete with missile and nuclear weapons testing. And each country thought the other was cracking into its intelligence agencies' computers. They soon discovered it was another strike from Global Hell -- a 16-year-old named Hamster in Georgia was the intruder. Yarbrough says intelligence agencies from the two countries offered the teen top dollar to crack the other's sites.
This was getting ridiculous. It was time for the feds to take down Global Hell.
Patrick Gregory snapped awake inside the ranch house he shared with his mother and stepfather in Houston. It was 6 a.m., and someone was pounding on the front door. He wanted nothing to do with whoever it was.
They kept at it, even leaning on the doorbell. Gregory rolled over in bed and flipped the light switch. No power. Not good.
He slid out of bed, shuffled across the living room floor, opened the front door and suddenly faced a wall of FBI agents decked out in flak jackets. An arm poked out of the throng and shoved a search warrant in his face.
He had to know it was coming. You can't rip off phone companies and crack into the White House without pissing off some pretty powerful people. Gregory stepped aside and, in a flash, there was an agent in every room. They'd turned off the power to prevent him from spreading the word to his partners.
Agents frisked him on the floor, but there wasn't much to search -- he was still in his boxers. Afterward, sitting on the couch, he was quizzed by two agents as others snapped photos of everything they planned to take.
"We know who you are," an agent said. "You're Mosthated."
Was Mosthated, Gregory thought. He'd been legit for a while. But that didn't matter, because by then the investigators had wandered into the tiny computer room in back and discovered ground zero of Global Hell.
In that room, only a matter of feet from a kitchen table festooned with miniature porcelain cows, was the computer equipment linked to Web site break-ins of the White House, NATO, the United States Information Agency, then-vice president Al Gore, Ameritech, U.S. Cellular, the state of West Virginia, the University of Washington, government Web sites in Malaysia and Pakistan, and dozens of others.
Agents walked past fake plants and knee-high Native American sculptures as they hauled away modems, CD-ROMs and notebooks. The FBI was also at work in 11 other federal jurisdictions, raiding the homes of 16 Global Hell members. At the time -- May 1999 -- it was the largest cybercrime raid in U.S. history.
And it would be the long-anticipated meeting between two self-taught computer whizzes, one of them now wearing a badge.
Agent Lynd had interviewed lots of really dim bulbs during his FBI career, but he noted that this tan, skinny kid had some savvy as well as leadership skills. The teen spoke calmly, in a deep voice peppered with street slang and geek lingo, his tough-guy demeanor betraying a hint of a lisp.
Lynd, the West Point graduate, and Gregory, a C.E. King High dropout, were both self-taught computer experts. Growing up in Southern California, Lynd's father sold computers, and one day he brought home a steel-console Wang -- a founding forefather that looked like a cross between an IBM Selectric and a washing machine, with all the powers of a solar-powered calculator. Ever the technological pioneers, the Lynds later invested in an Apple II when Allyn was 13, paving the way to his future fighting cybercriminals.
Gregory hardly shared that stable upbringing by the time he saw his first computer.
His father was a U.S. soldier who married a native German, Gabriele Buhles, while he was stationed at a base in West Germany. He then split shortly before her 21st birthday, not long before she gave birth to Gregory.
When her son was still in kindergarten, Buhles remarried soldier Gary Gregory, and when he quit the army, they settled in his hometown of Houston. He was often on the road as a truck driver, while Buhles worked as a secretary in a biochemical plant. The couple divorced after nine years, and mother and son moved into a nearby trailer park in northeast Houston.
Buhles remarried in two years and moved into their current house off U.S. Highway 90. She says Gregory and his new stepdad didn't get along, and that his first stepfather dropped him as soon as he found a new wife and they had a boy of their own.
But Gregory was a precocious kid, always talking, becoming the class clown. He says he always did well in school, but his antics held him back. He'd finish his tests before everyone else, then get bored and get in trouble. By high school, that meant hitting on girls.
"My hormones are going crazy," he says of those days. "What do you want me to do -- stand here and recircle my answers, or talk to the girl next to me with the little short skirt on?"
It got worse when Gregory began being raised on a mutt computer stitched together by his second stepfather. Gregory spent time on primitive bulletin board systems, playing games like Lord of the Red Dragon. His mother spent hours every night conversing with online friends in Germany. Soon Gregory was in the chat rooms rather than in class at King High School.
"I tried to get into honors classes ever since I was, like, in seventh and eighth grade," he says. "They wouldn't let me, because of my" -- he deliberately draws out these next two words -- " 'behavioral problems.' They wouldn't let me expand my knowledge."
Gregory, fascinated by the new world of the Net, found it was easier for him to connect with other teens online rather than in person. Later, when he went to computer conventions or conversed with acquaintances about computers, people shuddered at the way he talked.
"Even when I was on the phone, trying to sound intelligent, or trying to hide the fact that I grew up out here and didn't have a computer my whole life and tried to sound as professional or as educated as I could, I would still sound 'black' or 'from the ghetto.' "
Online, he could demonstrate his talents -- even his survival skills -- on his rugged frontier.
"When I first got on the Internet, it was like everybody on there was fighting," Gregory says. "When chat channels first started, people wanted to take over chat rooms and control them and kick people out So you either had to learn how to do it or learn how to defend it."
He learned how to freeze other people's computers or kick them offline completely. He did this enough that his family's first ISP dropped their service. It wasn't a big deal. It was all in the name of learning.
"You never got a rule book when you signed up for the Internet," he says.
Gregory's confrontational ways with other users led him to choose an online moniker for himself, Mosthated.
By age 16, his neighborhood and C.E. King were changing dramatically from white flight. Gregory says he didn't have one white friend left, and he ran with Hispanic and black kids who often got in trouble.
"They thought it was gangs," he says of the school administration. "It wasn't gangs. It was the culture changing around here."
Eventually King administrators ordered him to an alternative school, where he'd be forced to wear a tie and behave. Gregory cringed at the idea and decided to just quit.
He found work clerking for a solar turbine company and picked up extra money fixing friends' computers, installing CD-ROMs, upgrading Windows and wiring systems into the Internet.
Gregory also got high, got busted for marijuana possession and, when he was 17, was convicted of assault. Gregory has explanations for every time he's gotten in trouble. In his mind, every charge was trumped up.
And his escape hatch was always in the hardwired heaven of the Internet. His cyber-roamings led him into an online friendship with another techie known as Mindphasr, who would turn out to be Chad Davis, a 19-year-old sandwich shop employee in Ashwaubenon, Wisconsin.
They kicked around their philosophies and realized that Mosthated and Mindphasr were kindred spirits. Out of that alliance came Global Hell.
While the havoc wreaked by the online gang drew grudging admiration from investigators, nobody involved was ready to concede that creative genius was behind their exploits.
As the case came together, Lynd realized he wasn't on the track of any Kevin Mitnick, the world's most notorious cracker. The FBI agent saw it as the difference between Rembrandt and someone who went to art school to learn to paint like Rembrandt.
"He could make it sing, there's no question about it," Lynd says. "But he wasn't going to be writing code à la Independence Day, where it takes out the alien fleet."
In fact, Lynd viewed Gregory and the bulk of Global Hell as the cyberequivalent of gangbangers.
"If they hadn't had computers, [they] would've basically been sitting on the street corner popping people with pistols," he says. "It's just the fact that they just had computers instead of guns and drugs."
Yarbrough, the former prosecutor, agrees. "This guy overnight brought a gang mentality to the Internet." He calls Gregory the self-styled Al Capone of the Internet, deciding who could be in Global Hell and who they'd go after next. He says sometimes Gregory wouldn't let others join the gang until they pulled off their own crack.
Usually they relied on scanning programs that searched thousands of networks at a time, looking for flaws. Gregory likens it to stealing cars from a parking lot. If you have the time, you just scour the entire lot, flagging unlocked doors and moving on. Only Global Hell was sending its little thieves into cyberspace to check the locks on thousands of networks at a time.
While agents portrayed them as hard-core criminals, Gregory could be downright gracious, leaving notes behind to advise systems administrators on how to secure their operations.
His note to the American Retirement Corporation, cracked in January 1999: "Well, Mr. Admin, simply run the file restore in your /root directory and everything will be back to normal. If you need to reach me about your system, simply e-mail me, and I will hopefully be of help to your system. [Global Hell] didn't hack your system to destroy your documents, nor to misuse your system, mainly to show you and the internet community that sekurity [sic] is a must "
While the group pulled off some clean hacks, it was at times incredibly clumsy, leaving what Yarbrough calls "digital footprints" all over some Web sites. Not knowing how to scrub the prints, the gang would just crash the network.
Yarbrough likens it to a sloppy house burglary, saying, "If you leave too much evidence, just burn it down."
"What Patrick was doing was not sophisticated," Yarbrough says. "This is one of the reasons why I've got such safe employment for the next 20 years -- because corporate America doesn't really want to concentrate on these issues. And so people like Patrick can just get online, spend a week or two in their bedroom and can play Matthew Broderick for a day in WarGames."
Investigators may have assured themselves that these crackers weren't really that threatening, but nobody would be prepared for the flurry that followed the first round of raids.
Just like a gang, Global Hell retaliated.
First came the U.S. Interior Department.
Global Hell members broke into the Web site and wrote, "[The] FBI declared war by raiding lots of gH members. Now, it's our turn to hit them where it hurts by going after every computer on the Net with a '.gov' prefix. We'll keep hitting them until they get down on their knees and beg."
They even shredded the defenses of the U.S. Army.
Davis -- Mindphasr -- had his personal computer seized by agents in a Wisconsin raid. So he turned to a library computer to invade the army's Web site. By the time he left it, users could view his parting shot on the army's system:
"Global Hell is alive. Global Hell will not die."
More rage came in a coup de grâce even as the raids unfolded. Members went straight to Lynd's turf: the FBI Web site. They launched a distributed denial-of-service attack, sending so many hits that the bureau had to close the site for two days.
"We really just spit in their face," Gregory says. "Say, man, you just kicked our leader's door down; we're gonna kick your leader's door down."
International publicity followed. Wired Magazine called it "one of the government's most embarrassing and notorious cyber cracking cases ever." 20/20 interviewed Gregory in prison. He was profiled on the front page of The Wall Street Journal and covered in wire stories throughout the world. Mosthated was elevated in some coverage as a virtual Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, a former criminal so charming that you can't help but forgive his past.
Agencies came into their own embarrassment at the break-ins. During a Milwaukee court session, Chief U.S. District Judge J.P. Stadtmueller ridiculed the army for failing to "do its homework" to safeguard against attacks. "It's not only disturbing, it's galling," he said.
Even the U.S. attorney prosecuting the case called the army "less than diligent," saying computer personnel "basically left the doors unlocked over the weekend."
Gregory says that what he and Mindphasr had in mind all along for Global Hell was not racketeering but pointing out vulnerabilities as a sort of public service.
"If you tell somebody -- especially the army -- 'Somebody can break into your system through this door that everybody knows about; are you gonna fix it?' " he explains. "And if somebody finally comes through that door, why should you punish that person that came through that door?"
Punishment wasn't problematic for the authorities, however. Not when Global Hell had wreaked damage estimated at between $1.5 million and $2.5 million.
Out of all the group's crackers, Gregory got hit the hardest. It was the price of being the leader, and of not being a juvenile. Basically, he was going to take the fall for everything -- after all, he gave out the PINs that led to the conferences that led to some of the worst cracking up until that point. Plus he had a record -- he had already served time for assault and marijuana possession.
Worse yet, Gregory certainly didn't radiate remorse at the computerized carnage -- or other criminal acts, for that matter.
Ten days before he was supposed to drive to Dallas to plead guilty to telecommunications fraud and cracking, he was arrested in Houston for breaking into a house and stealing a car. He says he didn't do it; his mother says he did. While the judge, Gregory's public defender, and a prosecutor waited for him in Dallas, Gregory was locked up in Harris County. (Gregory's public defender, Carlton McClarty, said he could not be interviewed for this story without Gregory's consent, which Gregory never gave.)
When he got out of that jail, Gregory finally made it to Dallas, pleaded guilty and served 18 months in a medium-security prison. He's also been ordered to pay $155,000 in restitution. His biggest punishment went beyond all that: The judge banned him from computers for four years.
His prison term came and went without incident. Gregory played basketball, read his computer magazines, wrote his mom and helped other inmates with assorted entrepreneurial business plans. He reveled in the rerun of a 20/20 segment on his exploits -- Gregory became a minor celebrity as other inmates watched him in the TV room.
Even his own mother seemed to accept his crimes as those of a mischievous child. "He can be a brat, trust me," she told a television interviewer. "I've been with him for 19 years."
Gregory himself came to condemn the coverage. He lashed out at prosecutors' descriptions of him running a criminal gang. "I don't appreciate his slanderous terms," he says. "That's where a lot of hearsay gets started, and that's where shit gets started, period."
He says it's that coloring of his character that made his story more compelling, which consequently turned him off of the media. Reporters, he contends, just perpetuated the Mosthated myth, never understanding why he did what he did. But no matter what he does, he says, he will always carry that persona.
"Me on paper will never be looked at by anybody that reads it in a positive attitude, because there's really nothing positive about me," he says. "I'm a solo person, and I really don't care about people around me besides my family. The only person I have is my mom.
"On paper, I just be, 'Well, this person that really don't give a shit, he don't like police officers, all he does is get into trouble, he's got drugs on his record, he broke into the White House, and now all he does is work like a wetback.' You know? On paper, there's really nothing that can come out of it."
Gregory says he matured in prison, but he's been in trouble since his release.
He's been fired from two jobs -- one at Wal-Mart, the other working on railroad cars at the port of Houston -- and has been jailed twice for marijuana possession. Trial is pending in one of those cases.
He insists that he had already quit cracking and started a legitimate computer security business when the FBI raided his home. Before the Global Hell busts, a software client in Austin had paid him $25 an hour just to sit there and guard the system, he says.
The young man so comfortable with computer codes still has trouble with personal relationships, it appears. Just before the FBI raid, he found out his 16-year-old girlfriend was pregnant, and he needed money. The couple broke up after she aborted the baby behind his back, he says.
He's also impregnated an 18-year-old who already has one child. Gregory never admitted he is the father, but he waived his parental rights in order to put the child up for adoption after the birth, which is expected in late May.
Gregory says the woman from the adoption agency showed him a picture of the adoptive family's big house and yard. It was more than he could provide, so he didn't think twice about giving the child up.
When asked about the baby's gender, he says, "I believe it's a girl."
His own focus appears to be squarely on another due date: December 2004, when he'll be delivered from the court-ordered exile from the world of computers.
That countdown comes with ample apprehension as he shoulders Sheetrock and studies trade publications to prepare himself for re-entry into cyberspace. Gregory wants to go back into the computer security field, but he's wary of the same fate that befell master cracker Kevin Mitnick.
After Mitnick served more than four years in prison, he tried to make an honest living off his immense understanding of dishonesty. But so many crackers targeted his Web site, just because of his notoriety, that his security business was just about destroyed.
"Once I do get out there, just because of who I am, they're going to be attacking me all day long," Gregory says. "That's like Saddam Hussein trying to go out there and get a job Everybody in the world is gonna be like, 'Well, Patrick Gregory's on the computer He ain't shit, you know?' "
But Buhles has more faith. She sees her son turning his life around once he's allowed back online. After all, he was so damn good at what he did.
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"I know he'll take up computers again," she says. "Sometimes I'm not sure he doesn't have a computer chip in his head."
And maybe one in place of his heart. All the problems -- the criminal record, the personal conflicts, the romantic relationships that crashed -- may be impossible to delete when he finally reboots his life in front of the computer screen.
However, nobody can mistake what Mosthated most loves.
"I probably like my computer better than probably anything in the world," he told an interviewer. "It don't talk back to me, it just sits there. I can turn it on when I want to."