A Hacker Vanishes : Computer Whiz, Missing Since September, a Source of Mystery

Times Staff Writer

Early one morning in late September computer hacker Bill Landreth pushed himself away from his IBM-PC computer--its screen glowing with an uncompleted sentence--and walked out the front door of a friend's home here.

He hasn't been seen or heard from since.

The authorities want him because he is "the Cracker," convicted in federal court in 1984 of breaking into some of the most secure computer systems in the United States, including GTE Telemail's electronic mail network where he peeped at NASA and Defense Department computer correspondence.

He was placed on three years' probation. Now his probation officer is wondering where he is.

His literary agent wants him because he is Bill Landreth the author, who has already cashed in on one successful book on computer hacking and who is overdue with the manuscript of a second computer book.

The Institute of Internal Auditors wants him because he's Bill Landreth the public speaker who was going to tell the group in a few months how to make their computer systems safer from people like him.

Susan and Gulliver Fourmyle want him because he is the oldest of their eight children. They haven't seen him since May, 1985, when they moved away from Poway, first to Alaska and then to Maui, where they now live.

And his friends want him because he is crazy Bill Landreth, IQ 163, who has pulled stunts like this before and "disappeared" into the night air--but never for more than a couple of weeks and surely never for 2 1/2 months. They're worried.

Some people think that Landreth, 21, has committed suicide. And there is clear evidence that he considered it--most notably in a rambling eight-page discourse that Landreth wrote during the summer.

The letter, typed into his computer, then printed out and left in his room for someone to discover, touched on the evolution of mankind, the prospects of man's immortality, the defeat of the aging process, nuclear war, communism versus capitalism, society's greed, the purpose of life, computers becoming more creative than man and-- finally--suicide.

The last page reads:

"As I am writing this as of the moment, I am obviously not dead. I do, however, plan on being dead before any other humans read this. The idea is that I will commit suicide sometime around my 22nd birth day. . . ."

The note explained:

"I was bored in school, bored traveling around the country, bored getting raided by the FBI, bored in prison, bored writing books, bored being bored. I will probably be bored dead, but this is my risk to take."

But then the note said:

"Since writing the above, my plans have changed slightly. I have, in the past months, been kept busy dispersing the moneys in my bank account, and at this moment it is fairly low. Don't get me wrong; I still have plenty to live on . . . and I have about an additional $1,000 in checks that I have not bothered to cash. But the point is, that I am going to take this money I have left in the bank (my liquid assets) and make a final attempt at making life worthy. It will be a short attempt, and I do suspect that if it works out that none of my current friends will know me then. If it doesn't work out, the news of my death will probably get around. (I won't try to hide it.)"

Landreth's birthday is Dec. 26 and his best friend, among others, is not counting on seeing him again.

'Not Much Point to Life'

"We used to joke about what you could learn about life, especially since if you don't believe in a god, then there's not much point to life," said Tom Anderson, 16, a senior at Escondido's San Pasqual High, who also has been convicted in federal court of computer hacking and placed on probation.

Anderson was the last person to see Landreth. It was about Sept. 25--he doesn't remember exactly. Landreth had spent a week living in Anderson's home so the two could share Landreth's computer. Anderson's IBM-PC had been confiscated by authorities, and he wanted to complete work on his own book.

Anderson said he and Landreth were also working on a proposal for a movie about their exploits.

"He started to write the proposal for it on the computer, and I went to take a shower," Anderson continued. "When I came out, he was gone. The proposal was in mid-sentence. And I haven't seen him since."

Apparently the only things Landreth took with him were his house key, a passport and the clothes on his back.

Had Taken Off Before

Anderson said he initially was not concerned about Landreth's absence. After all, this was the same Landreth who, during the summer, took off for three weeks in Mexico without telling anyone--including friends he had seen just the night before his departure.

But concern grew by Oct. 1, when Landreth failed to keep a speaking engagement with a group of auditors in Ohio, for which he would have received $1,000 plus expenses. Landreth may have kept a messy room and poor financial records, but he was reliable enough to keep a speaking engagement, said his friends and his literary agent, Bill Gladstone.

"We thought that maybe he went to some mountain retreat to get his book done, as authors sometimes do," said Gladstone, noting that Landreth's second manuscript was due in August and had not yet been delivered.

But, the manuscript never came and Landreth did not reappear.

Bedroom a Mess

Among those dumbfounded by Landreth's disappearance is Holly Edwards, a San Diego nightclub topless dancer who advertised last spring for someone to share a three-bedroom home with her and another friend in the Clairemont area of San Diego. Landreth answered the ad and paid a third of the $950 monthly rent.

She described him as quiet and unassuming--never moody. She said that his bedroom was a real mess but that he was fastidious in the rest of the house. He'd stay up late at night working quietly on his computer but religiously took time out to watch Late Night with David Letterman on television.

Edwards said that she and Landreth developed a warm platonic relationship, that he was generous and gentlemanly. "And he was very polite--so polite," she said. "It freaked me out sometimes. One time I came home and said, 'Oh, my feet are killing me'--I'd been in high heels for eight hours--and he'd come over and rub my feet. I'd say, 'Wow, you don't have to do that.' And he wasn't making a pass at me. I trusted him totally."

Sense of Mystery

If anything attracted people to Landreth, it may have been the sense of mystery that surrounded him--a mystery that he seemed to enjoy cultivating, almost as a tease.

Anderson, for instance, remembered the time Landreth took off for Mexico without any notice to friends, and came back as if nothing unusual had occurred and apologizing to no one for the concern he created by his sudden absence.

Stephanie Wong, a UC San Diego student who struck up a friendship with Landreth through mutual acquaintances, said: "He enjoyed being mysterious with people--taking off for three days and not telling anyone where he went. In a sense, he just didn't think he had to explain to anyone his whereabouts."

"He liked to keep things to himself and be mysterious. He didn't like people knowing much about his life," said Monica Tims, 20, who dated Landreth during the summer. "But one night we stayed up all night talking, and he said he had been disappearing since he was 14 or 15--he'd go off for days--and his parents wouldn't care.

'Just Got Fed Up'

"I think he just got fed up with his life style--it was boring--and he used that (suicide) note just to distract people. He was teasing."

Steve Burnap, another close friend, said Landreth during the summer had grown lackadaisical about life. "He just didn't seem to care much about anything any more." What about the risk of running afoul of his probation terms, including staying in touch with authorities? "It was his nature not to worry about things like that," Burnap said.

His mother said she would like to write off the experience as "an irresponsible adventure," assuming that he is safe and sound somewhere. She last talked to her son in August. The San Diego Police Department began investigating Landreth's whereabouts after friends filed a missing-persons report in mid-October. But field representative Camille Sherrill said she turned the case over to federal authorities after it was learned that he was in violation of his probation. A federal bench warrant for his arrest was issued and he is now being sought by U.S. marshals.

Landreth pleaded guilty in July, 1984, to one count of computer fraud in connection with tapping into GTE's electronic mailbox in Vienna, Va., and sharing his secrets within a network of other computer hackers, known as The Inner Circle. Landreth was known within the group only by the name "Cracker."

Anderson said he is not counting the days until he sees his best friend again. "I'm not real sure if he's dead, but I'm not waiting for him to come back, either. That would only screw me up, because what if he didn't? I've written it off as a given, that he won't come back."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Saturday December 13, 1986 San Diego County Edition Metro Part 2 Page 3 Column 1 Metro Desk 2 inches; 70 words Type of Material: Correction Missing Man's Friend Was Never Arrested In a Wednesday article about the mysterious disappearance of computer hacker Bill Landreth, The Times incorrectly reported that Landreth's friend, 16-year-old Tom Anderson of Escondido, had been convicted in federal court and placed on probation for a computer crime. Actually, Anderson's computer equipment was confiscated by the FBI in October, 1985, when federal authorities made a sweep of alleged computer hackers, but Anderson was not arrested. For the Record Hacker's Friend Not Arrested or Convicted Los Angeles Times Saturday December 13, 1986 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 1 Metro Desk 2 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction In a Dec. 11 article about the mysterious disappearance of computer hacker Bill Landreth, The Times incorrectly reported that Landreth's friend, 16-year-old Tom Anderson of Escondido, had been convicted in federal court and placed on probation for a computer crime. Actually, Anderson's computer equipment was confiscated by the FBI in October, 1985, when federal authorities made a sweep of alleged computer hackers, but Anderson was not arrested.
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