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Genius Unplugs, Puts Life on Hold : Famed Computer Whiz, Hacker Spurns Money for Existence on Street

Times Staff Writer

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.

On a patch of grass next to the historic fountain, near two watchful cops who have slowly strolled by, lies a long-haired young man dressed in a blue jacket and camouflage pants. His eyes are closed, the sun etching deeper into his tanned face.

“You Bill Landreth?” he is asked.

“Yeah,” comes the soft, friendly reply, as he sits up.

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“You Bill Landreth, the computer hacker?”

“Oh, yeah,” he smiles.

Maybe the policeman was right. “You can talk to him, but it’s like talking to a Cheshire cat,” he had said moments before.

Was Known as ‘The Cracker’

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So begins a recent encounter with William Troy Landreth, former high-school whiz kid who, just six years ago, was an underground hero to computer hackers nationwide, who knew him only by his code name, “The Cracker.”

In a highly publicized crackdown, the FBI came down on Landreth, then 18, and a handful of the other original hackers. To the authorities, Landreth was a security threat, a teen-ager who used a personal computer and telephone in his suburban bedroom in Poway to tap into supposedly secure computer networks used by the Department of Defense and National Aeronautics and Space Administration, among others.

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 still so new 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 a single count of wire fraud, was fined $87 for using someone else’s computer time and was placed on three years’ probation.

The crime brought the shy Landreth notoriety, led him to write a book about his exploits--that soon will be reprinted--and provided him work as a business consultant, showing 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 says. And he prefers passing sunny afternoons lounging in the park.

Somewhere in the process of growing up, Landreth turned away from the worldly success his keen mind--IQ 163--could easily bring him. The genius that enabled him to penetrate deeply into computers led him on a search for his version of freedom--life on the streets “where it’s simple to live.”

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His hair is brown and shoulder-length; he has a wispy mustache and he is thin for someone 5-foot-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.

Landreth says he’s 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 says, and he stopped taking them. The last was lithium, which he hasn’t had in a long time. What’s remained, however, are the deep valleys of depression.

Turning on the Switch

In conversation, Landreth is straightforward and lucid, though he often punctuates his sentences with smiles and muted laughter, as though privy to inside jokes or playing a game. Occasionally, he rambles aimlessly. He is, despite his current condition, supremely confident in his ability, the talent to control computers and to be paid handsomely for doing so. All he has to do, he says, 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 during one of two interviews with The Times. “The five or six thousand for five or six hours of work would interest me, but I haven’t fallen for it.”

He views the concept of money almost as a curiosity, though he understands the freedom it can buy--if he wants it to.

“It seems that money would look so simple to people,” Landreth says. “Some people have been collecting money for a lot longer than I would be able to collect money for. . . . 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.”

If money at the moment has no meaning, neither does planning for the future.

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“It’s difficult to say what might happen, overall. Every 30 seconds is highly unpredictable,” Landreth says. “I’m usually working on a system of feedback that I don’t try and second-guess. I would say that’s how I’m working.”

First Computer at Age 13

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 say 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 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 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.

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.”

‘He Knew Everything’

Landreth’s closest friend is Tom Anderson, who met “The Cracker” long before he ever met the person. Anderson was 13 or 14 when he found “The Cracker” through a computer bulletin board. “I looked up to him a lot,” said the Escondido youth, who is six years younger than Landreth. “He knew everything.” And Landreth passed on his knowledge to his friend.

The FBI confiscated Anderson’s computer equipment in 1985 because he had entered Chase Manhattan Bank’s computer network, and, at age 14, he was given a one-year probation. Anderson and Landreth talk by phone about once a week, and Landreth keeps his computer at Anderson’s home, where he occasionally drops by to do some work.

Anderson, who has written and had published a book of his own on telecommunications’ programs, says his friend has always been mysterious but has never seemed quite as out of touch as he is now. “Before, he was just real smart, even though his ideas were a bit strange. But he was just Bill,” Anderson said. “Now, I think something is wrong. . . . He said he wanted to live on the streets because he wanted to experience being a minority.”

While Anderson was having his legal problems, Landreth seemed in total control of his life in 1985 and 1986. He was giving lectures to business executives, doing free-lance computer work for corporations and was promoting his book, “Out of the Inner Circle,” in cities across the country. His publisher, Microsoft Press of Redmond, Wash., says the book has sold about 68,000 copies since it was first printed in 1984.

Elite Secret Society

The book’s name was taken from Landreth’s secret society of elite hackers called the Inner Circle. “We were explorers, not spies,” his book explains, “and to us, damaging computer files was not only clumsy and inelegant, it was wrong.”

To this day, he maintains that the only reason he was indicted was that the FBI wanted to send a message to hackers across the country.

“There wasn’t an accusation of danger in the whole charge,” Landreth said. “The FBI really needed to crack down on hacking, mostly because of the movie “War Games.” They could only get a lead onto some simple crimes . . . that really aren’t crimes at all.”

Landreth was accused of breaking into the Virginia-based GTE Telemail’s electronic mail network, where he peeked at NASA and Defense Department computer correspondence, and set up surreptitious files for his and other hackers’ personal use.

The lawbreaking behind him, Landreth appeared to have found himself. But, in September, 1986, he disappeared, leaving the screen of his IBM-PC computer at Anderson’s home glowing with an uncompleted sentence. And he had written a rambling, esoteric eight-page essay that touched upon such subjects as man’s evolution and immortality, communism and capitalism, nuclear war and greed, and suicide.

“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,” read the last page.

Found Wandering in Oregon

Almost a year later, Landreth surfaced in the small Oregon town of McMinnville, near Portland, where a woman called police after Landreth had wandered near her yard and asked for a drink of water. He was dirty and barefoot. He was arrested for violating his probation and sent back to San Diego.

When he returned, the federal judge, Rudi Brewster, who throughout the legal process has tried to guide the troubled Landreth rather than punish him, extended his probation. To his surprise, Landreth also discovered he had about $9,000 waiting for him in foreign book royalties. He rented a Poway apartment, set up a word processor and paid his attorney. But the apartment burned in May, Landreth ran out of cash and “then I came here (downtown San Diego), where it’s simple to live.”

There are, however, complications to that simplicity. He has been robbed of his stereo radio by a street tough who enticed him into a game of three-card Monte, and he has accumulated several tickets for infractions such as sleeping in public, riding the trolley without a ticket and crossing the street against a red light. He never pays the fines or goes to court, even though he knows this could eventually land him in jail.

“I’m not really part of their organization, and I really don’t think about it as being important,” he says.

Off the Hook, for Now

Two weeks ago, after he was stopped on the street by police and found to be in violation of his probation, the federal judge who had handled his case from the beginning terminated his probation entirely, noting that the courts could do nothing to help Landreth.

“I think we had really exhausted what can be done,” Landreth’s lawyer, Peter J. Hughes, said after the March 6 hearing. “We were trying to be his parents, and we can’t be. This is really no longer something that the criminal justice system can accomplish.”

Though Landreth tries to keep up on the rapidly changing world of computers by reading technical magazines at the downtown central library, he acknowledges that he is behind. Nonetheless, he recently wrote a seven-page essay on computer viruses that will be included in the reprinting of his book.

“The way I see it, I could be retired in five or 10 years, if I did things in a constructive way . . . but I haven’t decided to do that,” Landreth says, with a trace of annoyance. “The disappointment I have in life is mostly for the general population, I think. I don’t think they see their institutions at all. I think they’re still 200 or 300 years old, still serving a state long ago. Things could change for the better.”

As for the immediate future, Landreth says he will probably remain on the streets and that he may move again, perhaps to Los Angeles or farther north. It’s his personal definition of freedom, his choice, the way he wants to live, even though he knows some of his friends and his family believe he is confused and wasting his life.

“I don’t know what (freedom) is good for, any more than anyone else knows what it’s good for,” he said, the Cheshire cat in him surfacing. “So it’s really in how you look at it.”


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