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.
Among them is William Troy Landreth, a young homeless man with a genius-level IQ who at age 18 became an underground hero to computer hackers nationwide. A pioneer in the craft, he was known at the height of his fame only by his code name: The Cracker.
To authorities, including the FBI, Landreth was a security threat, a teen-ager who used a personal computer and telephone in his bedroom in suburban Poway, north of San Diego, to tap into supposedly secure computer networks used by the Department of Defense and NASA, among others.
In a highly publicized crackdown, the FBI came down on Landreth and a handful of the other original hackers. 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 so new then that 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 one count of wire fraud, was fined $87 for using someone else’s computer time and placed on three years’ probation.
The crime brought Landreth notoriety, led him to write a book about his exploits that will soon be reprinted and provided him with work as a consultant who showed 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 said. And he prefers passing sunny afternoons lounging in a small park in front of Horton Plaza.
His hair is brown and shoulder-length; he has a wispy mustache and he is thin for someone 5-feet-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. His IQ has been measured at 163, well into the genius category.
Landreth said he has 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 said, and he stopped taking them. The last was lithium, which he hasn’t had in a long time. What has remained, however, are the deep valleys of depression.
In interviews with The Times, Landreth was straightforward and lucid, though he often punctuated his sentences with smiles and muted laughter, as though privy to inside jokes or playing a game. Occasionally, his conversation rambled, then suddenly became very precise. He is, he said, despite his current condition, confident in his ability to control computers and to be paid handsomely for doing so. All he has to do, he said, 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. “The five or six thousand for five or six hours of work would interest me, but I haven’t fallen for it.
“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.”
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 said 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, he said, 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 last 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, Susan.
‘Kind of Sad’
She said in an interview that 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.”
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 Anderson, now 18, of Escondido. “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 sentenced to 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 on telecommunications programs, said 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.”
Seemed in Control
While Anderson was having his legal problems, Landreth seemed in 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 throughout the country. His publisher, Microsoft Press of Redmond, Wash., said the book has sold about 68,000 copies since it was first printed in 1984.
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 said, “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 throughout 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 ‘War Games’ movie. 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 electronic mail network, where he peeked at National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Defense Department computer correspondence, and set up files surreptitiously 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.
After drifting for almost a year, Landreth turned up in the small Oregon town of McMinnville, near Portland, where a woman called the police after Landreth had wandered near her yard and asked for a drink of water. He was dirty and barefoot, and he was arrested for violating his probation and sent back to San Diego.
When he returned, 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 that he had about $9,000 waiting for him in book royalties from foreign sales. 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 citations from police for infractions such as sleeping in public, riding the trolley without a ticket and jaywalking. 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 said.
Two weeks ago, after he was stopped on the street by police and found to be in violation of his probation, Judge Brewster terminated his probation, 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.”
Although Landreth tries to keep up on the rapidly changing world of computers by reading technical magazines at the downtown central library, he admits he’s 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 said. “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 said that he will probably remain on the streets and that he may move again, perhaps to Los Angeles or farther north.
“It’s difficult to say what might happen, overall. Every 30 seconds is highly unpredictable,” Landreth said. “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.”
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 Chesire cat in him surfacing. “So it’s really in how you look at it.”