FBI Footwork Puts Computer Hacker in Jail
An FBI agent caught one of the nation’s most wanted computer hackers in a foot chase Monday morning in West Los Angeles, where the fugitive was sighted about two blocks from the FBI’s office after spending nearly a year on the run.
Justin Tanner Petersen, who has claimed that he worked undercover helping the FBI track down other criminal hackers, had been sought by federal agents since he fled while awaiting sentencing on a conviction stemming from the hacker underground’s most sensational scam--hijacking radio station phone lines in Southern California to win contests with prizes ranging from new cars to trips to Hawaii.
Petersen also had pleaded guilty to tapping into the files of a credit card information bureau and transporting a stolen car across state lines.
A rangy, 34-year-old whose stylish clothing contrasted sharply with the stereotypical image of hackers as slovenly nerds, Petersen took the hacker moniker Agent Steal, using the name of an officer who once investigated him.
Petersen, who faces up to 40 years in prison and fines of up to $1.5 million, was caught after a short foot chase that began outside an apartment building where an agent saw him getting out of a BMW, just blocks from the FBI’s Westwood offices.
“It was superb police work by some very dedicated agents,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. David Schindler, who would not reveal any other details of the capture.
Wearing open sandals, with dark hair down the middle of his back, Petersen appeared briefly before U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson, who declined to set bail and scheduled sentencing Oct. 31.
Sentencing on the charges had been delayed several times while Petersen apparently cooperated behind the scenes--but never quietly--with the government’s investigation of computer hacking.
Petersen told friends that the FBI was paying his rent and flying him to computer conferences to spy on other hackers. He gave an interview last year to an on-line publication called Phrack in which he claimed to have tapped the phone of Heidi Fleiss, the alleged “Hollywood madam.” He did not say why.
He also bragged of helping the FBI in their efforts to bust another hacker, Kevin Mitnick, the FBI’S most wanted hacker suspect.
“When I went to work for the bureau I contacted” Mitnick, Petersen said in that interview. “He was still up to his old tricks, so we opened a case on him. . . . What a loser. Everyone thinks he is some great hacker. I outsmarted him and busted him.”
Government agencies never have confirmed that they used Petersen as an active agent. The closest they have come is a reference in a federal court document that said Petersen, “acting in an undercover capacity, currently is cooperating with the United States in the investigation of other persons in California.”
However close the relationship, it came to an end Oct. 22, 1993, when Petersen was confronted outside federal court and asked if he had been committing more crimes while awaiting sentencing on his other charges. Schindler said Petersen admitted he had.
After meeting briefly with his attorney, Petersen took off. “I’ve got a big problem and I’m splitting,” a friend said Petersen told him the same day.
Petersen’s attorney, Morton Boren, said he visited Petersen for a short time Monday at the Metropolitan Detention Center, where federal prisoners are held in Downtown Los Angeles. “He was depressed and worried,” Boren said.
While he was on the run, friends continued to hear from him, and some said he never strayed far from his old Westside haunts. A well-known figure on the nightclub scene who operated after-hours clubs in Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, he had a reputation as a sharp dresser and ladies’ man who sometimes carried a cane. He lost part of one leg in a motorcycle accident.
Schindler declined to say whether new charges will be filed against Petersen. At the time of his arrest, Petersen was carrying false identification, Schindler said.
Coincidentally, the alleged mastermind of the radio station contest scheme, Kevin Poulsen, who used the hacker nickname Dark Dante, was appearing in federal court Monday almost at the same time that Petersen was brought in. Schindler asked that a sealed plea agreement--in which Poulsen admitted computer fraud, obstruction of justice and money-laundering--be made public so the information could be used in Poulsen’s upcoming Northern California trial on charges of possessing a national security document.
U.S. District Judge Manuel Real refused to make the agreement public, saying he did not want the case “tried in the press.” He allowed Schindler to send the plea agreement to the judge in Northern California, who will decide whether the information contained in it can be used at trial.
Poulsen already has been in jail about 3 1/2 years, the longest time spent behind bars by someone convicted of computer hacking crimes.
Times staff writer Julie Tamaki contributed to this story.