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Fugitive North Hills Hacker Arrested in N. Carolina : Crime: Kevin Mitnick eluded authorities for two years. He is alleged to have cost victims millions.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Kevin Mitnick, the nation’s most wanted computer hacker, who had evaded authorities in narrow escapes in Los Angeles and Seattle over the last two years, was captured Wednesday morning at his apartment in Raleigh, N.C.

Although authorities were unable to say exactly how much damage he wreaked during his years on the run, the cellular telecommunications industry alleges that Mitnick, who used cellular phones to illegally access computers, may have cost it millions of dollars.

To catch the man who used the code name “Condor,” the government brought in an expert from a firm he is suspected of penetrating last Christmas.

“We got him,” Tsutomu Shimomura of the San Diego Supercomputer Center said Wednesday morning after the capture, according to Sid Karin, Shimomura’s supervisor.

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Mitnick, who grew up in North Hills, was arraigned Wednesday on charges of violating the terms of his probation for a 1988 California computer hacking conviction, as well as new charges of computer fraud originating in North Carolina. Assistant U. S. Atty. David Schindler in Los Angeles said the government is looking into additional cases in San Diego, Colorado and Seattle.

“We are all a little brain-dead,” AssistanS. Atty. John Bowler in Charlotte said. “We were up half the night tracking this guy down.”

The raid was carried out at 1:30 a.m. on an apartment in which Mitnick, 31, was living alone under a false name, authorities said. It ended what the Department of Justice characterized as an “intensive two-week electronic manhunt.”

“The message that is important here,” Karin said, “is that the bad guys are not necessarily more clever than the good guys.”

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And although some people paint hackers as the last rugged individualists cruising the information highway, Karin said he believes Mitnick merits “serious, serious punishment.”

“His obsession was his downfall,” said Deputy U. S. Marshal Kathy Cunningham in Los Angeles. “His obsession to hack using cloned (cellular) phones left us a trail to follow.”

The arrest apparently brings an end to the career of a man whose computer escapades began at Monroe High School, where he learned to break into the Los Angeles Unified School District’s main computers. Eventually, he was able to break into a North American Air Defense Command computer in Colorado Springs, Colo., several years before the showing of the movie “WarGames,” about a hacker who nearly starts a war after entering a government computer.

Mitnick also manipulated the telephone system to pull pranks on friends and enemies, authorities said. He disconnected service to Hollywood stars he admired, and a former probation officer said her phone service was terminated just as she was about to revoke his probation.

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“He’s an electronic terrorist,” said a onetime friend who turned him in to authorities in 1988.

Mitnick served a year in prison and was placed on probation. He fled in late 1992 after the FBI showed up at the Calabasas private investigations’ firm where he was working. The agents were investigating break-ins of Pacific Bell computers.

The Department of Motor Vehicles also has issued a $1-million warrant for him, accusing him of posing as a law enforcement officer to obtain sensitive DMV information, including driver’s licenses and photographs.

Early in his flight, he was nearly captured at a Studio City copy shop, where he showed up to pick up materials faxed from the DMV. A chase ensued, but he got away.

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Over the last two years, rumors of Mitnick surfaced at computer conventions and, on one occasion, authorities took a man into custody who they mistakenly believed was Mitnick.

“I think Kevin thought he was uncatchable,” Cunningham said. “But he chose to continue hacking . . . and now he is in a whole lot of trouble.”

In recent months, Mitnick eluded law enforcement once more. This time, authorities were investigating complaints from McCaw Cellular Communications Inc. in Kirkland, Wash., that someone was using cellular phones to steal secret electronic serial numbers to break into computers at several university campuses.

When police and the Secret Service broke into the house Mitnick was using last October, they found cellular phones, as well as manuals telling how to clone a phone, and a scanner Mitnick may have been using to track law enforcement efforts to find him.

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They also seized a Toshiba laptop computer, five boxes filled with computer paraphernalia. Paychecks from a local hospital, where Mitnick allegedly worked under an assumed name as a computer trouble-shooter, and bank account records show he had been living near the University of Washington for at least three months.

In Seattle, “he was leading a fairly innocuous life,” said Ivan Ortman, a King County prosecutor who said Mitnick used the alias Brian Merrill and grew his hair long. “We had no reports from anyone around him about unusual activity.”

“He was just a real quiet, typical person,” said Sherry Scott, a secretary in the Virginia Mason Hospital and Medical Center’s Information Systems Department, where Mitnick worked from June through September. “He never talked about his personal life. He just came and went and did his thing.”

The threat that Mitnick posed was described in a recent circular distributed by federal authorities pursuing the fugitive.

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“Please be aware that if Mitnick is taken into custody, he possesses an amazing ability to disrupt one’s personal life through his computer knowledge,” said an advisory from the U. S. Marshal’s Service issued to law enforcement recently.

On Christmas Day, the San Diego Supercomputer Center, a national laboratory for computer science, which does research on everything from environmental pollution to AIDS, was attacked by a hacker using unusually sophisticated techniques.

After the break-in, Shimomura, known as one of the nation’s leading specialists in computer security, joined the effort to capture the Condor, who took his nickname from a movie starring Robert Redford as a man on the run from the government.

The Department of Justice cited Shimomura as having offered significant assistance in capturing Mitnick, but authorities refused to say exactly what led them to the hacker.

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“Tools are tools,” said Karin. “They can be used for good or evil. Some tools used for hacking can be used for tracking hackers. In this case, the guys tracking the hackers were better.”

Karin said the tool in this case was the same kind of software Mitnick was using to break into computer systems.

Johnson and Meyer reported from Los Angeles and Ostrow from Washington.


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