'Condor' Myth Loop of Contradictions : Computers: To some, Kevin Mitnick is an electronic terrorist. Others say he's a prankster.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kevin Mitnick has been called a cybercrook, a computer addict, a digital desperado--even an electronic terrorist. But he never graduated from college and his mother once told a newspaper reporter she didn't think he was very bright.

So begins the endless loop of contradictions making it nearly impossible to separate Mitnick, the 31-year-old hacker who was captured Wednesday after two years as a fugitive, from his myth. The legend of the Condor, as Mitnick was known in hacker circles, grew up with the computer culture.

It began 15 years ago, when Mitnick, titillated by the thrill of manipulating telephone equipment to play pranks on friends and foes, first used a class computer at Monroe High School in North Hills to hack his way into the Los Angeles Unified School District's computers. Soon he had earned his first arrest for hacking. He was 17.

Ever since, Mitnick has been portrayed as the stereotypical computer nerd: socially maladroit, fueled by a diet of Taco Bell fast food, pudgy and bespectacled with a pocketful of pens and a rogue shirttail that couldn't stay tucked.

Yet he once wooed and married a woman he met in a computer class. He taught himself to play classical piano, has a secret passion for opera and, according to a longtime friend, was devoted to a small pet poodle.

Even looks can be deceiving. In the photo circulated during the manhunt, Mitnick resembled the androgynous character in the popular television comedy sketch "It's Pat!"

But the man who appeared in shackles Friday in federal court in Raleigh, N. C., was much thinner. His long hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and he wore a jogging suit, expensive sneakers and wire-rimmed glasses. He looked tired, defeated.

To law enforcement officials who have chased Mitnick across the country, he is the cyberspace version of Public Enemy No. 1, a "dark side" hacker capable of wreaking global havoc with a few keystrokes. Most recently, he allegedly broke into several computer systems and cast a shadow of fear over the Internet, and faces up to 35 years in prison if convicted of new charges filed against him in Raleigh.

The fact that Mitnick hasn't been known to profit personally, one hacker friend said, is "a testament to his moral character."

Many of the people willing to talk about Mitnick do so only under the cloak of anonymity. They say they are afraid of retribution, Mitnick-style.

In the past, he has disconnected a probation officer's telephone, and altered the credit reports and other records of those who have either investigated or crossed him. Currently, he is suspected of invading the electronic mail of a New York Times reporter who has written extensively about him.

His friends insist that Mitnick is a relatively harmless prankster who gets his kicks from thumbing his nose at law enforcement and the computer establishment. They emphasize that he doesn't seem to have reaped any personal riches from his computer crimes. They consider the allegations against him overblown.

Mitnick's grandmother, Reba Vartanian, said Friday in a telephone interview that he gained no profit from his hacking. "He is my grandson. My world begins and ends with him."

"He was just a prankster. He never meant any harm," said Troy Fromin, 28, an old friend who still works the counter at the family delicatessen in Encino where Mitnick and his mother, waitress Shelly Jaffee, worked during the early 1980s.

Deputy U. S. Marshal Kathy Cunningham, who has been tracking Mitnick since July from her office in Los Angeles, said Mitnick spent all his time on computer keyboards not to get rich, but to show off.

"The guy has a love of computers," she said. "He's just completely obsessed with it, obsessed with his quest to hack or crack into computers," Cunningham said. "It's that one-upmanship, that (drive for) recognition."

Such hubris, common in the shadowy subculture of computer hackers, ultimately proved to be Mitnick's undoing, his friends and his hunters agree.

On Christmas Day, Mitnick took on one of the nation's foremost computer security experts, Tsutomu Shimomura. Traversing the Internet, he broke into Shimomura's computer and stole sensitive security files.

Shimomura posted technical details of the break-in on the Internet.

Mitnick responded with a series of taunting messages on Shimomura's voice mail. One said: "My technique is the best. My style is much better. Don't you know who I am? Me and my friends, we'll kill you."

He used a British accent, a common Mitnick practice.

It might as well have been a declaration of war. Shimomura joined the hunt for the Condor, and found his Achilles' heel: Mitnick's use of cloned cellular phones had left a trail.

Now that Mitnick is in custody, Shimomura has won the bragging rights. In press interviews following Mitnick's arrest, Shimomura said, "He was not very difficult to catch. . . . From what I've seen he does not have a whole lot of technical expertise. Primarily, he's persistent."

Cunningham, the federal marshal, saw a sad contrast between the hacker and the security expert who aided his capture.

"Shimomura, who ended up taking him down, that could have been Mitnick," she said. "Mitnick is 31 and what does he have to show for all this? He has nothing. With all his talent, all he has to show for it is a criminal record and a reputation. It's pretty sad."

Cunningham theorized that Mitnick's early forays into the computer underground may have launched him down the wrong path.

"Perhaps he got his record so early that people didn't want to work with him," she said.

Mitnick's mother and father, Alan Mitnick, divorced when he was 3. He was reared by his mother in Panorama City. He rarely saw his father and his mother worked long hours as a waitress. A more handsome, more athletic half-brother from his father's remarriage committed suicide several years ago.

After cracking the school district computers, he invaded the North American Air Defense Command computer as a prank--several years before the 1983 movie "WarGames" depicted a hacker who nearly started a world war after entering a defense computer.

In 1981, he was placed on probation as a juvenile offender. His crime: stealing computer manuals from Pacific Bell. A former friend turned him in. The following year, he violated probation and was confined to a juvenile facility for six months after he broke into computers at USC.

In 1983, he invited his friend, Troy Fromin, to see "WarGames" at the movies.

"He said there were a few flaws in it," Fromin recalled.

Mitnick married Bonnie Vitello, an older woman he wooed in computer class during the mid-1980s, but wedded bliss did little to stop the hacking. He continued to get in trouble.

In 1988, Mitnick was convicted of infiltrating MCI telephone computers and accessing long-distance codes, and of causing $4 million damage to Digital Equipment Corp. A federal judge prohibited him from using the telephone, saying that in Mitnick's hands, a phone was a dangerous weapon.

He was sentenced to a year in prison by a federal judge who also ruled that Mitnick's hacking was an addiction--and ordered him to undergo therapy.

Staff writers Josh Meyer and Doug Smith contributed to this story

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