Kevin Lee Poulsen, a former North Hollywood man considered one of the nation's most skilled computer hackers, should be out of prison by the end of May under a plea agreement entered Thursday in federal court in San Francisco.
The 30-year-old son of a mechanic who taught himself how to use computers on a Radio Shack model became the first hacker ever to be charged with espionage, the most serious of a series of exploits that included rigging radio contests so that he and his friends could win expensive prizes.
But the espionage charge was officially dropped Thursday as part of the agreement crafted by Poulsen's lawyer and the U.S. attorney's office. In exchange, he pleaded guilty to charges of possessing computer access devices, computer fraud and the use of a phony Social Security card, according to his defense attorney, Paul Meltzer.
The maximum prison term Poulsen could receive when sentenced on Jan. 29 will be 20 months, Meltzer said. But with credit for time awaiting trial--he has been incarcerated since his arrest in 1991--the computer whiz who signs on as Dark Dante should be released no later than May 20.
"I've invited him to dinner when he gets out," Meltzer said Thursday after a court hearing. "I think he's a marvelous person who's spent way too much time in jail for any of the offenses he's charged with, and I'm hoping somebody will realize his incredible talent and give him a really good, high-paying job."
The 4 1/2 years Poulsen has spent in prison is the longest any computer hacker has served. He was sentenced in April to 51 months for hacking crimes in Los Angeles, but according to Meltzer, was also given credit for time already served, ensuring his release by spring.
In a recent phone interview from the Santa Clara County Jail, Poulsen joked about his federal prosecutors and their apparent softening toward his case: "I'm not their favorite anymore. It does hurt a little."
He was referring to super-hacker Kevin Mitnick, another San Fernando Valley native facing a federal charges after a nationwide manhunt and highly publicized arrest. Poulsen and Mitnick apparently did not know each other and their ties to the Valley are a coincidence, according to Meltzer and Assistant U.S. Atty. David Schindler.
Poulsen came under federal scrutiny in the late 1980s while he was working in the Silicon Valley. The owner of a Menlo Park storage locker came across some Pacific Bell computer equipment and user manuals that appeared to be stolen, and contacted local police, who in turn alerted federal authorities.
The ensuing investigation led to Poulsen's 1988 indictment on an array of charges, including possession of national security-related information. That was because the seized materials included computer tapes taken from Poulsen's employer, a defense subcontractor, and contained Air Force orders in the event of a nuclear war.
Poulsen was never accused of hacking his way into a computer system to obtain the military information but of taking the tapes from his employer, SRI, without authorization, Schindler said.
Meltzer said, however, that the tapes included information Poulsen needed for his job and was authorized to take home. He also said there was no evidence that Poulsen planned to disseminate or sell the data "or anything to suggest that he was recruiting some foreign power."
Authorities overreacted, Meltzer said. "They pulled out the artillery usually reserved for aims and hits."
Poulsen fled to Los Angeles, living underground for more than two years and carrying out computer capers that included rigging the telephone lines at radio stations KIIS-FM (102.7), KPWR-FM (105.9) and KRTH-FM (101.1) so that he and his friends could be the winning callers in contests. The cyber-tricks reaped them two Porches, at least two trips to Hawaii and $20,000 in cash.
During his life as a fugitive, he was also accused of compromising federal agents by breaking into a Pacific Bell computer in 1989 to obtain information about FBI wiretaps on him.
Poulsen was arrested in 1991 in a Sherman Oaks supermarket after being profiled on the TV program "America's Most Wanted." Last year, he pleaded guilty to seven counts of conspiracy, fraud and intercepting wire communications, and in April received his prison sentence of a little more than four years.
He was also placed on three years of supervised probation once he serves his time and ordered not to own, use or work on a computer without permission from his probation officer.
Times staff writer John Johnson contributed to this story.