A federal judge approved the guilty plea of computer hacker Kevin Mitnick on Friday, ending one of the most high-profile hacking cases in history with a deal that will keep the San Fernando Valley native imprisoned for at least one more year.
Capping a four-year legal odyssey, Mitnick calmly repeated, "Yes," to affirm his guilt to seven computer crime and fraud charges. In total, he admitted to stealing millions of dollars in software from computer and cellular telephone companies during a 2 1/2-year hacking spree in the early 1990s.
Mitnick, who has been in jail since 1995, was whisked away by federal marshals after the 45-minute hearing.
"I'm pleased that it's over and relieved for my son," said Alan Mitnick, one of several family members attending the hearing in Los Angeles federal court. "I'm relieved to get this behind him and eventually let him get back to a normal life."
But resuming a normal life remains a distant possibility for Mitnick, 35, who will be barred from using computers for at least three years after his release, and cannot profit from his story for at least seven years.
Mitnick's 54-month prison sentence is the longest ever meted out in a hacking case, said Assistant U.S. Atty. David Schindler, the lead prosecutor in the case.
But Mitnick could be released in about a year because he will be credited for much of the four years that he has spent in jail since his capture by FBI agents in North Carolina in February 1995.
Mitnick's conduct "was not a benign, inquisitive search for information," said Schindler, rejecting a frequent argument made by Mitnick supporters. "Rather, it was a concerted, deliberate and in some instances mean-spirited attempt to steal information and trick a number of unsuspecting victims."
Mitnick could have faced up to 35 years in prison and a fine of $1.75 million for the counts to which he pleaded guilty. As part of the plea, the government dropped the bulk of its initial 25-count indictment.
Mitnick's attorney, Donald Randolph, said the plea agreement was substantially more favorable than earlier government offers. "My client can now see light at the end of the tunnel," he said, "and has a reasonable certainty that it is not another train approaching."
In court Friday, Schindler recounted in detail many aliases and ruses Mitnick employed to steal cellular phone software and hacking tools from his targeted companies. Those victims included such major corporations as Sun Microsystems Inc. and Motorola Inc.
The plea agreement, signed by prosecutors and Mitnick last week but kept under seal until Friday, does not cover whether Mitnick will be required to pay his victims restitution.
Any profit he makes from selling his story is already earmarked for his victims, and he could also be forced to surrender a portion of his future wages to victim companies. That will be decided by Judge Mariana Pfaelzer at a sentencing hearing in June.
Aside from the court-imposed sanctions that will follow him for years to come, Mitnick probably always will be shadowed by the notoriety of a hacking career that spanned two decades and included four previous arrests.
At least three books have been written about his hacking history and his dramatic capture in 1995 after leading the FBI on a two-year, cross-country chase. A movie about his capture is due out this year.
Mitnick has made few public comments since his arrest four years ago, but Randolph said Mitnick has expressed an interest in returning to school when he is released, and eventually of finding work as a computer consultant.
Alan Mitnick said he would be pleased to see his son find legitimate work in the computer industry. "He's got a passion for it," he said. "And he's a natural."