O.C. teens face computer hacking charges

Times Staff Writers

A teenager faces felony charges and could spend decades in prison over allegations that he repeatedly broke into an acclaimed Orange County high school, hacked into computers to change his grades and stole tests -- all in hopes of improving his college admissions prospects, authorities said Tuesday.

Omar Khan, 18, should be graduating with his Tesoro High School classmates today; instead, he is being held in jail in lieu of $50,000 bail. Another student, Tanvir Singh, also 18, faces lesser charges and is expected to turn himself in to authorities this afternoon.

“We’re really sad and disappointed that the charges have been filed against these students,” said Beverly De Nicola, spokeswoman for the Capistrano Unified School District. “We have been cooperating with law enforcement and we have taken our own serious disciplinary actions based on our own investigation. . . . I haven’t seen a situation like this in our school district ever.”


It’s just the latest flap at Tesoro High School, the wealthy southern Orange County school attended by the children in the reality television series “Real Housewives of Orange County.” The school was also in the news in 2005 when two star football players threatened to maim and kill their English teacher in classroom journal entries.

The 2,800-student school in Las Flores, east of Mission Viejo, is academically well regarded and regularly earns a spot on Newsweek’s list of best American high schools.

Khan, of Coto de Caza, has been charged with 69 felonies and faces more than 38 years in prison if convicted. Singh, of Ladera Ranch, has been charged with five felony counts and could face three years in prison. Singh will be arraigned today, and Khan will be arraigned Thursday at Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach.

The investigation is continuing, and additional charges could be filed or additional students could be involved, said Jim Amormino, spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. He said the crimes were unusual for Orange County, and fairly sophisticated, considering the suspects’ ages.

“I think they wish they would have put their talents into studying,” Amormino said.

Carol Lavacot, the attorney for Khan, described him as a “really nice kid; he’s only 18 years old.”

“It’s just a very sad situation all the way around. . . . There’s a lot more going on than meets the eye at this point, with a lot of kids,” she said, declining to comment further.

Attempts to reach Singh or his attorney were unsuccessful late Tuesday.

“We’re not talking about a case where somebody cheats on a test,” said Susan Kang Schroeder, spokeswoman for the Orange County district attorney’s office. “We’re talking about a case with a more institutionalized cheating scheme.”

Between January and May, authorities contend, Kahn broke into the school using a stolen master key at least six times at night and on weekends. Using passwords stolen from teachers, he allegedly hacked into computers and changed test scores from Advanced Placement classes as well as school records from previous semesters, often changing Cs, Ds and Fs into A’s. He also installed software so he could access the system from other locations, prosecutors allege.

Though he is accused primarily of changing his own grades, prosecutors allege that he also altered the grades of 12 other students. District officials say they are investigating whether any other students should be disciplined.

Prosecutors also allege that Khan had master copies of tests and answer keys in his possession, and that he e-mailed some to dozens of students in Advanced Placement classes.

Additionally, after being caught cheating on an English test April 18 and given a failing grade, Khan broke into the assistant principal’s locked office to steal the test back and conceal evidence that he had cheated, prosecutors said.

Hours after one late-night grade-changing break-in, authorities said, Khan requested a copy of his official transcript so he could appeal a rejection from the UC system. School officials noticed the grading discrepancy and alerted the Sheriff’s Department.

Khan has been charged with 34 felony counts of altering a public record, 11 felony counts of stealing and secreting a public record, seven felony counts of computer access and fraud, six felony counts of burglary, four felony counts of identity theft, three felony counts of altering a book of records, two felony counts of receiving stolen property, one felony count of conspiracy, and one felony count of attempted altering of a public record.

Singh, who is also a senior, allegedly exchanged text messages with Khan on May 19 to plot breaking into the school that night to steal a copy of a test they would take the following day.

Singh was charged with one felony count each of conspiracy, burglary, computer access and fraud, and attempted altering of a public record. He faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison if convicted.