Former Teen Hacker’s Suicide Linked to TJX Probe
By Kevin Poulsen July 9, 2009 | 12:00 am | Categories: Hacks and Cracks
A Miami man who achieved fame as a teenager for hacking NASA and the Pentagon took his own life last year after Secret Service agents accused him of being part of the conspiracy responsible for the largest identity theft in U.S. history, his family says.
Jonathan James, 24, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his home on May 18, 2008, less than two weeks after agents raided his house in connection with a hacking ring that penetrated TJX, DSW and OfficeMax, among others. In a five page suicide note, James wrote that he was innocent, but was certain federal officials would make him a scapegoat.
“I have no faith in the ‘justice’ system,” he wrote. ” Perhaps my actions today, and this letter, will send a stronger message to the public. Either way, I have lost control over this situation, and this is my only way to regain control.”
The note was provided to Wired.com this week by James’ father, Robert, who kept the details of his son’s death quiet for over a year because of the ongoing prosecutions over the retail hacks.
James apparently suffered from depression; agents executing the search warrant found another suicide note James had written years earlier, but did not seize his gun. The Secret Service declined to comment on the matter Wednesday, citing the continuing TJX prosecutions.
“Sometimes I thought he was pretty smart,” says his father. “Sometimes I thought, oh my God, I’ve raised an idiot. And the jury is still out.”
James gained notoriety in 2000, when, just 16, he became the first juvenile sentenced federally to a term of confinement for computer hacking. Operating under the handle C0mrade, James hacked into NASA and Defense Department computers for fun. Among other trophies, he penetrated the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and downloaded the proprietary environmental control software for the International Space Station — the programming that controlled the temperature and humidity in the station’s living space. James was sentenced to six months of house arrest — a sentence applauded by then-Attorney General Janet Reno — followed by probation.
“The government didn’t take too many measures for security on most of their computers,” James told PBS’s Frontline at the time. “They lack some serious computer security, and the hard part is learning it. I know Unix and C like the back of my hand, because I studied all these books, and I was on the computer for so long. But the hard part isn’t getting in. It’s learning to know what it is that you’re doing.”
Robert James, a programmer himself, admits he was a little proud of what his teenage son had managed to do. But when Jonathan later tested positive for drugs, the boy’s probation became six months in a juvenile detention facility. Afterwards, he stayed under the radar, until the Secret Service began closing in on the hackers behind intrusions at major U.S. retailers. Hackers compromised tens of millions of consumer credit cards, and reportedly made a multimillionaire of the ringleader, 28-year-old Albert Gonzalez, also of Miami.
The retail hack attacks couldn’t have been more different from the youthful, recreational hacking that James had once epitomized. This was a sophisticated, profit-motivated scheme.
Gonzalez and at least 13 other men have been charged over the breaches at TJX, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Boston Market, Barnes & Noble, Sports Authority, Forever 21, DSW OfficeMax, and a Dave & Buster’s restaurant. James was a friend of one of the defendants, Christopher Scott, who has since pleaded guilty and is set for sentencing in November.
The criminal complaints filed in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts describe an unindicted co-conspirator in the hacks who worked with Scott directly, identifying him only by the initials “J.J.” Robert James’ believes J.J. is his son.
In 2004, the complaints say, Scott and J.J. parked outside an OfficeMax store in Miami, accessed the store’s Wi-Fi, and intercepted an unspecified number of credit and debit card magstripe swipes, including account numbers and encrypted PINs. The two allegedly provided the data to Gonzalez, who arranged with another hacker to decrypt the PIN codes. Credit card companies later reissued some 200,000 cards, apparently in response to the OfficeMax breach.
“J.J.” is not linked in the complaints to any of the other intrusions in the case, but he allegedly had a mail drop opened for Gonzalez.
In his suicide note, James seemed to think that his past fame would get him blamed for crimes he didn’t commit.
“The feds of course would see me as a much more appealing target than Chris [Scott] — if they could tie me to this case I’d be like [Kevin] Mitnick times 10 to them,” he wrote. “Now, I honestly, honestly had nothing to do with TJX. Unfortunately I don’t picture the feds caring all too much. Read Agent Steal’s guide to getting busted. The feds play dirty. Chris called me the other day. He was in jail and they let him out. That can only mean that he too is trying to pin this on me. So despite the fact that he and Albert [Gonzalez] are the most destructive, dangerous hackers the feds ever caught, they’ll let them off easy because I’m a juicier target that would please the public more than two random fucks. C’est la vie. ”
“Remember,” he wrote, “it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s whether I win or lose, and sitting in jail for 20, 10, or even 5 years for a crime I didn’t commit is not me winning. I die free.”
James’ father remembers his son as a passionate computer geek, who started playing with the family PC at the age of 6, and switched his own computer from Windows to Linux in middle school. Prior to the NASA raid in January 2000, Robert James and his wife would frequently battle their son over his computer use, which would stretch late into the night.
At one point, the senior James took away his son’s computer; the boy, then 13, promptly ran away from home, and phoned his mother to declare he wouldn’t return unless he got his PC back. His parents tracked him to the Borders Books down the street.
Robert James chuckles when he recalls the story. “So, yeah, he kind of liked computers.”
When the publicity from his juvenile hacking conviction subsided, though, Jonathan James fell into an idleness that worried his father. His mother died of breast cancer when he was 18, leaving behind a trust that gave him the family house, which he shared with his brother. Except for a brief trip to Israel, James lived in the home for the rest of his short life. He never went to college, and, his father said, showed little interest in pursuing a career.
“He’s one of these people who would rather live without money than go to work,” said Robert James. “He was good at it. I was shocked at how good at it he was.”
If his son was involved in the Office Max hack, he adds, he wasn’t paid; he showed no signs of having money.
James and his father had a cordial but distant relationship. Shortly before the hacker’s death, though, he e-mailed his father to suggest they get together for dinner. It was an unexpected and welcome invitation. “I’m thinking he’s going to tell me he’s going to get married or something.”
The next day, though, Jonathan James was raided. “I called him up, and I said, ‘Are they going to find anything incriminating that you’ve been doing?’” recalls his father. “He said, No.”
“I said, ‘Well good, because you’re no longer a juvenile. It’s going to be serious if you get caught doing something.’ It was actually the last conversation I had with him.”
Jonathan James’ note (redacted .pdf) included personal messages to his father, brother and girlfriend, a will, and the passwords to James’ PayPal and MySpace accounts.
“He hadn’t been arrested, he hadn’t been charged, he hadn’t been tried, he hadn’t been sentenced,” his father says. “I just don’t know what the rush was.”
James’ sense of persecution appears to have been fueled by Albert Gonzalez’s past. After the raid, he learned that Gonzalez had earlier been the Secret Service’s key informant in “Operation Firewall,” a massive sting operation in which the agency used Gonzalez to infiltrate the credit card fraud forum Shadowcrew.
“Albert had been working with the feds since 2003,” James wrote. “That means that for five years he had been having people like Chris hack credit cards for him, while he makes money selling them over the Internet and then at the same time has his buyers arrested to please the feds. When this finally backfired on him, he gave them his Ace In the Hole — Chris, and got off with one count of wire fraud. Talk about entrapment!”
In retrospect, James’ understanding of the case appears tragically flawed. At the time of James’ death, Gonzalez had indeed been charged with only one of the hacks — against Dave & Busters. But prosecutors have since charged him with the others as well, despite the Secret Service’s past relationship with him. If convicted, prosecutors say, Gonzalez faces a potential life sentence.
James isn’t the only old-school hacker to resurface in connection with the growing wave of profit-oriented intrusions. New Yorker Stephen Watt has pleaded guilty to providing Gonzalez with a custom packet sniffer program used to suck down credit and debit card numbers in transit. Watt was notorious in the late 1990s and early 2000s as the hacker “Jim Jones” and “Unix Terrorist,” who targeted so-called white-hat hackers that had gone into legitimate computer security work.
Former 1990s white-hat hacker Max Butler, aka Max Vision, reemerged in 2005 as Iceman, the proprietor of a credit card fraud super-site called CardersMarket. And Ehud “The Analyzer” Tenenbaum, an Israeli man famous for hacking the Pentagon a decade ago, is now charged with stealing millions from Canadian and U.S. banks in a hacking scheme that began in October 2007.
In an eerie epilogue to James’ death, 10 days afterwards a family friend spotted two men messing with the hacker’s car; one of them was underneath the vehicle, his legs sticking out. The friend confronted them.
It was the Secret Service, Robert James says. “They took back the tracking device.”
Image: Jonathan James in his bedroom in 2000, after he was was caught breaking into NASA and other government computer systems. James has a photo of astronaut Capt. Mike Coats who signed “To Jonathan – Dare to Dream!”. (Photo: Jared Lazarus/ Miami Herald)
TJX Hacker Was Awash in Cash; His Penniless Coder Faces PrisonHacking Godfather ‘Maksik’ Sentenced to 30 Years by Turkish Court …Superhacker Max Butler Pleads Guilty‘The Analyzer’ Hack Probe Widens; $10 Million Allegedly Stolen …Indicted Federal Informant Allegedly Strong-Armed Hacker Into Into Caper That Drew 9-Year Sentence
Tags: carding, cumbajohny, hacker, segvec, soupnazi, tjx
Posted by: Sarkazein | 07/9/09 | 2:42 am |
Imagine that. A self-centered, self-important kid that thinks he’s too important for everything and no one will ever understand anything. And then he commits suicide?
While it’s true that it’s not pleasant and is rather tragic, let’s not glorify someone who glorified himself by breaking into shit. He did it for kicks early, sure, but you learn from your mistakes, you don’t blame others for not learning from them. Mitnick (who he references) is a perfect example.
I did all sorts of not-so-legal things as a teen in the 80s. I could crack C64 games easily, I ran from a few houses testing various blue and black boxes. But you learn from it. The world doesn’t conform to you; instead, you make yourself profitable to that world.
I do all sorts of programming now and I could probably break lots of DRM, but that’s not in my interest. You don’t bite the hand that feeds. You grow out of that. You get a world sense, not a self-centric, “I’m the king of the world” bullshit attitude. You understand that busting into places (digitally or otherwise), even if you’re not caught, is not right. You put yourself in the right situations to be a white-hat. You do get so self-centered that you think suicide is an answer.
That said, this kid had more problems than most. It’s too bad because he probably had a brilliant programmer’s mind. (I say ‘probably’ because what if he broke in using a a stolen password or a guess, like the Palin Yahoo account?) I don’t really feel bad for him because he associated and continued to associate with the wrong people, and it’s his fault for not realizing that. I do feel bad for his family, sure, but I don’t know if this glorified hacker would have ever joined “the force”, as it were.
For some reason, Morrissey’s “The Last of the Famous International Playboys” is playing through my head…
In our lifetime those who kill
The newsworld hands them stardom
And these are the ways
On which I was raised
These are the ways
On which I was raised
I never wanted to kill
I am not naturally evil
Posted by: hoby | 07/9/09 | 4:01 am |
Great.. nice job, secret service. Way to catch the bad guy.
Posted by: vulturetx | 07/9/09 | 7:49 am |
@kevin said “James apparently suffered from depression; agents executing the search warrant found another suicide note James had written years earlier, but did not seize his gun”
Why do you imply that it was the secret Service’s job to take the gun? Unless it was named in the warrant or was considered a risk during serving the warrant , the gun is not an issue for SS. And Florida law requires actual acts not just a letter (which may be a piece of fiction) to take away a person’s legal right to own firearms.
So nice way to also imply that the gun was at fault for his suicide. It’s not like a mentally depressed genius in Florida can’t find dozens of others ways to die. After all suicide is easy, living is hard.
/ Wow lots of spam comments in the forums lately , so much for registering before posting.
Posted by: RedFoxOne | 07/9/09 | 8:57 am |
Pretty sad dude. he seemed to be a pretty cool guy!
Posted by: silentboom | 07/9/09 | 9:13 am |
Isn’t the secret service’s job to protect the President? Are they now a secret police organization?
Posted by: jayteemo | 07/9/09 | 9:17 am |
this story seems to be a parenting failure.
“Sometimes I thought he was pretty smart,” says his father. “Sometimes I thought, oh my God, I’ve raised an idiot. And the jury is still out.”
Posted by: morvak0 | 07/9/09 | 9:34 am |
It’s GORGEOUS out today! Oh, yeah, and his suicide was the day after my birthday. COOL!
Posted by: MattyTheG | 07/9/09 | 9:46 am |
@Sarkazeim: I think you bring up a good point, if I am interpreting your post correctly. If I could break lots of DRM, I wouldn’t sit around and do it. I would either release my own DRM that was more secure, and thus more valuable or I would work with companies to fix their security vulnerabilities. If DRM software stops people from stealing millions of dollars worth of your software, I’m sure you would provide a pretty hefty paycheck to make it more secure.
Posted by: cricky101 | 07/9/09 | 9:51 am |
“Former Teen Hacker’s Suicide Linked to TJX Probe.” That’s a pretty bold headline. It should be: “Former Teen Hacker’s Suicide Linked to Egotistical Delusions, Depression, Poor Parenting and a God Complex.”
Posted by: nighthawk | 07/9/09 | 9:57 am |
The person in question hacked into goverment agencies so he got raided. There’s consequences for breaching United States goverment security. It’s unfortunate that this person commited suicide, but he did break the law. When he was caught by authorities for doing so he took his own life. It’s not the secret service agennts or the United States goverments fault. They were just doing their jobs. He took his own life based on free will. He chose to do it.
Posted by: CristobalDeLicia | 07/9/09 | 10:03 am |
OTOH, non spam comments so far are pot-kettle-black, when it comes to egotism. “-I remember, a song from my youth…, cough, cough,… which exactly describes how everyone else should feel… too bad the mf wasn’t as smart as me… I am so superior morally and intellectually… ” Rest in Peace J.J.
Posted by: uberfu | 07/9/09 | 10:53 am |
Well – if Lori Drew got put on trial for harrassing a teenager on MySpace that committed suicide – I think the Feds should absolutely be held accountable for their actions. But as many times before the Feds will go un-punished ’cause theyr’e agents of the governement and the government is immune to everything illegal and can do no wrong.
Posted by: Gover | 07/9/09 | 11:16 am |
I tend not to believe the version of the story told by suicidal teenagers.
Posted by: txhitech | 07/9/09 | 12:01 pm |
You! Out of the gene pool!
Posted by: LandShark | 07/9/09 | 12:34 pm |
Poor sod but it’s just another episode of “This is my so-called life”.
Cue in “Seasons in the Sun”.
Posted by: MattyTheG | 07/9/09 | 12:47 pm |
@Uberfu: There is a pretty big difference between a grown woman purposely trying to harm a teenager, and federal agents investing a crime commit against the government. Can’t really compare the two…
Posted by: LandShark | 07/9/09 | 12:55 pm |
The TJX case was not a crime against the government, it was against companies and people.
Posted by: kelly93 | 07/9/09 | 1:26 pm |
gene pool got a little cleaner.
Posted by: IcyKold | 07/9/09 | 1:27 pm |
Again..Why the F were those damn stores transmitting unencrypted payment data over an insecure wireless network? What monkey thought that was a ‘good idea’? RIP
Posted by: mdc837 | 07/9/09 | 3:43 pm |
what does the last line in Jonathan James note mean?
Posted by: ScrapGold | 07/9/09 | 5:44 pm |
That’s really sad.
Posted by: designerbelts4 | 07/9/09 | 10:14 pm |
This is pretty sad. He seems like a very promising young man. So much dreams…
“Dare to Dream,”
Mens Designer Belts
Posted by: rfrancis1980 | 07/9/09 | 10:14 pm |
He should have waited to see if he was arrested and found guilty, and what his sentence would be.
Then if he didn’t like it he could have went on the lam or killed himself.
A good lawyer could have kept him out of jail during the trial and sentencing phase.
We are all self-centered and self-important, to you that means working as a white hat (and probably making piles of cash), to him that meant living his life on his terms not the world’s terms.
It is impossible for any organism to not be self-centered.
Posted by: vitae_lux | 07/10/09 | 12:18 pm |
ok, it’s pretty obvious this kid had some emotional issues that he needed to deal with. so, is it the fault of the government? no; especially since everyone’s life is their own and each person is responsible for their own actions. the incident with the government probably just happened to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for him emotionally. and anyone who gets stuck in a cycle of serious depression can downward spiral, which makes every experience seem more intense and heavy.
if you would not have made the same decision, then great. just be grateful that his downfalls are not your own. but we all have our own downfalls; that’s for sure. and it’s a hell of a lot easier to point out someone else’s then to think about and recognize your own.
another thing i will say, is that while most of his logic here was flawed, and his story was probably distorted to a degree (as all are), i personally don’t really have a lot of faith in the justice system either.
anyways, i think it’s always sad to see someone waste their life out of misery and confusion.
Posted by: kyrion | 07/20/09 | 3:45 am |
What is Hacking?
This is one term we keep on hearing every now and then. ‘Hacking’ actually means accessing someone’s computer system or systems without one’s permission or legal authorization. And this someone is known as ‘hacker’. A hacker necessarily is not an outsider; it is quite probable that those who work with you hack your systems.
It is a common myth that hacking can be done over the Internet only, but this is not the case. It is quite widespread in its approach. Most companies make best of their efforts to ensure the safety of their computer systems from Internet hacking, but unconsciously turn a blind eye to other potential dangers.
Thus, it is the need of the hour to know what exactly hacking is, and how to protect your business against its hazardous effects.
Posted by: brittanyash | 07/22/09 | 3:02 am |
To all of the morons out there….
Jon was the most wonderful person that ever was. He was respected and admired by anyone that knew his true persona. I am appalled at some of the responses on this site.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the FREEDOM OF SPEECH, or of the PRESS; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a (redress) redress To set right, remedy or rectify. 2. To make amends for. n. 1. Satisfaction for wrong done; reparation. 2. Correction. of grievances.
secret service could have possibly assisted in his death…. THEY DECLINE TO COMMENT hmm how interesting
He worked for my company for two years making good money. He had no reason to be involved in nonsense.
I will end this saying that perhaps one day the truth will prevail
Posted by: sjjury | 08/1/09 | 11:29 pm |
I was Jonathan’s uncle. I loved him. He loved to smoke (cigarettes) and play pool. I hate cigs; I shied away from him in his latter few years because of his habit. We have a saying where I come from, and it goes like this: We take no credit for our childrens’ successes, nor do we accept blame for their failures. Having said that, I will add this: my sister, Jonathan’s mother, was seriously into Judaism. She had Jonathan seeing a Jewish psychologist, rather than seeing a psychologist-no matter the religion- that could have helped him more. To blame anything on the parents is to not a) know the parents and b) give us who are parents WAY more clout than we have. Jonathan, I agree with your dad: what was your rush? As much as we all loved you, you were so full of yourself and your self importance. Bobby, I agree with you: it was hard to tell if Jonathan was brilliant, or an idiot. As I told you, I said those very words to him, when he was having an argument with Joanie when he was 16 or so. Hell, he was both. I was proud of him, too-for having the brains to hack ( not the illegality of it). A customer of mine said that he would be a millionaire by the time he was 30. Too bad he never gave himself the chance.
I wish I could be serene about this. It kills me to this day. Why didn’t you talk to me, or your dad, or your brother, or your girlfriend? Rest in peace, Jonathan. We who knew you, miss you. Those of you who didn’t, well, just remember the saying about opinions: They are like a——s; everybody has one.
Posted by: madmad826 | 12/22/09 | 5:49 pm |
i really wish i would have found this sooner so i could have responded to those people who are leaving really rude comments on this article! it’s outrageous that someone would say anything at all if it was going to be so negative and they didn’t even know the person they’ re talking about in such a horrible way.did anyone teach you to use discretion in certain circumstances. this is someones death we’re talking about and nobody made you read it so you shouldnt write bullshit opinions that his family will end up reading you Ass Hole!! Jon was a great person. unfortunately i only knew him as a child though and didn’t fully understand what he was going through. i did understand he was very full of himself for what he could do and didn’t care much about peoples opinion but shit he had every right to be proud of what he could do regardless of how many other people can do it to! yes, to me he seemed depressed sometimes cause he really didn’t do much but smoke and use the computer but it wasn’t a permanent lifestyle it had time to grow still. honestly his father is right he should have waited and seen what happened maybe he could have fought this out and a lot less people would have been left wondering what he could have been. i guess he was scared it would be harder to end his life if he waited for them to catch him! i guess he thought it would be to late soon. i’ll never forget a story Jon told me about when he was locked up as a kid for violating probation after the NASA breech. i was listening to sweet home Alabama on the radio in his car and he turned it off quickly! he said he was traumatized by that song because the guards used to walk around with their big guns singing it all day. to me that story just explains why he didn’t wait another second to see what happened. he didn’t want to re-live his worst nightmare again! his uncle is right he could have talked to someone that cared about him and friends and family would have supported him along the way but he felt deep down inside he was trapped…..look i was mad at Jon before i read this. now i just see he wasn’t just depressed and giving up he was scared and ran before it was “to late”
well, have it your way Jon! what ever makes you happier is the right thing to do and there’s no undoing whats been done
im sorry i was mad at you for so long and i didn’t even stop to think you had more reasons than just being sad
MAD LOVE JON i wish i could have seen you again one day
PS. he wasn’t an idiot he was indubitably brilliant mixed with a bit of youth
Posted by: candyfusion | 03/11/10 | 11:32 am |
thats quite sad- he must have been really down to do this
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