Plenty of phreakers experience that moment when the wall between life on the phone and its real-world consequences comes crashing down. For Bill Acker, it happened when he was 18 and was visited by a New York Telephone Company investigator, who had a few questions about some free calls being placed by a student at the Lavelle School for the Blind. Chris Bernay was 15 when the cops showed up. He’d been monkeying with 9-1-1 calls.
Matt Weigman had his moment in December 2006, when FBI agent Lynd, a 40-year-old West Point grad and Desert Storm veteran, knocked on the door at Weigman’s apartment in East Boston. Lynd had served nearly a decade on the agency’s cybersquad unit, helping at one point to collar a gang of hackers who were notorious for breaking into government computer systems and had once defaced the White House website. Lynd discovered that the SWATting hoaxes were more ubiquitous than he’d first imagined; ultimately he uncovered more than 200 incidents that had tangled up law enforcement officials in more than 40 jurisdictions in at least 10 states.
What’s more, he’d discovered a kind of Ocean’s Eleven–esque cast of misanthropes behind it all. There was the Financier, Chad Ward from Syracuse, New York, who would pay the crew to carry out the SWATtings on party-line foes. The Researcher, Jason Trowbridge from Houston, who would track down the target’s information. The Voice, Guadalupe Martinez from the Seattle area, who would place the menacing 9-1-1 calls. And then there was Weigman, whom Lynd later described in an affidavit as the “individual responsible for altering telephone services in furtherance of this scheme.” The Phreaker. Lynd would not comment for this article because the case against Weigman is pending. But in documents to be presented at his trial this month, Weigman is accused of being the person behind the effort to mask the origins of the calls—a master phreaker, caught using cheap phone tricks.
As Lynd interviewed Weigman, who was still just 16, the boy’s mom sat nearby. While they talked, Lynd’s cell phone rang. As the agent took the call, Weigman listened closely, trying to pick up the voice on the other end. Almost instantly he recognized it as belonging to a Verizon fraud investigator named Billy Smith, with whom he’d had run-ins before. After Lynd hung up, Weigman asked if Smith was assisting in the FBI investigation. Of course, he already knew the answer.
A month after Lynd’s visit to East Boston, the Voice was arrested. The Financier and the Researcher went down six months later, along with Stuart Rosoff. Last May they all went to prison, some for as many as five years. Because federal prosecutors rarely bring cases against minors, Weigman was spared.
To anyone paying attention, the message was clear: The game was over. This was a good time to get off the party line. To lay low. And maybe Weigman wanted to. Things had been different since he’d been getting serious with Chastity. Everyone on the party line said so. He was calmer, less angry, it seemed. He was telling friends that he was thinking about college.
But Weigman couldn’t stop, according to Lynd’s affidavit in the government’s case against him. Maybe it was curiosity, or maybe fear, but he was convinced the federal investigators were still building a case against him. Relying on the skills that had made him untouchable on the party line, according to Lynd’s affidavit, Weigman set about trying to break into the voice mail of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Dallas. Lynd claims Weigman called party-liner witnesses and attempted to intimidate them, pressing them to stop cooperating with the FBI. Lynd also contends in an affidavit that Weigman threatened to kill potential witnesses and their family members, even intimating he might harm one woman’s baby.
To make matters worse, in late spring Billy Smith, the Verizon fraud investigator, disconnected a phony account Weigman was using to make calls. It was infuriating enough that Smith was working against him by aiding the FBI, but this new affront crossed a line for Weigman.
According to Lynd’s affidavit, after posing as a Verizon employee to get his phone turned back on, Weigman retaliated, obtaining Smith’s personal telephone billing records and placing a number of harassing calls to his house.
When Weigman’s phone was blocked from calling certain numbers, he suspected Smith (who declined to comment for this story) was behind it. It was more than Weigman could handle. His girlfriend, his community, his whole life—it all required unfettered access to a dial tone. Weigman decided the only way to resolve the situation would be to pay a personal visit to Billy Smith at his home in New Hampshire.
Weigman found a sympathetic ear and a ride to Smith’s house in Sean Benton. The pair had met on a party line in 2004. But they didn’t really get to know each other until Benton showed up at Weigman’s front door—a short trip from his place in Malden—in the fall of 2005, after Weigman had made some disparaging remarks about a friend. For a young man who showed a good deal of bravado on the phone, Weigman was sheepish when confronted. Benton, then 19 and four years older than Weigman, says he told Weigman he was too young to get caught up in this kind of stuff. After that they stayed in contact and by last spring were hanging out in person.
They left for New Hampshire on May 18, 2008, just days after their fellow party-liners were sentenced to prison—and just a month after Weigman turned 18. Weigman got the address, Benton pulled the directions, and Weigman’s older brother tagged along with an ulterior motive: a stop at the Atlas Fireworks Factory in Londonderry.
Whatever plan they may have plotted during the hour-or-so drive, it fell apart nearly immediately. Arriving at Smith’s house, they caught him out on his lawn. Weigman walked up and introduced himself. A look of concern flashed across Smith’s face, and he told the boys to hold on for a moment while he ran inside. As he did so, Benton says, the trio conferred: This was a mistake. They realized what Smith was doing. He was calling the cops.
The police showed up in short order. When they did, Weigman told officers that he was being harassed, that he had come to discuss the Verizon agent’s “vendetta” against him. In an affidavit later filed in court, Lynd says that Weigman admitted to having made SWATting calls, and that he said he was continuing to do so.
The young men were sent back toward Boston. Two weeks later, agents from the Boston FBI office swarmed Weigman’s home and arrested him. He was charged with intimidating a federal witness and attempting to influence his testimony—the alleged crimes for which he’ll stand trial this month.
To those who regard Matt Weigman as a protective son, a supportive boyfriend, a shy blind teenager who walks with his head down—to the few people who know what he’s like in person—the charges against him seem almost comically unbelievable. Death threats against infants. Conspiring to instigate police shootouts. You wonder if even Weigman recognizes himself in the picture that the FBI paints of Li’l Hacker.
Not too long ago, Chastity took a call from the jail in Mansfield, Texas, where Weigman has been doing a lot of thinking. Chastity says he’s got a plan for when he gets out—whenever he gets out. He wants to work with the blind, just like the people who helped him learn how to take care of himself when he was growing up. He told her that he wants to embrace his handicap and help others embrace theirs; he wants to teach them to be able to operate in the real world so maybe they won’t have to create their own. As he has gone about this self-reflection, it has no doubt helped that Weigman, like all his fellow inmates, has limited access to the phone.
Freelance writer Dan Morrell wrote about philanthropic venture-capitalist John Simon in the March 2008 issue.