The Ordeal of the PayPal 14
Thirteen of the Anonymous participants are nearly done with their case.
These words set off the space of the court, announced by the staff as the judge comes in to take his seat on a podium. When Judge D. Lowell Jensen entered his court on Thursday morning, only some of the room was standing at attention, others were milling around and chatting. This disorderly court was packed with lawyers, an odd-looking and slightly scruffy gallery of supporters and media, and the cohort of co-defendants, a mix of young and middle aged, also scruffy and be-suited. They laughed and needled each other like old friends at a reunion.
If Jensen minded, he didn't say anything. He sat down, and started the day's work as the room realized the court was in session.
This work was making official the plea details that thirteen of the PayPal 14 had worked out over the last year with federal prosecutors. The PayPal 14 is a group of Americans who had joined in with Anonymous in 2010, trying to shutdown Paypal's website by sending it too much traffic. One of Anonymous' early political protests for WikiLeaks, Operation Payback (also known as Operation Avenge Assange) encouraged people, including these 14 defendants, to download a tool called the LOIC (Low Orbit Ion Cannon) that would let them attack a common target with network traffic, as if they'd all been hitting refresh on their browser hundreds of times a second.
Of the somewhere close to 10,000 who participated, the 14 defendants were investigated and indicted for crimes after their IP addresses were found in PayPal's server logs. They are:
Mercedes Rene Haefer
Vincent Charles Kershaw
Phillips Ethan Miles
Christopher Quang Vo
Each one was charged with Conspiracy and at least one charge of Intentional Damage to a Protected Computer, both felonies. Covelli was charged with two counts.
Eleven of the co-defendants pled guilty to one misdemeanor and one felony, with the provision that after a year of continued good behavior that felony will be dismissed. Beyond that they would be sentenced to for 1-3 years probation and restitution of $5600. The other two didn't plead to the felony, but instead will return with their compatriots in a year to serve 90 days on a misdemeanor charge.
On December 4, 2014 at 10 am thirteen of this group will return one last time to this court, to receive their probationary sentence or start their three months of prison time.
Dennis Collins was indicted on other Anonymous charges in a different district, making him ineligible for this deal.
After the judge made it all official, the thirteen went to celebrate with drinks and lunch in a San Jose Italian dinner called Joe's. Drinks, laughter, and food were passed around by lawyers and clients alike. The news of Nelson Mandela's death came in, and Mercedes Haefer's lawyer, the well-known activist Stanley Cohen, quieted the room to lead everyone in a toast to the fallen revolutionary and humanitarian.
Later Cohen talked about the remarkable relationships these anons built in the course of the case. "You've got people, the first time they've ever met face to face was the first time they walked into a federal court more than two years ago... Chatrooms can't substitute for sitting down over beer and pizza and talking about life."
About six months after they were indicted, Haefer reached out to her co-defendants and made herself available. She, Covelli, and others quietly tweeted at each other without using names to keep track and support each other without getting caught violating bail conditions that banned them from speaking to each other.
Covelli rested his head on his hand on the dinner table, looking at once relieved and soul-weary. "I would check on you everyday," Haefer said to Covelli, while telling me the story. Covelli was going through a lot, and Haefer wanted to be a friend to him. The stress made her nervous for her co-defendant. Haefer would say to herself, "'Josh is sad and I'm worried about what could happen.'"
She sent a tweet saying Happy Birthday on Covelli's birthday, but Pretrial spotted it and called her. "That got put against our pretrial conditions."
During the ordeal, the defendants were raided and arrested, they faced investigation and often fear and rejection from friends, family, their jobs and schools. “I've gotten fired from two or three jobs over this shit,” said Haefer. “I had a safety net... if I needed something I could post online.” Covelli didn't have that, though. “I never had a public persona.”
Haefer said “I've had it easier than some of the co-defendants.” She struggled to stay in school and employed during the years, but others faced the death of loved ones, rejection by family and romantic partners, mental health issues from the stress, and financial ruin, all the time living with the threat of 15 years in prison, owing a quarter of a million dollars, and the stigma of being a felon.
"There was a point where I decided I was going to make friends with my co-defendants," said Covelli. And they all did. The group that celebrated their plea bargains at Joe's was a group of tired and hopeful friends, complete with foibles and in-jokes and moist-eyed bear hugs. "If it wasn't for you all," said Haefer, "I wouldn't have made it for three years."
Haefer's attorney, Stanley Cohen, said that the friendships were vital to being able to negotiate for a good deal with the prosecutor as a single group. "They formed bonds. They fed off each other and learned from each other... They all brought different things to the table."
Covelli and Haefer both said they liked the settlement, with Covelli adding "I'm not going to jail." Puglisi chimed in from across the table, "I'm glad we're not going to be felons."
Public support was part of what helped them get a good deal, Haefer believes. "If you have enough community support, (the prosecutors) will back down." she said.
Their experience, the packed courtroom and attendant media contrasted sharply with the other souls that came before the court that day, mostly Latino men with stone faced families in quiet attendance brought in still wearing shackles and orange correctional uniforms.
There is a certain music to the walk of a chained man. The chains have a high and tinny rhythmic clink when they walk, almost like a patch of small Christmas bells ringing mildly with every step.
These men faced their fates in quiet courtrooms. Their families and friends all snapped to attention at the "All rise," and stayed that way until Judge Jensen was seated and they were told to be seated.
Right before the PayPal 14, a man named Mendoza was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 10 years on a drug charge, all explained to him by the quiet voice of a translator speaking quietly to him as the judge and the lawyers worked out the details of his fate. He had no criminal record, and had done nothing violent.
Mendoza had already served three years of his ten in one of California's harshest prisons. The last request from his lawyer was that he be allowed to serve his time in Lompoc, where he could be as close as possible to his family.
And with that, the drug war ground through another anonymous life.
To Cohen, Haefer, and the others, this resolution was good — justice done better. Despite the guilty plea this was a good moment in proportionality for the sentencing of computer crimes. Less than a month ago, another anon, Jeremy Hammond, got a ten year sentence for participating in the Stratfor hack. Cohen said it sends a message to other judges. “The disposition of this case, the resources, the discovery, the investigation... particularly given the resolution was so relatively benign,” he said. “It's difficult to reconcile the disparity.”
As for activists and Anonymous, he believes they will go on as ever. “People who are committed activists, it doesn't send any message,” said Cohen, with a determined tone. “People who chose to disobey, they don't stop.”