`Most Wanted' Hacker Lived Quietly Here -- U District Dragnet Narrowly Missed `Condor' Last Year

He called himself "Brian Merrill," lived in a modest apartment in Seattle's University District and drew little attention working his personal-computer job at Virginia Mason Medical Center.

But, officials now say, he was actually Kevin Mitnick - nicknamed "Condor" - a man one federal prosecutor called "the most wanted computer hacker in the world."

Mitnick, arrested Wednesday in North Carolina, was nearly nabbed in Seattle in October by authorities investigating the theft of more than $10,000 worth of phone service from McCaw Cellular Communications.

At the time, local officials did not know the true identity of the man they were tracking or that he was a federal fugitive sought by prosecutors in California.

And if Mitnick gets a significant penalty for the federal crimes, it's unlikely he will return to Seattle to face charges, says Ivan Orton, King County senior deputy prosecutor.

Mitnick, 31, was charged with two counts Wednesday: illegal use of a telephone-access device and computer fraud. The first is punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, the second by up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

In Raleigh, N.C., today, Mitnick, his long hair tied back with a rubber band, appeared before a federal magistrate in leg shackles and waived his right to probable-cause and bond hearings. Magistrate Wallace Dixon ordered him held without bond.

Mitnick, a convicted computer hacker, has been on the run since November 1992. During that time, authorities say, he illegally tapped into thousands of computer files across the country and retrieved at least 20,000 credit-card numbers.

Orton says it appears Mitnick moved to Seattle last June and set up shop altering cellular-phone computer chips to tap into cellular service without paying for it.

The operation went unnoticed in the building in the 5200 block of Brooklyn Avenue Northeast, where Mitnick had taken a partly furnished ground-floor apartment.

Mitnick blended in and was a quiet and polite tenant.

"He definitely kept to himself," said David Drews, manager of the building, who lived in the unit above Mitnick. "He kept really odd hours. I could hear him dialing up the modem in the middle of the night."

In the meantime, investigators hired by McCaw, which operates Cellular One, had tracked pirated signals to the apartment. In one conversation monitored by investigators about 1 p.m. Oct. 7, two men talked about "accessing computer records in order to commit sabotage against particular computer systems," court papers allege.

In the same conversation, Mitnick allegedly indicated he knew how to obtain free cellular-phone service, and offered to provide it to the person with whom he was talking.

On Oct. 27, more than a dozen Seattle Police officers, Secret Service agents and private investigators converged on the apartment armed with a search warrant.

But Mitnick was not home, so police broke through the front door and seized computer gear, cellular phones and equipment that can be used to alter cellular-phone computer chips.

Officers waited two hours; they left behind a copy of the warrant.

Shortly after, Mitnick appeared at Drews' door.

Mitnick asked Drews whether anyone had been in his apartment. Drews explained that police had been there and that they'd left a warrant.

Mitnick left the building that night and never returned.

Mitnick apparently tried to check up on the investigation a short time after the search, calling McCaw and identifying himself as a police officer, Orton said. A McCaw employee confirmed there was an investigation but provided no details.

But the conversation, coupled with the search, apparently convinced Mitnick to move on. There is no record of him being seen in Seattle after that.

Orton said after the suspect fled Seattle, FBI agents in Los Angeles passed on a tip that "Merrill" actually was Mitnick. Examination of materials gathered in the search bore that out, Orton said. All the evidence collected here was turned over to federal prosecutors in California.

Orton said Mitnick has frequently displayed a striking sense of bravado. Shortly after almost being caught in Seattle, Mitnick called a U.S. attorney in Los Angeles and left a voice-mail message saying, "I know you're onto me."

At his arraignment hearing today, Dixon ruled Mitnick's conversations be limited to calls to his attorneys, his mother and his grandmother in California, and that federal marshals dial and monitor the calls.

But Mitnick's nerve apparently led to his downfall. Federal officials say that on Christmas, using highly sophisticated techniques, Mitnick tapped into the computer of a San Diego-based computer-science laboratory.

Tsutomu Shimomura, a researcher for the laboratory, made the search for Mitnick his top priority. Using three laptop computers and a special program he designed to secretly record a remote user's every keystroke, Shimomura helped to lead federal officials to Mitnick in a small apartment complex in Raleigh.

The two men, hunter and hunted, had their first face-to-face encounter at Mitnick's first court appearance after his arrest. "Hello, Tsutomu," Mitnick said. "I respect your skills."

Information from Seattle Times news services is included in this report.