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But Albert's fascination soon turned into a fixation."It was already like an obsessive vice," his mother, Maria, would later tell a judge. "I am not crazy." "You don't have to be crazy to go to a psychologist," his mother pleaded, but Albert was unmoved.
They'd been high all weekend long — on Ecstasy, coke, mushrooms and acid — so there seemed little harm in doing one last bump of Special K while they packed up to leave their $5,000-a-night duplex in South Beach."Let's see if this Russian asshole has what I need," he'd say calmly.Then he would help himself to glass plates of powder, each thoughtfully cut into letters for easy identification: "E" for Ecstasy, "C" for coke.Stephen somehow managed to climb the suite's glassed-in staircase and sit down in front of the laptop, but nothing he saw on the screen made any sense — his brain was scrambled beyond comprehension. His double life as a snitch gave him an inside look at how the feds try to safeguard the nation's computer data — and reinforced his own sense of superiority."Psychologically," his sister later told a judge, "it was feeding an obsession that in the end would become my brother's downfall." But as Albert stood in his South Beach hotel room in March 2007, getting caught was the furthest thing from his mind.By the time he entered South Miami Senior High, the once-outgoing Albert had turned isolated and untalkative, his grades plummeting as he neglected his homework in favor of the huge programming textbook he had bought. "If you take me, I'm not going to talk," he warned.
"I'm just going to stay quiet." When she moved the computer to his sister's room, Albert simply snuck in during the night to log on to chat rooms devoted to computer programming.
"Now that I've got you here, I need you to do it, or it's never gonna happen," Albert urged. Together, the three friends had just succeeded at putting some finishing touches on a vast criminal enterprise, one that U. Attorney General Michael Mukasey would call "the single largest and most complex identity-theft case ever charged in this country." Only 25 years old, with little more than a high school education, Albert had created the perfect bubble, a hermetically sealed moral universe in which he made the rules and controlled all the variables — and the only code that mattered was the loyalty of his inner circle.
The whites of his brown eyes had gone veiny from the K, but he was still the ringleader, still in control. He even had an insurance policy, one designed to keep him a step ahead of the federal agents charged with tracking cybercrime: For the past four years, Albert had been working as an informant for the Secret Service, helping federal agents to identify and bust other rogue hackers.
The coding work complete, he briskly snapped his laptop shut and hustled his friends down to the Loews' marble-floored lobby, where, acting as sober as possible, he settled their $17,000 bill for the weekend, paying mostly in twenties.
Knowing it would take a while to count that much cash, the hotel manager ordered a round of frozen daiquiris for the gentlemen.
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