Before the early morning raid on his house, before the press conference a thousand miles away, before the death threats on his family’s phone and the TV crews outside his high school, Jeffrey Lee Parson thought he was helping the government to catch the author of the Blaster worm. But last week, the 18-year-old from Hopkins, Minn., was arrested for distributing a Blaster variant that, according to the federal complaint, infected about 7,000 computers. And with the author of the main worm, which infected more than 1 million computers, still at large, Parson has become the face associated with the recent Internet attacks that shut down computers nationwide.
Parson was charged with intentionally causing damage to a protected computer; if convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Authorities say Parson admitted to modifying the original Blaster worm in an interview with FBI and Secret Service agents. He has not yet entered a plea in the case.
Concerned that he still does not have proper counsel to protect his rights, Parson declined to comment on the record about what he did specifically. “Until I get a lawyer that can help, I don’t want to specifically go into the details,” Parson said.
But Parson claimed his role in the attacks had been greatly exaggerated and his actions relatively benign despite the government’s focus on them.
“I am extremely concerned that the government is trying to make an example of me,” Parson said. “I understand that the government needs to catch someone for these crimes. I’m not the one they need to get!”
Parson’s parents said they believe the federal government, specifically Attorney General John Ashcroft, have trampled on their son’s rights in order to address America’s frustrations with cyber terrorism and hold him accountable for someone else’s crime. Bob and Rita Parson said they understand why examples need to be made, but that this example could cost them their son.
‘They kept on asking me to help'
Parson said he first met with investigators from the Secret Service and the FBI about two weeks ago.
“They told me that they needed my help in catching the author of Blaster, and knew that I had sent a variant of the virus out. We had at least four meetings with investigators and they were really nice and hospitable. I didn’t think that I had done anything serious.”
The agents never read him his Miranda rights and investigators told him that if he cooperated fully, things would be much easier on him, Parson said.
“They told me I didn’t need a lawyer, and they kept on asking me to help, so I did, completely.”
When asked about Parson’s allegations that he was never asked if he wanted a lawyer and never read his rights, a representative of the U.S. Attorney’s office where Parson was charged told NBC News, “no comment”.
Parson said he signed numerous statements after the agents told him it was a formality that they needed to take care of as they enlisted his help in catching what they called the “big fish” behind the Blaster attacks. Parson said he doesn’t know who that was, nor was he involved with the main worm attacks in any way.
The government’s tone began to change, the Parsons allege, following a request for Jeffrey to travel to Seattle to continue assisting investigators there. Parson would not agree without assurances that his parents would be able to remain by his side.
It was then that Bob Parson heard the news on the radio. “I heard they were arresting an 18 year old in Hopkins. I woke Jeff up and said, ‘I think they’re coming after you.’”
Parson grabbed his “Big Daddy” T-shirt, the one clean shirt he could find in a hurry, and a pair of shorts as investigators knocked on his door to execute the arrest. His family now regrets that wardrobe, as they fear it didn’t help his public image. Parson said that when he was arrested one of the agents involved in the case said “I’m sorry we’re doing this, but it comes down from the very top.”
Looking for a lawyer
Parson now realizes that Seattle is the jurisdiction that he is soon to be transferred to for his prosecution. Without money to finance the trip, his parents fear that they won’t be able to be by their son’s side for the first time in his life.
“You’re a parent for life,” said Rita Parson. “Just because they hit their 18th birthday doesn’t mean they’re an adult. He’s still a kid, and he’s my kid.”
While a public defender was assigned to Parson several hours before his court appearance in Minnesota last week, his parents said they still need a attorney familiar with computer crimes to represent him when he goes to court in Seattle on Sept. 17. Miles away from a support structure he says he needs to survive, Parson said he fears that without his parent’s help he won’t be able to mount a strong defense in the case.
Parson said he had not even seen a copy of the complaint against him until it was shown to him by NBC News. Both he and his father pointed out what they said were inaccuracies.
“I don’t know how the government says they took seven computers from me, we only had four and I only used one” Parson said. “It’s not like I had a good setup here, my computer was a piece of junk. Much of what the government seized were music CDs that I purchased.”
‘Not a loner'
Press accounts have labeled Parson as a troubled kid. Those who gave interviews to news organizations told stories of his reckless driving down neighborhood streets, trouble with other kids, and rumored that he was no stranger to law enforcement.
“I don’t know where this stuff came from,” Parson said. “I don’t even have a driver’s license, and I don’t drive, so how could I be racing down the street?”
“I’m the complete opposite of the way I’ve been portrayed in the press. I’m not a loner. I have a very supportive close group of friends. I’m not reckless, I don’t do drugs, smoke or drink. This is the first time I have ever had a run in with the law. It’s hurtful to see the accounts of me. I’m not depressed, embarrassed about my weight, or a misfit. ”
He and his family blame the media for not properly vetting their sources, and listening to anyone that was willing to talk. The Parsons say people who actually knew them well enough to comment had too much respect to come forward in the initial days of the harsh commentaries.
“People who have said they were my friends were not as close as they claimed to be,” Parson said. “I want to thank my close friends and family who wanted to defend me, but were rightfully concerned that their comments would be taken out of context.”
Rita Parson described Jeffrey as a model son, telling stories of how responsible and loving he was, never in trouble in any way, and always someone she could rely on.
He “was never secretive. He wasn’t a computer genius like everyone’s called him. He would sit around on the computer in his free time, and there wasn’t any sign that anything wrong was going on.” While he spent a lot of time on the computer, and loved working on it, her son was not a recluse, she said. “He has plenty of friends, really good wonderful friends. They go out and have fun, he’s not a loner.”
And indeed, when discussing life outside of the Blaster case, Parson appeared full of cheer and soft spoken; he often chimed in with his parents with self-deprecating humor. Throughout the interview, the family appeared close — jabbing elbows as they razzed each other about quirky traits of their personalities.
The Parsons live in a nondescript two-story attached home in a working class neighborhood just outside Minneapolis. When the phone rings there now, eyes widen and the fear is palpable. Aside from the constant barrage of media calls, the Parsons said they have received numerous harassing phone calls, death threats, and even signs placed by pranksters outside their house.
Parson said he often makes a false start for the phone. “I just want to tell those people they’re mad at the wrong guy. One lady called our machine and yelled that I had screwed up her e-mail box. She’s talking about the Sobig virus,” an Internet infection completely different from the one he’s accused of modifying and spreading.
Parson said he used to doubt he wanted to finish high school, but now “really misses being a normal kid,” and is determined to graduate this spring. “I just want this to be over with. I look forward to going to school. It’s the only place I’m allowed to go. Going there is the only thing that will make me feel normal again. I want to get on with school and move towards graduating.”
But it may not be that easy. At 10 p.m. on the eve of Parson’s return to school, a representative from the school district called the house. Reporters and camera crews had already begun setting up camp at Hopkins High for his arrival for his first day of school on Tuesday. Alternate arrangements had to be made for his arrival.
Parson’s face immediately soured as he heard the news. Visibly disappointed, he simply sighed, shrugged his shoulders and then firmly vowed to one day move beyond this. Despite his dreams of trying to have a normal senior year, the consequences of the crimes he’s accused of committing are finally sinking in. Parson now concedes his dreams for a quiet return to normalcy are all but shattered.
Eric Ortner is a producer for NBC’s “Weekend Today” show.