The Secret Service Vs. Bernie S.

       Tinseltown couldn't have staged a more strained and obvious crime scene. On March 13, 1995, at approximately 8 p.m., four black men driving a rental van with Florida plates pulled into a 7-11 parking lot in the mostly Caucasian township of Haverford, Penn., just west of Philadelphia. There, they waited. A couple of hours later, a second vehicle arrived and a white man, dressed in business attire, stepped out and walked over to the parked van. The five individuals began to talk and engage in what looked like an unlawful transaction.
       Detective John Morris of the Haverford Township Police remembers receiving a call that night, tipping him off that a drug deal was going down at the 7-11. Squad cars were immediately dispatched. "I was in an undercover car pulling up and I could see that one guy was holding money and it looked like an exchange was going on," Morris recounts. "Cars were off to the side in a manner other than people who patronize the store and it looked out of place, it looked like something was wrong."
       As suspicious as things may have appeared that evening, nothing, in fact, was terribly amiss. Ed Cummings, a computer and telecommunications consultant, was selling electronics parts to a Florida resident who was passing through the Philadelphia area. Cummings, better known in the hacker community by his handle Bernie S., had been advertising the sale of 6.5MHz phone crystals in the hacker quarterly magazine, 2600. When used in lieu of standard crystals found in ordinary Radio Shack phone dialers, these 6.5MHz crystals allow for the programming of special tones -- tones that can be employed to trick public phones into thinking coins have been deposited. The visitors from Florida, who had seen the ad in 2600, called Cummings and arranged to meet him at the 7-11.
       Despite Cummings' objections that nothing illegal was transpiring, Morris remained suspicious and confiscated the box of crystals and dialers. Morris agreed to return the materials the next day, so long as they "checked out." Cummings and the men and women from Florida were allowed to leave the scene.
       Two days later, Cummings received a call from a client (she requested anonymity for this story) who needed help installing a new hard drive that had just arrived in the mail. She remembers putting her children to sleep while Cummings worked away at the installation upstairs. It was an ordinary evening -- at least until the doorbell rang around 9 p.m. She had visitors.
       Unaware, Cummings busily worked upstairs. "I heard someone coming up the stairs," he remembers. "Then, suddenly, I heard a bunch of men yelling, 'Freeze, Police! Police! Secret Service!' I turned to my right and there were six armed men all pointing guns at me. They said, ŽDon't move!' I was pushing my chair back slowly and moved my hands, because I speak with my hands. They got really upset that I moved." A couple of officers pushed Cummings to the floor. He recalls hearing from over his shoulder, the charge being read to him: "You're under arrest for possession of equipment for theft of telecommunications services."

       From this point on, depending on who you speak with, the facts of the Ed Cummings case diverge into two very different stories. The Secret Service would have you believe Ed Cummings is a malicious and dangerously vindictive phone phreaker. The hackers, phreakers and devotees of 2600 magazine, who hold monthly meetings at locations nationwide would argue otherwise, saying that it's just that the Secret Service (or Secret Police as some hackers call them) is out to get Cummings. Side by side, the contentions hardly seem to relate to the same case and the same guy. Only after speaking with him myself, could I determine incontestably, that the Ed Cummings both sides were referring to was in fact one and the same person.
       Who is Ed Cummings really, and why has he been incarcerated? When asked this exact question, he cautions that it's bad "etiquette" to question another prisoner for "what he's in for." He pauses for a moment and then laughs and says that he's "more than happy to speak about the case." In fact, Cummings says that at this point, he considers his life an open book, and he's just glad that someone is willing to listen to his side of the story. Emmanuel Goldstein, editor of 2600, and some other sympathizers have tried to exculpate Cummings of the allegations made against him by the U.S. Attorney's office, but mostly, he finds that the local press has badly misreported his case. So I ask him to tell me his story from the very beginning. He starts his tale on March 13, 1995, the night local police officers confronted him outside the 7-11.
       Call it bad timing, bad luck or bad karma -- one of the phone dialers Detective Morris seized from Cummings that night had been tampered with; Cummings says that it was a phone dialer he had sold to another hacker who later returned the device because of a flaky push button. Morris, the day after his initial encounter with Cummings, contacted First Bell Telephone, who then directed him to Special Agent Tom Varney of the Secret Service. Varney, who suspected that the device might be a "red box," an illegally modified tone dialer, went to meet Morris at the Haverford Police Department. "As soon as [Varney] walked in, he knew exactly what it was," Morris says. "We went over and used the red box on a pay phone, and it worked. We were getting free phone calls." Based on this evidence, Cummings was charged with a Pennsylvania misdemeanor two for possession of devices for theft of telecommunications and also with a felony for unauthorized access of a computer.
       The day after Cummings was arrested, he was shackled and led to the Haverford District Court for arraignment, where a bail agent set his bail at an unusually high $100,000. As it turns out, Cummings was supposed to be arraigned the previous night; however, the judge who was on duty at the time, Judge Gerald Liberace, knew Cummings personally (Ed was a friend of the family). So that following day, Cummings instead went before Judge David Lang, who arraigned him on the misdemeanor. Lang refused, however, to arraign him on the felony charge, stating that there was nothing in the affidavit accompanying the arrest warrant that said anything about "accessing a computer."
       Thrown in an 8-by-5 foot holding cell at the Delaware County Prison, Cummings spent the next four days pondering his unexpected incarceration and making unwanted acquaintances with a few dazed loiterers who were in town for a Grateful Dead concert. Thereafter, he was transferred to "E Block" where he remained incarcerated, penniless and downcast, until his April 10 preliminary hearing. And that's when he recounts an unusual visit with his landlord, Al Wheatley. "I thought he was going to be mad as hell," says Cummings, who figured Wheatley had come to notify him of his eviction. To his surprise, however, Wheatley, an aspiring cyberlawyer, hoped to pick up the case, and agreed to waive any legal fees. For Cummings, it was a rare stroke of good luck.
       On April 10 Cummings appeared in court for his preliminary hearing regarding his misdemeanor charge. And it was then that his case took a major turn for the worse. Before any charges were heard, Agent Varney and Detective Morris appeared in the courtroom and approached the bench. After a short discussion with the presiding judge, Judge Robert Burton, Cummings was informed that the state was dropping all charges against him -- but that the federal government was issuing a warrant for his arrest. Cummings was led out of the courtroom with three other prisoners and placed in a van that would once again return him to Delaware County Prison. As it pulled away from the courthouse, police and a number of Secret Service vehicles followed behind in tow. The parade of cars amazed and amused the other prisoners in the van. In a rare moment of levity, someone began singing the theme song to Secret Agent Man. Cummings joined in, but he couldn't help but wonder what it meant now that the U.S. Attorney's office would be handling his prosecution.
       Before Cummings left for Fairton Federal Prison in New Jersey, his lawyer, Wheatley, visited him at the county prison and read him the federal charges. According to Wheatley, the violations didn't seem to exist, and he confessed that he couldn't find any trace of the federal statutes that Cummings had been charged with: Title 18, United States Code, Section 1029 (a)(5) ("knowingly and with intent to defraud...possesses a telecommunications instrument that has been modified or altered to obtain unauthorized use of telecommunications services") and Section 1029 (a)(5)(B) ("knowingly and with intent to defraud...possesses hardware or software used for altering or modifying telecommunications instruments to obtain unauthorized access to telecommunications services").
       These phantom laws, it so happened, had been added as riders to the Digital Telephony Bill passed by Congress in late 1994, only weeks before Cummings had been charged by the state, and weren't published in any law books yet. Cummings, as was his luck, would be the first person to be tried under these new federal statutes.
       On April 26, Cummings was moved by Agent Varney from Delaware County Prison to federal court. Cummings describes the ride as uneventful but says that Varney was very curious about four photographs that had been found in his file cabinets at home -- all four were shots of Secret Service agents, one of which captured an agent "picking his nose."
       Cummings explained to Varney that he didn't take the shots himself but had received the four photos from a friend (who apparently sells electronics surveillance equipment to law enforcement agencies). "The Secret Service received an unfounded tip that one of his employees might have been involved in telecommunications fraud and sent two undercover agents to his place of business where they were captured on videotape," Cummings says. Suspecting that he was being investigated, Cummings' friend gave him the photos and asked that he bring them to a 2600 hacker meeting in Philadelphia to see if anyone could confirm his suspicions. Coincidentally, a camera crew from the Philadelphia Fox-TV affiliate, WTXF, was attending the meeting to film a short report on hacking. In an unfortunate twist, the four photos were broadcast on the evening news two nights later, causing an enormous embarrassment for the Secret Service.
       Cummings is convinced to this day that this incident, and the subsequent discovery of the pictures in his home file cabinet, prompted Varney to recommend that the U.S. Attorney's office federally prosecute this case. Varney refutes the accusation and insists, "Ed Cummings was no more an interest than any other suspect or subject or mope or doer or perpetrator that I have ever investigated. It's just that Ed Cummings has become a martyr for the hacker community and the 2600 club, and so they see this as a vindictiveness and an aggressive reaction by the Secret Service."
       At the federal arraignment later that April afternoon, the government referred to books on explosives and a substance resembling the explosive C4 that were found in Cummings' home. Despite the fact that there was nothing illegal about the possession of these bomb-making books, and regardless of the fact that the "C4" found in Cummings' home was nothing more than dental putty, the federal magistrate denied Cummings bail. By happenstance, Cummings' arraignment took place two hours after the entire federal building had to be evacuated because of a bomb scare and one week after the Oklahoma City bombing. The next afternoon, Cummings was denied bail and sent to federal prison.
       Over the next couple of months, Wheatley, filed several appeals for bail, without success. Varney's testimony that two witnesses had claimed Cummings would flee if released was enough to convince any judge to deny bail. According to Cummings, however, the only person who actually made the claim that he would flee was a man named Charles Rappa, who previously had been arrested on assault charges (against Cummings). Frustrated by the evidence presented against him and also by his landlord lawyer's deleterious lack of experience with regard to the federal criminal justice system, Cummings fired Wheatley and scraped up enough money to hire attorney Ken Trujillo, a former federal prosecutor whom he discovered through a friend of a friend.
       Trujillo, who began work on Cummings' case on July 7, immediately went after an inconsistency in a police report filed by Morris and a statement made in Varney's affidavit. In both documents, Morris and Varney wrote that the evidence taken from Ed Cummings on March 13 in front of the 7-11 was "confiscated." Trujillo's problem with the word "confiscated" was that there was no consent or probable cause to justify making the seizure of the phone dialers and phone crystals on Cummings' person, particularly since Morris didn't know what the parts were. In response to this inconsistency, Varney says, "[Morris] saw the fact that [Cummings] had a book opened up in regard to cloning cellular telephones, telecommunications fraud and red boxes. And in this book they opened up, they also cited Ed Cummings' business as the business that sold the parts to red boxes. I would guess that a law enforcement officer, with the type of experience that Detective Morris had, would be able to explain to any person why he felt there was criminal activity, that these items were involved in some sort of crime and that he was going to take them for further review. And I think he could persuade any judge to understand that."
       On July 14, Trujillo filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized by Morris. It wasn't until Sept. 7, at the suppression hearing, that Judge Jay C. Waldman would hear and settle on the motion.
       In the meantime, Cummings recounts having spent many days in federal prison researching his own case and talking to and learning from other inmates about everything from stealing cars to making chemicals. At one point during his stay at Fairton, Cummings even tells of a run-in with Philadelphia crime boss, John Stanfa, who at the time was implicated in of the largest racketeering indictments in U.S. history.
       At the time of this "run-in," Cummings was sharing a cell with a roommate who had a penchant for bananas and who would smuggle them into their cell after meals. Irritated by the smell of discarded peels and the fruit flies they would attract, Cummings says he would pick them out of the trash each day and dump them instead in the communal bin just outside of the cell. One day during his ritual disposal of the peels, Cummings recalls lifting the 7-pound lid from off the communal can and balancing it precariously on a railing that ran the length of the upper tier. In a moment of clumsiness, he knocked the lid from off the railing and watched helplessly as it plummeted to the tier below, landing squarely on the large, bald head of Stanfa. Cummings immediately hurried to the tier below, spilling apology after apology over Stanfa's furious harangue of Sicilian curses. Thankfully one of Stanfa's bodyguards, in prison on a similar indictment as his boss, intervened and explained that Cummings, whom he had met a day before, was an "okay guy." Despite the bodyguard's intervention though, Cummings remained terrified at the prospect of donning cement boots. Two days later Stanfa confronted him again as he feared he might. But rather than "get rough" with him, the crime boss presented Cummings with an offer he couldn't refuse -- Stanfa's English wasn't terribly strong, so he asked Cummings to clean up a 50-page handwritten document outlining Stanfa's and his associates' alibis. In return for this favor, Cummings says he obtained prison protection and occasional favors.
       "Just my strange luck, I suppose," Cummings says. "Things turned out all right, but imagine if I killed the guy by accident. Who would have believed me then?"
       Certainly not Judge Waldman, who, on Sept. 7, finally heard and denied Trujillo's motion to suppress the evidence of the phone dialers and crystals that were taken on March 13 (Morris claimed that Cummings voluntarily gave him the evidence). With nowhere to go but down, Trujillo suggested to Cummings that he agree to a conditional guilty plea called a "Zudick plea." Since Ed was the first person to be tried under federal statutes 1029(a)(5) and 1029(a)(5)(B), he could use the Zudick plea to challenge the constitutionality of the law he was accused of violating (and avoid the likely risk of being found guilty by a jury which often results in a harsher sentence). "It is unconstitutionally vague because given technology as it stands, the federal government has the wide ability to call virtually anything illegal under that law," Trujillo says.
       In a phone interview, a friend of Cummings (who wished to remain anonymous) adds, "It looks like it's possible to be guilty of this crime just by possessing a telephone because the telephone is self-modifying when you type buttons, because you can hit redial. So therefore, by owning a telephone, you're guilty of this crime." His back to the wall, and weary after seven months in jail, Cummings agreed to plead guilty.
       The hacking community prayed, with Cummings, that the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals would find the statutes under which he was being prosecuted unconstitutional; if not for the sake of their pal Bernie S. (he'd served his federal time anyway), then at least for their own sakes. Dark Tangent, an acquaintance of Cummings, who's known among hackers for his work organizing the yearly hacker convention, Def Con, says the fear among users with regard to this legislation is its vast potential to be abused. "I have parts laying all over my office that I'm sure I could cobble together and make all types of evil Ždeath machines.' I'm sure if I got a team of dedicated federal prosecutors in here, they could come up with a whole host of things to do with this stuff."
       Convinced, as is Ed, that the Secret Service was "out to do Cummings," Dark Tangent warns, "You don't really question the Secret Service, it's just not done."
       Finally on Oct. 10, 1995, after several unexplained hearing delays, Cummings received federal sentencing. It should be noted that the delays in Cummings' sentence caused him to serve an extra month in prison past the maximum federal guideline for a fraud case involving no money loss and no victims. This extra month served, says Cummings, was justified away that October afternoon when the court agreed to prosecuting attorney Anne Chain's request that his sentence be enhanced "because his offense involved 'more than minimal planning.'" This, even though, as Cummings insists, "all the 'planning' alleged, the purchasing of crystals and dialers, occurred prior to the enactment of the statute I was charged with violating!" The sentence received: seven months imprisonment. Cummings, who had almost served the entire sentence during the protracted trial period, was released from federal custody three days later.

       On Oct. 13, Cummings was finally released from prison. But, in a false ending typical of most bad horror stories, Cummings' short-lived freedom was only the calm before another nightmarish storm. Aside from the fact that the state had sold his impounded car, his federal conviction, as it turned out, was a violation of a county probation for a past misdemeanor charge, "tampering with evidence," that he pled "no contest" to in 1994. That earlier misdemeanor charge was the result of Cummings' 1993 encounter with Forks (Penn.) Township's police officer James Rowden at a Northampton County Summer HamFest (a kind of electronics show and flea market). Cummings, accompanied by two friends, Alan and Ted, had arrived at the HamFest at around 6 a.m., just before the gates to the show were opened. They parked Cummings' newly purchased Ford Thunderbird on the shoulder of a side road near the show and spent the next six hours buying electronic equipment at the festival. Upon returning to the car with armloads of assorted gear, they noticed a police car parked behind Cummings' vehicle. Rowden, a local policeman, had found the car abandoned on the side of the road and suspected that it had been stolen, particularly because one of the vehicle's windows was broken out and because its registration failed to match up. After making a procedural search through the glove box of the car (Cummings claims the search went "too far"), in an attempt to find some evidence of who the vehicle belonged to, Rowden says he discovered phone dialers and accompanying pamphlets that explained how to use them as red boxes.
       Rowden questioned Cummings about the car and explained that he couldn't allow the vehicle to be driven without proof of ownership and insurance. Unfortunately for Cummings, who had just purchased the Thunderbird that past week, he had not yet updated the registration plates for the vehicle and could provide no such proof. So Rowden drove the three show attendees to the police station where they could make phone calls to arrange for some kind of transportation back to Philadelphia. "I also explained to them about the phone dialers and that I would be contacting Bell Telephone security, and that they would be conducting an investigation," Rowden says. "[Cummings] was told he could take his personal belongings."
       Cummings, who admits that two of the six phone dialers that had been taken were red boxes, says that Rowden permitted them to leave with everything but the dialers. So one of his two friends (Cummings wouldn't say who) grabbed the pamphlets and stuffed them down his pants, and removed the batteries from the phone dialers, effectively erasing the memory of illegally programmed red box tones. "Rowden did say everything but the phone dialers," Cummings explains.
       About 20 to 30 minutes after leaving the police station, while walking down a country road toward a bus station, Cummings says Rowden reappeared in his police vehicle and pulled over in front of them. Furious that the batteries had been removed from the dialers, Officer Rowden stepped out of the vehicle and told Cummings that someone would have to be held accountable for the tampering of evidence. Alan apparently was already on federal probation, says Cummings, "so I took the heat."
       Consequently, Cummings was placed on probation and slapped with his first misdemeanor two (a Pennsylvania charge that's equivalent in severity to scattering rubbish, insulting the flag or making a public nuisance). On Jan. 12 of this year, that seemingly minor charge would come back to haunt him in a big way.
       Cummings' lawyer, Trujillo, whose car had been plowed under during that January morning's record blizzard, could not make it to his client's probation violation hearing. Angered by Trujillo's absence, Northampton County Judge Anthony Pinella forbid Cummings to speak in defense of himself; silent, Cummings listened intently as Agent Varney, Detective Morris and Cummings' probation officer, Scott Hoke, presented convincing evidence that hacker Bernie S. was a danger to the community. Despite the fact that he had landed a full-time job at Bell Atlantic as a technical assessor of computer problems (for banks, corporations, government agencies and ironically, the FBI), Judge Pinella returned Cummings to prison and set an extraordinary $250,000 cash bail.
       With only a stick of gum and a little pocket change on him, Cummings certainly could not cover the enormous cash bail. He was placed once again in the all-too-familiar shackles, taken to Northampton County Prison and, thanks to the high bail setting, placed in the maximum security cellblock with "the 23 most violent and dangerous inmates of the entire 520-man prison." It wasn't until March 5, 1996, that Cummings was finally sentenced by Judge Pinella for his probation violation: a $3,000 fine and two years in prison with eligibility for parole after six months. According to Trujillo, this was eight times the maximum guideline sentence for this kind of offense.
       Currently, Cummings is being held at the minimum security wing of Bucks County Prison, the fifth prison he's had the misfortune of seeing from the inside. All this, he acknowledges with amazement, for the possession of a 486 laptop computer, a commercial software diskette with cellular programming utilities and two touch-tone dialers with 6.5MHz crystals installed. "There was never any charge of any damage incurred, because there wasn't any" he says in utter disbelief -- so the prosecution filed a charge of intent to defraud.
       Prosecuting attorney Chain sharply disagrees that the Cummings case was merely about "intent." "There is a loss, it's just that you don't know what that exact amount is," she says. "Certainly, the potential for extensive losses is there...because we weren't required to put proof into specific dollar loss doesn't mean there wasn't loss, and that there wasn't harm."
       But does that potential for loss equate to the loss of two years of a man's life? "Ed would try to convince you that he's as pure as the new driven snow, but unfortunately that is not the case," says Varney, who believes that, from the trunkloads of evidence found in Cummings' home, the punishment fits the crime.
       Cummings laughs at the words, "trunkloads of evidence," and says that the "damaging" items Agent Varney introduced as evidence into court were guilefully exaggerated: lock-picking devices (just slim jims used for unlocking his car), the explosive C4 (in reality, dental putty), false identification documents (a novelty press badge that comically says "pull" on the back side). And the list goes on, as do the months in prison -- a year and seven months to date.
       Still awaiting an ending is where Cummings' story stands today. On June 17, the U.S. Third District Court of Appeals dismissed his federal appeal. For hacker Bernie S., all that's left now is time to kill.

homeback to archives