Unsolved Mysteries Wiki

Kevin Poulsen

Real Name: Kevin Lee Poulsen
Aliases: Dark Dante, Kevin Drake, Kevin Locke, Kevin Cooper, John Anderson, Walter Kovacs
Wanted For: Computer Piracy, Wiretapping, Embezzlement, Theft
Missing Since: October 1989


Details: Kevin Poulsen grew up in the Los Angeles, California, suburb of North Hollywood. His mother died when he was young. One of his friends described him as very bright with great potential, but always painfully shy. He received his first computer on his sixteenth birthday. Like most devoted hackers, he adopted a colorful pseudonym: Dark Dante. Eventually, he discovered a telephone number for ARPANET, a computer network funded by the Pentagon. It links university and think tank computers across the country by telephone lines. For him, it was a tantalizing challenge. After connecting his modem with the ARPANET telephone number, he realized he was hooked up to military research at the University of California Berkeley. He needed a password that would allow him access to sensitive documents in the Berkeley computer. He guessed several passwords with no luck. Then he tried the university's initials, UCB. It worked; he was inside ARPANET.
Poulsen's friend Sean Randol recalled that he liked the idea of having power. He wanted to have power over other people, people who he saw as being "beneath him". His activities were soon detected by UCB. When he slipped and, on one occasion only, used his real name instead of "Dark Dante", he was trapped. Blissfully unaware, he continued his hacking activities, giving authorities even more ammunition against him. On the morning of September 22, 1983, the Los Angeles DA confiscated his computer and a fellow hacker was arrested. Because of Poulsen's age at the time (seventeen), he was not officially charged, only warned that his computer activities were illegal. The warning apparently fell on deaf ears.
During the next year, Poulsen took a high school equivalency exam and moved out of his parents' house to northern California. But Dark Dante had not died with his move; he had simply changed locations. In his off hours, he continued to cruise the electronic highways, cloaked with a pseudonym. This time, he never gave his real name or location. On February 9, 1988, the owners of a storage facility in northern California made a routine stop at a locker of which the rent had not been paid. Standard procedure in such cases is to confiscate the material inside. But the contents of this one were something the men had never seen before. It appeared to be stolen telephone company equipment. The owners notified the authorities.
Telephone company investigator Jon von Brauch, along with the local police, arrived immediately. He noticed that the locker contained pieces of electronic equipment, pay phones, and computer print outs, including the print out of the non-published number of the Soviet Embassy in San Francisco. The material was not something that a person could find accidentally; it was clearly stolen property. The locker's owner was listed as "John Anderson" which was a fake. However, several items in the locker bore Poulsen's name. It appeared as if "Dark Dante" had been caught again.
Authorities apprehended Poulsen; he agreed to a consent search of his apartment. They were astonished to find that he had a complete wiretapping facility in a spare bedroom. The equipment in the room allowed him to not only enter computer databases but also monitor telephone conversations without its parties being aware that they were being monitored. Connected to his computer was an unauthorized test set which could be used to tap into private phone lines. Only the telephone company, and through them, legally authorized law enforcement officers, are allowed to use them.
Incredibly, the authorities found photographs Poulsen had taken of himself breaking into a telephone switching trailer, then using the equipment inside. His ego provided the phone company with the evidence they needed to bring in the FBI. FBI agents determined that the acts he was involved in had escalated. They found evidence that he had penetrated the United States government computer, and had transferred the passwords of that computer, via electronic mail, to other individuals. Investigators found that over the last year, someone matching his description had illegally entered several northern California telephone facilities using a false ID. They documented at least three cases where he actually entered the buildings. Once inside, he found telephone numbers he could use to get inside the phone company's computer system. He also stole manuals, switching equipment, and a test set like the one found in his apartment.
Poulsen had allegedly infiltrated US military computer transmissions obtaining classified army information. Authorities believe he also obtained classified information about the FBI investigation of overthrown Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos. In addition, he may have wiretapped and tape recorded the phone conversations of his friend Sean Randol. The test set found in Poulsen's apartment and his possession of the unlisted Soviet number led the FBI to believe that he might be engaging in espionage. Through their investigation, they learned that he had a secret clearance. Because of this, his penetration of the US Army government computer, and his obtaining of a non-published number of the Soviet consulate, they were concerned as to how far he was going with his criminal acts.
On October 19, 1989, a two-year investigation resulted in a nineteen-count indictment against Poulsen and two fellow hackers. They were charged with conspiracy, computer fraud, wiretapping, embezzlement, and theft of public property and records. The two other men were arrested, but he fled. Sean does not believe that he is dangerous, but rather inquisitive. However, the FBI believes that he has the potential to be dangerous to law enforcement, the government, and the public.
Extra Notes: This case first aired on the October 10, 1990 episode.

Poulsen after his arrest

Results: Captured. In March 1991, the FBI received information from an Unsolved Mysteries viewer that Poulsen was living near Los Angeles. FBI agents interviewed his acquaintances there. One of them stated that he had been seen recently at Hughes Market in Van Nuys. Agents then interviewed the market's employees and displayed his photograph.
Three weeks later, on April 11, at around 10pm, Poulsen returned to the market. Night manager Brian Bridges recognized him and immediately notified the FBI. However, he was able to leave the store before agents could respond. Telephone company investigator Terry Atchley learned from the FBI about the sighting and decided to surveil the market, hoping that he would return. At around 11:50pm, he arrived, drove up, and parked immediately in front of it. Once Poulsen was inside, Atchley took a position near the front door and asked the security guard to find Bridges and tell him that Poulsen was there. Believing that he would again elude capture, two store clerks made a daring move: they tackled him to the ground and called for security. The guard took him to a store room where he was held until FBI agents arrived and placed him under arrest. During a search of Poulsen, they found handcuff keys in his eyeglass case. While in custody, he claimed that his contact lenses were drying out and asked for his eyeglass case to be sent to him. It is believed that he was looking for the handcuff keys.
In June 1994, Poulsen pleaded guilty to seven counts of conspiracy, fraud, and intercepting wire transmissions in connection with a radio station contest rigging scheme. In April 1995, he was sentenced to fifty-one months in federal prison and ordered to pay $56,000 in restitution. At the time, it was the longest sentence ever given to a hacker. In July 1996, he was released but was also ordered not to use a computer or the internet for three years.
Following his release, Poulsen reinvented himself and tried to distance himself from his criminal past. He became a journalist, writing about cyber security topics. He is now a contributing editor for The Daily Beast. In 2006, he created a computer script that helped locate over 700 sex offenders on MySpace.