• Sun. Oct 2nd, 2022


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Searching for Susy Thunder

The man beneath her boot whimpered happily. Working as a dominatrix at a BDSM dungeon in the San Fernando Valley was better than streetwalking, and the money was stupendous. At the Leather Castle, she called herself Jeanine; newly sober and happy to be alive, she held the business end of the whip. She charged men hundreds of dollars for a half-hour session just to lick her feet, more than enough money to buy all the computer gear she wanted. 

Her tiny apartment in Van Nuys was fully kitted out — she called it the hacker den. She set up her own four-way phone conference line, Instant Relay, and spent her free time posting to bulletin board systems about telephone loopholes and vulnerabilities. In her first posting to the phreaker forum 8BBS, she announced herself with gusto. “I am new in computer phreaking and don’t know that much about systems and access. I have, however, been a phone phreaker for quite a while and know a lot about the subject of telephones…by the way, I am a 6 foot 2 inch blonde female with hazel eyes, weight 140, and I enjoy traveling a lot.” 

Needless to say, she raised eyebrows — there weren’t many leggy blondes in the phone-hacking scene. But she was far from being Los Angeles’ most visible phreaker. That title went to Lewis DePayne, a 20-year-old USC student known in the telephone underground as “Roscoe.” He’d recently been the subject of a cover story in LA Weekly, in which he’d boasted that he could use his mastery over the phone network’s electronic systems to void bills, score free airplane tickets and hotel reservations, and alter credit scores. Lewis was a savant and, like Susan, liked being in control. The LA Weekly reporter wrote that he dialed phones “like Bobby Fischer moves chess pieces.”

Lewis ran a conference line, too — HOBO UFO (462-6836) — out of a Hollywood apartment strewn with phone manuals, computer parts, and recording gear. Most of his callers were high school and college-aged kids who’d heard about HOBO UFO through the grapevine; Lewis listened to their ambient chatter in his apartment day and night. He was the Wizard of Oz, and Susan always made it her business to see behind the curtain. She called up HOBO UFO, and when she popped on the line, Lewis remembers, she played it cool. She acted as though she already knew Lewis and like he should know who she was, too.

When Lewis first saw Susan in person, he clocked her immediately. Her descriptions of herself were accurate: she was very tall, looking down through feathery blonde bangs on the six-foot DePayne. He asked her what she did for a living. With uncharacteristic reticence, she didn’t mention the Leather Castle. Instead, she told him she was a sex therapist. He perked up. 

They started spending time together, swapping notes and sharing gear. One object of mutual fascination was the TI Silent-700, a portable terminal with an acoustic modem and two rubber cups you could sock a phone handset right into. Some nights, Lewis brought Susan to the USC computer center, and she watched him surf networks around the country. He introduced her to his close friend, Kevin Mitnick, a teenage phreaker and Ham radio operator who would later spend most of the ’90s on the run from the feds. 

Lewis wasn’t the kind of guy Susan normally went for. He was straight-laced, almost puritanical, favoring coffee, donuts, and late nights browsing electronic databases over sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. He kept diligent records, filling notebooks with the names of local telephone operators and access codes that could grant him access to the computer systems of airlines, private corporations, Western Union, and the DMV. Gathering this information was its own form of power. Knowing how to use it made this pale, serious young man one of the most dangerous people in Los Angeles. 

Susan fell in love. 

She and her new friends cruised the city at night, searching for unsecured dumpsters outside of phone company offices. The manuals and interoffice memos they pilfered from the trash were maps to the parts of the phone network that were hidden from view. By leveraging the information they found dumpster diving — everything from internal jargon to access codes and employee names — they were able to pull more complex and ambitious scams.

It helped Kevin and Lewis to have a female collaborator; targets trusted her more easily over the phone, especially when she played a telephone operator, who were, in those days, all women. It was a role Susan played gladly. Misrepresentation and subterfuge came easily to her. As a social engineer, she always considered herself to be at least their equal. Lewis, who was always more interested in the technical than the human side of their craft, disagreed.