Justin Payne, a former Veteran Affairs employee, has pleaded guilty to a federal computer hacking charge concerning an attack last year on a St. Louis police union’s website.
Mr. Payne, 33, admitted in federal court on Friday to one count of knowingly transmitting a program that damaged a computer. Namely, Mr. Payne acknowledged his part in a campaign that targeted the website of the St. Louis County Police Association in late 2014 amid a new wave of unrest surrounding the death of an unarmed teen in nearby Ferguson, Missouri.
The charge, a misdemeanor, carries a possible one-year prison sentence. He’ll face a decade for a related weapons count that he pleaded to as well when he’s sentenced on December 7.
A grand jury elected to charge Mr. Payne in March after federal prosecutors provided evidence indicating he had shared a link on Twitter that was used to successfully disable the SLCPA website. Through several postings on social media, evidence presented by the government suggested Mr. Payne directed others to a site that allowed individuals to target the police group’s site by instantly engaging in a distributed denial-of-service attack, or DDoS — a rudimentary tactic in which a server is rendered unreachable by way of a barrage of illegitimate traffic.
The DDoS attacks were touted online by Mr. Payne in December 2014 around the time it was announced that Darren Wilson, a former officer with the Ferguson Police Department, would not be charged in the August 9 death of Michael Brown. The decision not to indict the cop rekindled protests that emerged in the weeks and months after Brown, 18, was shot to death in broad daylight by Mr. Wilson during a brief altercation.
Authorities arrested Payne in March of this year, and a subsequent search of his vehicle turned up a homemade Molotov cocktail explosive. In turn, prosecutors amended their indictment to include one count of possessing an unregistered firearm.
In court documents filed previously, prosecutors said Payne used a Twitter account affiliated with the “RbG Black Rebels” group to discuss the Ferguson incident following Brown’s death. In November, an account associated with hacktivist group Anonymous, @OpFerguson, said it would conduct a “first ever Joint Cyber Attack” with the RbG Black Rebels in support of protesters on the ground in the St. Louis suburb. Soon after, the group circulated a link for an easy-to-use DDoS tool that was then shared through the Black Rebels account to target the SLCPA website.
“We have built and delivered to the RbG Black Rebels their very first Cyber Weapon,” OpFerguson tweeted on Nov. 22. The link to the Web-based DDoS tool was then shared by that account and ones attributed by authorities to Payne in the following weeks.
Digital evidence referenced by prosecutors revealed that the main RbG account was used frequently from computers connected to the Internet in the VA office where Payne worked and at his mother’s house. He told the FBI at the time of his arrest that he “retweets (messages) all the time” and “was not aware it was a crime to retweet stuff,” adding that the St. Louis County Police Association “does not even sound like a real organization,” according to prosecutors, and that his account may have been hacked. Nevertheless, the government said that the browser history on Payne’s work computer revealed he had landed on the same page for “napalm” 143 times, searched for the SLCPA on Google and had viewed the Anonymous site that hosted the DDoS tool.
“While the two counts are two different crimes, they are related because they are a part of the same common scheme. The defendant’s possession of the Molotov Cocktail was not random, but was part of his larger anti-police and anti-government movement that he promoted on Twitter and by damaging a police website,” prosecutors wrote in court filings.