Stephen Watt, a freakishly tall bodybuilder, was planted on the big leather sofa, immobile as the hotel suite's potted palm.

Only 23, Watt was the group's coding genius, who until recently had been employed in the IT department at Morgan Stanley, the giant Wall Street investment bank. "But at least I can read."The American Wikileaks Hacker Stephen pitched over onto the master bed, where, eyes closed, he groggily dictated code to Patrick, who laboriously typed it out, letter by letter.

Albert's father, who had fled Cuba in the 1970s on a homemade raft, took more drastic action: Enlisting the help of some policemen friends, he staged a fake arrest of Albert, trying to scare his son into returning to reality. Instead, Albert escaped further into the solace of the world of programming chat rooms — where he called himself "soupnazi," after the grumpy restaurateur.

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It wasn't about stealing anything — it was more the gloating rights, about showing the straight-world programmers that he was better and smarter than them.

But Albert wasn't just a typical misfit hacker.

With his good looks and smooth confidence, Albert was never at a loss for female company.

And with the guys, he was always the man with the plan.

They were in the midst of pulling off the biggest cybercrime ever perpetrated: hacking into the databases of some 250 companies — including Barnes & Noble, Office Max, 7-Eleven, Boston Market, Sports Authority and DSW — and stealing 170 million credit-card numbers. "Thank God," Albert pronounced, his eyes widening with relief and excitement.

But unless Albert could get Stephen to focus, the whole thing was in danger of falling apart."Now that I've got you here, I need you to do it, or it's never gonna happen," Albert urged. Together, the three friends had just succeeded at putting some finishing touches on a vast criminal enterprise, one that U. Attorney General Michael Mukasey would call "the single largest and most complex identity-theft case ever charged in this country."Only 25 years old, with little more than a high school education, Albert had created the perfect bubble, a hermetically sealed moral universe in which he made the rules and controlled all the variables — and the only code that mattered was the loyalty of his inner circle.

"It was already like an obsessive vice," his mother, Maria, would later tell a judge.

By the time he entered South Miami Senior High, the once-outgoing Albert had turned isolated and untalkative, his grades plummeting as he neglected his homework in favor of the huge programming textbook he had bought.

He had stumbled across a community that shared not just his computer obsession but also his caustic humor and profound alienation in a way his real-life peers didn't get.

Albert and his online friends spent hours swapping tips on hacking, debating their favorite bands and trading booger jokes.

But even stoned on industrial-grade horse tranquilizers, Albert Gonzalez remained focused on business — checking his laptop constantly, keeping tabs on the rogue operators he employed in Turkey and Latvia and China, pushing, haranguing, issuing orders into his cellphone in a steady voice.