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."Let's see if this Russian asshole has what I need," he'd say calmly.

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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.

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.

Before long, he discovered Internet Relay Chat, a web forum popular with hackers who discussed the how-tos of breaching Internet security at its highest levels.

They'd been high all weekend long — on Ecstasy, coke, mushrooms and acid — so there seemed little harm in doing one last bump of Special K while they packed up to leave their $5,000-a-night duplex in South Beach.

For the past three days, the three friends had barely bothered leaving their hotel, as a dozen club kids in town for Winter Music Conference, the annual festival that draws DJs and ravers from all over the world, flocked to their luxury suite to partake of the drug smorgasbord laid out on the coffee table.

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.

"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.

The whites of his brown eyes had gone veiny from the K, but he was still the ringleader, still in control. He even had an insurance policy, one designed to keep him a step ahead of the federal agents charged with tracking cybercrime: For the past four years, Albert had been working as an informant for the Secret Service, helping federal agents to identify and bust other rogue hackers.