Zachary Buchta “was no one in real life,” his lawyer said.
Not in the reality known online as “meat space.”
Buchta was swept up in family tragedy and isolated at home. Then, he found his way to “the bad boy” hacking group known as Lizard Squad. He became its spokesman and adopted the Twitter handle @fbiarelosers, among others. Suddenly, “he was a big man, a leader. Popular. Powerful.”
And he cheered the notorious hacking group on as it caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to online gaming companies and victimized countless others, the feds say.
“You can’t arrest a lizard,” one account taunted.
U.S. District Judge Manish Shah made clear Tuesday that “it’s all, frankly, reality” before he handed Buchta three months behind bars for his role in the attacks. In doing so, the judge noted Buchta, 20, made little money off Lizard Squad and was not particularly savvy with computers — but committed his crimes even after a visit from the FBI in 2014.
“This is just lashing out and hurting people for whatever reason,” Shah said. “And that’s just what criminals do.”
Buchta began to cry as Shah handed down the sentence at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. Earlier, Buchta apologized for what he did. He told the judge he had changed and said, “I feel I am a productive member of society and I have a lot to offer the world.”
The Maryland man pleaded guilty in December to a conspiracy to damage a protected computer, admitting his role with Lizard Squad and PoodleCorp. The hacking groups have been tied to attacks against the Sony PlayStation and Xbox gaming systems. He was originally charged in September 2016 with Bradley Jan Willem Van Rooy of the Netherlands, who is being prosecuted overseas.
The pair were tied to attacks targeting victims around the world, including the Chicago area. The attacks overwhelmed computer networks and left little or no resources to accommodate legitimate users.
Though Buchta faced as many as 10 years in prison for his role in the attacks, Assistant U.S. Attorney Rajnath Laud asked for a sentence of 30 months due, in part, to Buchta’s “substantial assistance” to the government.
Buchta’s lawyer, Jason Leiderman, wanted probation. He highlighted the troubling series of events that left Buchta isolated in his family’s home. He said Buchta had to help interrupt his brother’s suicide attempt when he was 12 or 13, just before his father had a heart attack that would soon be followed by a stroke. Amid the chaos, his brother made a second suicide attempt — forcing Buchta to intervene again.
Later, Buchta’s brother would be sentenced to 20 years in prison in the death of his infant son after placing the child in a bath that was too hot and choosing not to seek medical treatment, Leiderman wrote. The child died from interior thermal injuries.
Meanwhile, the heart attack and stroke left Buchta’s father unable to go to work. The task of caring for him fell to Buchta, who dropped out of school at 13.
“Zachary had become a lost person,” Leiderman wrote. “No school, no friends, rarely out of the house. His connection to the outside world was the computer. Online he could be cool. He could be anyone he wanted.”
“The power, the popularity, the influence on people … it was all so intoxicating.”