Locked away in his bedroom in Boston, Massachusetts, Matthew Weigman had isolated himself from the real world. Born into a life of blindness and poverty, he struggled to connect with his peers. But behind the scenes Weigman lived a secret life – and wielded more power than anyone could imagine.
Weigman was born on April 20, 1990, in East Boston, a diverse neighborhood across the harbor from the city center. Tragically, he was born with optic nerve atrophy, something that rendered him blind from the moment that he entered the world. On top of that, Weigman’s home life was somewhat troubled.
His father was a violent alcoholic who was known to abuse his disabled son. He left the family when Weigman was just five years old, leaving the mother of his three children to care for them on the slim salary of a nurse’s aide. Although Weigman also received a disability allowance, life for the family was tough.
Weigman may have been born blind, but when he was four he found himself able to make out the flashing lights on the family Christmas tree. From that point on, he experienced some very basic vision, although due to his condition he remained legally blind.
But what Weigman lacked in sight, he more than made up for in other ways. Amazingly, he taught himself to cook his own meals by memorizing the layout of the kitchen. Furthermore, he managed to ride a bicycle guided by the fuzzy shapes in his vision. At the age of eight, he even drove a car around a deserted lot.
Unfortunately, as Weigman grew older, his ingenuity failed to impress his peers. Instead, they would mock him as he navigated school with the help of his cane, ridiculing the strange appearance of his eyes. At the hands of these bullies, Weigman grew to despise being blind.
By the time he was ten, Weigman was an overweight and isolated child. However, he found hope in the unlikely form of telephone party lines – a service not dissimilar to today’s online chat forums. With the internet still in its infancy, party lines provided a way for users to anonymously converse with people around the country.
Struggling to find his feet in the real world, Weigman flourished on the telephone lines. In an environment where people knew each other only by their voices, his blindness was no longer a disability. In fact, amongst the social outcasts and misfits that frequented the service, Weigman was able to finally feel at home.
However, it wasn’t just friendships that were blossoming on the party lines. With the anonymity that they provided, the services were also home to an active community of telephone hackers, or “phreakers.” And with his natural curiosity, Weigman soon found himself drawn to their illicit activities.
Phreaking first emerged in the U.S. in the 1950s, when amateur enthusiasts began exploring and exploiting the telephone network. By listening to different tones, building their own electronic devices and infiltrating communications companies, they soon learned how to manipulate the system to their own advantage.
Weigman stumbled into phreaking seemingly by accident, when he began hitting random buttons while connected to a party line. Suddenly, he found that he had accessed a hidden administrator tool. This enabled him to source the home telephone number of every user on the line.
At the time, Weigman was by no means the only phreak manipulating the party lines. However, he was harboring a special talent that would soon see him rise through the ranks. Robbed of his sight since birth, he had developed a highly-developed sense of hearing that would function as a kind of superpower in this new, entirely audio, world.
Even as a child, Weigman had been obsessed with sound, learning to mimic television characters and play his favorite music by ear. On the telephone lines, his talent grew even more impressive. As a young teenager, he was able to memorize numbers just from listening to the dial tone. He could even impersonate company staff and supervisors in order to gain sensitive information.
Bitter at the world, Weigman soon began using his talents to wreak havoc. Quickly, he graduated from harassing people at home to cutting off phone lines, listening in on private conversations and even apparently tracking down the numbers of celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan and Eminem.
Then, at age 14, Weigman discovered the sinister practice of swatting. By manipulating the caller ID, he was able to fake an emergency call from a local store. When he reported that a robbery was in progress, the police arrived en masse – only to find that the whole thing had been a hoax.
Clearly realizing his own power, Weigman began using swat calls to exact revenge on those he felt had wronged him. One time, when a girl rejected his amorous advances, he faked a 911 call from her home address. Once connected, he told the operator that he was holding the girl and her father hostage at gunpoint. Again, armed police were called to the non-existent scene.
Over time, Weigman placed around 50 or 60 fake 911 calls, each eliciting a police response. And while he remained withdrawn and isolated in the real world, his notoriety within phreaking circles grew. Then, in 2006, an FBI agent from Dallas, Texas, arrived at Weigman’s Boston home. The game, it seemed, was finally up.
Apparently, Weigman had been involved in a swatting case in Alvarado, TX, that had resulted in a violent confrontation between police and James Proulx, an innocent man. After Proulx’s daughter Stephanie had argued with Weigman and his telephone line friends, they had called in a fake hostage situation and sent an armed unit to her father’s house. But this time, they had been caught.
At the time, Weigman was still a minor, and no charges were brought against him after he agreed to assist the authorities. However, he soon returned to his old ways. As the FBI investigation continued, Weigman began a campaign of harassment against William Smith, a fraud investigator. Eventually, he showed up at Smith’s house, and the police were called.
Now 18, Weigman was unable to escape justice any longer. In June 2009 he was sentenced to 11 years and three months in jail on charges of fraud and intimidating a witness. Today, he is serving out his sentence in Fort Dix, New Jersey, and is due to be released next year. But will he have learned his lesson, or does a future of phreaking still await? The outcome remains to be seen.