Captain Crunch: the unique phreak

He’s switching from ‘blue boxes’ and whistles to computers
By CHUCK FAGER  |  September 14, 2006

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SAN JOSE, Calif – John Draper of Mountain View, California, is a phone phreak; under the pseudonym of “Captain Crunch” he is probably the most famous phone phreak of them all.

On September 20th, John Draper, a/k/a Crunch, is going to jail. He will serve four months in a federal pen for defrauding the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company of $30 worth of long distance phone calls. Draper, who pleaded guilty to the charge, made the illegal calls with a device known as a “blue box.” It was his second conviction on similar charges before the same judge, Robert Peckham. The last time, in November 1972, Judge Peckham fined him $1000 and told Draper that if he ever was brought before him on similar charges again, he would get a jail sentence. Peckham hasn’t forgotten his pledge.

Even so; the judge was not nasty about it. After passing sentence on Monday August 23, Peckham leaned over the bench of the San Jose federal courtroom and said to the defendant, “Good luck to you and I do hope you will put your abilities into law-abiding activities.” Peckham is mostly bald, with a round, almost cherubic face which usually rests on his right fist.

His tender of best wishes was cold comfort to Draper, who stood before him in grimy green pants, brown shirt and battered work boots. Draper’s face bears a striking resemblance to Tiny Tim’s, and he looked very out of place amid the square corners of the trim brown plastic paneling of the courtroom. His demeanor during the brief sentencing proceeding was grave and contrite; his attorney recited a list of cooperative gestures Draper had made since his guilty plea last June 29 in hopes of reducing or avoiding a jail sentence. Peckham, who could have given him five years, did not budge from his four-month sentence.

Once the proceeding was over and Draper was loose again – Peckham stayed the beginning of the sentence for a month so Draper could get ready – the new felon’s expression changed. Walking down the bare planking along the outside of the low, ranchstyle courthouse to the probation office, he was cheerful; and then, talking to reporters, he became animated. At one point he pulled from his pocket a little red plastic whistle, which he waved around with a wide grin. “Here it is, folks,” he said, “take a look, they’re really rare now.” On the top of the whistle, worn almost beyond legibility, were the words “Captain Crunch.”

I was impressed. The whistle, tiny bit of plastic that it is, represents a legendary capacity to wreak havoc with the telephone company, the largest corporation in the world. Its holder was impressive too, a man I had wanted to meet for years. Draper alias Crunch is a self-taught electronics genius (even the probation office report to the judge said he was) about whom electronic legends abound. And he has a hell of a sense of humor. In the course of his adventures and tangles with the law, he and his fellow phreaks have beeped out an unauthorized but real place for themselves in the great tape that will tell the history of modern communications technology.

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