Man admits role in website cyberattack amid Ferguson unrest
ST. LOUIS (AP) — A 33-year-old man pleaded guilty Friday to charges for a cyberattack that disabled a St. Louis-area police union’s website during unrest related to the shooting death of Michael Brown.
Justin Payne entered the pleas to a felony count of possessing an unregistered firearm and a misdemeanor count of damaging a protected computer. Investigators say the unregistered firearm was a crude incendiary device commonly called a Molotov cocktail.
He will be sentenced Dec. 7 in federal court. He faces up to a decade in prison on the weapons charge and a year on the computer count.
Investigators say Payne used Twitter accounts to unleash the December 2014 cyberattack that overwhelmed the St. Louis County Police Association website. They say his actions were part of “Operation Ferguson,” an effort in support of protesters of the Brown shooting.
Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson killed the 18-year-old Brown, who was black and unarmed, in August 2014.
The cyberattack involving Payne came eight days after the St. Louis County prosecutor’s November 2014 announcement that a local grand jury had declined to indict Wilson in Brown’s death — a declaration that fueled unrest similar to what was seen immediately after the shooting.
Investigators say Payne used Twitter accounts linked to him, including “Rebel but Gangster” or “RbG Black Rebels,” to orchestrate what is known as a distributed denial-of-service attack, a tactic that blocks access to a site by overwhelming it with traffic.
A day after the cyberattack, the FBI quickly identified Payne as a suspect. Authorities noted that the times of the attack coincided with messages Payne sent by Twitter.
Federal prosecutors said Friday that his Twitter feeds also revealed messages associated with the killing of law enforcers.
Payne, whose hometown has not been released, was arrested in March when the Molotov cocktail was found in his vehicle’s trunk.