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He even set up computers for other families in his working-class neighborhood of Miami, where most of the residents, like Albert's father, were first-generation immigrants from Cuba.

Patrick Toey, 22, Albert's most loyal foot soldier, was lazing around the suite, staring at the Miami seascape through the two-story picture windows, letting his thoughts drift."Listen, I need you to do this now," Albert was saying in a firm voice as he set his laptop on the desk in the master bedroom upstairs. The task at hand seemed impossible, given their chemical impairment, but Stephen was notorious among hackers for his ability to dash off intricate code that could blast through even the most secure computer networks.

For weeks, he had been badgering Stephen, known in hacker circles as the "Unix Terrorist," to refine a crucial bit of code for him. Finally, after 10 minutes of following Stephen's directions, Patrick hit the "return" button and declared the program functional.

Knowing it would take a while to count that much cash, the hotel manager ordered a round of frozen daiquiris for the gentlemen.

For now, as the three friends sipped their drinks and hypnotically watched their stacks of cash being counted right in front of them, Albert felt untouchable.

"Psychologically," his sister later told a judge, "it was feeding an obsession that in the end would become my brother's downfall."But as Albert stood in his South Beach hotel room in March 2007, getting caught was the furthest thing from his mind.

The coding work complete, he briskly snapped his laptop shut and hustled his friends down to the Loews' marble-floored lobby, where, acting as sober as possible, he settled their $17,000 bill for the weekend, paying mostly in twenties.

They were in the midst of pulling off the biggest cybercrime ever perpetrated: hacking into the databases of some 250 companies — including Barnes & Noble, Office Max, 7-Eleven, Boston Market, Sports Authority and DSW — and stealing 170 million credit-card numbers. "Thank God," Albert pronounced, his eyes widening with relief and excitement.

But unless Albert could get Stephen to focus, the whole thing was in danger of falling apart."Now that I've got you here, I need you to do it, or it's never gonna happen," Albert urged. Together, the three friends had just succeeded at putting some finishing touches on a vast criminal enterprise, one that U. Attorney General Michael Mukasey would call "the single largest and most complex identity-theft case ever charged in this country."Only 25 years old, with little more than a high school education, Albert had created the perfect bubble, a hermetically sealed moral universe in which he made the rules and controlled all the variables — and the only code that mattered was the loyalty of his inner circle.

When Albert Gonzalez was 12, he bought a computer with the allowance he had saved up working for his father, a landscaper.

At first, his new hobby seemed a harmless distraction: He played video games — car racing and wrestling, mostly — and spent hours taking the computer apart and putting it back together.

Then he would help himself to glass plates of powder, each thoughtfully cut into letters for easy identification: "E" for Ecstasy, "C" for coke.