ST. LOUIS, MO – A man who helped launch a cyberattack to disable a St. Louis County police union website late last year pleaded guilty Friday of a misdemeanor computer crime and felony possession of a firebomb.
Justin E. Payne, 33, took down the St. Louis County Police Association site by overwhelming it with traffic directed by three Twitter accounts he controlled, officials said. They were associated with the “Rebel but Gangster” or RbG Black Rebels, according to his plea.
The website has since been restored.
Payne, a former employee of the Veterans Affairs Records Management Center, also threatened law enforcement in a Jan. 26 tweet that read, in part: “Next time I get pulled over by the police I’m shooting first,” his plea says.
FBI agents traced the cyberattack to Payne, and when they arrested him March 30, they found a gun and a very small amount of marijuana in his car and a Molotov cocktail firebomb in his trunk.
He was charged with felony possession of an unregistered destructive device and a misdemeanor charge of damaging a protected computer.
In exchange for his guilty plea to both charges, the prosecution agreed to a 18-month prison term when Payne is sentenced Dec. 7. The deal depends on agreement by U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey.
Defense attorney Joel Schwartz declined comment Friday. He and Payne had successfully challenged some of the statements that Payne made in an FBI interview after his arrest.
On Aug. 24, U.S. Magistrate Judge Shirley Mensah ruled that the interview should have ended after Payne indicated that he was not consenting to speaking to them without a lawyer present.
His plea says that Payne initially suggested that his account may have been hacked. Later, he denied being involved in a cyberattack but said he re-tweeted things all the time and said, “I was not aware it was a crime to re-tweet stuff.” Even later, he said that the tool used in the attack was created in Pakistan, his plea says.
In a hearing earlier this year, Assistant U.S. Attorney Colleen Lang said that some of Payne’s other tweets were “part of his larger anti-police and anti-government movement that he promoted on Twitter and by damaging a police website.”