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Angry Twin Cities neighbor turns into sniveling guilty hacker

ST. PAUL When he posed as somebody else on the Internet, Barry Ardolf was the bravest of souls -- he sent e-mails with child pornography, accused a Minneapolis lawyer of sexual harassment and even threatened to kill the vice president and governo...


When he posed as somebody else on the Internet, Barry Ardolf was the bravest of souls -- he sent e-mails with child pornography, accused a Minneapolis lawyer of sexual harassment and even threatened to kill the vice president and governor.

But Friday in a federal courtroom, his cyber facade stripped away, the Blaine man was a sniveling defendant who had trouble answering a simple "yes" when a judge asked him if he was guilty of the crimes he'd been charged with.

On what was to be the second day of testimony in his trial in U.S. District Court in St. Paul, Ardolf changed his plea and admitted that he had waged a war of terror online against a neighbor he was mad at.

"Do you make any claim that you are innocent of these charges here today?" U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank asked.


Seconds passed while Ardolf composed himself. Finally, in a barely audible voice, the 45-year-old answered, "No."

As he did so, the couple he was accused of harassing over several months, Matthew and Bethany Kostolnik, sat in the courtroom and listened.

"It was terrible, and I wouldn't want anyone to go through it," Matthew Kostolnik said after the proceedings. "The idea that he could deny what had happened ... was unrealistic."

Although his plea brought a measure of relief to the Kostolniks, Ardolf did himself no favors by pleading guilty when he did. Last summer, prosecutors had offered to let him plead guilty to aggravated identity theft and threatening Vice President Joe Biden, charges that carried a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.

But he fired his first lawyer, rejected the plea offer and decided to go to trial. Prosecutors then presented the case to a grand jury, which indicted him on four additional counts, including possession and transmission of child pornography. He now faces up to 44 years in prison.

When the plea bargain fell apart in June, Ardolf's new lawyer, Seamus Mahoney, said the former Medtronic technician, a widowed father of two daughters and a son, rejected the deal because it contained a recommendation that he serve at least two years behind bars.

"He'd be going to prison for two years, and he just felt he couldn't do that," Mahoney said at the time.

Mahoney declined to comment after the plea. He told the judge during the proceedings that Ardolf was "extremely emotional" but that "he wants to proceed, take responsibility and ameliorate the situation for everyone, not just himself."


From appearances, Ardolf was a changed man Friday.

In the first two days of his trial, he was a busybody. He would frequently dig documents out of the 5-inch-high stack of papers he kept, then lean over, put his left hand on Mahoney's shoulder, pull him close and whisper into his ear. At one point during jury selection Wednesday, he even stood up to lean over to whisper to his lawyer, resulting in an admonishment to sit down from one of the deputy U.S. marshals guarding him.

But Friday, his shoulders were sunken, his demeanor sullen. With an exception or two, he limited his responses to questions from Frank or the attorneys to a single syllable or word. He spent much of the time sniffling away tears, and several times he dabbed his eyes with a tissue.

The eight women and four men who made up the jury and two alternates were not in the courtroom.

Ardolf pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated identity theft, possession and transmission of child pornography, unauthorized access to a protected computer and making threats to the vice president.

Frank read off each count and asked Ardolf whether he pleaded guilty or not guilty.

"Guilty," the man replied six times.

The judge then read through the factual basis of each count and asked Ardolf if he'd carried out the specific acts he was accused of. Yes, he did, Ardolf answered quietly each time.


"You knew what you were doing was wrong and that's why you're pleading guilty?" Frank asked.


Ardolf's decision to change his plea came a day after Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Rank had presented 13 witnesses -- he had six more scheduled for Friday -- and entered into evidence exhibits that showed the damning e-mails had originated from computers in Ardolf's home.

Afterward, Rank said it appeared Ardolf's change of plea stemmed from seeing the wealth of evidence amassed against him.

"There's a difference when you see evidence on paper and when you see it in the courtroom ... and see 12 people ready to convict you," the prosecutor said.

In his opening statement to the jury Wednesday, Rank had explained that the seeds for Ardolf's mayhem were planted Aug. 2, 2008, when the Kostolniks moved next door to Ardolf on a cul-de-sac in Blaine.

While the couple was busy unpacking, their 4-year-old son wandered into Ardolf's back yard to a playset. After telling the child, "Bet you can't touch me," Ardolf picked up the boy and carried him back to the Kostolnik home. While Bethany Kostolnik was busy with another child, "she heard the man kiss (the boy), an audible kiss, what she called a 'wet kiss,' " Rank told jurors.

The next day, the boy told his parents about the kiss, and they called police. Officers questioned Ardolf, but no charges were filed.


The following February, Ardolf began "what can only be described as a methodical campaign to terrorize the Kostolniks," Rank said.

His weapon of choice: the computer; his battlefield: the Internet. Ardolf was a computer enthusiast; investigators found 16 computers and "probably 50" hard drives in his home, an FBI agent testified. One computer alone had 2 terabytes of storage capacity, enough to hold one-fifth of the entire Library of Congress.

He was also a "certified ethical hacker," according to a bumper sticker above his bed, and he soon figured out how to break into the Kostolniks' wireless router.

That done, he set up fake e-mail accounts in Matthew Kostolnik's name and sent e-mails aimed at getting him in trouble at the downtown Minneapolis law firm where he worked. One message was a mash note to his legal assistant. Another, to two of his colleagues, contained two images of child porn -- one of the photos was labeled "Matt's kids."

In a third, sent to the head of the law firm's environmental law group, Ardolf posed as a woman who claimed Kostolnik had groped her.

Speaking after Ardolf entered his plea, Kostolnik said the online harassment wasn't all their neighbor did.

"There are other things we would've testified to," he said, declining to elaborate.

When officials began investigating the e-mails, they appeared to come from Kostolnik because they contained his computer's unique Internet protocol, or "IP," address -- a product of Ardolf's hacking into the couple's wireless router.


But the beginning of the end came May 6, 2009, when Ardolf, posing as the Kostolniks, sent an e-mail threatening the lives of Biden, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and other elected officials.

The message was traced to Ardolf. When federal agents searched his home and seized his computers, they found the e-mails, the fake yahoo.com e-mail accounts he'd set up in Kostolnik's name, images of child porn and the threats to Biden and other officials.

A Secret Service agent testified at a July hearing that as he sat with Ardolf at his kitchen table, he asked him why he would threaten the vice president.

"He said, 'Maybe I was mad at my neighbor,' " the agent testified.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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