Real life has been hard for Deric Lostutter. But with public attention focused on the shadowy worlds of government surveillance and online vigilantism, the tattooed rapper and computer geek from Winchester has become an unlikely celebrity.
Lostutter, 26, who goes by KYAnonymous online and records hip-hop music under the name Shadow, spent last week juggling interviews with major magazines, newspapers and websites from as far away as Britain and Australia.
The media frenzy followed his disclosure that federal law enforcement agents in tactical gear with weapons drawn raided his Clark County farmhouse April 15 and hauled off his and his girlfriend's computer equipment, as well as his brother's Xbox.
"Why was I raided in the first place?" he asked last week as we talked in a suburban Lexington bar. "They want to make an example out of me, going, 'Don't you question us!' That's what it is."
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KYAnonymous played a key role in spreading tweets, photos and videos on social media that helped draw national attention to a rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, that involved a 16-year-old girl who passed out drunk and a high school football team.
Last December, online vigilantes hacked into the Steubenville team's website and posted a note and video threatening to release the personal data of coaches, school officials and every player unless those who were involved or witnessed the rape came forward and apologized. Two players were convicted of rape in March.
Another activist actually hacked the site, Lostutter said. But he made and appeared in the video with his voice altered and wearing a mask styled after Guy Fawkes, an Englishman who tried to blow up Parliament with gunpowder in 1605.
The federal search warrant Lostutter posted on his website (Projectknightsec.com) said authorities raided his home seeking evidence of, among other things, computer intrusion, identity theft and conspiracy. They also were looking for a Guy Fawkes mask.
Lostutter said that during the two hours he was handcuffed and questioned by FBI agents during the raid he was told they also were looking for anti-American propaganda.
"I was like, you're in Kentucky, man!" he said he told the agents. "I just got done turkey hunting. I drink Bud Light. I live on a farm. How much more American can you get?"
Lostutter said his lawyer has told him he faces possible indictment on three felony counts. Conviction could land him in prison for as long as 10 years — a much harsher penalty than the two teen-aged rapists received. That has been the headline in some international news reports about Lostutter's case.
New Mexico lawyer Jason Flores-Williams, whose office calls itself the Whistleblower Defense League, has taken Lostutter's case pro bono and has encouraged him to seek publicity and online donations, which he said now exceed $35,000.
"I'm trying to get vindicated in the court of public opinion," Lostutter said. "They've finally found out that the Internet they have tried to monitor us with has actually granted us one huge sidewalk to protest on."
Lostutter seems quite comfortable on the Internet, a virtual world where anyone can become whoever and whatever they say they are. It's certainly more comfortable than real life.
Lostutter says he was born in Iowa and grew up in Illinois and North Carolina before moving to Winchester in 2007. He said his parents split when he was seven and he spent some time homeless.
While in high school, he discovered a talent for computers. He said he and his girlfriend now live in a farmhouse she inherited when her father died. Lostutter said he made money fixing computers and doing Internet vulnerability consulting for a company he declined to identify. But he has had bigger ambitions.
"I wanted to be SWAT team, and then a bounty hunter," he said, adding that he studied for a semester at Strayer University in Lexington to learn more about computer forensics. "I wanted to be pretty much the hacker for the government."
Then, last year, Lostutter saw the film We Are Legion, which profiled the loose network of radical computer-hacking activists who call themselves Anonymous.
"It was like mind-blowing," he said of the film. "I was, like, there's people out there with the same interests I have, so I'm not such a freak anymore. I just identified with that."
Lostutter said he connected with Anonymous activists on Twitter and some Internet forums. He says he never hacked anything, but became a social-media maven skilled at attracting public attention by spreading material that others gathered.
His first effort was distributing emails legally obtained by citizens who last year were battling with former Clark County Schools Superintendent Elaine Farris, who has since retired. He next went after Hunter Moore, who operated a controversial Internet site with "revenge porn" — obscene photos people sent him of former sex partners with whom they had broken up.
Then Lostutter read about the Steubenville rape case and thought it looked like people in the town were covering up for a popular football team.
"I thought something fishy's going on here," he said, "And I'm going to get to the bottom of it."
Lostutter made an online video, which prompted others to send him tweets, photos and videos posted by young people in Steubenville who were joking about and may have witnessed the rape. He publicized them and made the video that ended up on the team's website. In January, he was interviewed about the case on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 show wearing his Guy Fawkes mask.
The crowd-sourced "investigation" that Lostutter began included a lot of wild and unsubstantiated allegations, death threats against football players and accusations against one person who Lostutter has since apologized to online.
The case has heightened public debate about the role of Anonymous and other so-called "hacktivists". Are they heroes trying to hold the system accountable? Or are the out-of-control vigilantes trying to take justice into their own hands?
Lostutter sees his work as positive, and he compares himself to Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee and security contractor who leaked details of the National Security Agency's massive surveillance programs to the media.
"The Constitution clearly defines that it's a citizen's right to step in if the government fails," Lostutter said. "Vigilante is not a bad word. It's been painted as a bad word over time. In Old West days, vigilantes were awesome, they were bounty hunters, they went after outlaws that the police couldn't handle."
Many others, of course, would disagree. But now that technology and the Internet have given a global megaphone to anyone who chooses to use it, the online Wild West is likely to keep getting wilder.
Last week, while doing interviews and replying to fans and critics on Twitter, Lostutter found time to have a new tattoo added to his much-tattooed arms: the logo of Anonymous. Although worried about the possibility of prosecution, trial and prison, he clearly seems to be enjoying himself.
"For the first time in a long time," he said, "I'm doing what I think I was meant to do."