Franklin Regional student charged with launching Westmoreland cyber attacks
Police charged a Franklin Regional High School senior Wednesday with launching a series of cyber attacks against more than a dozen local school districts, the Catholic diocese and Westmoreland County government.
Michaela Gabriella King, 18, is charged with unlawful use of a computer and intentionally causing a disruption of a computer system. The Murrysville teen was arraigned before Export District Judge Charles Conway and released on signature bond.
“This is the first time I recall our office prosecuting such a case,” District Attorney John Peck said. “It’s certainly the first time involving a student.”
An investigation began after Brad Schrecengost, Franklin Regional’s supervisor of technology, notified authorities that since Oct. 31 the district’s computer system “was attacked in by what is known as a distributed denial of service attack,” Murrysville Patrolman David Hanko and county Detective Paul Burkey wrote in an affidavit of probable cause.
Each attack disrupted computer systems for 10 to 45 minutes, investigators reported.
In addition to the Franklin Regional computer system, multiple school districts, the Catholic Diocese of Greensburg and county government’s computer systems were impacted, Hanko and Burkey reported.
Affected school districts are: the county’s three career and technology centers, Derry Area, Greater Latrobe, Greensburg Salem, Ligonier Valley, Kiski Area, Jeannette, Burrell, Monessen, Greensburg Central Catholic, Hempfield Area and the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit.
The diocese, county and school districts all use the Intermediate Unit as their internet service provider, investigators reported.
Computer technicians hired by Franklin Regional and police determined that King launched three attacks on the district’s system using computers at the high school, the affidavit states.
At least one other attack originated from a personal device, such as King’s cellphone or computers at her family’s Mamont Drive house, experts reported.
King used the program BetaBooter to launch Distributed Denial of Service, or DDoS, attacks, investigators said the experts told them. A DDoS attack generally overwhelms a targeted computer system with external communication requests and disrupts legitimate traffic.
“Even though the target of this attack was the Franklin Regional School District, since the attack went through the Intermediate Unit IP, the other organizations were also affected,” Hanko and Burkey wrote in the affidavit.
During the three-week investigation, police acquired search warrants from Harrison City District Judge Helen Kistler to confiscate eight personal computers, tablets, and laptops from King’s residence as well as her cellphone.
Hanko and Burkey reported that King admitted to committing the attacks, saying she paid for the BetaBooter program using a PayPal account.
“When asked if she considered herself to be ‘a computer genius,’ King stated, ‘Yes,’ ” investigators wrote in the affidavit.
Franklin Regional officials declined to comment because the incident involves a student and legal issues are pending, district spokeswoman Cara Zanella said.
“I can tell you that the school district is aware of the situation and has been cooperating with law enforcement in regards to this matter,” Zanella said.
King’s private attorney, Michael G. Dailey of Murrysville, declined to comment on the charges. He said the complaint had just been filed and he had not had an opportunity to thoroughly review all documents related to the case.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled Dec. 20.
Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2860 or [email protected].