John Thomas Draper: Setting the Record Straight

It is almost a ‘fact’ that John Draper, also known as Captain Crunch, discovered that a toy whistle in a box of cereal could be used to make free phone calls. I say ‘almost’ a fact, because so many people believe it, and so many people have written about it as if it were fact. Even recently, a magazine known for intelligent geeky facts parroted this falsehood:

Not long after Engressia shared this information with the other phreakers, John Draper discovered that a toy boatswain’s whistle that was included in boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal in the late 1960s could blow a perfect 2600Hz tone.

Even going back to 1983, a book titled “Fighting Computer Crime” by Donn B. Parker carried the myth:

A young man just entering the U.S. Air Force to serve as a radio technician was fascinated with telephony and took courses on the subject at college and discovered the whistle that catapulted him to crime, infamy, and misfortune.

Google around for tales of Draper and the whistle will find a variety of sites that say he discovered it. These include the Snopes message board, a telephone tribute site, high school papers, and other archival sites. And this isn’t limited to more obscure sites, this ‘fact’ is still repeated by mainstream media articles.

While some in the industry have had doubts or heard tale that Draper did not discover the whistle’s significant tone, it wasn’t until last year that we finally got a definitive answer and story. Phil Lapsley wrote a book titled “Exploding the Phone” that gives an exhaustive history of phone phreaking and is a must read for anyone interested in the topic. Lapsley’s research put him in touch with many players of the time, and the real story emerged:

Page 155: Several years earlier a Los Angeles phone phreak named Sid Bernay had discovered you could generate a nice, clean 2,600 Hz tone simply by covering one of the holes in the plastic toy bosun whistle that was given away as a prize in boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal. Armed with their Cap’n Crunch whistles Fettgather and Teresi and friends would cluster around pay phones at the airport and go nuts. [..] With Draper in the club the whistle trips expanded.

Page 166: (late summer of 1970) It was on one of those conference calls that John Draper discovered a new identity for himself. [..] One day Draper and Engressia were talking about using a Cap’n Crunch whistle to make their beloved 2,600 Hz tone, Engressia recalls, when Draper suddenly said, “You know, I think I’ll just call myself Captain Crunch. That’d be a good name.” Engressia immediately liked it. “It just fit him somehow,” he remembers. “It was just a good name for him. We called him ‘Captain’ a lot.” Captain Crunch was born.

Given that most of Draper’s modern reputation is based on his ‘discovery’ of the whistle, something he has done nothing to dispel or come clean about, I feel it is important to help set the record straight. While he may be an iconic figure in lore, even if undeserved, it is important to better understand what kind of person he was during this time.

Page 245: And as a rule universally agreed upon within their group, they avoided John Draper and his friends like the plague. “I tell you,” [David] Condon says, “Draper was the kiss of death. He was asking for it, he was looking for trouble.

Page 313: All this did not sit well with Steve Jobs and the other managers at Apple, who thought the Charley Board product was a bit too risky and, besides, they disliked Draper to begin with.

In addition to being disliked, Draper had a growing criminal record that included seven counts of violating 18 USC 1343 (Fraud by Wire, when he used a blue box to Australia, New York, and other places) in 1972, violating probation later in 1972, arrested in California in 1976, and indicted on three counts of 18 USC 1343 while on probation. To this day, Draper maintains it was a conspiracy:

Page 287: To this day, Draper maintains that he was framed. [..] “Well, it turns out that he had arranged with the FBI to tap that phone,” Draper says. “he told the FBI that I was going to be making a blue box call at that phone at that date and time.” The result was that the FBI now had a blue box call on tape with Draper’s voice on it. [..] You see, the informant that the Los Angeles office of the FBI sent up didn’t arrive in the Bay Area until Tuesday, February 24. The blue box telephone calls that Draper was eventually busted for occurred four days earlier, on Friday, February 20. And on that Friday the Los Angeles informant was still in Los Angeles, enjoying sunny southern California weather or breathing smog or whatever it is that LA phone phreak informants do when they’re off duty.

But this wasn’t the end of his crime. In New Jersey in 1977 he was arrested and charged with possession of a red box, which was later dropped. He was again arrested in 1977, this time in Pennsylvania, which led to him agreeing to a plea deal in 1978 to one count of possessing a device to steal telecom services. He was sentenced to 3 – 6 months in jail with credit for 1 month served. That charge and plea also meant he violated his federal probation for earlier crimes, sending him back to California to spend time in prison as well. During all of this time, two psychiatrists observed that Draper “tend[s] to pass himself off as the victim claiming that he has almost no control over all of the troubles that now beset him” and that he had “numerous paranoid delusions of being especially picked out for persecution because of his power and knowledge”. Both psychiatrists agreed that a jail would not be a good place for Draper, leading a judge to sentence him to a furlough program for one year. Finally, in 1987, he was caught forging tickets for the BART system which lead to a plea bargain, resulting in a misdemeanor.

I offer all of this up, courtesy of Exploding the Phone, as a reminder that many people in InfoSec consider him a hero of sorts, and feel that his history was beneficial to the world of phreaking. In reality, it was not. He was just another phreak at the time, did not discover the Cap’n Crunch whistle, was caught during his crimes several times, and then somehow became a telecom legend. To this day, Draper still tries to use his reputation to get handouts from the industry. If you want to support him, just be sure you understand who you are supporting, and why.