The Blaine man admitted commandeering his neighbors' PC to threaten the vice president and carry out a harassment campaign.
Barry Ardolf sat in a Ramsey County jail cell Thursday night and made a decision: He would no longer fight charges that he used a neighbor's computer to threaten the vice president of the United States and harass others. He pleaded guilty Friday to charges of identify theft, threats, and possession and transmission of child pornography.
He'd refused a more favorable plea deal last summer, insisting on fighting the government's case against him. But after two days of trial -- including Thursday's testimony from expert witnesses who showed the elaborate means Ardolf used to harass and smear neighbors who'd once called the police on him -- he stopped denying what he had done.
"The reality of it became apparent to him that this was going to happen and he didn't want to perpetuate his own distress or the pain for the victims," Ardolf's lawyer, Seamus Mahoney, said Friday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Rank was asked what he thought had changed for Ardolf, a man he described in his opening argument as a technically savvy computer hacker who carried anger against his neighbors to the extreme.
Rank said there was a difference between looking at exhibits and documents outside the courtroom "and seeing 12 people sitting ready to convict you."
Despite his denial, Rank said, everything -- the bogus e-mails in his neighbor's name, the fake MySpace page and the threats to the vice president -- all pointed to Ardolf.
"We know what happened," Rank said. "We figured it out."
Anger over report
It began in August 2008, when Ardolf's new neighbors called Blaine police to report a creepy encounter. Ardolf, they told police, had picked up their 4-year-old son and kissed him. After that, Matt and Bethany Kostolnik said, they intended to just keep their distance from him.
Unknown to them, he began moving to exact revenge.
He created e-mail accounts in Matt Kostolnik's name and used a password-cracking program to hack into the Kostolniks' wireless router. He then sent e-mails -- one containing sexually suggestive language, others containing images of child pornography -- to Matt Kostolnik's co-workers and boss. It was all meant to appear that the e-mails came from Kostolnik. Ardolf also used the bogus e-mail accounts to create a fake MySpace page, which contained a child porn image.
Later, he sent another fake e-mail to Kostolnik's law firm, purporting to be from a woman who claimed Kostolnik sexually assaulted her. The woman was real, the incident was not.
After Ardolf sent threatening e-mails to Vice President Joe Biden, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, claiming to be the Kostolniks, an investigator hired by Matt Kostolnik's firm discovered Ardolf was hijacking the family's wireless service.
That led to a search of Ardolf's home, which produced evidence taken from more than a dozen computers and dozens of computer storage devices, evidence that included detailed notes of e-mail addresses, passwords, photographs and text of e-mails that had been sent.
Rank and investigators with the Minnesota Cyber Crimes Task Force confronted Ardolf with that evidence last summer and a plea deal was arranged. Then Ardolf changed his mind. Officials then charged him with the child porn offenses, which could add years to his sentence.
Now, Ardolf faces a maximum of 44 years in prison.
Tears of relief
Just as a choked-up Ardolf began saying "guilty" to all charges against him, the Kostolniks entered the courtroom. When deputy U.S. marshals handcuffed Ardolf and led him away, the young couple tearfully embraced.
Outside the courtroom, they said they were happy that Ardolf finally accepted responsibility for what he did to them.
"It was terrible what we went through," Matt Kostolnik said. "I wouldn't want anyone to have to go through what we did.
"I think what he did today was right."
Kostolnik praised the people at his law firm, who believed him when he said he didn't send the e-mails. He also thanked Rank and the federal and local investigators who uncovered how Ardolf had sabotaged his life. He said he and his wife suspected Ardolf was behind the smear campaign "from the start."
Now, he said, they're thankful it's over.
James Walsh 612-673-7428