[EDITOR’S NOTE: Some Material Was Added After Publication].
Have you heard of Martin Gottesfeld? Probably not, but he’s currently embroiled in one of the most significant hacking cases in recent memory.
In April 2014, Boston Children’s Hospital was hit with a DDoS (distributed denial-of-service) attack that crippled their website. The DDoS was in response to the alleged medical kidnapping of Justina Pelletier.
According to CSO Online, DDoS “attacks work by drowning a system with requests for data. This could be sending a web server so many requests to serve a page that it crashes under the demand, or it could be a database being hit with a high volume of queries. The result is available internet bandwidth, CPU and RAM capacity becomes overwhelmed. The impact could range from a minor annoyance from disrupted services to experiencing entire websites, applications, or even entire business taken offline.”
Here’s a brief background on the Pelletier case:
In February 2013, then-14-year-old Justina Pelletier, who was being treated for mitochondrial disease after a diagnosis by professionals at Tufts Medical Center, was rushed to Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH) after she began to feel seriously ill. The doctors at BCH concluded that Justina wasn’t suffering from mitochondrial disease at all, but from a psychological disorder, reports Neil Swidey and Patricia Wen of The Boston Globe.
Shortly after this reversal, Justina was removed from her parents’ custody under suspicion of “medical child abuse.” She was eventually placed in Bader 5, a psychiatric ward. Justina remained in state custody for approximately 16 months.
Justina claims to have been severely neglected and abused during her time in Bader 5. The neglect and abuse allegedly included being “left in hallways and in bathrooms for hours at a time,” and having her toe nails torn away due to her feet being dragged on the floor, reports David Kushner of Rolling Stone.
According to The Blaze, Justina’s family was only allowed supervised once-weekly visits and once-weekly phone calls while she was detained. Because of these limitations, and because Justina feared reprisal from staff, she would allegedly pass notes to her family secretly.
“After the Pelletier’s began speaking out publicly about their daughter on social media and to local news, a judge ordered the family put under a gag order,” writes Kushner.
Justina’s family defied the gag order, appearing on “The Kuhner Report” on Boston’s WRKO. Around this time, a computer programmer named Martin Gottesfeld was made aware of Justina’s case.
Gottesfeld, who became involved in teenage human rights advocacy at a young age, was high off of a recent digital crusade against “troubled teen” facility, Logan River Academy.
Gottesfeld believed Logan River was abusing its patients after his then-girlfriend Dana Barach (now Dana Gottesfeld) told him about what she witnessed when visiting her teenage brother at the facility. After Gottesfeld communicated with an alleged Anonymous hacker, Logan River was hit with a DDoS. Dana’s brother was eventually returned home, and Gottesfeld decided to apply his passions to helping Justina.
By March of 2014, #OpJustina was a go. On March 23, Gottesfeld uploaded a video to YouTube. The video featured the “Anonymous” figure, and a computerized voice, which mentioned the names of several BCH doctors, and stated in part:
It has come to our attention that a 15-year-old girl by the name of Justina Pelletier has been held against her will by the state of Massachusetts for over one year. Justina has a condition known as mitochondrial disease. However, the Boston Children’s Hospital believes that it all is merely in her head, and as a result, she has been detained in addition to being tortured physically and mentally by this corrupted system for nothing more than being sick.
… Anonymous and the American people will not tolerate this abuse of our children and will retaliate using whatever means necessary in order to protect our fellow citizens from this abusive and manipulative behavior. We will punish all those held accountable and will not relent until Justina is free.
… in this message you will find a website link. Anonymous implores you to use this information to your maximum potential in order to save Justina’s life.
… Test us and you shall fail. This will be your first and final warning. Failure to comply with our demands will result in retaliation [the likes of which] you have never seen. Free Justina and return her to her family.
In the description section below the video is the link to a website. The website features the names, physical addresses, and phone numbers of several people involved in the Justina Pelletier case. Additionally, the BCH website was listed alongside its IP address.
Despite the video, on March 25, Massachusetts Juvenile Court Judge Joseph Johnston ruled against Justina’s parents, giving the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) “permanent custody” of Justina. In response, Gottesfeld allegedly hit “Wayside [Youth and Family Support Network], the residential treatment facility where Justina was being held, with a DDoS,” according to Rolling Stone. Then, in April, he allegedly hit BCH’s website with a DDoS during a major fundraising drive.
The DDoS was successful, but Justina was still being detained. In May 2014, Justina was moved to JRI Susan Wayne Center for Excellence, a care facility in Thompson, Connecticut. While she was still under state custody, visitation restrictions were apparently more lax at Justina’s new living space.
On June 8, a secret video recorded by Justina’s sister Jennifer surfaced online. In the video, Justina appears in her deteriorating state and pleads with Judge Johnston to order her release, saying: “You’re the one that’s judging this. Please let me go home.” She adds, “I need to be home with my family . . . please, right now, please let me go home.”
Several days after the video appeared on social media, Justina was released from her detainment, and returned home — bound to a wheelchair. This is where Martin Gottesfeld’s story begins to roll.
According to a “Tap and Trace” request filed by Adam J. Bookbinder, the district of Massachusetts Cybercrime Unit Chief, on July 17, 2014, the DDoS allegedly initiated by Gottesfeld “caused disruptions to the BCH website and the network on which BCH and other Harvard University affiliated hospitals communicate. In response, BCH was forced to shut down, for a period of time, online service portals for patients, providers and physicians. The loss of these services and the impact to the hospital communication network posed a direct threat to the ability of BCH and other hospitals to care for their patients.”
One court document expands on what was alleged in the Tap and Trace, claiming that in order to prevent further damage, BCH took measures that impaired the ability of patients to communicate with their doctors, and impaired the ability of doctors outside BCH to obtain medical records:
In an effort to ensure the attack did not compromise patient information, the Hospital decided to shut down the portions of its network that communicated with the internet and its email service. This effort successfully prevented the attacks from accessing any patient records or other internal Hospital information. This shutdown of the Children’s Hospital’s website, external internet portal, and email servers, however, impacted the entire Hospital community and particularly the ability of physicians outside of the Hospital to obtain medical records and of patients to communicate with physicians.
During an interview with CRTV’s Michelle Malkin, however, Dana Gottesfeld said the DDoS on the donations page wasn’t designed to impact patient care:
The donation page is not related to the health care at the hospital. The significance of the donation page is the pocketbook. It cost them money on their donation fundraising day.
Moreover, Dana believes the DDoS drew critical attention to Justina’s case, and BCH’s psych ward in general:
From what I understand from what I have [based on] an inside source there, this is the first time people in the hospital took notice of the psych ward … it’s drawing attention, hurting them. You know, they care about their reputation and their money. … I think it was vital in playing a role for getting Justina out of there.
On April 27, 2016, Special Agent Jeffrey Williams of the Boston FBI was cross-examined by then-attorney for the defense, Tor Ekeland. In two particularly interesting exchanges, Williams notes that there is no evidence that Boston Children’s Hospital lost all ability to communicate with patients as a result of the alleged DDoS, and that to his knowledge, there had been no investigation into BCH or Wayside Youth regarding possible abuse of Justina Pelletier.
EKELAND: And you don’t have any evidence that any medical records were ever accessed, correct?
WILLIAMS: No, only that, only what was described to us by the, by the hospital, that they had to shut down some of their systems. It caused issues with doctors communicating with each other as well as patients communicating with those systems.
EKELAND: Well, the phone systems were never shut down at BCH, correct?
WILLIAMS: I don’t believe so.
EKELAND: So the doctors could call their patients, correct?
WILLIAMS: That’s correct.
EKELAND: And the patients could call their doctors, correct?
WILLIAMS: That’s correct, but I’m also not certain of the number of patients that they have on, on a daily basis that would need to be contacted, so in terms of the effort or, or whatnot, you know, I’m not sure. It involves feasible, feasible option[s], I’m not certain that, you know, that would be the best –
EKELAND: I’m sorry. Is it your testimony that you have no idea the number of patients [that] Boston Children’s Hospital handles?
WILLIAMS: Well, in terms of communicating on a daily basis with all their patients, well, it could be an option, it could be an option for them to do that, yes.
EKELAND: I’m sorry, I didn’t, I just didn’t hear you.
WILLIAMS: I’m not aware of the number of patients that they communicate with on a daily basis, so while I do agree that it is a good option for them, or one option is for them to call their patients on the phone to communicate with each other, you know, in terms of types of communication and what needs to happen, I’m not certain of, if in practicality that would, that would work.
EKELAND: But you’d agree with me that the DDoS attack, the alleged DDoS attack, did not target the phone system, correct?
WILLIAMS: That’s correct.
EKELAND: And it did not target the personal emails of the doctors at BCH?
EKELAND: And you’re not aware of any medical records that were accessed for that matter, correct?
EKELAND: And the, I believe the affidavit says that some research was allegedly interrupted, but you can’t specifically tell me what research was interrupted, can you?
WILLIAMS: No, we’d have to ask the hospital for that.
EKELAND: It’s fair to say it’s a very politically controversial case, correct?
EKELAND: Which brings me to June 2014. Are you aware that in June 2014, mainly because of all the controversy surrounding this case and the governor of Massachusetts getting involved, the judge, the state judge, who had…granted custody to Justina, to Boston Children’s Hospital, returned custody of Justina to her parents. Are you aware of that?
EKELAND: And to the best of your knowledge, you testified that the FBI never investigated Wayside Youth for any alleged abuse of Justina Pelletier, correct?
WILLIAMS: That’s right.
EKELAND: And as far as you’re aware, the FBI never investigated Boston Children’s Hospital for any alleged abuse of Justina Pelletier, correct?
Following the Tap and Trace, a search warrant was signed by Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler. After authorities searched the Gottesfeld home in October, Martin and his wife, Dana, made the decision to flee.
In February 2016, the Gottesfelds allegedly traveled to Florida, purchased or rented a boat, and set sail. While out at sea, however, their vessel broke down, forcing them to send out a distress call. After being rescued by a Disney cruise ship, which docked in Miami on February 17, 2016, Martin Gottesfeld was arrested, reports Miami New Times. He is currently being held in Plymouth County Correctional Facility.
The Gottesfelds dispute the way in which the boat story is being told, but won’t reveal their version of events until they have a national audience so as to raise awareness of cases like Justina’s, according to Dana Gottesfeld.
Currently, Martin Gottesfeld is facing charges of “conspiracy and intentional damage to a protected computer under the CFAA,” according to Rolling Stone. CFAA stand for “Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.” A conviction could result in fines of several hundred thousand dollars, as well as a 15-year prison stint.
After his father, Jay Gottesfeld, passed away in March 2017, Martin Gottesfeld requested a “motion to revoke custody” in order to attend the funeral. The prosecution argued against the motion to revoke, claiming that because Martin Gottesfeld had previously attempted to exit the United States via boat, he was a flight risk. The request was denied by Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler — the same judge who signed the search warrant.
On October 27, 2017, during a hearing in which Martin Gottesfeld planned to ask for a new lawyer, Dana Gottesfeld held up two photographs of Justina Pelletier — one from before she was detained, and one from during her detainment.
Dana recalls, “Marty made a statement to his prosecutors. He asked them if they were ashamed of themselves; he asked them to look back, and take a look at what they were defending.” Following the outburst, Dana was asked to leave the courtroom.
Shortly after the hearing, a new attorney was added to the case, and prosecutor Adam J. Bookbinder removed himself.
On December 14, Martin Gottesfeld was allegedly attacked in his jail cell. The following account is from Gottesfeld himself:
On Thursday, December 14th, 2017, at approximately 11:20 a.m. in the BS1 unit of the Plymouth County Correctional Facility (PCCF), I was physically attacked while at my bunk drinking coffee. … I requested that photographs of my injuries be taken and placed in my medical records, but was told that will not happen. My request to call my attorney was also denied by PCCF.
Following the alleged attack, Gottesfeld says he was placed in administrative segregation. According to Dana Gottesfeld, Martin was “cleared of any and all wrongdoing” on Monday, December 18. However, he wasn’t released from ad seg until December 22.
There’s a critical aspect of this case that must be noted:
Magistrate Judge Marianne Bowler, who signed the search warrant for Gottesfeld’s home, has several apparent conflicts of interest that might impact her impartiality in the case.
Prior to her legal career, Bowler worked briefly as a “research assistant in biochemistry at Harvard Medical School,” according to her professional biography, which, in a peculiar twist, can no longer be found online. Additionally, Bowler is married to Dr. Marc Alan Pfeffer, who works at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a “teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School.” Another affiliate of Harvard Medical School happens to be Boston Children’s Hospital.
If that weren’t enough to raise eyebrows regarding conflict of interest concerns, Bowler spent ten years on the board of The Boston Foundation, a charitable organization that has made contributions to Wayside Youth and Family Support Network. Like BCH, Wayside, which once held Justina Pelletier, was allegedly targeted by a DDoS operation.
None of this is meant to discount the illegality of what Martin Gottesfeld is accused of having done. However, taken in context, one must wonder why someone in his position is looking at a multi-decade criminal sentence, while at the same time, Boston Children’s Hospital, Wayside Youth, and Judge Marianne Bowler are seemingly being given a pass.
There may be hope for Gottesfeld in Andrew Lelling, the newly-appointed U.S. attorney for Massachusetts. Lelling is stepping into the role after Carmen Ortiz vacated the position on January 13, 2017. In the interim, William Weinreb has served as acting U.S. attorney.
Though Lelling has a long history within the government, he is a member of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, which, according to its official website, “is a group of conservatives and libertarians dedicated to reforming the current legal order.”
On January 3, Dana Gottesfeld sent Lelling a video in which she pleaded with him to do what his predecessors had not:
Mr. Lelling, I know that you helped enforce civil rights under the last Republican administration, and your confirmation comes just in time before the five-year statute of limitations runs out on investigating the crimes committed against Justina Pelletier that left her in a wheelchair. …
I hope you’ll do what nearly everyone can see is the right thing and send my husband home instead of simply siding with your predecessors from the last administration. …
According to Christina Sterling of the DOJ, Lelling has received the video.
Dana Gottesfeld says her husband’s trial is set to begin in April 2018. For more information from the defense, go to FreeMartyG.com. For a more in-depth account of Justina Pelletier’s alleged medical kidnapping, read this two-part piece from the Boston Globe.