The Max Headroom broadcast hijack incident of 1987: Is it (sort of) solved?

Nearly two years ago I published an article, which I chose as one of my all time favorites of 2013, about a bizarre incident that occurred in the Chicago area in November 1987. While an episode of Dr. Who was airing on the Chicago station WTTW, an unidentified person hijacked the broadcast signal and sent out a strange video image of someone wearing a mask resembling 1980s pop icon Max Headroom. After clowning for the camera for a minute or so–and exposing his bare butt to another unidentified person who smacked it with a flyswatter–the pirate shut off his/her transmitter and the signal returned to WTTW. You can see the video of the incident above. This “broadcast signal intrusion” has never been solved, and people who’ve investigated it say it must have required some hefty equipment and a pretty good knowledge of electronics to pull it off.

Not long ago a reader of this blog alerted me to a topic that was posted on Reddit, written in 2013, in which a person claimed to know who the “Max Headroom” pirate was. The Reddit thread is here, and it’s worth a thorough read even though it’s quite lengthy. Essentially, this user, who was 13 in 1987, claims he knew two brothers, “J” and “K,” who were active in the hacking/phreaking scene in Chicago. Here’s how he described the brothers:

One of these get-togethers was in an apartment in a town called LaGrange, a suburb of Chicago, in the winter of 1987. K lived in an a shared apartment with his girlfriend, along with a roommate (also a fellow hacker) who we’ll refer to as M. K and his girlfriend lived in one half of the apartment, and M lived in the other half. J lived with his parents, and never moved out…Anyway, the two rooms of this apartment were separated by a clothesline strung in a doorway, and a large rug hung over it–Practically every square inch with the exception of one corner was packed with systems working and some apparently non-working.

K was a quiet guy. Even though he lived in this apartment with his girlfriend, he often took care of his older brother J who still lived at home. The degree of J’s autism was such that I doubt he could ever hold down a job, even a part time job.

Although the audio of the clip at the top of this article is much clearer, the video isn’t so good. Here is another version of the same clip, with much better video although the audio is bad–subtitles are provided.

On the day in question–November 22, 1987–the Redditor described the scene thusly:

J was at the party in the apartment that afternoon. I didn’t talk with him directly…but I did overhear what the others were talking about. They were referring to J planning to do something “big” over the weekend. I remember that word, “big”, because it piqued my curiosity as to what might be considered “big” by their standards. I later asked them collectively during the dinner we all had at Pizza Hut later that night what they were talking about earlier, what “big” was, and someone (probably K) told me to “Just watch Channel 11 later tonight.” …As sort of an offhanded suggestion. I did happen to be watching Channel 11 later that night, having forgotten about the whole “big” conversation earlier that day. I saw [the Headroom hack], but I didn’t put 2 and 2 together at the time.

The person on Reddit refused to name J and K, or provide any other information by which they could be recognized, believing that they valued their privacy (and also, there could still be the possibility of criminal charges as a result of the incident if they were known). A tech site called Motherboard used these Reddit claims as the basis for its own lengthy article on the incident, which is also worth reading. The whole thing is incredibly interesting, and if you find the Headroom incident as strange and fascinating as I do, you’ll definitely want to read these pieces in full.

As the Motherboard article points out, some still have their doubts whether the J/K scenario is true. I have no idea, but it’s definitely interesting to think about. Could the greatest broadcast hijack mystery in U.S. history really be “solved”? We may never know.

Now, if we can figure out who “Vrillon” was, we might really have something!

Advertisements

4 Comments

  1. Who knows, man? The person may never want to come forth, and when they do, how do we know for sure they’re not just doing it for publicity? The person who claimed to know them, who wants to protect their privacy, could be making the claim because it gets them attention, while at the same time indirectly linking them to the story, so that they don’t need to provide the hard evidence, because ‘Hey man, it wasn’t me, it was them. I can’t give you all the insights.’

    On the other hand, he really could just be protecting the privacy of his friends, but It’d be great to finally have it solved.

    This story caught my interest a while back, and I thought I heard that someone came out and openly admitted to the video. But I haven’t done enough of my own background research on the topic to know for sure, and as you well know, you can’t believe everything you hear.

    Either way, this is one of the creepiest videos out there, simply because of it’s nature, simplicity, and that damn mask.

    Good post, Sean.

  2. The person claiming to know them is yet another idiot desperate for attention. He’s no different than the people who poorly write of imaginary encounters with Bigfoot. He’s no different than the sick individuals who invent online deaths, and then, for example, write reams of information about their supposed dead loved one. You don’t have to have any kind of validity to claim anything online. You just have to find enough gullible people to buy what you’re selling. From the bogus “concern” about hiding these people’s identities, to changing his tune about what actually transpired on a night they supposedly told him “something big” would happen that evening. First they told him about “something big” while he was inexplicably standing against a wall, to them telling him about this big thing happening on a different channel.
    He’s not protecting anyone’s privacy, he found an excellent way to get attention. The most recent story is that these two “friends” are supposedly cleared of being responsible. Well, that’s awfully convenient, isn’t it? Still won’t tell us who these people are. Because they either don’t exist, or it doesn’t fit in with his story. Of what I’ve read, it doesn’t take a super expensive load of equipment to do this. It’s just a matter of getting in the right position, and making sure your signal interferes with the “real” one. Despite that, this is likely the work of someone who works either with the station, or someone who works in a related industry. A whole bunch of people actually caught for doing this usually fit one of those two categories.
    We still don’t know who the guy is claiming he thought he “knew” who the culprits were. Also very convenient for a bogus story.
    So I suppose if this guy doesn’t reveal who he actually is, he’s just as bogus as the story. He’s no better than the garbage who claim every celebrity death is linked to “the Illuminati”. Makes you wonder how humans are still alive, when so many of them could be talked into jumping off a cliff if something “magical’ would happen if they did so.

  3. I read the initial analysis of J and K on Reddit. Quite simply, this was 30 years ago. There is a thing called the Statute of Limitations. It is highly likely that the statutes to which every single law that was violated in this instance ran out a long time ago. And this isn’t anything serious like rape, robbery, murder, identity theft, or treason. It was a guy with a twisted sense of humor who hacked a show that likely only a handful of people were watching (even in a huge metropolis like Chicago). In otherworlds, there was little-to-no harm with this prank.
    And, there is the tincture of time, as doctors like to say, that turns (any) outrage into minor memories (if that). A guy, who was likely in his early 20s, who did that is going to be well into middle age, and likely living a respectable lifestyle (respected worker in a well-established career, homeownership, grown kids).
    Therefore, I believe that it would be perfectly safe for him to come out, announce what he did, and prove it by demonstrating how he did it. For those paying attention, it will be a good laugh. And any breaches he demonstrates won’t do any harm, since we are light years ahead with electronic security compared to where we were in 1987.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s