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!