28 Jun, 2023 @ 19:30
10 mins read

Every parent’s worst nightmare: How a mother moved her quiet, bullied son from Liverpool to the Costa del Sol only for him to end up in a New York jail

He was a quiet expat kid whose mother moved him to Spain to avoid his abusive father and violent bullying at school… but when he became withdrawn and locked himself in his room, she had no idea he would become a globally infamous hacker. Walter unravels the tragic, complicated story 

SANDRA O’Connor, 58, had watched her son, Joseph grow more and more withdrawn and isolated in his bedroom with his computer.

But the English criminal lawyer at least thought he was ‘safe in his room’, away from the normal dangers that teenagers face on the Costa del Sol.

So when an army of riot police kicked down their front door in Estepona, she could have had no idea that he was one of the world’s most wanted cyber hackers.

Sought by the US authorities for a string of serious cyber crimes committed when just 19 years old – including hacking into the private Twitter accounts of President Biden and Elon Musk – he was also a serious fraudster who stole $794,000 from a Manhattan cryptocurrency firm.

And perhaps most disappointingly for his mother, he also stole naked photos of young women and tried to extort favours out of them.

Joseph James O'connor Instagram
Joseph James O’Connor was an unlikely mastermind behind an audacious hack of US tech giant Twitter that rocked the online world in 2020

Now, Joseph, 24, also known as PlugWalkJoe, has just been handed a five year stretch in one of New York’s toughest prisons.

But it could have been a lot worse… and if it wasn’t for a series of moving pleas from his mother and wider family he could have faced 70 years in jail, the Olive Press can reveal.

In the emotional letters addressed to Judge Rakoff at the famous Southern District of New York, they helped to explain how a kind-hearted English expat who struggled to understand normal social interactions became the world’s online public enemy number one.

Unearthed via requests to the US court service, they paint a tragic picture of violence, neglect and isolation that saw the bright youngster failing to receive the guidance and support he was obviously in need of.

Born to a violent and absent father, Joseph was raised by a single mother who was also traumatised by the same man.

His teenage years in Liverpool were fraught, as he suffered from bullying by other kids that he could not understand.

Vista General Ciudad Estepona 1477362874 123181987 667x375
O’Connor’s mother brought her troubled son to the tranquil town of Estepona on the Costa del Sol thinking he might find a happier life

Sandra confessed that she had not been ‘emotionally available and nurturing’ to her youngest child (with his other two brothers born to different fathers).

She described herself as ‘effectively broken’ by the violence she had suffered at the hands of Joseph’s father, who had not wanted the child and at one time inflicted such a severe beating on her she required 17 stitches to her head.

“I just went to work on autopilot,” she recalled. 

“But it’s the children who suffer the most as those crucial early years of loving nurturing are absent and damage results.”

Unwelcome efforts by Joseph’s father to come back into his life in secondary school reopened unhealed wounds.

“Joseph was always saying how sad it was that his father had ruined my life, and that it would have been better if he had not been born,” Sandra told the judge in one heartbreaking missive.

“I reassured him that he was worth it, and I would not change the situation if it meant he was not born.

“He told me I was rubbish at choosing men,” she continued, “and that he hoped one day I met someone who was kind and would treat me well.”

Sandra’s father, who had been an excellent father figure for Joseph’s two older brothers, died unexpectedly while she was pregnant with him.

“Not a day goes by that I do not think about him and miss him and feel saddened that Joseph never got to receive the love and care his grandfather provided to his siblings.”

President Joe Biden Remarks On Abortion Rights Executive Order
United States President Joe Biden was among a slew of celebrities who had his Twitter account hacked by O’Connor’s group

Sandra would constantly tell Joseph of his grandfather, and in turn Joseph would speak about him as if he had known him himself.

“He would tell me lovely things about his deceased grandfather,” his grandmother Agnes reminisced.

“When you’re bereaved, it is very comforting. It was as if he knew I almost needed this to help me cope.

“He would tell stories with so much love and add funny anecdotes about what his grandfather would say if he were here. 

“He was such a sweet, funny boy and so kind to others,” she added.

As his mother explained: “When younger, he would try to encourage me to meet someone who could be his dad, which is so sad.

“He saw his young friends with their loving families and he effectively only had me.”

Having moved Joseph back to Estepona at the age of 17, Sandra watched him retreat from the perplexing world that had treated him so cruelly into an online one.

One where his anxieties and peculiarities vanished and he made friends and found respect.

But so obsessed did he become with his gaming and his computers that in turn he became oblivious to the real world around him.

Conversations and constant nagging had little effect as he withdrew almost entirely to his room, even refusing to eat meals with his mother and instead ‘eating himself fat’ and snacking on processed foods.

When she flew to Liverpool for work trips, the lawyer would have to leave pre-prepared foods and snacks that just needed heating in the microwave.

And upon her return, she would be faced with a chaotic pigsty of dirty dishes and cups piling up, which he noticed not one iota.

Taormina : 69th Taormina Film Festival . Photo Call.
Actress Bella Thorne had her Snapchat hacked and naked photos stolen by O’Connor’s group, who tried to extort her to promote their social media accounts. Thorne instead posted the pictures herself. (Photo by Maurizio D Avanzo/IPA/Sipa USA)

When Covid struck, Sandra found herself stuck in England and unable to get back to look after Joseph. Instead she hired a housekeeper.

It was during this period Joseph finally managed to find friendship, albeit with a community online.

Sandra would get back to hear him laughing loudly with his online friends – ‘something he rarely did.’

“For me, this was comforting and a good sign,” she wrote.

It was preferable he was laughing in his bedroom rather than exposed to ‘a world on the outside where he was ill-equipped to navigate.’

“I believed he was safe from this world, where he was not in touch with any dangers [such as] alcohol, drugs, bullying and the worst aspects of society,” Sandra told the judge.

But she had no idea the people he was chatting with were not gamers but, in fact, hackers.

And it would be they who led Joseph down the path that would finally find him languishing in a New York jail, struggling to understand how his life had gone so wrong.

In another sad knock-on effect, the enormous costs of the proceedings have depleted Sandra’s financial resources and imperilled her retirement.

“There will be no inheritance for Joseph and his brothers,” she wrote, adding her own inheritance from her father is gone, and Agnes only has enough to pay for her own funeral.

Joseph has so far been spared this tragic full understanding of the long-term impact his deeds will have on his family.

His cousin, Niamh, 23, told of an anecdote during one visit to Joseph in prison that summed up the difficulty he has dealing with life.

“He told Sandra his mum, she looked pretty,” she wrote. “She thanked him. Then he said, ‘well you are, even with your wrinkles and you being old, you should try and get Botox before you start looking as wrinkly as nan.’”

They all burst out laughing.

“He was just being how we all know him to be, honest without realising that it can be too much to hear sometimes,” Niamh went on.

“He had no idea why we were laughing and there is little point in explaining it to him.”

Joe Biden hacked tweet
A host of major US celebrities and political figures had similar Tweets like this posted from their accounts after they were hacked

For his mother’s birthday in June, Joseph arranged through a friend to send her a personalised card with a huge beautiful bouquet of flowers, a gift-wrapped perfume, and a box of gold decorated cupcakes with messages on the cakes.

Attached was a personalised card.

Inside, it read: “Happy birthday to the one who has loved, cared, helped, worried and been there for me through it all. 

“Thank you for always being there for me, you’re a great mother and I love you a lot.

“You are the smartest woman I know and will ever know and very kind and beautiful. “Everyone who meets you, or their families, always say you are their favourite person and extremely rare and for that I am very proud of you and not have a bad word to say about you.”

Having spent two and a half years in jail waiting to be sentenced, Joseph is already half way through his five year sentence.

Awaiting him when he gets out is a job offer: A UK-based energy firm is willing to take him on as a Web Developer Apprentice.

For his part, Joseph told the judge: “I want to lead a productive life. I now look back at what an empty life I led. A solitary life alone with gaming and online friends in an unreal, unhealthy world, the only life that mattered.

“I neglected my family, my future, I was without plans or any aims in life.”

Lenient jail sentence for the British expat recluse who sensationally hacked the US establishment from his bedroom in Spain’s Costa del Sol

THE expat mother of a reclusive British hacker jailed for five years in the US has revealed she thought he was ‘safe in his room’ on the Costa del Sol.

Sandra O’Connor told a US court she believed he was ‘not in touch with any dangers such as alcohol, drugs or bullying’.

But there was something she did not realise until it was far too late.

“In fact, he was involved in a far worse world,” the former lawyer told a New York judge.

The anguished mother’s comments came as her son, Joseph James O’Connor, was handed down the prison sentence for hacking into the Twitter accounts of, among others, Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

The 24-year-old was arrested at his home in Estepona in July 2021 after he undertook the hacking as part of a Bitcoin scam.

Liverpool-born O’Connor, who used the handle PlugwalkJoe, was extradited to America in April to await this week’s sentence.

His long-suffering mother, who was in New York for the hearings, told the court: “I wish I could have had more insight into this online gaming world he entered, and the dangers and influences he encountered. 

“I didn’t even realise it was occurring,” added the mother-of-three.

The ex-criminal lawyer explained how, after a troubled early childhood of bullying back home in Liverpool, she believed a move to Spain would do her son some good.

While he spent virtually all of his time in his room on computers – reportedly nor emerging for as many as 30 days at a time – she felt his reclusive nature would at least keep him safe from ‘a world on the outside which he was ill-equipped to navigate.’

However, O’Connor was part of a hacking ring that shocked the online world when it managed to very publicly penetrate Twitter’s detailed security in 2020. 

The scam involved posting directly to an estimated 350 million followers from the accounts of Elon Musk, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian and Bill Gates accounts, among many others.

One bogus tweet from Biden read: “I am giving back to the community. All bitcoin sent to the address below will be sent back doubled! If you send $1,000, I will send back $2,000. Only doing this for 30 minutes.”

The unprecedented hacks were so serious, and carried out so acutely in the public eye, that Twitter took the drastic, unheard of step of suspending verified accounts belonging to some of the most famous people on the planet from posting messages. 

Although the ploy seemed an obvious fraud, an analysis revealed that 13 Bitcoins were transferred to the hackers’ wallet in 383 transactions in the following 24 hours – or $117,000 (€106,000).

O’Connor also stalked underage girls and tried to extort famous people on other social networks, such as TikTok and Snapchat.

He hacked the actress Bella Thorne and stole 13 naked photos which he threatened to release if she did not promote his social accounts.

“It’ll be the entire internet looking at your personal shit,” one of his group of hacker friends wrote to her.

Thorne posted the pictures herself. “F*** u and the power you think u have over me,” she replied. “The FBI will be at your house shortly.”

O’Connor had laughed off the dangers of the US authorities when the New York Times managed to track him down.

“I don’t care,” he insisted. “They can come arrest me. I would laugh at them. I haven’t done anything.”

But that is exactly what happened when the Policia Nacional hauled the social recluse out of his bedroom hideaway in July 2021 in cooperation with the FBI. 

Among the charges were a conspiracy to commit computer intrusions, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering, as well as stalking two victims.

The prosecution had requested the maximum sentence of 70 years in prison for O’Connor for the ten criminal charges.

In an appeal to Judge Rakoff for clemency, O’Connor apologised for his deeds. “I’m sorry. My crimes were stupid and senseless. I want a life that makes sense.”

He has been ordered to pay $794,000 the amount he received from his various scams. 

O’Connor will only serve a further two years and eight months behind bars, having already been in jail for 28 months, or roughly half his sentence.

“O’Connor’s criminal activities were flagrant and malicious and his conduct impacted multiple people’s lives,” Kenneth A Polite Jr, an assistant attorney general in the US justice department’s criminal division, said.

“He harassed, threatened and extorted his victims, causing substantial emotional harm.”

Two other members of O’Connor’s hacking ring have been charged with federal crimes: Nima Fazeli of Florida, and Mason Sheppard, from Bognor Regis in the UK.

“Two years later, it’s still hard to understand how harmless gaming led to this,” his mother Sandra told the court. “I am realistic that I have played a significant role in Joseph’s actions but ultimately, it is he who must take the responsibility and the consequences.

“The effects of this naive, thoughtless boy have had devastating consequences, not just to him but to us all, and Joseph needs to lead an exemplary life from here on in and atone.”


Walter Finch

Walter - or Walt to most people - is a former and sometimes still photographer and filmmaker who likes to dig under the surface.
A NCTJ-trained journalist, he came to the Costa del Sol - Gibraltar hotspot from the Daily Mail in 2022 to report on organised crime, corruption, financial fraud and a little bit of whatever is going on.
Got a story? [email protected]

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