There is nothing perhaps more frightening than finding out that a person entrusted with your children to nurture and educate is not necessarily who they appear. Rather, that person, a high-ranking school official, has a rather complex persona with a particularly unusual and somewhat disturbing fetish.
Last month, West Hempstead High School assistant principal and director of guidance David P. D'Amato pled guilty in federal court in Massachusetts to federal charges of computer fraud and abuse.
D'Amato, 39, of Garden City, was charged with violating the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, by intentionally accessing without authorization and doing damage to the computer systems of Suffolk University in Boston, Massachusetts and James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
At the change of plea hearing, federal prosecutor Jeanne M. Kempthorne told the court that D'Amato had launched "email bombs," a denial-of-service attack, on Suffolk University, Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and James Madison University as well as numerous individuals over a three-year period beginning in 1997. D'Amato's actions, according to the prosecutor, caused computer systems to crash and deprived thousands of students, faculty and other users of computer access.
D'Amato faces a maximum penalty of a one-year term of imprisonment and a $100,000 fine on each of two counts, as well as restitution to the victims.
D'Amato's guilty plea to two misdemeanor charges only scratches the surface, however, of the case. It was an alter ego, one with a fetish for tickling, that had become the subject of an investigation. Beneath the guilty plea lies a set of circumstances that can surely be classified as bizarre.
Through an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the West Hempstead High Principal and Guidance Director has been linked to a female persona named Terri DiSisto with an obsession for videos of college-aged males being tickled.
Email bombs, a barrage of emails that can disable a server and thus shut down electronic mail service, were sent when those making the tickling videos discontinued their cooperation with DiSisto, according to some of those who made the videos.
David P. D'Amato
"He was using a female persona," said U.S. Attorney District of Massachusetts spokeswoman Samantha Martin of D'Amato. "He has a tickling fetish. He was contacting people. I don't know who he was contacting specifically or what the content of the messages were, but the upshot was that he was requesting them to film themselves being tickled and send it to him."
According to sources, D'Amato created a female persona named "Terri DiSisto" or "Territickle." DiSisto, who claimed to be a female college student in Boston, then posted messages on newsgroups and message boards and sent out emails offering money and equipment in exchange for videos of guys being tickled by a girl friend or a guy friend. DiSisto also had a web site, www.tickle.com, with the same offer, featuring a picture of a blonde girl she claimed to be.
DiSisto's messages said, "If you are a guy who is hot, ticklish and in need of a new computer, cash and/or audio equipment to help you enjoy your passion for music, online trading or paying bills, then this offer really may be for you ... I maintain the largest personal collection in the world of made-just-for-me amateur videos featuring guys being tied up and tickled by a girlfriend, good girl friend, girlfriends or even guy friends ... I am not a business, video trader or porn solicitor. My interest is in tickling ... and only tickling ... No sex or nudity are ever wanted in my videos. I just want to see guys tied up and mercilessly, relentlessly TICKLED!"
DiSisto sent those who agreed to make tickling videos elaborate instructions on how those videos should be made. The videos, according to instructions, would be broken down into different segments, during which the subject would either be tied face-up or face down. The instructions required a male participant to be tickled in various areas of the body including the stomach, ribs, underarms, kneecap area, thighs and feet. Some segments required the subject to wear a thin T-shirt, shorts, but no socks while other segments of the video would require the subject to be shirtless.
Those making the videos would film them at their locations and then mail them to DiSisto, usually at a P.O. Box. DiSisto was said to have had students in Suffolk University, James Madison University and Harrisonburg, Virginia making videos for her/him.
As a 17-year-old high school senior living in the Massachusetts area, Scott responded to DiSisto's ad, which he saw on an Internet newsgroup, during the summer of 1996. Scott then sent an email message to DiSisto at the email address email@example.com requesting more information. "Scott" said after corresponding with DiSisto, she/he forwarded him $200 in cash. Scott then made the video with his 15-year-old girlfriend tickling him and sent it to a post office box in Port Washington. He then received the rest of the money in cash he was promised.
"As soon as I learned that this person just wanted a video of me being tickled, I thought, hey, what's wrong with that? I'll just send off this video and make some money," Scott said.
About a month after the initial contact, Scott was asked if he had any friends who would be interested in the same offer. Scott then got his friends involved and for approximately six months, he and his friends made tickling videos for Territickle. "To an extent, it kind of spread throughout my high school, across peer groups and cliques," Scott said.
All the while, Scott and his friends believed they were dealing with a 22 or 23-year-old female freshman student at a Boston college. Scott estimates that among himself and his friends, 15 videos were made and sent off to DiSisto in just under a year's time.
In late spring of 1997, as Scott was getting ready to graduate from high school, he stopped wanting to make videos. "I guess there wasn't much else to be garnered from it. Eventually, it was just time to stop," he said.
Scott recalled that in his dealings with DiSisto, she/he was "very moody." Sometimes, Scott said he would receive "email bombs," a large number of emails sent to an account that would crash the computer system or cause the account to be closed.
"It was sort of like a big game. If you said the wrong thing during a conversation, he would get upset and then say he was going to return the videos to your high school, courtesy of your assistant principal," Scott said.
Although he began to fear the actions of a stranger who was turning into an adversary, Scott said he never felt forced into making the videos. "In looking back, you think it was kind of stupid that we ended up doing that. But, at the same time, we were old enough and responsible enough to make a decision to do it. It was just an innocent video of us being tickled," he said. "When we were participating in this, it was very clear that it was just us being tickled and we were very comfortable with that or else we wouldn't have done them."
As he began college as a freshman student at Drexel University, Scott attempted to break off all contact with DiSisto. However, in a conversation via email with her/him, Scott mentioned that he planned on attending Drexel. With his personal web site on the Drexel server, the real horror began for Scott.
Shortly before Thanksgiving as Scott was ready to go home for the holiday, he discovered that his email address on the Drexel server was bombarded with emails. Such a large volume of email can effectively disable a server since the server may not be able to process that large volume of email traffic.
"Once the harassment began, it became a big mystery of who this person really was and why they would do such a thing," Scott said.
An FBI investigation identified an America Online Account, "ttickling," belonging to Theresa DiSisto, 75 Fairview Ave., Tarrytown, New York, was paid for with an American Express account. Billing records for that account revealed that the primary account holder was David D'Amato, with the same Tarrytown address as America Online had in their subscriber information for DiSisto's account. According to the FBI investigation, an additional American Express card with the same number as D'Amato's was requested for Terri DiSisto.
The FBI agent handling the investigation conducted an Equifax credit and Social Security searches regarding Terri DiSisto and discovered there were three Social Security numbers associated with DiSisto. One was invalid, another belonged to a woman born in 1900 who was deceased and the third was a valid Social Security number assigned to David D'Amato. In addition, United States Postal Service records for the Port Washington P.O. Box where Scott had been sending videos, revealed that the box belonged to D'Amato.
DiSisto also made email attacks at Suffolk University in 1997 and James Madison University from March 31, 1999 through February 2000. In investigating email attacks on other students at different universities, other connections were made. A check of the Internet domain name registration for tickling.com revealed that it belonged to Terri DiSisto, 840 Beacon Street in Boston, Massachusetts. D'Amato's driver's license at the time of the investigation listed his address as 844 Beacon Street, Apt. 53. In addition, an acquaintance of Scott also sent videos to a Tarrytown address. U.S. Postal Service records for a P.O. Box in Tarrytown indicated that the owner of the box was D'Amato.
Prior to his stint at West Hempstead High School, which lasted for two and a half years, D'Amato worked at Briarcliff High School in Briarcliff Manor, Warwick Valley High School in Warwick, New York, John W. Dodd Jr. High School in Freeport, Cornwall Central High School in Cornwall, New York, the Kildonan School and Webutuck Central School in Amenia, New York and Westbury High School. He received a master's degree in education from Boston University.
It is not certain whether D'Amato worked alone or not in the soliciting of videos. A search warrant filed on Long Island by Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Brown so that the FBI could search D'Amato's apartment on Cherry Valley Avenue in Garden City stated, "There is probably cause to believe that David P. D'Amato, also known as "Terri DiSisto" and "Territickle," and others who are acting in concert with him, have been engaged in a variety of computer activities via the Internet in violation with federal law, including knowingly causing the transmission of codes or commands to protected computers and causing damage as a result, and, with intent to deceive, falsely using a Social Security number that has not been assigned to him. D'Amato's actions have caused damage consisting of denial of service to thousands of subscribers to electronic communications services, and users of private networks."
Although the tickling fetish may seem intriguing, D'Amato has been convicted only of his association with email bombs and not with any charges regarding the making of the videos.
D'Amato's attorney, Tracy Miner, said her client pleaded guilty only to misdemeanor violations for disabling computer systems at James Madison University and Suffolk University. "This whole thing has now turned into a witch hunt out there. If there was anything more serious than misdemeanors, I can assure you that the federal government would have prosecuted. It was simply a denial of service. The man pled guilty. He chose not to fight the charges even though there were defendants available to him," she added.
Although D'Amato pled guilty to federal charges on March 22, he remained working in West Hempstead High School until Tuesday, April 3. Superintendent of Schools for the West Hempstead School District, Carol Eisenberg, claimed she had no knowledge that D'Amato had pled guilty to charges.
Eisenberg said she first learned of D'Amato's legal troubles when a parent brought the matter to her attention early last week. Eisenberg said she then acted immediately and had D'Amato taken out of West Hempstead High School last Tuesday.
Earlier in the school year, D'Amato had submitted his resignation to the West Hempstead Board of Education for the purposes of attending law school at Fordham University. However, that resignation was to take effect on June 30 since D'Amato fully intended to finish out the school year. However, upon hearing that the assistant principal had pled guilty to federal charges and had created a female persona to wreak havoc on the Internet, Eisenberg suspended D'Amato until June 30, at which point his resignation takes effect.
"I acted swiftly and he's no longer here," Eisenberg said.
The story was originally brought to light by Reader's Digest Contributing Editor Hal Karp, who began researching Terri DiSisto when his story "Angels Online," which appeared in April 2000, first detailed how DiSisto terrorized a teenager on the Internet. Karp's information eventually made its way to the West Hempstead School District.
Eisenberg said she was not informed by authorities that a high-ranking educator in the district had pled guilty or had been the subject of an FBI investigation. According to Martin, U.S. Attorney spokeswoman, it is not a legal requirement for the U.S. Attorney to inform an employer when an employee has pled guilty to charges.
Sentencing is scheduled for July 16. According to D'Amato's plea agreement, on each count of Computer Fraud and Abuse, he caused $5,000 in damages.