LAPORTE — About $132,000 worth of Bitcoin was paid by LaPorte County to ransomware hackers to regain access to part of its computer systems, according to a county news release.
Ten and a half units of the virtual currency ransom were sent to the hackers as a last resort after an FBI code couldn't crack the virus that locked some of the county's data away. Once paid off, the hackers gave the county a decryption key to unlock the data.
“This particular virus — RYUK — that was used by the bad actors in this attack was particularly insidious in that it jumped over all our firewalls and was able to penetrate backup servers,” said Vidya Kora, president of the LaPorte County Commissioners. “Even after conferring with the FBI’s cyber security unit to determine if their decryption codes would work, they determined after several tries their 'keys' would not unlock our data.”
The virus infected about 7% of the county's computers and server network July 6. Local government servers, including email, were shut down so they could be saved from the slow spread of the malware.
Originally, the ransom was $221,000, but a firm hired by the county was able to talk down the hackers. Insurance will cover $100,000 of the $132,000 paid.
Kora said personal information of county employees appears to not have been accessed by the hackers.
The commissioners plan on improving anti-virus protections, increasing employee IT training and conducting an annual cyber security audit, among other provisions.
“Unfortunately, in a day and age where cyber-crime has become so lucrative and many private and governmental entities across the country are being ‘extorted’ for their data, an ounce of additional prevention will be worth a pound of cure,” Kora said.
CROWN POINT — A woman was charged with four felonies Tuesday in connection with a crash in Gary last spring that killed a man and left another woman in a coma for about two months.
Kayla N. Norwood, 25, of Indianapolis, is accused of climbing out of her car after the rollover crash April 19 on U.S. 20 at Interstate 90 and leaving the scene as a police officer helped firefighters extricate the two victims.
Jerome L. Moore Jr., 29, died at the scene and Valerie Duncan, 27, suffered serious head injuries, according to police and court records. Duncan initially was not expected to survive, but awoke after about two months in a coma and gave a statement to police.
Witnesses told police they came upon an overturned, smoking red Ford Focus and saw a woman, later identified as Norwood, climbing out of the driver's side window, records state.
A police officer arrived and spoke with Norwood, who gave a false name. Norwood was hysterical and told the officer her "sister" was still trapped inside the car, according to court records.
The officer told Norwood to wait at his squad car as he helped firefighters extract Moore and Duncan. When he returned, Norwood was not there. The Focus was registered to Norwood, records said.
Police later located Norwood in the 1000 block of Tennessee Street, about 14 blocks west and five blocks south of the crash site, according to court records.
Authorities obtained a warrant to test Norwood's blood, and results showed her blood alcohol content was 0.169, according to court records. The legal limit for driving is 0.08.
After Duncan came out of the coma, she told police Norwood invited her and Moore to celebrate Norwood's birthday. Norwood drove to a bar, where they played pool and drank, records allege.
Duncan said she didn't notice how much alcohol Norwood drank. She remembered driving back to Gary on Interstate 65, but not the crash, records said.
Duncan told police she recalled waking up as police were trying to remove her from the car and then waking up again in a hospital, where her family told her she had almost died.
Norwood was charged with felony counts of causing death when operating a motor vehicle, leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death, causing serious bodily when operating a motor vehicle, leaving the scene of an accident with serious bodily injury and three misdemeanor counts of operating while intoxicated.
She was not in custody as of Wednesday afternoon, according to Lake County sheriff's police. Anyone with information on her whereabouts is asked to call 911.
VALPARAISO — Two years after being charged with leaving his former girlfriend paralyzed during a dispute, Hebron resident Dalton Corning told jurors Wednesday morning she caused her own injuries.
The 24-year-old said Brittany Ortell was pushing him with "all her force" at his apartment when he pivoted around on one foot and she fell forward.
"She takes a tumble real hard and hits the floor," Corning testified. "Then she's just kind of laying there."
Porter County Deputy Prosecutor David Urbanski said during opening arguments Tuesday afternoon that Corning pushed Ortell against a door and then picked her up and dropped her over his back.
Ortell tucked her chin, which caused her to land on her neck resulting in a burst fracture to her fifth vertebrae and significant ligament damage, Urbanski said. She was left paralyzed from her midsection down.
Urbanski questioned Corning Wednesday about the likelihood that Ortell, while pushing him with her hands forward, would have tumbled on the top of her head with enough force to fracture her vertebrae and then wind up on her back while paralyzed.
"When her head hit, her body flipped," Corning said.
Earlier Wednesday morning, neurosurgeon Mohamad Hytham Rifai, who has treated Ortell since her injury, said the force required for the damage she suffered would have had to be "quite significant."
When asked if it could have been caused by a standing fall, he said it was "extremely unlikely."
Yet when asked by defense attorney Michael McFarland if a fall with force behind would be enough to cause the damage seen in this case, Rifai said it could.
Prosecutors wrapped up their case Wednesday morning and the defense planned to be done soon after, setting the stage for closing arguments Thursday morning.
Corning faces felony counts of domestic battery and aggravated battery.
Ortell, 23 and of Lowell, who is wheelchair bound, testified Tuesday afternoon she had gone to Corning's Hebron apartment on the day in question to make sure it was suitable for their then 3-year-old daughter to visit.
Corning said Wednesday that Ortell was "rude" and "aggressive" on the day in question and was pushing him after he ordered her then-boyfriend out of the apartment.
"She was coming at me with all her momentum," he said.
Corning denied lifting and dropping Ortell, or otherwise placing his hands on her.
"Would you be able to do that?" defense attorney Herbert Shaps asked.
EAST CHICAGO — Without a proper parental figure in his life, Juan “J.R.” Ortiz turned to the streets of East Chicago for guidance.
But the mentorship Ortiz found soon landed him behind bars.
“I went searching for a family, but unfortunately, that ‘family’ turned out to be a gang,” the 38-year-old said. “It cost me a lot. I did a lot of time in a lot of different facilities. I had to be a man before I even hit puberty.”
When he left federal prison in 2011, Ortiz said he also decided to leave his former self behind, making a promise that he would no longer spend another portion of his life in a jail cell.
“I didn’t want to be a part of it no more,” Ortiz said. “I told myself, ‘If you get out of this, you’re done. No more gangs.’”
Around this time, Ray Castaneda was having a similar epiphany.
Like Ortiz, Castaneda joined an East Chicago gang at a young age, seeking protection from his schoolyard bullies.
“I was tired of getting jumped,” Castaneda said. “So, I went with them to their house. They introduced me to people and then they gave me my first gun while I was in the seventh grade.”
From there, he, too, would find himself behind bars off and on for several years. But eventually, Castaneda realized he couldn’t continue down this path. He already had missed too much of his children’s lives. So, he also made a commitment to change — for them and for himself.
The 41-year-old then started his own plumbing company, Superior Plumbing, which is how he met Ortiz, who applied for a job in 2014. With both growing up in East Chicago, the two had heard of one another, but never had a formal introduction until that point.
“We’ve just been together ever since,” Ortiz said. “We’ve truly been inseparable.”
“Like a brother bond,” Castaneda added.
However, it wasn’t just enough to avoid gang activity. The pair wanted to do more for the East Chicago community and stop local children from following in their footsteps.
Castaneda said the more than 28,000-member city had changed over the years, becoming more divided as senseless violence and crime increased.
Ortiz said the two began to think of ideas to help, but nothing really stuck until the death of David Anderson, an 11-year-old boy hit by a stray bullet May 5, 2018, in Nunez Park.
Anderson had been friends with Ortiz’s child, and his slaying elicited tears from the 38-year-old’s bright blue eyes. Something had to be done.
Ortiz and Castaneda decided to host a gathering at Wiley Park in which they gave away free food and raffled off various items, including T-shirts and toys. Handmade signs advocating for change and support were held in the hands of the attendees.
After that day, the Stop the Violence Movement East Chicago was born, with Ortiz and Castaneda at the helm.
Since that first event, the men began to rethink their method and transformed these park gatherings into fundraising opportunities to help gunshot victims — such as Antonio Adams, Ahlon Willians and Isaiah Flores — and their families with funeral costs by selling Stop the Violence Movement East Chicago T-shirts or other apparel and plates of food.
But soon, the events, which often generate more than $1,000, were directed at other East Chicago causes, in addition to continuing to put a stop to violence in their community.
Castaneda — whose wife, Christina, helps the men organize and execute these gatherings — said their biggest fundraiser was for longtime resident Tyrone Flores, a homeless man who died of a heart attack earlier this year. They raised more than $3,300 for his funeral.
The group also held an event for four East Chicago girls hoping to attend West Point Military Academy in West Point, New York. The money raised — about $2,000 from two gatherings — went directly toward helping with tuition costs.
The secret to their success? Jerk chicken, a recipe created by Castaneda’s brother, Pete.
Castaneda said the group, which often pays for supplies out of pocket, never asks for monetary donations — though, people are able to give money if they’d like and it will be given to the event’s beneficiary. Instead, they ask for side dishes, such as rice or potato salad, to accompany their celebrated poultry that is only sold during these gatherings. Others have donated pinatas, costumes and candy.
But it isn’t just the “off the chain” jerk chicken that draws in a crowd, the men said. It is the community’s willingness to support one another, especially during difficult times.
“When everybody tells us thank you, we say, ‘No, thank you, guys, because you guys are the ones that made it possible. You guys are the ones giving us the money. We’re just showing you guys that we can come together as East Chicago,’” Castaneda said. “Yeah, we put it together, but the E.C. is making it happen.”
“We’re the founders of Stop the Violence Movement East Chicago, but it’s a lot of people in this community who helps us,” Ortiz added. “It started from just an idea me and him had sitting in a work truck one day and it’s come pretty far in the last year and a half. ... After an event, I'm often like, 'Did we just do that?' Man, it's such a good feeling.”
The movement’s last initiative has been raising money for children passes at the city’s pool, so parents don’t have to pay the $10 fee, Castaneda said. They collected more than $1,300.
“We’re not doing this for fame and all that — we’re doing it for the kids,” Castaneda said.
Overcoming the past
It hasn’t always been easy for the men to overcome the ghosts of their former selves.
Ortiz said they are still haunted by their past affiliations, which have shaped people’s opinions of them despite what they are currently doing.
“We see people who comment stuff like, ‘How can you be Stop the Violence when you were the problem in the first place?’” Ortiz said. “We were the problem in the city, but we just brush it off and keep moving. We know what we are doing now. Our consciences are clear.”
However, the men find the occasional hate motivating, and any negative feedback is immediately overshadowed by the positivity stemming from the group’s events.
If they had the chance, Ortiz said they wouldn’t do anything differently because it helped to shape who they are today. The men hope to be an example for those who currently find themselves in a similar situation.
“If people see us and what we’ve came from and what we’ve done — with the drugs, gangs, prison and all that — to where we are now, anything is possible. You've got a future,” Castaneda said. “I initially did it for my kids, my grandkids and for me. Now, I’m doing it for my city.”
"We came from nothing," Ortiz added. "If we can do it, you can do it."
On Saturday, they are working with the East Central High School’s girls soccer team to raise money for equipment, Castaneda said. The team will host a yard sale from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 4224 Euclid Ave., while the group provides the food at $10 a plate.
Currently, Castaneda said they are already planning for next summer. The group hopes to continue hosting fundraisers for children passes at the East Chicago pool and partner with city’s parks and recreation department to offer free passes as an incentive to get good grades.
Castaneda said they also want to collaborate more with the city’s police department, devising strategies to keep children out of gangs and away from “nonsense.”
Plans for the two men to give motivational speeches at the East Chicago Public Library are in the works, as well. Ortiz said they hope to eventually give those same talks in the city’s schools.
“Back in the day, we were bringing kids into gangs,” Castaneda said. “So, with our ideas, we know we can get them out. We just need the right resources (and opportunities) to help us.”
“It’s like a snowball effect, and there’s no stopping it,” Ortiz added. “Even if we reach just one kid, it’s worth it — that’s good enough for us.”
CROWN POINT — Prosecutors dropped two murder charges linked to a double homicide in New Chicago last year after several issues regarding evidence were raised during bail hearings, a defense attorney said.
Teal L. Cross, 26, of Hammond, had been scheduled to appear Thursday for the last in a series of hearings on his petition to let bail.
Defense attorney Jamise Perkins filed a petition to let bail in May, and several evidentiary hearings were held between May 9 and July 3. Questions about whether search warrants were properly returned, whether photo lineups were conducted appropriately and other possible problems with evidence arose during the hearings, she said.
Lake Criminal Court Judge Pro Tempore Kathleen Sullivan canceled Thursday's bail hearing and dismissed the murder charges after Lake County Supervisory Deputy Prosecutor Eric Randall filed a motion seeking dismissal because "the state intends to refile this matter at a later date."
The evidence issues "clearly pointed to Mr. Cross's innocence, in my opinion," Perkins said.
"I'm happy for my client," she said. "He wants to try and put this behind him."
Cross remained in custody Wednesday on $50,000 bail in a drug case stemming from his arrest in February on the murder charges. He's accused of possessing cocaine.
He also remains charged with counterfeiting, forgery, fraud and other counts in a 2017 case out of Hobart. Cross posted bond in that case before his arrest on the murder charges.
A 'circumstantial' case
Cross was accused of fatally shooting Manuel F. Alfaro, 52, and Heather Rayner, 39, in April 2018 inside Alfaro's home in the 300 block of Van Buren Avenue in New Chicago. Rayner was shot in the face as she ate a slice of pie, and Alfaro was found on the floor of the same room with dried blood around his head, court records state.
Phone records showed Alfaro had been communicating with a man named "Toby," whom police alleged was Cross. The individual had become increasingly upset over drug debt owned by Alfaro, whose last call was with "Toby," according to court records.
Police learned "Toby" also had talked to a woman with whom officers were familiar, and she told investigators she knew the man from Wiggle's Gentleman's Club in Hammond. She said she knew the man as "Uno" and provided police with a SnapChat photo, which a Hammond officer recognized as Cross, records said.
When police searched Cross' car, they found a birthday card addressed to him from a woman who later told authorities she recognized Alfaro's house. She said she thought she had been riding along with Cross when he sold drugs to Rayner there, according to court records.
The case was investigated by New Chicago and Lake County sheriff's police, with assistance from the FBI's Gang Response Investigative Team task force.
Perkins said she had not addressed her concerns about cellphone records before the case was dismissed. The case was "circumstantial at best," she said.
The Lake County prosecutor's office did not immediately respond Wednesday afternoon to questions about the case.
In a motion filed in early June, Perkins wrote police presented a witness with an unnecessarily suggestive photo lineup in May 2019.
When initially shown a photo lineup in June 2018, the witness did not pick out Cross as the man the witness had seen entering Alfaro's home before the homicides.
Just before a bail hearing in June, authorities presented the witness with a second photo lineup and the witness identified Cross as a suspect, records said.
"It appears the defendant's photograph may be the only photograph that is the same as the photographs that were shown to (the witness) on June 4, 2018," the defendant's motion says.
The witness testified in a bail hearing he had seen Cross's photo published with media reports about the case before reviewing the second photo lineup, Perkins said.
DNA results still pending
The returns for a number of search warrants executed in the case were not provided to the defense, Perkins said.
"I don't know if the state was still in the process of trying to locate that evidence," she said.
Perkins said prosecutors had sought to delay Cross' trial because they had not yet received results from DNA testing.
A judge pro tempore granted the state's request to take a DNA sample from Cross in early June. Authorities typically use that sample as a standard for comparison with DNA taken from items found at the crime scene.
Perkins anticipates prosecutors will refile the case if DNA on any of the items police collected at Alfaro's home in April 2018 link Cross to the crime scene, she said.
However, a neighbor testified during a bail hearing that Alfaro's home "was like a McDonald's drive-through" because of drug activity, which could result in DNA from multiple individuals being present at the scene, Perkins said.
A coroner's investigator also testified he could not rule out the possibility of two shooters because of the "wound track" for each victim, she said. Rayner was shot while sitting in a chair, and Alfaro was shot in the same room, she said.