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Tennessee man who famously hacked Sarah Palin’s Yahoo email account in 2008 is dead

  • Author: Ryan Poe, The Commercial Appeal
  • Updated: February 9
  • Published February 9

MEMPHIS, Tennessee — David Kernell, who as a college student in 2008 guessed his way into Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin's personal email account, died last week in California. He was 30.

Kernell, son of Shelby County, Tennessee, school board member and former Democratic state representative Mike Kernell, died of complications related to progressive multiple sclerosis late Friday or early Saturday, his family confirmed in a statement Thursday.

David Kernell once ranked in the top 10 percent of chess players in the U.S., was a 20-year-old economics major at the University of Tennessee Knoxville when he guessed the security answers to enter Palin's Yahoo account, changed the password to "popcorn," then posted the new password, family photographs and some emails on the online message board 4chan under the pseudonym "Rubico."

In a page-long statement regarding his death, the family said Kernell was diagnosed with MS in 2014 and participated in clinical research trials at the Cedars-Sinai Neurosciences Research Center in Los Angeles to help develop cures and treatments for other victims of MS.

He also enjoyed spearfishing, free diving, rock climbing, and wilderness exploration, chess and online gaming, the statement reads.

"David did not let this incident define him," the family said. "He returned to UT Knoxville to complete his economics degree and further refined his programming skills by helping his local community. He first volunteered his expertise to Tennessee Voices for Children, a child advocacy nonprofit group. Later, he moved to California and worked to develop facial recognition software that could identify children at risk of abuse."

Before stepping into the national spotlight, Kernell graduated in 2006 from Germantown High School, where two years earlier he won the Tennessee Open Scholastic Chess Championship.

Kernell, who read that Palin may have conducted official business as governor of Alaska on her personal account, failed to find politically damaging information about Palin, who was Sen. John McCain's running mate at the time of the hacking.

The case earned the younger Kernell searing criticism from Palin and her fans, with Palin comparing the hacking to Watergate, the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee that gradually led to President Richard Nixon's resignation. At the trial, Palin described the hacking as "the most disruptive and discouraging" moment of the campaign.

But federal jurors and a judge took a softer view of the infiltration. In 2010, after all but one of the felony charges were dropped, he served 10 months in a minimum-security prison for obstruction of justice after destroying evidence from his computer.

He also was convicted of a misdemeanor for illegally accessing Palin's email. Between all the charges, Kernell had faced a maximum of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years probation.

After exiting prison in 2011, Kernell was released from U.S. Probation Office supervision in 2013.

Wade Davies, a Knoxville attorney who represented Kernell in the case, declined to comment, saying he wanted to speak to Kernell's mother first. Davies argued during the trial that what Kernell did was closer to a prank — and one that wouldn't have been prosecuted as zealously if the victim hadn't been a rising Republican star.

Allan Bogle, host of the program Into the Deep on radio station WEVL FM 89.9, said he knew Kernell through the Memphis Chess Club and that he grew up to be a "very smart guy." Bogle said Kernell used the same "Rubico" pseudonym to post Palin's information on 4chan as he used to play Bogle in online chess.

"For a brief period of time he was the most famous chess player in the country," Bogle said of the coverage of the Palin scandal.

Knoxville reporter Jamie Satterfield contributed to this story.

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