The neighbors of the 16-year-old South Miami High student who was charged in some of the cyberattacks of Miami-Dade Schools were stunned the teen was being characterized as a devious hacker.
They know him as a polite, intelligent boy who lives with his hardworking mother and likes to play basketball in the backyard and basketball video games on his computer.
“He’s always back there dribbling and studying,” said Ben Herrera, who lives next door to their home in the Flagami neighborhood of Miami-Dade and would occasionally fetch errant balls in his yard.
“He’s an awesome kid,’’ he added. “What saddens me is how he’s going to be portrayed, and we’ve got to realize with this pandemic that kids are bored, isolated, stuck with too much time on their hands and maybe they do something irresponsible. But no harm was intended, and now he is regretting it.”
Herrera’s wife, Mary, said the teen offered help when her mother was recently ill.
“He saw me crying and asked, ‘Are you, OK? What can I do to help?’ ” she said. “[He] is very respectful, not a troublemaker. Instead of pinning all the blame on him, they should be asking him, ‘How’d you do it so we can make the system better?’ They should hire him.”
Added Herrera: “I’d hate to see this permanently damage his record. He’s so smart he could work for the FBI someday.”
Herrera said his street was lined with police cars in the hours before the teen’s arrest at 2:43 a.m. Thursday.
“It looked like somebody killed the president,” he said. “I get out of my car and an officer comes up with his hand on his gun saying, ‘Is this your house? Which house are you going to?’ and followed me to my door.”
The student, who is accused of no fewer than eight cyberattacks against Miami-Dade Schools, faces a felony charge of using a computer to attempt to defraud and a misdemeanor charge of interference with an educational institution.
Northwest 59th Court in Flagami, part of a neighborhood of working-class homes and duplexes, was the scene of a media stakeout Thursday.
But no one answered knocks on the front door, except when a woman yelled over a security intercom, “Get off my property. We are not talking to the press.”
Herrera said the teen was staying with his father nearby. Another neighbor who did not want to give her name said she goes to school with him at South Miami High.
“I don’t know him but I think he’s a junior and he seems normal,” she said. “It’s a quiet house. You don’t see anyone hanging around there.”
At South Miami High, which was essentially empty Thursday afternoon, no one said they knew the student. A group of alumni planting flowers said they were surprised the school system was allegedly outwitted by a 16-year-old.
“This kid will probably end up with a good job in the cybersecurity or intelligence fields,” said one person who declined to give her name.
Miami Herald writer Erin Doherty contributed to this report.