A High-Technology Crash

It was, of course, an arrogant thing to say. But this was the bold, booming world of Seattle high tech, and Patrick Naughton was very rich, very powerful--and only 34 years old. "The decisions I make change the world--and I've never made a wrong decision in my life," a colleague recalls Naughton recently boasting at a meeting.

He wasn't all wrong. Naughton had indeed changed the world, launching Sun Microsystems' efforts to create the popular Java programming language in the early '90s. He later published two books about Java. He moved on to Seattle as technology chief at Starwave, an important early Internet player funded by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. There he helped establish such Web heavyweights as ESPN.com and ABC.com. More recently, he was a star at Disney, running the company's family-oriented Web network. He was on the fast track, and he knew it. But his decision making, as recent events revealed, turned out to be quite flawed.

At 9 p.m. on Sept. 16, Naughton, who lives in Seattle, showed up at the Santa Monica Pier near Los Angeles. It's a historic spot known for beautiful sunsets, children's rides and ice-cream cones. He was looking for a 13-year-old girl with a green backpack--they'd agreed, over the Internet, to meet there, and then, presumably, to have sex, according to an FBI affidavit. But suddenly Naughton was surrounded by agents of a sexual-assault task force made up of FBI and local authorities. He was charged with crossing state lines for the purpose of engaging in a sexual act with a minor. The 13-year-old girl in question, whom Naughton had allegedly met and wooed in an online chat room, actually turned out to be a male FBI agent. According to authorities, Naughton waived his Miranda rights and handed over his laptop, which he told agents contained sexually explicit images. Now he faces a career in ruins--and perhaps federal prison.

At Infoseek, soon to become a full subsidiary of Disney, his bosses immediately put out a press release: "We are shocked and disturbed... Patrick Naughton is no longer an employee of Infoseek." While the company rushed to distance itself from Naughton--his name was swiftly purged from all official Web pages--former colleagues described how he had won the faith of Disney executives, including CEO Michael Eisner, who had handpicked him to run Disney's new Web portal, the Go Network. "This is an incredible embarrassment for everybody involved," says one insider. It's also a special nightmare for Disney, perhaps the most maniacally image-conscious corporation in the world, obsessed with its child-friendly brand name.

It's also an incredible shock. Naughton comes from a large Irish family that immigrated to Rochester, N.Y., and now runs a family-style restaurant there. His stock alone is worth more than $13 million (it topped out at $48 million last January, when Infoseek shares hit their high). With his wife, a Seattle artist, he owns a $1.2 million home overlooking Puget Sound and a 40-foot boat. So why would he throw it all away? A half-dozen former colleagues expressed befuddlement at whatever personal demons might have driven him to his alleged explorations of the seamier side of the Internet--turf, by the way, well known to be monitored by the FBI. And the sheer recklessness of what he is accused of--showing up at the pier when he had to know a trap could be ready to spring--rang a bell. The dizzying, unreal world of the high-tech business revolution is full of aggressive risk takers, of young executives showered with untold riches and accolades who come to think they're invincible.

According to his co-workers, Patrick Naughton fit that profile. Three former colleagues say he regularly made overtures to female underlings (though no complaints were lodged) and took male employees to strip clubs after meetings. ("It was incredibly uncomfortable for me," one attendee told NEWSWEEK.) Naughton moved through a locker-room culture at Starwave, complete with fierce basketball games and keg parties outside the office. While he could be charming with his superiors, fellow engineers also say he could be rude and highhanded with people who worked for him. One former colleague voices what seems to have been a widely held view: "This was a self-consumed, arrogant man who flirted with danger."

Still, Naughton's tech credentials and personal charm impressed the higher-ups at Disney, which first bought into Starwave in 1997. It was a tumultuous and sometimes bitter union, and dozens of executives left the company or were fired. Naughton, says another former colleague, "was the last man standing." He was scheduled to meet with executives at Disney headquarters in Burbank, Calif., late last week. But first Naughton headed for the pier.

For six months he had been corresponding with two purported 13-year-old girls in an online chat room called dad&daughter sex.log, according to the affidavit. Both were FBI agents fishing for pedophiles on the Internet, a vast ocean that affords potential predators an anonymity not to be found in the shaded peripheries of playgrounds and public parks. Naughton, using the handles "hotseattle" and "sfmate," was an easy catch, according to the FBI. Logged on from his office, he allegedly sent the agents his work number, directed them to pictures of his genitalia that he had posted on the Web and repeatedly asked for a face-to-face meeting. "[I want to] kiss you, and touch your body, and take your clothes off... ," Naughton wrote, the FBI says. After setting up an encounter at the pier, Naughton seemed to hesitate. He apparently wanted to make sure the rendezvous wasn't "a setup" and wrote, "I'm trying not to be dumb." The FBI agent, clearly aware of the laws defining entrapment, was careful to suggest they not meet. But Naughton allegedly insisted.

Naughton's Los Angeles attorney, Donald Marks, wouldn't comment on the case, saying only that his client would plead not guilty at an Oct. 12 hearing. Until then, Naughton is free on $100,000 bail, confined to the states of Washington and California and out of a job. He faces a maximum of 15 years in prison, where he'd have plenty of time to contemplate quotations like the one he once posted on his Web site, from humorist P. J. O'Rourke: "The interesting thing about staring down a gun barrel is how small the hole is where the bullet comes out yet how big a difference it would make in your social life." Whatever the outcome for Patrick Naughton, a self-styled risk taker, the exit wound was gaping indeed.

A High-Technology Crash | News