Sighting in swatting

Agencies place prank-calling perpetrators in the crosshairs


     As Sims investigated the Bates' victimization, he learned the call came from the Orange County Fire Authority, who receives all incoming calls from TDD lines. The fire department supplied the service provider's name and contact information. Sims captured IP addresses and account info from this organization then backtracked the call through the Internet, with the trail leading to Ellis.

     What he found along the way was surprising. One, Ellis had made nearly 200 such calls to agencies across the country. Two, some agencies came close to nabbing him but stopped short of an arrest. One department, he recalls, was a single search warrant away from arresting Ellis when it halted the investigation. "[That department] had identified him, but did not believe the call for service would have come from Mukilteo, Wash., when they were back on the East Coast," he says.

     Sims believes the law enforcement community as a whole must share these incidents and utilize resources in other departments to get local warrants written and served. "Don't let them off," he warns, "because they will continue to do this."

     The El Paso County Sheriff's Office requested FBI assistance with a 2005 swatting case that summoned deputies to the home of Transportation Security Administration screener Richard Gasper after a 911 caller reported a hostage situation. Investigators reached out to the FBI because they were unsure how the caller technologically bypassed the 911 system. Today the agency is better equipped to trace these calls, but Sevene points out: "Every time we make strides, the suspects or perpetrators seem to find other avenues. It's like we're always behind the power curve." For this reason, the agency relies on its federal partners whenever it believes a case goes beyond its technical capabilities.

     "Many small or mid-sized communities across the United States wouldn't know where to start," agrees Allen. "The Secret Service, U.S. Marshals and the FBI can track this stuff pretty easily and put together compelling paperwork to convince a jury. These cases are not that difficult to track if the appropriate resources are brought to bear."

The full extent of the law

     Investigation complete, it's critical to prosecute these cases to the fullest extent of the law for the costly and risky misuse of authority, adds Sims. The Orange County Sheriff's Department deployed approximately 30 officers to the Bates' home, including a SWAT team, helicopter and K-9 units, at a price tag of nearly $15,000.

     False calls also take resources away from true emergencies, which Sevene calls inappropriate and selfish. "We need to be available to respond to the emergencies that are happening," she says. "Taking resources away for something that's completely unnecessary and inactive could ultimately cause injury or death to someone else at a completely different location."

     The risk to responding officers and the public, both at the scene and elsewhere, highlights the need to think outside the box when charging prank-calling perps. Essentially, these cases involve filing a false police report or making a false 911 call, both of which are typically misdemeanors that result in little to no jail time. When Sims presented his case to the district attorney, however, they examined the totality of the circumstances to find more appropriate charges. They wound up charging Ellis for assault with a deadly weapon, false imprisonment, filing a false report and misuse of the Internet, which netted a three-year sentence and requires him to serve at least 85 percent of his time before becoming eligible for parole.

     "You have got to think about what the subject tried to achieve," Sims emphasizes. "Ellis used the police as a conduit to act upon his intended victims. Did we point assault rifles at them? Yes. That's assault with a deadly weapon. Did we take them into custody and handcuff them? Yes. That's false imprisonment."

     Tacking on federal charges also sends a strong message, adds Sevene. In one case, federal agencies identified a culprit calling Texas call center from New Jersey. The U.S. Attorney arrested this individual, brought him to a Texas and held his trial there. "They sent the message that: 'We're going to find you, arrest you, and wherever you called from, that's where we are going to hold the trial,' " Allen states.

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