A 911 call of a suicidal man, possibly armed with an assault rifle and threatening to shoot police on sight, drew a swift response from multiple law enforcement agencies and rescue personnel Tuesday afternoon in Grass Valley.
But it turned out to be a prank — commonly called “swatting” — pulled on the 14-year-old boy who lives at the residence, possibly by a fellow gamer in another country.
The caller, who apparently was able to mask his identity and the origin of his phone call, dialed 911 at just before 3:30 p.m. to report hearing two gunshots in the basement of his house on Stacey Lane, near the corner of South Auburn and Empire streets. He then reported a note was shoved under his door that said his possibly suicidal father would shoot police on sight if they showed up, according to dispatch reports.
The caller stayed on the line, telling the dispatcher he was hiding under his bed, and could smell gas and see smoke coming under the door.
Grass Valley Police officers were dispatched, and while they were en route, the caller reported to the dispatcher that his father was barricaded in the basement and was armed with an AK-47, said Lt. Steve Johnson.
“All this (is being relayed) while we were responding,” Johnson said. “They make it as heinous as they can, they throw in tidbits to bring in as much law enforcement as they can.
“The real tragedy is, if someone had really needed us, we would have been all tied up.”
A number of agencies responded to assist, Johnson said — Nevada City Police officers, Nevada County Sheriff’s deputies, State Parks rangers, California Highway Patrol officer, and a Nevada County District Attorney’s investigator, as well as numerous fire and medical personnel.
“We set up a protective perimeter around the residence and attempted contact” with the caller, who had hung up, Johnson said. “After a few tense moments, we determined the only people inside were a 51-year-old woman and her 14-year-old son, who claimed they had no idea” someone had called 911.
The two were a victim of swatting, Johnson said — making a hoax call to 911 to draw a response from law enforcement, usually a SWAT team.
According to the FBI, swatters use technology to make it appear that the emergency call is coming from the victim’s phone.
Since the FBI first warned about this phone hacking phenomenon in 2008, it has arrested numerous individuals on federal charges stemming from swatting incidents, and some are currently in prison.
In 2009, Matthew Weigman, then 19 years old, was sentenced to more than 11 years in federal prison for a swatting conspiracy that had been going on for years. A prolific phone hacker, Weigman and nine co-conspirators used social engineering and other scams to obtain personal information, impersonate and harass telecommunications employees, and manipulate phone systems to carry out dozens of swatting incidents, along with other crimes. Several of his co-conspirators also received jail time.
Celebrity swatting led to the passing of a law in California that went into effect this year. Pranksters convicted of swatting now will be required to reimburse — up to $10,000 — the municipal departments that responded to the fake emergency for their services.
Grass Valley Police detectives investigating Tuesday’s incident believe the victim was targeted through an online chat forum and that the suspect is a juvenile in the United Kingdom.
“He called via a Google voice account to report the emergency, and used some pretty sophisticated technology to mask his ID and the source of the call,” Johnson said.
Swatting is “something we take very seriously, because of the burden it places on public safety resources,” Johnson added. “Anyone who tries swatting could face significant felony charges for making a false report of an emergency, as well as the civil liabilities for the cost of the response.”
To contact City Editor Liz Kellar, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4229.