Sunday, September 24, 2023

False alarm: Swatting hoaxes no joke for area law enforcement

A photo near the 200 block of Fielding Lewis Drive in York County shows tree-lined streets and a quiet neighborhood. In September 2017, law enforcement was called to a house in a hoax called a "swatting" incident. (Courtesy Google Maps)
A photo near the 200 block of Fielding Lewis Drive in York County shows tree-lined streets and a quiet neighborhood. In September 2017, law enforcement was called to a house in a hoax called a “swatting” incident. (Courtesy Google Maps)

York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office Capt. Troy Lyons was in a woodsy neighborhood in York County Sept. 3 when a startling emergency call came through to dispatch.

The man told dispatchers he had shot a person in a house in the 200 block of Fielding Lewis Drive – just around the corner from where Lyons was – and would only release the victim for a $15,000 ransom.

Lyons, the captain of the sheriff’s office investigations department, walked around the corner to discover two things: The shooting never happened, and no one in the house had ever called 911.

The Sept. 3 incident, Lyons said, quickly revealed itself as a hoax.

While 911 is a system dedicated to critical emergency situations, York County law enforcement has found 911 is sometimes used for revenge or pranks called “swatting.”

Swatting is the act of calling law enforcement and reporting an active situation needing special weapons and tactics teams. It occurs all over the world as a form of revenge or a prank. In York County, it’s happened three times in the past several years, Lyons said.

“They call it swatting because it will result in a SWAT team going in and busting the front door down,” Lyons said.

All three incidents in York County have stemmed from online gaming, and have all involved teenagers. Two swatting incidents were called in at county residences, and the third was a bomb threat at Grafton High School.

Police armed with riot gear arrive on the scene. They moved through the parking lot of Hardee’s, located across second Street from Ebby’s. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

“The kids are doing online gaming and for whatever reason, they made the other person mad,” Lyons said. “A lot of these kids doing real in-depth gaming are very computer savvy.”

On Sept. 3, law enforcement responded to the Fielding Lewis residence and spoke to neighbors and the homeowner. The homeowner told deputies his stepson was a professional online gamer. The stepson confirmed he had gotten into an argument with another person online, according to a search warrant filed Oct. 2 in the York-Poquoson Circuit Court.

An investigation revealed messages from an online Twitter user called “backdoors1n,” who asked the gamer whether his parents enjoyed the “nice surprise,” the warrant states. The user told the victim they receive payment to make false calls to police.

Further investigation showed the same Twitter account had been linked to two other swatting incidents in 2017, according to the warrant.

The York County swatting case was marked “inactive” after investigators traced the IP address to the United Kingdom.

Lyons said the Sept. 3 incident was resolved before a SWAT team arrived at Fielding Lewis Drive because there were some key indicators of a hoax.

First, no one in the area of the house in question heard any shots fired. Second, Lyons was able to contact the home’s residents and confirm there was no emergency.

“We take those calls very seriously,” Lyons said. “We’ll establish a perimeter around the house, and if everything looks normal, let’s try to get ahold of someone at the house. Then, let’s see if you can get a response from them before sending in a SWAT team.”

The suspect being led out of Ebby’s in custody. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

Lyons said some situations, such as the shooting at Ebby’s Auto Painting and Collision Repair on Second Street in July, are quickly identified as legitimate threats.

Dispatchers received several calls reporting gunshots in “close succession” around 9 a.m. July 25, Lyons said. Deputies and officers from multiple jurisdictions arrived on scene minutes later to a shooting, where one man, an Ebby’s employee, was critically injured.

Phone calls coming from multiple local phone numbers and reporting the same thing helped confirm the shooting was a legitimate concern.

SWAT and other tactical teams worked for over three hours to resolve the situation, eventually taking in the alleged shooter, 41-year-old Michael Sean Taylor, after breaching the shop and deploying tear gas.

“When you see those key indicators, and everyone is reporting the same thing and they’re sources in that same location, that shows us it’s real,” Lyons said. “You say ‘Okay, let’s get the ball rolling on that one.”

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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