“Freeze! You’re under arrest for… for… oh, wait.”
Perhaps no act of aggression better sums up our times than SWAT-ing, the act of convincing teams of typically armed emergency services to swarm a home under false pretenses. With little more than a caller ID scrambler or encrypted virtual private network (VPN), cowards-turned-cyberbullies solicit tense, tenuous police actions at the expense of rivals and random citizens alike.
Such incidents have started for the pettiest of reasons and ended with the worst-possible results.
10 Blind Man’s Bluff
Matthew Weigman was an impressive dude. Despite being legally blind, he had an elevated sense of hearing and an incredible ability to impersonate the voices he heard. He could even memorize phone numbers by the tones of their individual digits.
In 2001, at age 11, Weigman discovered party lines. Soon, he was spending days on end on these telephonic free-for-alls, employing tricks to gain free access to the pay services, and using his imitation abilities to frighten people he disliked and sexually harass women. You know, typical tween stuff.
At 14, he made his first of dozens of SWAT calls. In one incident, a female party line participant refused phone sex (how dare she!), so Weigman called 911 with a forged Caller ID and said he was holding her and her father at gunpoint.
Eventually, Weigman outsmarted even himself. He learned to con telecommunication service employees into believing he was a colleague, gaining access to unlisted numbers, and shutting off or eavesdropping on rivals’ phone lines. A major provider, Verizon, began investigating, so on May 18, 2008, Weigman and a few cohorts drove to the home of a Verizon investigator, attempting to intimidate him.
Eventually, Weigman’s luck ran out. In June 2009, he was sentenced to 11 years for his involvement in various SWAT-ing pranks and defrauding a phone company. He was released two years early, in October 2018.
9 A Live-Stream SWAT-ing
In August 2014, Jordan Mathewson, an online gamer from Littleton, Colorado, was live-streaming a session of Counter-Strike, a multiplayer shooter game in which teams of terrorists battle to perpetrate mayhem. Not exactly wholesome, but he wasn’t harming anyone.
Mathewson, screenname “Kootra,” was part of a professional gaming team called The Creatures. He was playing at the group’s office (yes, they had an office) when he suddenly realized the military operations were no longer exclusively on-screen. “Uh oh,” he pauses. “This isn’t good. They’re clearing rooms. What in the world, I think we’re getting swatted.”
Mathewson was right—and the fact that it didn’t take multiple guesses shows how prevalent the practice had become in the online gaming world. Video from the incident shows how potentially dangerous it can be.
Four cops, rifles drawn, enter the scene behind Mathewson. “Put your hands up!” one yells. “Get on the ground!” the other commands. Mathewson is wrestled to the ground and cuffed. As the video continues, cops go through the motions of reporting a suspect in custody and further assessing the situation.
The video ends a few minutes later when Mathewson informs the officers that he’s streaming. It ended peacefully, but unfortunately, the cops had also been called to several other businesses in the area, as well as a few schools. “They do this just to see it online and be able to brag that they did this,” Mathewson later said in an interview discussing the incident.
8 A SWAT-ing Shootout
In January 2015, a 911 dispatcher received an early-morning call claiming a bomb had been placed at a preschool in Sentinel, Oklahoma. Phone tracing determined that the call originated from the home of Dallas Horton.
Horton was known to be, to put it mildly, somewhat eccentric. His front lawn was adorned with signs declaring the abode was home to a “Certified Zombie Killer.” Contradicting this pronouncement was another sign that read: “Warning: Zombies inside. Enter at your own risk.” The town’s mayor described Horton as a “survivalist” and “gun enthusiast.”
But a bombmaker, he was not. Regardless, police chief Louis Ross and several deputies entered Horton’s home around 6 am. Horton heard far more than a Who, and was armed to the teeth to boot. Without inquiring whether Ross was there to eat his brains, Horton shot the police chief several times in the chest.
Fortunately, moments before the incident, a deputy had loaned Ross his bulletproof vest. It saved his life. Horton was detained and interrogated by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (it’s like the FBI, only assumedly with banjos), who determined that he neither placed the fake call nor realized that the home invaders were officers of the law. He was released without charges.
7 Politics, Meet Police
On May 27, 2012, a disturbing 911 call was placed. “I just shot my wife,” a man’s voice utters, “so I don’t think I can come down there.” When the dispatcher asks where his wife is currently, the man sighs, then coldly replies: “She’s dead now.”
The dispatcher repeats his question about the wife’s location. The voice replies, “Oh, I know where she’s located. I’m looking at her.” The caller then refuses to provide his phone number and casually announces his intention to shoot someone else soon.
Fortunately for the would-be murdered wife, the call was a hoax. And while the prankster wouldn’t give a phone number (probably because he didn’t know the number to give), he did provide an address. Specifically, the address of conservative blogger and cable news commentator Erick Erickson.
Soon, a squad car, flashers on and siren blaring, pulled into Erickson’s driveway while his kids were playing in the front yard. Then, a second patrol car showed up, with the officer positioning himself behind the first car, gun drawn. Erickson later learned that, in fact, police had the house surrounded from various angles. Luckily for Erickson, one of the cops recognized him from television, and the matter was soon exposed as phony.
Unfortunately, even a full decade ago, this wasn’t particularly new. As Erickson shared with CNN’s Don Lemon, he was the third conservative to be targeted, assumedly for their political views, in a matter of months.
6 Legislate THIS, Lady
Of course, conservatives aren’t the only ones susceptible to a good old-fashioned SWAT-ing. And one liberal lawmaker was the target of perhaps the most ironic SWAT-ing ever.
On the night of January 31, 2016, multiple police officers responded to an anonymous call describing an active shooter at the Revere, Massachusetts, home of Congresswoman Katherine Clark. Noticing the collection of patrol cars with flashing emergency lights, Clark poked her head out of the front door… and came face to face with a handful of officers on her lawn, long guns pointed directly at her. There were also cruisers blocking both ends of Clark’s suburban street.
Clark threw up her hands to keep the situation from escalating further. Fortunately, soon police realized that the joke was on them.
Or rather, it was on Clark. Because two months earlier, she’d introduced House Resolution 4057, aka The Interstate SWAT-ing Hoax Act. The bill sought to establish a criminal violation for using false communications with the intent to create an emergency response. The would-be law aimed to save both lives and resources, as some SWAT-ing incidents cost authorities as much as $10,000.
While the bill died in committee, much of its intent—making SWAT-ing a federal crime—has since been absorbed into other resolutions. Clark is still in Congress, though the prankster was never apprehended.
5 A Preteen SWATs the Stars
In October 2012, police in Los Angeles received a report transmitted through a TTY device, which is used by hearing impaired people to type text over the telephone. The message warned of a shooting and possible hostage situation at the home of Ashton Kutcher, whose acting credits include That ’70s Show and countless terrible movies.
Kutcher also once hosted a practical joke show called Punk’d, and today the joke was on him. Cops swarmed his Hollywood Hills home, detaining several members of the mansion’s household staff. They began searching the closets because the caller claimed to be hiding in one to avoid a gunman. Kutcher was not home at the time, as he was filming an episode of the equally tragic sitcom Two and a Half Men.
The culprit confessed five months later. His name was not disclosed because… well, he was 12. The boy also confessed to calling in bomb scares to get out of school, as well as concocting a fake bank robbery.
It also turned out Kutcher wasn’t the only celebrity the tween had SWAT-ted. The same month Kutcher was targeted, police also had been called via TTY to the estate of Justin Bieber. The caller claimed there was an armed intruder prowling the property, which police quickly realized was false. The boy confessed to hoaxing Bieber after police noticed the pattern. It remains unclear whether the bad deeds were a blow for good taste.
4 Other Celebrity SWAT-ings
Kutcher and Bieber are far from the only stars to get SWAT-ted. A lengthy list of celebrities have been targeted—much to the chagrin of Hollywood emergency services, who respond to far more of such pranks than their counterparts elsewhere.
A celebrity hitlist highlight reel: In 2012, a female caller told 911 that American Idol host Simon Cowell was bound and gagged in the bathroom of his Beverly Hills estate, which is totally believable because he’s about as likable as herpes. Cowell was home at the time, assumedly insulting the help for improperly folding his ample collection of black tee shirts.
In 2013, police converged on the home of Tom Cruise after an armed robbery was reported. The raid was an impossible mission (get it?) because no such robber existed. Cruise wasn’t home at the time, assumedly getting an e-meter scan for Thetans. Also, in 2013, police received a false report of domestic violence at the home of Chris Brown in what was likely the most believable SWAT in history.
Charlie Sheen has been SWAT-ted, which is only surprising because we’re left wondering why cops weren’t already at his house anyway. Twerking aficionado Miley Cyrus has been SWAT-ted twice. Russell Brand and Ryan Seacrest have been SWAT-ted because they’re awful. When Paris Hilton was SWAT-ted, police stuck around to conduct a thorough yet ultimately unsuccessful search for talent.
3 SWAT-ing Down an Activist
Arguably this list’s most despicable SWAT victimized a young school shooting survivor advocating gun reform in America, a nation with more guns than people.
On Valentine’s Day 2018, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz entered his former high school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Armed with an AR-15 assault rifle, Cruz murdered 17 people and injured nearly 20 others. It was the deadliest high school shooting in American history, surpassing 1999’s Columbine massacre by two.
Among other students, senior David Hogg had seen enough of this. He co-led several high-profile protests and marches, collectively called the March for Our Lives. He co-wrote a book with his sister, #NeverAgain: A New Generation Draws the Line, bearing the social media hashtag his classmates originated. He also led boycotts of media outlets that opposed gun reform, successfully lobbying several companies to pull advertisements.
Emblematic of our sick society, Hogg became the cornerstone of both conspiracy theories and ridicule. And that June, the inevitable happened. An anonymous prankster called Parkland police claiming there was a hostage situation at Hogg’s home and that the assailant was armed with (what else) an AR-15 assault rifle. Cops kicked down the door, flak jackets on and weapons drawn.
Fortunately, there’s some poetic justice here. Hogg was out of town at the time; in fact, he was in Washington, DC, receiving the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award for his role in organizing the March for Our Lives.
2 Dead Herring
In April 2020, police stormed the Bethpage, Tennessee, home of 60-year-old grandfather Mark Herring. Before they could even arrest him, Herring suffered a massive coronary, collapsing to the ground. He could not be revived at a local hospital.
Herring’s crime? Having a valuable Twitter handle, of all things. His username on the social media network, @tennessee, was worth several thousand dollars to the right person—namely, someone looking to promote themselves or their products statewide.
Somewhat crazily, Herring became the target of a criminal campaign to intimidate him into abandoning his Twitter handle. As part of this, 19-year-old Shane Sonderman posted Herring’s address and other personal details onto Discord, a social app popular with gamers. A second minor orchestrated the SWAT-ing—all the way from the UK. “A kid in the United Kingdom made the call to my dad’s local police department,” Herring’s daughter told reporters.
It wasn’t Sonderman’s first SWAT. After coveting the Instagram username of an Oregon woman, Sonderman had emergency services descend on the home of her parents, who lived in Ohio. Following the SWAT, the women received a series of threatening anonymous text messages, including “Did your parents enjoy the firetrucks?” and “I plan on killing your parents next if you do not hand the username on Instagram over to me.”
Sonderman was eventually arrested, charged, and convicted. He is currently serving a five-year prison sentence.
1 Call of Death
Casey Viner was frustrated with Shane Gaskill. On December 28, 2017, the two were playing on the same team in an online game of Call of Duty, and Gaskill (C.O.D. pseudonym “Miruhcle”) mistakenly shot Viner (C.O.D. pseudonym Baperizer). They lost a wager on the game—for the princely sum of $1.50.
The reasonable, rational young men took their disagreement to Twitter, that bastion of civility. When no amicable resolution arose, Viner decided that a real-life game of Call of Duty was in order. He threatened to SWAT Gaskill, who provided his address and expressed eagerness to welcome armed holiday visitors. Game on!
Only it wasn’t Gaskill’s current address. It was his former residence in Wichita, Kansas. And when Viner convinced his equally mature compadre, Tyler Barriss, to send in the SWAT team. Barriss casually called 911, telling the operator he’d fatally shot his father and was holding family members at gunpoint. He also mentioned that he’d poured gasoline all over the house and would soon be lighting a match. No big whoop.
Perhaps a tactically trained SWAT team would have recognized the hoax upon arrival. But instead, the Wichita police showed up. Andrew Finch, 28, came out of the house to see what all the hullabaloo was about. Police shot and killed him. Viner went to prison for 15 months; Barriss will be incarcerated until 2035. The incident is depicted in a 2022 episode of Netflix’s Web of Make Believe.