5 plead guilty to pranks that lured SWAT teams
Years of fake calls drew authorities to homes of unsuspecting victims
11:05 PM CST on Saturday, December 22, 2007 By JASON TRAHAN / The Dallas Morning News email@example.com
As SWAT officers surrounded an Alvarado home in rural Johnson County, they steeled themselves for a confrontation with what they believed to be a drug-crazed man armed with an AK-47 who had already killed his wife, taken hostages and wanted to kill police.
But what they found was an innocent 60-year-old trucker. No bloody crime scene, no assault rifle – only unanswered questions.
Authorities soon realized they had encountered a disturbing and dangerous new prank that has been labeled "SWATing."
Four men and a woman have pleaded guilty in Dallas federal court to charges that they used "spoofing" technology and other phone system intrusion methods to alter their caller ID information. Over a period stretching from 2002 to late 2006, they called police in Johnson County and more than 60 cities around the country, pretending to be inside someone's home, saying they had killed people, had taken hostages and were ready to kill more.
The aim of SWATing is to spin a tale grisly enough to get tactical teams deployed to unsuspecting victims' homes.
A few innocent victims have been injured during the SWAT raids: A Florida grandfather was hurt in a fistfight he got into with police who he initially believed were the pranksters, and others have been injured as police busted down doors.
The potential for even more violence is high, said Cpl. Dale Abbott, leader of Cleburne's SWAT team, which responded to the call to the home of Jim Proulx, the Alvarado man who was SWATed last year.
"Say he had heard a noise outside, and say he came out with a gun. It could have turned out really bad," Cpl. Abbott said.
"These individuals are doing it for bragging rights and ego, vs. any monetary gain," said Kevin Kolbye, assistant special agent in charge of the Dallas FBI office, which has taken the lead nationally investigating this new crime.
"What they don't realize is that they are causing a significant amount of scarce police resources to be spent, and putting individuals in situations that are safety concerns," he said.
The defendants include Stuart Rosoff, a.k.a. Michael Knight, of Ohio; Jason Trowbridge, a.k.a. "Mr. Stoner," and his girlfriend, Angela Roberson, both from Houston; Chad Ward, a.k.a. "Dark Angel," of New York; and Guadalupe Santana Martinez, a.k.a. "Wicked Wizard," who has lived in Washington and Oregon.
Prosecutors described Mr. Rosoff as the leader of the group, but his attorney said he was easily influenced by others.
"He's very sorry for what he's done," said Victor Vital, the attorney. "He's not offering any excuses. In pleading guilty, he acknowledges any harm he's caused anybody and he realizes he has to change his life. The first step is to help the government prosecute other perpetrators, and that's what he's doing."
Ms. Roberson's attorney says she regrets her involvement with the other defendants and accepts responsibility for her actions. Attorneys for the other defendants either had no comment or could not be reached.
The defendants are scheduled to be sentenced early next year. Each faces up to five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and restitution costs.
Mr. Proulx said he was targeted because his daughter in Fort Worth had a disagreement with some of the defendants on a telephone party line chat line, a social networking service.
Authorities say that for months, the defendants called and harassed Mr. Proulx, his wife and daughter. At times, callers posed as a police officer, prodding Mr. Proulx before the real SWAT team's arrival.
"These goofballs, when they were calling us, they were threatening us, urging me to come out with a gun," Mr. Proulx said. "They wanted me to get blown away."
The Dallas FBI says that in addition to Johnson County, the group has attempted to get SWAT teams called out in Fort Worth, Dallas, Highland Park, Garland and Mesquite. In Texas, calls have been reported in Victoria, Houston, Tyler and Lubbock.
Incidents are also being investigated in California, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Arkansas, Washington, Oregon, Ohio, New Jersey, Alabama and Michigan.
The defendants encountered most of their approximately 150 victims through telephone chat services, authorities said. The party lines work much the same way as Internet chat rooms, where someone can talk to several people at once, or meet people to converse with individually.
The chat lines have their own subculture, where not only friendships blossom, but also rivalries.
"There is a sense among these people on these party lines that if someone does something to you, you do something back to them," said Mr. Vital, Mr. Rosoff's attorney.
"There is this code of ethics on the line that you don't cross over certain boundaries," he said. "If you did, you'd get tow trucks showing up at hour house, or 20 pizzas that you didn't order."
"Some of these people were spiteful and vindictive and 'launched' on people for no reason," he said.
Up to 20 people were involved in the SWATing incidents related to the Dallas case, and more charges could follow. Some people are cooperating with authorities.
Most of those people engaged in SWATing are considered "phreakers," or people who exploit the telephone system for fun or money.
Some defendants posed as telephone employees to gain information about their intended targets, as well as to harass people by having their phone service turned off, authorities said.
The spoof cards used by the defendants to alter their caller ID information are legal and work like a calling card. The cards, sold at http://www.spoofcard.com
, can also be used to disguise one's voice on the telephone.
They are often used by debt collectors to fool their targets into picking up the phone, or by investigators to hide their identities to gather information. Scammers use them as well, sometimes posing as police or other authorities and extort money from victims.
According to court documents, Mr. Rosoff worked with a blind teenage computer whiz, known as the "little hacker," from Revere, Mass., near Boston, to fool telephone employees into giving them information on their victims and to manipulate phone service.
The FBI also says Mr. Rosoff targeted a Michigan woman, demanding phone sex from her. When she declined, he had her phone service terminated, and then called in false allegations of child abuse to authorities in her area, hoping to have her arrested, documents state.
Mr. Martinez's role in the scheme was to make the bogus calls to police, and he posed as Mr. Proulx, among others, authorities say.
Mr. Ward, who owns a chat line business as well as a tattoo parlor in New York, paid to have certain people targeted, according to the FBI.
Prosecutors allege that Mr. Trowbridge, a debt collector, used commercial credit databases to which he had access to dig up information on the SWATing victims.
According to the FBI, his spoof card was used to call a Grand Prairie family who owed a debt, masking his caller ID to make it seem as if the calls were coming from the Dallas County Sheriff's Department.
The account was also used to make people believe they were getting calls from Dallas code compliance officers and the Dallas police narcotics division.
Ms. Roberson was Mr. Trowbridge's girlfriend, and admitted using the commercial database Accurint to assist in illegally pulling up information on victims.
"Not a day goes by that my client doesn't regret that she ever got involved with these guys," said Eric Davis, Ms. Roberson's attorney. "She's trying to move forward with her life. She's taking responsibility for her part in this."
SWATING What it is: SWATing is a trend among hackers who use technology to set up fake emergency calls where police must react quickly by sending SWAT teams and other law enforcement officers to the scene of a dangerous crime. The emergency calls appear to come from the phone at the scene where the crime is reported, but when officers arrive, they find that no crime has been committed.
The danger: Heavily armed SWAT teams sometimes storm into homes, splintering doors or breaking windows. Innocent people can be hurt, as well as the SWAT officers if homeowners react defensively without realizing the police have arrived.