By Rick Coca
LA Daily News
He told the 911 dispatcher he had killed someone in the house and more
bloodshed would follow.
When SWAT units responded to the Southern California home from where the
dispatcher thought the call originated, they confronted a man with a
weapon and readied their assault rifles.
But unlike this month's Winnetka SWAT standoff - in which Edwin Rivera
killed his father, two brothers and LAPD Officer Randal Simmons - this
man was innocent, and no tragedy had occurred.
It was all a joke.
Randal Ellis, 19, who lived 1,200 miles away in Washington state, used a
computer to trick the 911 dispatcher into believing the "emergency" was
inside a home in Orange County, prosecutors allege.
Called "swatting" - for the callers' efforts to get a SWAT team to
respond to their pranks - this relatively new cyber crime has piqued the
interest of authorities nationwide. In it, cyber criminals make prank
life-and-death 911 calls that appear to be originating from others'
Although nowhere near as prolific or troublesome as other financially
enticing cyber crimes, several swatting arrests have shed light on the
"We really don't see anyone making a profit from this," said Bryan
Duchene, supervising agent in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles cyber
crimes unit. "It's just a twisted way for people to have fun."
Considering the high-risk stakes involved in such emergency responses,
swatting is no laughing matter, authorities say.
In Ellis' case, prosecutors say he randomly selected a Lake Forest
family that included a husband, wife and two toddlers.
On March 29, he allegedly made a prank call to the home to ensure that
the family lived there before calling the 911 dispatcher, said Farrah
Emami, spokeswoman for the Orange County District Attorney's Office,
which is prosecuting the case.
Sheriff's Department Special Weapons and Tactics officers were sent to
the home during the evening while the family was sleeping, she said.
The husband, who woke up when he heard a rustling sound outside, grabbed
a knife and went to investigate.
"Instead of finding a prowler, he found a SWAT team pointing assault
weapons at him," Emami said.
The man and his wife were placed in handcuffs while the police searched
"It was completely terrifying for the family," Emami said.
In Dallas, five people from throughout the country recently pleaded
guilty to federal charges in a swatting conspiracy that began in 2002
and included more than 100 victims in about 60 cities, prosecutors said.
In some of those cases, dispatchers were told the caller had killed
family members, taken hostages and hallucinogenic drugs and was armed
with an AK-47.
The ongoing investigation highlights a technique called "spoofing," in
which caller-ID technology is modified to hide the true identity of a
This fools emergency dispatchers into believing calls are coming from a
local number and not one potentially thousands of miles away.
In the Orange County case, Ellis is facing five felony counts and one
misdemeanor for the March incident, including computer fraud, assault
with a machine gun and false imprisonment by violence, Emami said.
The last two charges offer a novel prosecution strategy for a crime that
doesn't have much precedence. Prosecutors will argue Ellis is guilty of
both crimes "by proxy," meaning that because of his actions, the
responding officers acted, in effect, as an agent for him.
"Even though the defendant wasn't actually there in Lake Forest pointing
weapons at them, he was directly responsible for what happened to these
victims," Emami said.
Ellis has pleaded not guilty to all charges, and his attorney, Ron
Brower, said he disagrees with the D.A.'s "proxy" argument and will ask
that those charges be dropped.
"It's our legal opinion that the law does not support that kind of
assault by proxy or that vicarious liability," Brower said.
Ellis is in custody with bail set at $500,000. Brower said if the
assault and false-imprisonment charges against his client are dropped, a
plea agreement is likely.
"That's because the balance of the charges are supported by substantial
evidence," he said.
If convicted on all counts, Ellis faces a maximum of 18 years in state
Brower offered this explanation for his client's actions:
"He's from a rural setting, and he's awfully young, and I'd say he's
pretty immature, and he didn't appreciate the gravity of that
situation," Brower said. "He didn't appreciate what could have
transpired. He certainly had no intent to cause anybody harm.
"But it clearly had that potential."
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