FBI assists Long Beach cops in hoax call probe

After a prank Tuesday drew a large law enforcement response to a Long Beach home with a false report of multiple shootings the FBI says on April 23, 2014, that it will assist the Long Beach Police Department in its investigation. (Credit: Jim Staubitser)

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The FBI has joined the search for a video game prankster whose call to Long Beach police claiming he killed his mother and brother inside a Laurelton Boulevard house brought heavily armed officers to the residence and highlighted a potentially lethal nationwide trend.

Instead of finding a multiple shooting or barricade crisis, officers swarmed the house and found a mother in the kitchen, her 17-year-old son playing an online video game -- the victims, police said, of "swatting."

The prank refers to police SWAT teams that respond to the fake emergencies, which are called in as a way for a culprit to impress friends, rattle a celebrity or take revenge on an enemy.

It is "becoming a national epidemic," Long Beach Police Commissioner Michael Tangney said. The Long Beach prank, in which the caller also threatened to shoot first responders, came with a cost, Tangney said. Officials want to recoup the estimated $100,000 cost if the suspect is caught.

Officials said the prank is a popular form of revenge among online gamers. In the virtual gaming world, competitors from anywhere in the world compete so it's often difficult to identify and catch the culprits, officials said.

"Teenage pranks are as old as the telephone," said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan. "The new wrinkle on this is now you have the capacity to do it from anywhere. Tracking the person down and bring the person to justice can become a transnational matter. . . . Technology is leapfrogging before the best efforts of law enforcement."

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Swatting nationwide has had the attention of the FBI since at least 2008. Long Island has recorded several recent cases, law enforcement officials said.

Nassau police have responded to seven swatting calls since 2011, police said, with one arrest.

This year, Suffolk police responded to three calls in Smithtown and North Bellport, all related to video games, said Deputy Chief Kevin Fallon. Two culprits were tracked down outside the country, Fallon said. No arrests have been made.

In January, someone from outside the United States called Suffolk police to say they were holding a hostage for ransom in Smithtown, Fallon said.

The latest Long Beach prank ended without incident, but with heavily armed officers, the situation was ripe for something to go wrong, O'Donnell said. "The idea of the cops entering the house is fraught with danger. . . . One of the occupants could have been killed," he said.

Maria Castillo, who lives at the Laurelton Boulevard house with her two sons, was stunned when officers rolled up about 3 p.m. Tuesday. Her son Rafael, 17, was playing the popular video game Call of Duty on his Xbox with other players online, Tangney said.

Police suspect whoever called them became angry after Rafael eliminated the prankster from the game. The Long Beach High School junior has been "very cooperative [and] very contrite," Tangney said.

The caller tipped off police that it might have been a hoax when they discovered the online service Skype was used to call the main police line instead of 911, Tangney said. The caller had a young male's voice with no discernible accent. "He sounded almost scripted," Tangney said.

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Tangney said police are working to seize records from telecommunications companies. District Attorney Kathleen Rice said she was in the process of subpoenaing the video game manufacturer and the suspect's Internet service provider. FBI investigators are providing "forensic resources" to the investigation, Tangney said.

Two Nassau officers heading to the scene crashed in North Bellmore. They had neck and back injuries, police said. "This just shows how dangerous these types of hoaxes can be for emergency first responders," said Nassau Insp. Kenneth Lack, a department spokesman. "The suspects who call in these phony calls are really putting law enforcement personnel at risk."

With Tania Lopez

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