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Rash of 'swatting' hoaxes on East End costly, dangerous, officials say

They warn of the "significant and serious response" triggered when prank emergency calls target high-profile people and businesses.

Julian Ramirez, hotel and restaurant manager of The American Hotel in Sag Harbor, on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, described a Nov. 28 swatting incident at the hotel that led to an evacuation. (Credit: Newsday / Vera Chinese)

Law enforcement officials on the East End are investigating a spate of prank emergency calls that have triggered heavy police responses and are forcing officials to do more to authenticate time-consuming and potentially dangerous incidents.  

The bogus calls, known as swatting because they often draw a police department’s SWAT team and other first responders, have targeted high-profile people such as celebrities, as well as those in the gaming community, a law enforcement source said.

“Generally they involve a report of a murder, or a kidnapping or both,” said Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki. “These events trigger a significant and serious response.”

They can also be costly and dangerous.

A 2014 case in Long Beach cost the department an estimated $100,000, Police Commissioner Michael Tangney said at the time. Two Nassau County police officers heading to the scene crashed in North Bellmore and sustained neck and back injuries, police said. In Wichita, Kansas, a man was fatally shot by police in December 2017 when he answered the door after his home was swatted based on a prank call placed by an online gamer in Los Angeles.

Both of those incidents involved disputes over the video game Call of Duty.

Swatting has been especially prevalent on the West Coast, where many celebrities work and live. Miley Cyrus, Sean Combs and Justin Bieber have been victims of prank calls, as have Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, Ashton Kutcher and Magic Johnson, according to published reports. Recent incidents on the East End have involved a famed hotel and the home of CNN anchor Chris Cuomo.  

On Nov. 28, someone reported a “violent domestic incident” at The American Hotel on Main Street in Sag Harbor, according to village police. Four rooms were evacuated, and about 60 emergency responders were on the scene for at least five hours, said hotel and restaurant manager Julian Ramirez.

Hotel staff contacted the guests via their cellphones and evacuated the building without any injuries or damage to property, he said.

“It was like a movie,” Ramirez said. “Everybody was going outside the door with their hands up.”

Ramirez said he later heard the emergency call in which a male caller said he had just shot his wife, was holding their two children hostage and planned to kill himself. Sag Harbor police said the report was unfounded.

A second incident was reported at 6:40 a.m. Dec. 5 at a business on County Road 39 in Southampton, Skrynecki said, adding that police also found that report was unfounded. 

Last month, police, including an emergency team, were called to the Southampton home of Chris Cuomo, younger brother of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Officers descended on the home shortly before 4 a.m. Jan. 26 responding to a “possible shooting and hostage situation” following a report from a caller who gave their name as Chris, according to a Southampton Village Police report.

Southampton Town Police, including its emergency services unit, and New York State Police were also called to the scene. Cuomo and his wife, Cristina, were interviewed after the incident, according to the police report.

The report does not make clear whether the couple was home at the time, but it does state that emergency service officers made “physical contact” with them. 

The caller’s claims were unfounded, the report said. No arrests have been made in any of the incidents, and all are under investigation, Skrynecki said. 

Chris Cuomo did not respond to requests for comment.

The hoax caused a spectacle in the usually quiet residential neighborhood, with officers closing nearby streets for several hours. A neighbor who declined to give his name said he saw the flashing police lights early that morning but assumed it was the motorcade of Cuomo’s older brother.

Southampton Village police officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“This is not a prank. This is a crime,” Suffolk County Police Chief Stuart Cameron said of swatting, adding that his department responded to at least five such incidents in 2018.

Other law enforcement officials were hesitant to discuss swatting.

East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo, whose department responded to the Sag Harbor incident, declined to comment on the department’s protocol. Sag Harbor Village straddles East Hampton and Southampton, resulting in a response from both town police departments.

“Less information is better as far as we are concerned,” he said.

Callers often use software to hide the origin of the call and sometimes call the police departments directly rather than dialing 911, which can make it more difficult to trace. They often report a location that is viewable by a publicly accessible camera, Skrynecki said.

A camera is installed at the American Hotel, which is viewable on the website Hamptons.com.

“We suspect that somebody is watching to see what the effect was,” Skrynecki said.

In response to the prank calls, Southampton police will now try to make phone contact with the resident before arriving. Skrynecki said his department will use robotic technology such as drones and search for public cameras to try to determine the authenticity of the report. Another clue that the call is a hoax is if the caller cannot answer basic questions, such as who lives in the home, Cameron said.

The Southampton Police Department may not immediately send in an emergency unit or hostage negotiators if a scam is suspected, Skrynecki said.

Those placing the prank calls could face charges such as making a terrorist threat or falsely reporting an incident, Cameron said.

“It should not be taken lightly,” he said. “We would certainly use every resource to identify and prosecute the person.”

In 2015, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) sponsored a bill that would have imposed an eight-year prison sentence for swatting and required those convicted to make restitution to local governments. The bill was never brought to the Senate floor for a vote.

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