February 27, 2015

#15 I've Killed People And I Have Hostages

by Reply All

Background show artwork for Reply All
Blair Myhand is a police officer in the sleepy, 40,000 person town of Apex, NC. One night, he received an unusually disturbing phone call where a person claimed to be holding a woman hostage after murdering several people. Myhand assembled his team, and went to the house, but what they ended up finding was much more bizarre.


PJ VOGT: Blair Myhand is a police chief in Apex, North Carolina. It’s a suburb of Raleigh-Durham. 42,000 people, Upper Middle class. Myhand says that policing Apex is like policing Mayberry, the town from the Andy Griffith show.

BLAIR MYHAND: Nine o'clock at night people are in their houses with their families and they’re going to bed and you know, sometimes we roll the sidewalks up at midnight. It’s a very low crime community. I think we’ve had two homicides ever in this town.

PJ: One summer night Apex 911 got an unusually disturbing call. And a warning here, this episode contains graphic language and descriptions of violence.

BLAIR: You know a person had claimed to have killed several people and was holding a woman hostage in the house.

PJ: The caller gave the dispatcher his name and his address.

BLAIR: It was one of those ones that make you as a police officer think this is serious. We went into action very quickly that night.

PJ: Going into action meant deploying the SWAT team. Yes, the town of Apex has a SWAT team. Part time, but nonetheless. About a dozen cops. Semi automatic weapons, helmets, riot shields. Myhand was among them. They drove to the house.

BLAIR: It’s at the end of the cul-de-sac. We have the house completely surrounded by police officers. We've got our weapons aimed at the house.

PJ: The SWAT team was hiding in the backyard, two cops behind a giant oak tree that gave them a view of the house. They were pretty sure the suspect was hiding upstairs with the hostages. It was tense.

BLAIR: You're going with anticipation that you're going to see a mass murder and you may end up having to uh, you know, kill somebody tonight.

PJ: At 2 AM, lights start to come on in the house. The suspect notices the SWAT team in his yard, grabs a shotgun and moves down the stairs to the first floor landing. Somebody from the SWAT team screams, tells the suspect to disarm. And that’s where what they thought was a hostage situation turns into something much stranger. The suspect puts down his gun and meets the SWAT team at the door, very confused. His wife, who is alive and also confused, is there with him. His children are alive and asleep in their beds. The homeowner had no idea what the cops were talking about, even though the 911 call had given the man’s name, his address and correctly identified the members of his family.

BLAIR: So I don't think that we really, ‘til afterwards we realized, we've been swatted.


From Gimlet, I’m PJ Vogt and this is Reply All, a show about the Internet. This week we are talking about swatting. In case you aren’t familiar with swatting, it's a prank that's played by duping a local community SWAT team into raiding the house of somebody else. All sorts of people get swatted. It’s happened to Tom Cruise, Miley Cyrus, the Kardashians. But a very popular swatting target is video game players. A specific brand of gamer. Livestreamers. So if you’re anything like our boss Alex Blumberg, you might need some more explanation here. First of all, lots of people broadcast themselves playing video games online, often, but not always live, and some of those people get very famous. There's a whole network dedicated to watching livestreams of games called Twitch.tv. Amazon bought it last year for nearly a billion dollars. The biggest star of the broadcast yourself playing video games scene is a guy named Pewdiepie.

PEWDIEPIE: How's it going guys? My name is Pewdiepie. We're going to play them GTA, we're off to a good start...

PJ: Pewdiepie has 35 million Youtube subscribers and DMs with Taylor Swift. Here’s what you usually see in the videos. The main screen is the actual video game that the streamer is playing, and then in a smaller picture in picture, you see their face as they comment on the action.

PEWDIEPIE: Yeehaw! Oops. Whoa. What the hell happened?!

PJ: People SWAT livestreamers because they want the satisfaction of seeing, in that little picture in picture, the SWAT team burst through the door in real life and throw the gamer to the ground. There are actually compilations of famous SWAT videos on Youtube. One of them starts with a woman named Jess. In the video, she’s playing Call of Duty Black Ops 2.

JESS: I'm doing awful right now. Look at this.


PJ: She takes the headset off, get up off and leaves the frame. Meanwhile because the game's online it continues without her.

SWAT TEAM: Show me your hands. Open the door. Stay down. Show me your hands. Step down.

PJ: You’re hearing this but all you’re seeing onscreen is the tiny box where her face used to be. There's just a blank wall in an empty room. Then a police flashlight cuts through the frame

SWAT COP: It's us.

PJ: One of the cops actually recognizes the video game she’s playing.

SWAT COP: She’s playing Black Ops 2

SWAT COP: She said they're streaming.

PJ: As the cops finally start to actually appear in the frame, one explains to the other what’s actually happening.

SWAT COP: They're watching us.

PJ: There’s no real hostage situation. And what’s more, somewhere on the Internet...

SWAT COP: They're fricking, everybody's watching us. They're talking about it.

PJ: And they're all probably laughing.

SWAT COP: That’s what she was telling Jack. She said it's a joke. They're streaming y'all and watching y'all.

SWAT COP: Where the fuck they come from?

PJ: The swatting videos are filled with scenes like these. And they almost always have this on moment that comes after the cops cuff the kid. It’s a long, stretched out moment of confused silence. It happens when the cops finally turn and they see themselves broadcast in a tiny box alongside a kid's videogame in a computer monitor. If you’re a cop, it’s easy to see why this can make you mad. Some kid, somewhere on the Internet, just used you as a pawn.

BLAIR: It makes me angry when, most of the folks that do this are teenagers you know, that they're so naive, they don't understand the ramifications of this type of situation and the consequences that can happen from making a prank phone call you know. When I was thirteen years old, our prank phone calls had to do with "Is your refrigerator running?" You know, that's what we did. We didn't get law enforcement to respond to someone's house expecting to deal with a mass murder. So it's a different day and age but it's a very, very dangerous situation.

PJ: It’s a very dangerous situation that can also freak out the people who get swatted. One swatting victim, an Air Force vet, had the SWAT team show up where he lived with his younger brother. Afterwards he posted a reaction video.

VET: I had police point a gun at my little brothers. He’s ten. He’s ten years old and he had ten police officers pointing a gun at him because he was at the door.

PJ: And that of course is the reaction you’d expect. But one of the most striking things to me about these videos is how rare that reaction is. In many of these videos, the cops are riled up expecting a madman, or a terrorist or something. But the kids just stand there. They don't seem scared at all. They’re the only ones who really understand the world that these cops have stumbled into.


PJ: Coming up we go deeper into that world with somebody who understands it. A kid who’s been swatted talks about what it’s like, how to stop it, and what these guys are after.


PJ: And now, back to the show.

CURTIS HENKE: What’s up guys, it’s Dirty here coming at you with trick shot number, I really don’t know the number, but...

PJ: This is Curtis Henke. He’s a 21-year-old Call of Duty player. He plays online with a group of other gamers all over the world on a team called FaZe. And FaZe, FaZe has a lot of fans.

CURTIS: As of right now, like my team that I'm in is a YouTube team. They have over 3 million subscribers.

PJ: What?

CURTIS: Yeah. They started out about five years ago and just, they're the largest subscribed gaming team as of, on YouTube.

PJ: I'm talking to you for this Internet podcast. As a media organization, your Call of Duty gaming team is like exponentially larger than the audience of this podcast.

PJ: FaZe has two teams. One is a competitive team that plays against other teams in tournaments. The other team, which Curtis plays for, is responsible for producing entertaining trick shot videos. Imagine the NBA Slam Dunk contest, but instead it’s people playing Call of Duty. FaZe runs a surprisingly sophisticated media operation.

CURTIS: We have an editing team. There's about 6 of them. Graphics team, there's probably around, I think there's 4 or 5 of them as well.

PJ: And they’re all getting paid. When Curtis started, he was working at a North Face store to pay for community college classes. But now he supports himself entirely by playing video games online. He’s good at it. When he snipes someone without zooming in with his scope, he yells his catchphrase, no scope.

CURTIS:  "No Scope!" and like when I do that, everyone in the chat just types it, they'll like spam it. And just like small things like that, they love. It's crazy how hyped up and excited people get when I just read their message. It's a really surreal feeling for me. Like I don't feel special at all but if I'll favorite, even favoriting somebody's tweet, they'll be like, 'Oh my gosh, FaZe Dirty favorited my tweet! This is the best day ever!'

PJ: In other words, Curtis is a star. And on the night he got swatted, he was performing for his fans. Playing video games with headphones on. His dad Warren was the one who noticed the cops out the window.

WARREN HENKE: We could see all the police and everything going on. They had assault rifles and he was talking through his megaphone and the words were not even registering. And all of a sudden Curtis said, "Dad, that's us." I'm like, "What are you talking about?" "Thirteen, thirteen, that's our house! They're talking to us!" And I said, "No that's not our address. That's not us." I couldn’t even think. And he said," No dad, they're telling us to come out of the house."

PJ: The family went outside where the cops quickly hustled them into a neighbor’s garage.

WARREN: One of them said something like "Who’s Curtis, who's Curtis Henke?" And man it was sheer panic. I didn’t know about swatting at the time. I had no idea what that was, what it meant. I was afraid for Curtis. I thought they were going to throw him in handcuffs and haul him off right then.

PJ: Unlike his dad, and probably, the cops who were handcuffing him, Curtis quickly figured out what had happened. While he’d never been swatted himself before, like everybody else he knew, he’d seen the videos. He knew the drill.

CURTIS: When I was down there and we were all waiting, and the guy came over and asked, "Who's Curtis?" at that point I was about 99 percent sure what was going on, and when he told me what happened, I felt terrible that all of these cops and all of these resources had to be used just for one prank phone call.

PJ: I talked to Curtis for a long time about the world of swatters and of swatting. It’s a world where some people have been swatted so many times that they’ve gone to their local police department and given them their phone number. They put themselves essentially on an informal do not swat list. If your number's on one of these lists the police will just call you before they send a swat team over. And on the other side, the swatters are learning best practices for what kinds of phone calls seem to most effectively get the police to a stranger’s house. The calls that seem to work best have an address and the real name of the family who lives there. In this one, the swatter says he’s killed his mother but then he escalates the call further.

CALLER: If I see one fucking officer, I swear to fucking god I’m going to fucking kill him.

911 OPERATOR: You’re gonna kill who? You’re gonna kill an officer if I send him?

CALLER: I’m going to kill him. I’m going to blow up the fucking house. I don’t care.

911 OPERATOR: You’re going to blow up the house, you don’t care?

PJ: Curtis knows who swatted him. Not their names, but their pseudonyms. They taunt him online. They threaten to do it again. And he thinks he knows why they did it.

CURTIS: 95 percent this is people wanting attention. When the cop went into the room where my computer was, that's the point where they, the person who swatted succeeds I guess. Because they tweet about it. I don't, it's crazy how much it spreads when somebody gets swatted. It's just merely wanting attention, wanting a bigger follow on Twitter. Just wanting to be seen and to be maybe even feared.

PJ: There’s a tempting explanation for how someone could be so unthinking about the consequences of their actions. Video games. They’ve been desensitized. I don’t buy this theory, but just to make sure, I asked Warren about it.

PJ: Was there anything strange about, I'm sure people ask some version of this question all the time, but was there anything strange about playing a game that's like a shooter, a first person shooter, and then going outside to see actual men with guns?

WARREN: Yeah. The irony behind it, oh yeah.

PJ: Warren, you may be able to tell, is politely tired of hearing about this irony. He also wasn’t interested in my questions about whether this is actually a story about SWAT raids. There are 50,000 SWAT raids in America a year. Up from 3,000 in the 1980’s. For Warren it's not about that. This is a relatively simple problem with a relatively simple solution.

WARREN: Somehow the 911 system needs to work with Skype, with Microsoft, to come up with better ways to verify and trace these calls so that they can't be spoofed from another address and then very difficult to track down.

PJ: He also thinks the laws need to change. Some states have already passed anti-SWAT legislation, but Warren thinks that for this stop, swatting calls have to be treated as a felony, rather than a misdemeanor. There are certain crimes where changing the laws doesn’t work. Despite stiff laws against murder, you may have noticed that murder still exists. But the logic behind strengthening swatting punishments is that the people doing aren't remorseless criminals. They're just dumb kids with access to technology that gives them more power than they ought to have. The idea is that if you make the consequences severe enough, they’ll stop. That’s what Warren thinks. And Captain Myhand, that cop from Apex, he hopes he’s right.

BLAIR: You know, I hope that it's just them being dumb children and not purposefully, cause if you do it on purpose, for the sole intention of seeing someone get killed by the police, then of course you're committing, that's a crime of the heart.

PJ: I feel like you were about to say that in that case it's murder.

BLAIR: Well it absolutely would be murder, you know, if it were attempted murder, or murder, or what have you, that's exactly what it is and I think every court in this country would see it that way.

PJ: Yeah I mean you want to think that it's just dumb kids.

BLAIR: I hope it's just dumb kids.

PJ: Dumb kids who want attention, who want to feel more powerful than they are, are not new. But the Internet gives people reach, sometimes further than they’re capable of imagining. That can be a good thing. Curtis is taking public speaking classes now and he and his dad are minor celebrities. But the pranksters have reach too. They send SWAT teams. Everyone assumes that eventually laws will get passed, and that somehow society will patch this bug. In the meantime, the local cops have Curtis’s phone number file. He protects his IP address. He’s learning how to be careful.


PJ: Reply All is me PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Sruthi Pinnamaneni and Chris Neary. We were edited by Alex Blumberg and Paul Ford. Special thanks to Molly Buckley, Sylvie Douglis, and Alena Kuczynski and the Apex Police Department. We were mixed by the Reverend John DeLore. Matt Lieber is a comforter, accidentally warmed by the radiator. Our theme song is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. You can find more episodes of our show at itunes.com/replyall or at replyall.limo. We're taking next week off. We'll see you the Wednesday after. Thanks for listening.