The US government has criminally charged a Virginia man for helping to organize dozens of “swatting” attacks and bomb threats made against a variety of targets in the United States and Canada. The man allegedly belonged to a group which coordinated via IRC and Tor hidden services to target prominent gamers, journalists, and government officials.
The group’s online chats often had racist overtones, with comments suggesting antipathy toward Jews and black people. In one case, the group made a fake bomb threat to the Alfred Street Baptist Church, a predominantly African American church in Alexandria, Virginia.
Security reporter Brian Krebs was one of the first to report on the arrest of defendant John William Kirby Kelley. Krebs was the target of a swatting call he believes was organized by the group.
Kelley allegedly did research for the group, identifying possible targets and suggesting that others make calls. He also helped maintain the group’s infrastructure, according to the FBI.
Kelley was identified by authorities after he called in a bomb threat to his own school. While he blocked his own number during that call, he later made a second call to the police without properly blocking his number. Investigators realized that the two calls might be connected, questioned Kelley, and eventually got a warrant to search his devices. Police quickly found videos, chats, and other records Kelley had saved documenting his involvement in other hoax calls, the FBI says.
A story from Vice illustrates the real human costs of this kind of “prank.” In 2018, Kelley’s group allegedly swatted prominent gamer Andrea Rovenski. As a result, she and her mother (who lived in the same house) were thrown on the ground by police. Rovenski lost sleep over the incident, and she believes her mother paid a much higher price.
“Less than two months later, Rovenski’s mother suffered a stroke—something Rovenski believes is connected to the extremely stressful event—and never fully recovered,” Vice’s Mack Lamoureux writes.
Other swatting incidents have had even more devastating consequences. In 2017, a Kansas man was shot to death by police responding to a swatting call. The man who made that call was sentenced to 20 years in prison last year.
While Kelley is now in custody, two other suspects are still at large, according to the FBI. The bureau believes that these two suspects are the ones who actually made most of the calls at issue in the case. Evidently, the suspects’ efforts to conceal their identities from law enforcement have been successful—at least so far.