SWATting, a Deadly Political Game
Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Patrick Frey has an unusual night job.
After returning to his cliffside Rancho Palos Verdes home from his day at the office, where he prosecutes hard-core gang homicides, he ties on his blogger's cape and morphs into the controversial "Patterico" — a nickname his father gave him as a child.
On Patterico's Pontifications, the conservative deputy DA rips apart all things left of center — from Obama to Occupy — and uses his familiarity with the legal system to unofficially solve complex mysteries in the news.
"Here at patterico.com we have been covering the Weiner scandal from Day 1," he blogged in 2011 after former Congressman Anthony Weiner accidentally Tweeted a photo of his penis to the entire Internet.
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Weiner quickly deleted the Tweet, but too late: His dirty photo was frozen into the NSFW history books by the late, conservative L.A. media giant Andrew Breitbart, a friend of Frey's.
In the weeks following the nationwide flap over Weiner, Frey shoveled through the congressman's rich Twitter history for more signs of debauchery, eventually claiming to find evidence that Weiner had "engaged in communications with underaged girls."
The deputy DA believes his widely followed revelations about Weiner's online escapades made Frey the target of a dangerous, unnerving hoax: a false 911 call that put Frey, his wife, Christi —a high-end sex-crimes prosecutor for the District Attorney — and his two young children in the crosshairs of armed officers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
On July 1, 2011, Frey, in his nighttime blogger role, was talking to a source over his cellphone just after 12:30 a.m. — his wife and kids fast asleep upstairs in their Rancho Palos Verdes home — when he heard a thunderous pounding at his front door.
"I was sitting right here in this chair," he says, re-enacting the haunting experience as he sits at his kitchen table, the South Bay harbor gleaming up through hot glass.
"I jumped up to the counter ... and peeked around the corner," he says. Five or six armed deputies on his porch were barking, "Come out with your hands up!"
As he opened the door, Frey, afraid to set down his cellphone — any quick move could be deadly — prayed they wouldn't mistake the device for a gun.
But the cops were cautious, and no shots were fired. Deputies handcuffed the longtime deputy DA and hustled him into a patrol vehicle. His stunned wife, Christi, was patted down against the garage wall. The couple's two young children tell L.A. Weekly that police burst into their bedrooms with flashlights to make sure they were safe. The Freys' neighbors, awakened by the spectacle, watched the dramatic midnight raid play out.
"People can turn other people's lives upside down just sitting in front of a keyboard," Frey says. "There's just something strange and disquieting about that."
Frey knew, even as the scene unfolded, that he'd just been SWATted — a dangerous game being played by provocateurs who falsely report to cops a murder or violent attack supposedly committed by someone they hate.
In Frey's case, a man pretending to be Frey called the L.A. County Sheriff's station in Lomita, declaring: "I shot her — my wife!" Frey has obtained the call, which he labels "one of the most bone-chilling pieces of audio you will ever hear."
Almost a year later, in May 2012, he posted the call on YouTube. It has since been played more than 40,000 times.
Frey says that the week before the incident, he'd received a disturbing, anonymous email warning: "Stop digging into [Rep. Weiner]. I cannot insure [sic] your safety if you continue."
Special agent Kevin Kolbye in Dallas, the FBI's point person for the SWATting phenomenon, says SWATters manipulate technology in order to mimic the caller ID of their targeted victim, the goal being to "incite fear and intimidation into the person that they're SWATting."
The potentially deadly pranks, which can be traced back to about 2002, are named for the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams employed by police agencies — and used by SWATters as remote revenge pawns.
They were first used mostly by teens as a passive-aggressive method for punishing their video-game opponents or chat-room adversaries
Although the FBI won't confirm or deny that it's looking into the cases, Kolbye does partly blame copycats who see SWATtings in the news.
He says that "a lot of these SWATters are sharing their crimes on social media."
Over the last few months in L.A., SWATters have victimized Miley Cyrus, Ashton Kutcher and Justin Bieber — all of whose mansions were stormed by police.
Less publicized is the fact that over the last year and a half, four prominent, conservative bloggers have been SWATted across America. All four found themselves surrounded by local cops with guns:
Mike Stack, of New Jersey, had been Tweeting various predictions about Rep. Weiner's downfall when he was SWATted in 2011 — about one week before Frey.
"Um, I killed my wife ... I shot her in the head," the caller falsely muttered to police.
Then, last May, a SWATter targeted Erick Erickson, conservative managing editor of Redstate.com and a CNN contributor.
Most recently, police were lured to the home of Virginia attorney Aaron Walker, a right-wing activist who used to guest-blog at Patterico.
In each instance, a nasally male voice falsely identified himself as Stack, Erickson, Walker or Frey — and declared that he had murdered his wife.
In Erickson's case, a caller added: "I'm going to shoot someone else soon."
Kolbye says a SWATting "uptick" in America has included crimes against several media personalities, and that the SWATters' "motivation is sometimes in bragging rights."
So far, nobody has been shot by cops. But not one of the four politically charged cases — all featuring a similar-sounding, nasally voice — has been solved.
Frey wonders why Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca's investigators passed his case on to the FBI after one month — and after that, why special agents in Santa Ana took seven months merely to obtain phone records of the faked call. Detective Todd Hoy, who led Baca's brief investigation, explains, "They're the feds. They're in charge."
According to Dallas FBI specialist Kolbye, every SWATter leaves "a trail. And it's a matter of expertise, which the FBI has done very well at."
Yet when Frey tried to connect the local FBI branch in Southern California with the experts in Dallas — who were "very knowledgeable and willing to help" — he says Santa Ana agents flatly turned down the idea of getting assistance from Dallas.
With FBI agents in other offices appearing to drag their feet, this summer 85 Republicans in Congress demanded that Attorney General Eric Holder investigate the politically motivated SWATs. According to Frey, soon after that, the Santa Ana FBI agents, who had closed his case, told him they'd keep trying. (Holder and the Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment.)
In the meantime, some of Frey's most frequent online critics may be trying to quiet him through more legitimate means: the court system.
Attorney Jay Leiderman filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of a client who names Frey, his prosecutor wife, Christi, and DA Steve Cooley. It alleges that Patterico's Pontifications is blogged out on government time.
Leiderman tells L.A. Weekly that he was brought together with his client by Neal Rauhauser — a left blogger who tangles with Frey and once wrote that his Twitter war with Andrew Breitbart might have contributed to his heart failure.
The DA won't comment. Frey calls the lawsuit "completely, 100 percent frivolous."
Leiderman argues that as a DA, Frey should behave "not like some juvenile blogger but like an adult."
Walker, the Virginia SWATting victim, wants Democrats in Congress to join the GOP in pressing for an investigation into the four SWATs against conservative bloggers. "People of all political persuasions aren't cool with people calling up the police and falsely reporting a crime that could get someone killed," he says.
Conflicting theories abound in the highly partisan blogosphere about who is behind the SWATtings.
Frey, who has created a thick home file on his own case, believes he has evidence that could point to one political SWATter. However, he says that the supervisor of the FBI Santa Ana unit told him, " 'You can't just blame somebody on the Internet just because you had a fight with them online.' "
Adds Frey: "It's as if the whole matter is just being treated as a blogger war, as opposed to something that could have gotten multiple people killed."
Kolbye, the FBI point person, won't comment on how his agency is handling things. But if the phenomenon spreads, he says, "It's only a matter of time before we have a serious injury or loss of life."
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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