A 17-year-old Georgia teen has been accused of posing as a 13-year-old girl whose mother had been shot during a domestic abuse incident in Westmoreland County, leading to the deployment of officers from three police departments and the handcuffing of an unsuspecting homeowner.
The responding officers soon realized after entering the Washington Township home that it was a hoax, but law enforcement officials are taking the matter very seriously.
Referred to as "swatting," this is the first such incident reported in Western Pennsylvania, according to Westmoreland County District Attorney John W. Peck. Swatting incidents initially targeted celebrity homes on the West Coast and only recently have spread east.
After six months of investigation, the male caller, who was 16 at the time of the incident and has not been identified, was charged July 25 with making false statements by the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department in Georgia.
Although no one was injured in the raid on the home in Washington Township in January, the hoax created a dangerous situation for police officers and the homeowner, said Mark Lomax, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association.
"The officer may not know a good guy from a bad guy," he added. "It is an all-around dangerous situation."
According to the Westmoreland County district attorney's office, the Washington Township Police Department received the first call at about 4:54 p.m. Jan. 8 through the Westmoreland County 911 dispatching center about a possible domestic case.
Using AT&T Wireless Emergency Service, the teenage suspect from Lilburn, Ga., claimed to be a 13-year-old girl with a hearing impairment. The teen typed the report in a computer to AT&T, which then routed it to an emergency service and eventually to emergency dispatchers in Westmoreland County.
After a first report that said the father was abusive, two calls followed. One said that the father had a gun and the second reported that the girl, who was now hiding in a closest, could see her mother on the floor bleeding from a gunshot wound.
When the police officers and SWAT team entered the Washington Township home, the father, who answered the door, was ordered to the ground and handcuffed while the house was secured. But the mother was not in the home and police soon realized it was a hoax, according to Washington Township police Sgt. Jason Montgomery, who was one of the officers who initially responded to the call.
Officers interviewed the family, including the 13-year-old girl who lives there, and Westmoreland County detectives contacted the Gwinnett County Police Department.
It was not clear why the teen targeted the girl in Washington Township. Mr. Peck said the 13-year-old girl in Westmoreland County had previously been in contact with the teen in Georgia, but would not say whether they had met on the Internet or in some other fashion.
Because the Washington Township Police Department only has two officers working per shift, Delmont and Allegheny Township police as well as state police were called to assist. However, this can be costly for a police department and takes away key resources should a real emergency occur, Mr. Lomax said.
"Anytime you activate or deploy a full SWAT team, it is very expensive," he said. "If a department doesn't have a SWAT team, you are bringing in people in an overtime situation and with the equipment and everything, it is very expensive."
Because swatting is a relatively new phenomenon, the National Tactical Officers Association doesn't have information regarding how many incidents are reported each year.
Mr. Lomax said the only reason people make these anonymous false reports is for media attention. "Police departments may not want to put out the information in the media because it encourages similar situations," he said.
For now, Mr. Peck said by releasing the information, officials can inform state law enforcement that this can occur and that the perpetrator can be traced and charged.
"This is a cruel crime to commit and people need to be aware of the fact that [other] people may be capable to commit this crime," he said, adding that people must be careful with whom they contact online.
Sgt. Montgomery said there is no way to prevent such hoax calls as they come in like any other call, which he calls unfortunate.
"They put themselves and the general public at risk for a joke, and a bad joke at that," he said.