MANDATA — The threat of a shooting at Line Mountain Middle/High School Friday afternoon turned out to be a case of “swatting” — a hoax phone call intended to draw large numbers of police and emergency services to a location, and the call originated in Indiana, state police initially said.
The threat and the fact that it was originally reported over county emergency communications at 2:02 p.m. as an “active shooter” incident drew dozens of police units from as far as Mount Carmel Township, as well as at least 10 medic, ambulance and firefighting units from throughout the region to the rural school.
“The threat was made from Indiana and has been verified by authorities in that state,” Trooper Rick Blair reported to media via email at 3:38 p.m. “There is no danger to the school or public at this time,” he wrote.
Line Mountain superintendent of schools Dave Campbell expressed his appreciation to law enforcement for their tireless efforts in working the incident.
“We’re so thankful for our state and local police whose response was outstanding and thorough. They focused on our students safety and left no stone unturned,” said Campbell.
“Our faculty and students were exemplary throughout the lockdown and we’re also proud of the entire community and how they responded,” he added.
He also expressed his satisfaction with the school’s emergency response system.
“I think the ability of our emergency response system to communicate with parents via automated calls, texts and tweets certainly proved its worth in this instance. The quicker we can get the facts out, the better. The one blessing in the whole incident is that it wasn’t related to anyone here at our school or in the local community.”
Campbell said the district was informed that further investigation by authorities found the entire hoax to be the result of a robocall generated from out of state and that the alleged suspect and location of Indiana may have been randomly selected as a dupe.
Many swatting cases originate with online video gaming, where one player who knows the location of an opponent will call in an emergency to that address and then, in some cases, be able to watch through the video connection as authorities storm the building. The term “swatting” is derived from the fact that SWAT (special weapons and tactics) units often respond to such calls.
Early reports over emergency communication included discussions about the caller being in a red pickup truck in the parking lot, but that apparently was part of the false information given by the “swatter.”
No one was injured.
A lockdown at the middle/high school began at about 2 p.m. and police soon thereafter were converging on the site. Vehicles in the parking lot were being checked.
Parents also arrived and gathered along the long driveway off Route 225 to the school complex. The original broadcast about an “active shooter” prompted much discussion and concern on social media. Route 225 would later be shut down about a mile away near the intersection with Route 147.
At 2:50 p.m. an alert on the school’s website reported “everyone is safe,” but that the lockdown would continue, and that the school was waiting for state police to OK the release of students.
An email from Blair to media at 3:19 p.m. said, “There is NOT and never was an active shooter at the school.”
Russell Fellman, county 911 coordinator, faxed a statement at 3:20 p.m. saying the 911 center and Stonington state police barracks “are both inundated with phone calls so please use patience.” A later fax asked media to advise parents of students or others with questions to not call 911.
The threat prompted other schools in the region, including Line Mountain Elementary School in Trevorton, Mount Carmel Area and Shamokin Area to go into a lockdown as well.
“It’s scary,” Katie Reader said as she stood on a corner across the street from Line Mountain Elementary School in Trevorton a few minutes before students were dismissed. Reader’s son, Landon, is a kindergarten student at the school and they live in Trevorton. “You hear about it a lot, but never think it is going to happen in your little hometown.” She also noted she has nieces and nephews at the high school.
Line Mountain later posted that high school and middle school students were to be released at 4:10 p.m. and the elementary at approximately 4 p.m. A later post said high school and middle school buses were leaving the high school at 5 p.m. and that buses would be at the elementary school at approximately 5:45 to 6 p.m.
With the driveway leading uphill to the school blocked by first responders, several bus and van drivers joined the large group of concerned parents who waited in the cold for nearly two hours.
“I have a three children who attend this school — a 16-year-old, 13-year-old and 10-year-old — and I’m concerned for their safety,” said one woman, who was making calls on her cellphone trying to get more information. She declined to give her name.
“They told us they would be sending a spokesperson back down to update us but we’re still waiting,” she added.
One man, visibly upset, walked toward the school, saying that he was ready to take matters into his own hands. He was quickly turned away by police.
At 3:24 p.m. parents received a text message from the school district stating that all students would be transported home by bus once released by state police. The buses were moved from the front of the school to the rear as a staging area for the students to board.
Then at 3:50 p.m., the district texted parents and guardians, “The police have determined the threat was a hoax initiated from outside the state of Pennsylvania.”
At that point, state police informed everyone that they would be releasing students by classroom, and allowed those who drove to school to leave first in their own vehicles.
A group of special needs van drivers expressed concerns to law enforcement that they needed to get to their vehicles in order to pickup those students who require special assistance when being transported. They were permitted to do so but had to wait for the students until all of the classrooms which they were in had been dismissed.
SHAMOKIN — A Shenandoah man charged with 27 offenses including third-degree murder and homicide by vehicle while under the influence of a controlled substance was denied bail at his arraignment Friday morning before Magisterial District Judge John Gembic III.
Christopher William Weston, 37, of Lost Creek Road, is facing a minimum of 16 to 32 years in prison if convicted of just the third-degree murder charge in connection with an April 11 crash along Snydertown Road near Logging Road in Snydertown that claimed the life of his passenger, Kaylee Valari Pukiewicz, 21, of Shenandoah.
After Gembic read the numerous charges filed against him by Trooper Raymond Snarski, of state police at Stonington, Weston was silent and posed no questions to the judge.
He later told Gembic he expects attorney Michael O’Donnell, who currently represents him on other charges, to be his lawyer.
Weston did not oppose a request by Northumberland County District Attorney Tony Matulewicz for Gembic to deny bail due to the murder charge, his extensive criminal history and because he’s a flight risk.
Matulewicz said Weston, who was already in prison in lieu of $40,000 cash bail on a felony of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance, has a current prior record score of 5, which includes a charge of escape.
He said Weston had a gun in the car during the accident and fled on foot, prompting a search involving a state police helicopter.
In referencing the accident, Matulewicz said, “The defendant only worried about himself. He left someone on the ground who may have been dead at the time.”
He described Weston as a convicted felon who uses heroin and methamphetamine and is a danger to the community.
In his argument to deny bail, Matulewicz said, “There is no condition or combination of bail conditions that can assure the safety of the public.”
Before Gembic denied bail, Weston told the judge, “I’m not going to argue with you. If you want to do it, do it.”
Matulewicz pointed out that the third-degree murder charge is justified in the case because he alleges there was malice or recklessness committed by Weston.
“I realize this is an aggressive prosecution, but we are prepared to meet the challenge,” the district attorney said after the arraignment.
Gembic recommitted Weston to Northumberland County Jail and scheduled his preliminary hearing for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Weston declined comment about the charges upon being escorted from Gembic’s courtroom by Snarski and Trooper Jason Drumheller.
Pukiewicz was ejected from a Mitsubishi Montero Sport and died from blunt force trauma to the head.
In a criminal complaint, Snarski alleges Weston, who was driving with a suspended license because of a prior DUI conviction, nodded off due to drug use and crashed the vehicle while enroute to sell methamphetamine.
The complaint says Weston, who allegedly is an intravenous drug user, was up for six days prior to the crash. He fled the scene without rendering aid or calling for help, which caused the death of Pukiewicz, police said.
A state police helicopter located Weston in a wooded area and he was taken into custody by police a short time later.
Weston is charged with 10 felonies, nine misdemeanors and eight summaries.
In addition to the third-degree murder and homicide by vehicle offenses, charges include possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance, aggravated assault, unauthorized possession of a firearm, aggravated assault by vehicle, accidents involving death or injury, accidents involving death or injury while not licensed, possession of a controlled substance, possession with intent to use drug paraphernalia, DUI, involuntary manslaughter, recklessly endangering another person, driving with a suspended license, careless driving, failure to give information, failure to drive in a single lane, driving at an unsafe speed, reckless driving and failure to provide immediate notice of an accident.
MANDATA — For one student, there was genuine fear, but not panic, when Line Mountain Middle/High School went into a lockdown Friday afternoon.
“I told myself to stay calm and follow procedures and if anything happens, be ready for it,” he said. “I was also praying for everyone to be safe.”
The senior, who did not want his name used, said he was in a classroom with about 20 other students for the last period of the day when the lockdown was announced over the loudspeaker about 2 p.m. He said the teacher and students began procedures that they’ve practiced at least once this school year in a lockdown drill: close the blinds on the windows; put paper over the small window in the classroom door; and remove a magnet from the latch, allowing the classroom door to lock.
Then, the teacher and students huddled into a corner and waited.
He estimated it was about an hour before an announcement came over the loudspeaker that the building was safe, but that the lockdown would continue.
He said he got out of his classroom when the principal came and unlocked the door at about 4 p.m. He believes students were released one classroom at a time.
Students are advised not to use their cellphones during a lockdown, but the student said he’s fairly sure some students were communicating with parents and other concerned family members.
“Looking back, we’re all fine; I’m not as scared knowing it wasn’t real,” he said. “But at the moment, no one knew.”
The lockdown was prompted by a phone call to the school in which a shooting was threatened. State police said it turned out to be a case of “swatting,” a hoax call intended to draw a large amount of police and possible SWAT teams to a location, and that it originated in Indiana.
One of the more noteworthy — and tragic — incidents of swatting occurred in 2017 in Wichita, Kansas, where an innocent man was shot dead by police because of a hoax phone call that originated in California.
Swatting became a topic locally on Friday when police said a call that originated in Indiana was made to Line Mountain Middle/High School indicating there was going to be a shooting.
As it does in most cases, the swatting call led to a mass turnout of police and emergency services personnel.
The term swatting is related to the effort to draw SWAT (special weapons and tactics) teams to a location.
In the Wichita case, a Los Angeles man, Tyler Barrios, 25, pleaded guilty in November to cyberstalking, conspiracy and making a false report resulting in a death, and is expected to serve 20 to 25 years in prison.
The New York Times reported that Barriss called the police in Wichita, telling them that he had killed his father, was holding two family members at gunpoint, had doused his house in gasoline and was contemplating suicide. Police officers arrived at the address they were given, and one fatally shot a fourth man, Andrew Finch, 28, in his doorway after he stepped outside to investigate the commotion and dropped his hands. Finch, though, had done nothing wrong and did not know about the swatting call, the Times reported.
No charges were filed against the officer.
“Without ever stepping foot in Wichita, the defendant created a chaotic situation that quickly turned from dangerous to deadly,” Stephen McAllister, the U.S. attorney for Kansas, was quoted by the Times. “His reasons were trivial and his disregard for the safety of other people was staggering.”
Prosecutors say that on Dec. 28, 2017, two other men, Casey Viner and Shane Gaskill, got in an argument while playing an online video game, and Viner enlisted Barriss to swat Gaskill. Gaskill, egging them on, provided a false address for his home.
The Economist reported in a Jan. 12 story that, due to the lack of a uniform reporting category, no nationwide tally exists for swatting incidents. But it cited Kevin Kolbye, a former FBI swatting expert who is now assistant police chief of Arlington, Texas, who estimated annual swatting incidents have climbed from roughly 400 in 2011 to more than 1,000 today.
Part of this increase can be chalked up to smartphone apps and online services that mask a caller’s location and identity, diminishing the risk of the swatter being caught, the Economist reported. It said another factor is the popularity of streaming videogame play to an online audience. A swatter who targets a rival gamer during a streaming session can watch the victim’s reaction as his room is stormed by cops in tactical gear, weapons drawn.