By Jason Fagone, www.nytimes.com
Credit Illustration by Robert SammelinPhoto by: Illustration Robert Sammelin
Early one weekend morning in January 2014, Janet was sleeping fitfully in her parents’ home in Toronto. A junior studying elementary education at a nearby college, she had gone home for the weekend in a state of nervous collapse. For months, someone going by the name ‘‘Obnoxious’’ had been harassing her online. He had called her cellphone repeatedly and sent her threatening texts. Worst of all, he had threatened to ‘‘swat’’ her at school — to make a false emergency call to the police and lure a SWAT team to her door.
Around 6:30 a.m., her father jostled her awake and said she needed to come downstairs. When she got to the top of the steps, she saw her family’s living room ‘‘covered in cops.’’ There were at least five officers in riot gear, guns drawn. They had bulletproof vests and pads and helmets with visors. She remembers the eerie silence of the officers — they said nothing at all. She had no idea what to do with her hands. ‘‘I was scared to move,’’ she says. ‘‘I wanted to go downstairs with my hands up. I was afraid they would shoot me. I was so scared. I feel like they just didn’t really let their guard down until I told them what happened.’’
Credit Illustration by Robert SammelinPhoto by: Illustration Robert SammelinHoax, she said finally, this is a hoax. It’s not real. I’m being stalked. It started with DDoSing. As soon as she said ‘‘DDoSing,’’ she could tell that the officers weren’t following. Then she checked her phone and saw a stream of texts from Obnoxious. They were still arriving, crawling down the screen, when she held up her phone to show the officers and ask for help.
She didn’t know how to make the harassment stop. And she was just one victim among many. Obnoxious had swatted multiple women across North America and would swat many more in the months to come, as part of one of the most disturbing crime sprees in Internet history.
Janet spent a lot of time on a website called Twitch. It can be hard to explain Twitch to nongamers. The site is a lot of different things — a fast-growing online community, an interactive TV universe, a Wild West of frenzied entrepreneurialism — but at its core, it’s a place where people watch other people play video games. If you don’t understand why anyone would want to do that, you’re not alone, but there are tens of millions of young people who would rather spend two hours on Twitch than endure two minutes of an N.F.L. game or ‘‘The Big Bang Theory.’’ Only four years old, Twitch already has 100 million viewers who consume 20 billion minutes of gaming every month. According to one 2014 study, Twitch is the fourth-most-visited site on the Internet during peak traffic periods, after Netflix, Google and Apple and above Facebook and Amazon. (Amazon bought Twitch in 2014 for about $1 billion, all of it cash.) And there is money in it for the gamers themselves, called ‘‘streamers’’: Fans can subscribe to channels for extra access, or they can send donations of any amount. Streamers with modest followings can make respectable incomes — hundreds or thousands of dollars a month — and the very top streamers are getting rich.
A friend told Janet about Twitch in 2013, and she decided to try. ‘‘It’s addicting,’’ she says. ‘‘I love it.’’ She could play games she liked with friends and build a following. Once she got up to 10,000 followers or so, she could pay for books for college, and food, and candles — she had an obsession at one point with candles. She loved the way Twitch enlarged her world. ‘‘I love the community,’’ she says. ‘‘You get to hear about them and their life. And you get to share things with them and share funny moments with them. And they become a part of your life, too. It’s like every day you get on stream, and the same people are there — it’s just nice to see them. It’s like, Hey, what have you done since you were gone?’’
There have always been jerks on the Internet who say rude things to women, and Twitch was hardly free of this — female streamers can usually tune it out with help from their moderators. But when Obnoxious started targeting women, around August 2013, it was clear that he was something different, more frightening. It began with a persistent glitch that drove many streamers offline for hours at a time. They would be streaming some game — say, League of Legends, the most popular PC game, a sprawling battle world with about 30 million daily players — and their Internet connection would slow to a crawl. The cause didn’t become clear until the women received private Twitch messages from Obnoxious, saying he was responsible: I’m DDoSing you right now. ‘‘DDoS’’ stands for ‘‘distributed denial of service,’’ a type of attack that is difficult to defend against and straightforward to execute. It requires only a moderate level of technical ability and the I.P. address — the unique network identity — of the target. And there are websites called ‘‘Skype resolvers’’ on which anyone can type in a Skype user name and find its I.P. address. Once the I.P. address is known, the attacker swamps it with traffic, and the connection goes down.
The women targeted by these attacks were mostly like Janet, college students in their late teens and early 20s. The attacks were eating into their viewer bases, costing them money. If you want it to stop, Obnoxious typed, add me on Skype, and we can talk about it. When the women did as they were asked, they realized that they were dealing with a teenager — a strange, depressive 16-year-old. He told part of his story to one streamer. Growing up in Canada somewhere, his father had abused him and beat him. When he turned 18, he said, he was going to kill himself. The streamer felt sorry for him and urged him not to go through with it. Another streamer took notes on his likes and dislikes. ‘‘Plays Runescape,’’ she wrote. ‘‘Periodically watches cartoon pornography. Runs game servers. Has a Taylor Swift fetish.’’
At first, Obnoxious seemed content with just having women to talk to. ‘‘He wanted friends,’’ says K., a 22-year-old streamer in Florida. (Most of the women interviewed for this article did not want their full names used, fearing future harassment.) Then he started asking for ‘‘fan signs’’: selfies of the women holding pieces of paper with ‘‘Obnoxious’’ written on them. Some women granted this request — no big deal. Then he demanded nude pictures. He had a foot fetish. He asked them to talk about sex.
As he was asking for these things, they started to get weird messages on Skype, supposedly from their friends, but really from Obnoxious in disguise. Their chats filled with abuse from multiple screen names:
im gona drive
to your house
[a friend] gave me money for the gas
and im gona pour it all over the
and pull out some matches
and just throw em
house [ … ]
[ … ] and who has her dox again?
wanna send me i
pls [ … ]
obnoxious send teh dox [ ... ]
dude this guy
im gonna go swat myself
‘‘Dox’’ is a scary word. It’s a document of your private information posted online for anyone to see and exploit. Doxing makes you vulnerable to all sorts of mischief, from phone harassment to credit-card fraud or worse. Obnoxious was able to obtain this sort of information for dozens of women. He mainly did it by cold-calling Internet companies and duping customer-service representatives over the phone. He would use one small piece of public information, a birthday or a favorite pet, to get yet another from one company, and then he would use the new piece to get more information from a different company. He had a con man’s gift for deception. Sometimes he was even able to take over a woman’s account. ‘‘He loved to tell me how he did it,’’ Janet says. ‘‘He told me that he would call customer service at Amazon, say that he forgot my password but he knows my birthday, and the Amazon people, they just give it. And if they wouldn’t, he would just call again.’’ (Amazon did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
When the women stopped responding to him, he escalated his attacks. He told a transgender streamer named Alexa Walk that he had her medical records and knew her birth name. Then he posted her birth name on Twitter. He posted nude pictures of some women on Twitter as well. He once posted a nude shot of a 14-year-old girl and later bragged that he was a pedophile. Women reported the abuse to Twitter, but whenever Twitter banned him, he would just make a new account and continue as before.
Online abuse began to cross over into the physical world. He sent pizzas to their homes. A string of deliverymen climbed the stairs to K.’s apartment in Florida, carrying unappetizing pies: deep-dish pizza with no cheese, pizza with anchovies and jalapeños, double bacon and double pepperoni. He called their cellphones repeatedly and sent ‘‘text bombs’’ of hundreds of messages at a time. If all else failed and Obnoxious couldn’t get a hold of a woman, he would start threatening to dispatch a SWAT team to her house, or her parents’ house, or her college — a kind of intrusion that couldn’t be ignored. When Janet wouldn’t respond to his texts, he reached out to one of her friends and asked the friend to convey a message:
[1:06:17 AM] obnoxious: and if she isnt willing
[1:06:21 AM] obnoxious: to speak to [me] secretly
[1:06:23 AM] obnoxious: she is going to get
[1:06:26 AM] obnoxious: a swat team
[1:06:28 AM] obnoxious: in her parents house
[1:06:30 AM] obnoxious: holding them at gun point
[1:06:34 AM] obnoxious: with all their ssns
[1:06:35 AM] obnoxious: on doxbin
[1:06:39 AM] obnoxious: and her credit ruined
Tell her right now
[1:07:31 AM] obnoxious: idc [I don’t care] where
[1:07:31 AM] obnoxious: or how
[1:07:39 AM] obnoxious: but this is last chance im giving her
[1:07:50 AM] obnoxious: be friends with me secretly or get wrecked
The SWAT team grew from the tumult of the 1960s. In Philadelphia, a string of armed robberies prompted a ‘‘stakeout’’ unit of officers who received extra weapons training; in Los Angeles, after the Watts riots of 1965, an ambitious police commander, Daryl Gates, who later became the chief of police, argued that the city needed elite officers with rifles, shotguns and armored cars, trained in military-style tactics. Gates explained to The Los Angeles Times in 1968 that during the unrest, ‘‘suddenly we found ourselves with almost a guerrilla warfare without weaponry. ... I felt the frustration of being almost helpless.’’
At first, the SWAT idea struck some officers as strange — wouldn’t the units scare residents and damage relationships with communities? — but lax gun regulations and strict national drug laws encouraged cities and towns to invest in bigger weaponry. The ‘‘war on drugs’’ in particular pressured officers to conduct militarized drug enforcement. (Mother Jones recently analyzed 465 police requests for armored tactical vehicles that resemble small tanks, and more requests said the vehicles would be used for drug enforcement than any other reason.) And the grim logic of mass shootings and hostage situations, where seconds and minutes can matter, pushed communities to form local SWAT teams instead of relying on teams from farther away that took longer to arrive. (A recent study led by a professor at Texas State University analyzed 84 ‘‘active shooter’’ incidents from 2000 to 2010, and about half the time, the shootings were over by the time any officers arrived at the scene.) ‘‘We want to keep the community safe,’’ says the tactical commander of a SWAT team in Georgia. ‘‘And if responding in a very short time period saves lives, that’s what we want to do. And we can do that by having a team readily available. We do.’’
Through the 1990s and 2000s, SWAT teams started cropping up in smaller American towns, even in places where violent crime is fairly uncommon. According to research done by Peter Kraska, a criminologist at Eastern Kentucky University, by the mid-2000s, 80 percent of law-enforcement agencies in towns with populations of 25,000 to 50,000 had a military-style unit, compared with just 20 percent in the mid-1980s. In the last decade, the ‘‘war on terror’’ has helped local law-enforcement agencies acquire unprecedented firepower. One Pentagon program has sent at least $5.6 billion in equipment to police departments, including 625 armored tactical vehicles, more than 200 grenade launchers and around 80,000 assault rifles. Many people had no idea that SWAT teams owned gear like this until the protests in Ferguson, Mo., last summer, when images spread around the world of white officers confronting black protesters with tear gas and a type of armored truck called a BearCat. People all along the political spectrum expressed horror at these pictures; Senator Rand Paul wrote that ‘‘the images and scenes we continue to see in Ferguson resemble war more than traditional police action.’’
Ferguson renewed a debate about the legitimacy of SWAT tools and strategies that is still being argued. Critics say SWAT teams have become like occupying forces, deploying for purposes beyond their core mission (Radley Balko, the author of ‘‘Rise of the Warrior Cop,’’ found instances of military-style raids on nonviolent offenders like poker players and pot growers); the police say they need the teams and the weapons as deterrents and as bulwarks against the unknown.
But the unknown is where swatters step in. They exploit the ubiquity of SWAT teams and the readiness of the police to respond. The Georgia tactical commander, a veteran of the Marines, says that for planned raids, when he and his team are considering whether to deploy, they use a ‘‘matrix’’ of risk factors to decide if a SWAT response is justified: Does the suspect have a history of violence? Does the suspect have weapons? Has the suspect made threats to law enforcement? For a situation in progress, though — an emergency call — there is no time to go through all of that, and from a police point of view, it’s better to ‘‘respond high and then downgrade’’ than it is to show up unprepared. So when a situation arises with a possible active shooter, especially one who says he is heavily armed and will kill officers, dispatch sends a text to team members’ cellphones to respond to a certain address, and the police are ready for confrontation.
And when the police ‘‘respond high,’’ residents can become disoriented. Maybe they assume they are being robbed. Maybe they pick up a gun. In 2011, a former Marine and Iraq war veteran named Jose Guerena was awakened by his wife, who thought she saw intruders outside their home in Arizona. Guerena picked up his AR-15 rifle, with the safety on, to protect his wife and family. SWAT officers entered the house, saw the gun and shot Guerena dozens of times, killing him. They were conducting a drug investigation. In 2010, during a military-style raid on a home in east Detroit, a police officer looking for a murder suspect accidentally shot and killed a 7-year-old girl while she slept.
Swatting isn’t new; law enforcement encountered a ring of swatters in the mid-2000s. But the phenomenon is touching more and more lives in more serious ways. (The F.B.I. doesn’t keep statistics on swatting incidents; a bureau spokeswoman says it is still working out which part of the F.B.I. should handle swatting investigations, because the crime ‘‘crosses so many of our delineated thresholds for who handles what.’’) Activists and political operatives on the right and the left have been swatted. Reporters writing about computer security have been swatted. Celebrities have been swatted: Ashton Kutcher, Justin Timberlake, Rihanna. Politicians trying to pass anti-swatting bills, including a state senator in California and a state assemblyman in New Jersey, have been swatted at their homes. Video gamers, male and female, have been swatted.
While a swatting hoax is often preceded by other kinds of Internet attacks (Twitter threats, the public posting of a home address or phone number), swatting is the most troubling manifestation of online harassment, because it’s not online at all — it’s actual weapons and confusion, showing up at your door.
What a lot of the victims remember is a sense of unreality, a feeling like they were watching a movie. K. says she opened the door of her Florida apartment one evening to find a dozen SWAT officers lined up on the stairs with riot shields and black guns pointed at her. She froze and thought of the metal belt buckle she happened to be clutching in her left hand. They’re going to think I have a weapon in my hand. They’re going to shoot me.
Obnoxious often sent a text to his target telling her that the SWAT team was on its way — too late to stop it — just so she would know it was him. Sometimes victims received phone calls from the police before the SWAT team arrived. A Canadian Twitch streamer named Maple Ong got a call one night in January 2014, telling her to leave her house with her hands up, along with her panicked father and younger brother, so the police could search it for bombs that Obnoxious had told them were placed there. Allison Henderson, a 26-year-old artist and streamer who lived with two other streamers in Costa Mesa, Calif., received a phone call one night from a woman with the Police Department, asking her how many people were in her apartment and what she was wearing. Allison and her roommates had recently been DDoSed and harassed by Obnoxious. The policewoman told Allison to step outside with her hands above her head.
‘‘I held my breath and slowly opened the door to the sight of rifles pointed at me from every direction,’’ she says. ‘‘It was the most terrifying experience of my life.’’ When officers questioned her, she couldn’t make them understand. ‘‘They were completely lost on the idea of a stranger harassing us over the Internet,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s a feeling like you’re drowning, and the person doesn’t understand what water is.’’
A few months after Obnoxious swatted Janet and her family, he swatted them again. The officers who showed up this time seemed irritated at Janet, ‘‘like it was my fault that I got swatted, because I do what I do, because I play video games.’’ She says one told her, ‘‘Just pick up a book.’’ The officers who responded to these calls did a professional job — in the sense that they assessed the situation, de-escalated it and didn’t fire their weapons. At the same time, they misjudged what they were seeing. They didn’t grasp that each swatting was merely a spike in a long-running pattern of abuse that would continue when they drove away. ‘‘You don’t want to dwell on it,’’ says K., the Florida streamer. ‘‘You just want to go back to doing what you love. But it isn’t that simple. Because everything’s changed. As he was attacking us, we couldn’t be the same anymore.’’ Some of Obnoxious’s swatting victims took long breaks from streaming, even though it was a major social outlet and an income source for them. ‘‘I just wanted to be alone,’’ says Alexa Walk, who was swatted by Obnoxious at her apartment in North Carolina. ‘‘I didn’t want people to see me upset.’’
After being attacked, several victims reached out to Twitch, asking for information that they could give to detectives or for advice on how to protect themselves from further abuse. In early January 2014, one victim wrote to Twitch, saying that she and ‘‘a lot of other female streamers have been severely harassed and attacked by a ‘hacker’ named Obnoxious and his friends.’’ She continued: ‘‘It has gotten to the point that he is calling SWAT teams into houses. I just dealt with the SWAT team at my house.’’ A Twitch representative replied that he was aware of Obnoxious and the swattings — he had seen one victim’s anguished Facebook post — but that ‘‘in some cases, there is not a lot we can do when things happen off of our site.’’ Another Twitch representative told Jamie Lynn Greenwood, 32, a streamer who was swatted in Montana while playing Minecraft (not by Obnoxious but by someone else) and was ordered from her home at gunpoint along with her husband, ‘‘I sympathize for you going through that — best of luck to the police to catch the perpetrator!’’
(Twitch’s initial response to questions emailed by this magazine was brief. A company spokesman called swatting ‘‘an age-old stunt far from unique to Twitch’’ and claimed that swattings of Twitch broadcasters are ‘‘infrequent.’’ Later, after being told of the magnitude of the Obnoxious case, he wrote, ‘‘We are adding info about swatting as part of our Education portal, which will also have info on protection from DDoS and other common ways of being harassed.’’)
B.A. Finley, a detective sergeant with the Johns Creek Police Department outside Atlanta, had heard about swatting but never really understood it until Jan. 16, 2014. That afternoon, a man called a police line in Alpharetta, Ga., and said he had killed three people in a home in nearby Johns Creek and was holding a girl hostage. ‘‘If you send any cops here, I swear to God I’ll shoot their ass.’’ The dispatcher tried to get information as the man stammered and cursed at her. ‘‘I got the little girl right here.’’ He said he needed $30,000 or he would kill the girl, too.
Credit Illustration by Robert SammelinPhoto by: Illustration Robert SammelinOfficers — including Finley — raced to the address with rifles and shotguns, unholstering loaded pistols at the scene, only to find that there was no hostage-taker, no dead family, no emergency. There was only chaos: close to 40 responders and their vehicles, gawking neighbors, traumatized victims, everyone trying to figure out what had happened.
The hoax made the news, and the Johns Creek mayor expressed his anger publicly. Then, nine days later, the police got a second call of an emergency at the same address, this time from a different-sounding man. ‘‘Hey, yo,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m at one of my old buddies’ house. He stole, like, ten grand from me.’’ And then: ‘‘I planted four bombs in his house.’’ It was another swatting hoax.
The police chief asked Finley to make the case his top priority, to take whatever time he needed to catch the perpetrator — a mandate that detectives, especially those looking into swatting cases, don’t often enjoy.
Finley is a tall, big-torsoed man with a thick drawl. At that time, he didn’t have any ‘‘cyber’’ experience, in the charming archaism often used by law enforcement. But he possessed unusual patience, and this was an investigation that required a great deal of it. Neither of the caller-ID numbers attached to the two hoax calls belonged to an individual. They had to be traced through a labyrinth of companies that buy blocks of numbers and resell them to voice-over-IP providers; the only way to do this was to subpoena the companies, wait for records to come back (it could take a week), analyze the records and send out more subpoenas, court orders and search warrants — 75 of them by the end. It was all very analog; when Finley needed to update his commander on the investigation, he would print out photos of his white board on sheets of 8½-by-11 paper and tape the pages together.
By April, he had filled a conference room with stacks of documents. He asked the cleaning crew not to touch the room. He was getting somewhere. The first swatting seemed to be a one-off; it pointed to a suspect in New York. (The suspect has yet to be charged.) But the second swatting led to a bigger world of crimes. After weeks of slogging through paper, Finley linked the call to a Skype account that had also called 10 other police agencies across the United States and Canada in the same month. Finley got in touch with these agencies, and sure enough, they had received hoax emergency calls on those dates. Finley compared the recordings of some of those calls with the Georgia call. It was obviously the same suspect; he hadn’t bothered to alter his voice. He had a vocal tic that Finley kept trying to place, some slight cold-weather quirk, as if he were from way up north, Wisconsin, maybe Canada.
It wasn’t easy to pinpoint the swatter’s location, in part because he had masked his I.P. address by using virtual private networks. The VPNs flung the swatter’s traffic back and forth from Russia to the Netherlands and other places. ‘‘These things can make your head spin,’’ Finley says. He spent a lot of time staring at the conference-room wall and asking computer analysts questions on the phone. Using an email address associated with the Skype account to pry out more records, he eventually discovered what looked like the swatter’s personal website, listing his name as ‘‘Obnoxious.’’ He also found a page on Pastebin that purported to reveal Obnoxious’s true name, along with his birth date and hometown. Apparently, one of his online enemies had doxed him. According to the dox, the swatter was a minor living in Coquitlam, a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia.
This news, if true, was unpromising; Finley obviously couldn’t just fly to another country and put a juvenile in handcuffs. But he kept pulling threads. Finley called the police in Coquitlam, and while they wouldn’t give him the swatter’s name, they confirmed that they knew all about him. He had been arrested earlier that year, in fact, and released on bail on the condition that he not access the Internet or use a computer without supervision. The authorities would arrest him again in the fall — only to release him on bail yet again.
Now Finley had a suspect. The problem was how to make the arrest. Swatting isn’t an easy crime to charge; law enforcement is still developing a language for it. Is it a type of fraud? Identity theft? Cyberterrorism? Is it a prank? Three federal lawmakers, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Representatives Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts and Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania, recently introduced bills to increase penalties for swatting, but right now, many swatters, if charged at all, are charged with misdemeanors. Finley knew that Obnoxious was causing real harm, but he didn’t seem to have good options; even if he could persuade a prosecutor in Georgia to take an interest in the case, they would never be able to extradite an underage suspect from Canada. The swatter seemed keenly aware of this reality. ‘‘UNTOUCHABLE,’’ Finley saw him tweet once. ‘‘UNEXTRADITEABLE.’’
At the same time that Finley was researching Obnoxious, his victims were undertaking their own investigation. The police couldn’t or wouldn’t help, they assumed, and the Internet companies were useless. If they wanted to protect themselves and others, they had to organize.
In private and on Facebook, they began to network and gather evidence, and soon they had a pool of screen shots and chat logs, as well as a zip file that appeared to contain the swatter’s ‘‘hit list’’ — a folder of text files with private information about 99 female gamers, obtained by a woman who had been harassed by Obnoxious and who found it on Doxbin. They also found the same dox that Finley found, the one that listed the swatter’s hometown and real name. A few victims had been assigned local detectives who asked them to send along any relevant information, and the women now shared what they had.
Obnoxious must have felt exposed by the doxing, because around this time he went on Twitter and apologized to some of his victims, saying he was going to stop swatting people. But his attacks only intensified over that spring and into summer. ‘‘We knew he wasn’t going to stop doing it,’’ Alexa Walk says. ‘‘He was going really hard on it this time.’’
He started skipping the intermediate step of pizza and went straight to swatting. He also broadened his list of targets. In June, in the California city of Ontario, 35 miles east of Los Angeles, the police got a call that a local man was doing dope, had shot and killed his father with an AR-15 and was thinking about killing his mother. They sent 32 units to the address, representing 90 percent of its available law-enforcement resources — three supervisors, throngs of squad cars, an armored BearCat, a helicopter, a canine unit — only to find three people, a mother, her boyfriend and her son, inside the home and perfectly safe. The son was a League of Legends gamer who had angered Obnoxious by defending one of his female victims online.
The ordeal cost the taxpayers of Ontario $6,500, yet it was sometimes difficult for the Ontario detective assigned to the case to justify spending time on it. ‘‘I have felony cases sitting on my lap,’’ he says. ‘‘Why would I take this cyber case, tracking down all these records, trying to find a guy who’s in another country?’’
Finley understood that sentiment, one echoed by many other officers. But the swatter enraged him. He knew, from talking to victims, that people were hurting and struggling. ‘‘Do you just say, Oh, sorry, he’s a teenage boy, and he lives in Canada, and there’s nothing we can do? I do not like telling people there’s nothing we can do.’’
By August 2014, Finley had reached out to the F.B.I.’s Atlanta field office, asking if the bureau could help with a swatting case in which the suspect was a minor. He was told the swatter would have to be ‘‘prolific.’’ Finley asked what that meant. He knew the swatter had made hoax calls to 11 police departments in that one January alone. How many swattings is prolific? No one Finley spoke to at the bureau could say. But Finley kept tracking Obnoxious, kept calling the F.B.I. with updates — he could connect the guy to 20 swatting calls, then 30 calls. When he got past 40 about a month later, he finally found a special agent named Andrew Young. Forty was definitely prolific.
Young met with Finley and looked at all he had gathered. The swatter ‘‘was very brazen in his activity,’’ Young says, ‘‘very meanspirited and destructive.’’ Young thought the best strategy was to persuade Canada to make the arrest, given that there was little chance of extradition. He could open a parallel F.B.I. case, help Finley package up his research ‘‘nice and neatly’’ and get it into the right Canadian hands.
In September and October last year, Obnoxious launched new attacks. He swatted a girl’s high school in Fort Meade, Fla., saying he would drive there ‘‘in a black Jeep Cherokee and shoot everyone with an AK-47’’— a threat that sent the school into lockdown for hours. According to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, he swatted the same school again a month later, then swatted the student at her family’s home in nearby Winter Haven. He swatted a female Twitch streamer in Tucson, where she was attending the University of Arizona, then swatted her again five days later while her mother was visiting; at the exact moment, he also swatted the family homestead back in Phoenix, with the streamer’s brother and father in the house at the time, removed by the police at gunpoint.
Over the next month, the mother watched her daughter’s sleep pattern change. She lost the ability to keep up at college and decided to withdraw for the semester. Obnoxious broke into her Twitter feed and started posting abuse from it. ‘‘He just ripped her life apart,’’ the mother says. ‘‘And ours, too.’’
Still, Canada couldn’t make the arrest. They told the United States authorities that they didn’t have enough evidence to get a warrant to search the swatter’s home.
By late 2014, there were still women on Twitch who didn’t know about Obnoxious and his swatting, who continued streaming their games and building their channels. One was Hayli Metter, age 23, a journalism major at Arizona State. She had played games since she was 6, when her father introduced her to Doom; after her parents went through a difficult divorce, she sought refuge in a ‘‘Harry Potter’’ fan site called MuggleNet, where she wrote and shared fan fiction. When she discovered Twitch, ‘‘I just fell in love with it,’’ she says. ‘‘Best thing in the world.’’ In six months, she had amassed 5,000 or 6,000 followers and was thinking seriously about a professional life in video games. The most important thing to her was creating a welcoming community: ‘‘People come, and they want to feel that they have a home. It’s a family.’’
The first she heard of Obnoxious was on the night of Nov. 30, when he donated $1 to her channel while she was streaming. Thanks, she thought. Then he started abusing her via chat. He doxed her, posting her address and apartment number, which he had filched from her Internet provider, Cox Communications, by pretending to be a company technician. (Cox says that ‘‘we regret that this incident occurred’’ and that it is constantly updating its security protocols.) Hayli’s moderators tried to ban him, but he kept reappearing under new names. ‘‘Hayli,’’ he typed, ‘‘if your mods don’t stop banning me, I swear to God I’m going to swat you.’’
Private messages from friends started pouring in, telling Hayli to call the police. She called 911 and tried to explain that someone was threatening to swat her. Minutes later, Obnoxious called the Tempe police, pretended that he was afraid he was going to be swatted and asked if they could send a squad car. He gave Hayli’s address. ‘‘Can I tell you something?’’ he said. ‘‘If I see any police officers, I’m shooting them.’’
Confused but cautious, the Tempe police sent a few officers to Hayli’s apartment to make sure she was O.K. Obnoxious kept sending threats while Hayli was speaking to them; they took photos of her screen with their phones.
At some point after midnight on Dec. 1, Obnoxious started broadcasting his crimes on multiple sites. When one site would ban him, he would switch to another. The stream showed everything but his face. His voice was audible, and sometimes the voices of five or six other male teenagers, egging him on. Incredibly, in full view of anyone who wanted to watch (he posted links to the streams on Twitter), he made two hoax emergency calls to two American police departments: St. Paul and Grove City, Ohio. Grove City sent officers with tactical rifles to surround a house in a residential neighborhood, surprising a woman’s husband when he opened the door.
Obnoxious’s stream continued for more than eight hours and 40 minutes, enough time for many of his victims to realize what he was doing and frantically email their police contacts: He is swatting people right now, in front of an audience. Hayli saw the stream and couldn’t believe it. Finley was watching it, too. The mother of the University of Arizona victim tipped him off. He emailed a link to his contacts in Canada and told them to tune in.
The Canadian police arrested the suspect on Dec. 5, four days after he tried to swat Hayli. Much of the case against him had been shipped up from Georgia. Prosecutors eventually charged him with 46 counts, including criminal harassment, public mischief and extortion; he pleaded guilty to 23 counts. (His Vancouver lawyer didn’t return phone calls.) He was interviewed at length by a social worker, a psychiatrist and a psychologist, who confirmed that the swatter’s childhood had been tragic, marred by an abusive father and a mentally ill mother. The psychiatric report noted that he had essentially no remorse: ‘‘His description of the pleasure he gets from causing humiliation and harm ... is suggestive of quite significant emerging psychopathic traits.’’ At a court appearance in May, he wore a sweatsuit, ankles shackled together; a local reporter observed him smiling occasionally and flicking his brown hair. In July, a judge sentenced him to 16 months in youth jail, with credit for time served while awaiting trial. He is scheduled to be released in March, at age 18.
Finley estimates that he spent 1,000 hours on the case, an incredible amount of effort to catch one teenager. But the kid was exploiting an obvious flaw in the system. When he called the police in Ontario, Calif., in June 2014 and said he had killed his father with an AR-15 and had taken his mother hostage and would shoot any officers who showed up, ‘‘Guys are thinking: This is it. This is what we’ve been trained for,’’ the Ontario detective says. ‘‘This is why we get this tactical equipment. This is why we have a BearCat. This is why we have armor and rifles.’’ In the United States, law enforcement and the public are still grappling with what SWAT teams are for and how they should be used, but the swatter knew exactly how to use them.
Some of Obnoxious’s victims were initially wary of talking about him or their cases. They eventually did so in hopes that it would make it easier for future victims of swatting, doxing and online harassment to explain what they were enduring. ‘‘This means that more people will take it seriously,’’ one victim says. ‘‘This means that it’s a crime.’’ The women have proved resilient: Hayli says she returned to Twitch almost immediately after her swatting because ‘‘I didn’t want him to win,’’ and she now has 58,000 followers and 1.8 million views. Janet now makes a living streaming full-time. ‘‘I try to focus on the good parts and the good people of the Twitch community,’’ she says.
Many, though, are still worried about the swatter and what he will be like when he is released. (One victim says, ‘‘I just hope he leaves me alone, forever, ever, ever.’’) They wonder, too, about the others: the swatter’s friends and fans, the ones who cheered, the ones who might decide to try it for themselves. ‘‘It was never really him that I was really afraid of,’’ Hayli says. ‘‘It was all the other people who I had no idea who they were.’’ There’s nothing stopping them from doing everything Obnoxious did. They just need to make a call.
© 2015 The New York Times Company.