WILMINGTON, Del. – A cross-country feud between two men arguing on a telephone party line escalated to a "swatting" hoax that in 2018 locked down a Georgetown elementary school and evacuated a nearby Walmart.
An increasingly common and dangerous hoax, swatting is characterized by making fake emergency calls to prompt an armed police response (e.g., from a SWAT team) to harass an online or phone adversary.
Months worth of federal court documents tell the story of both a New Mexico man's arrest for making bomb threats in Delaware and the indictment of Rodney Phipps, 29, of Georgetown on Tuesday.
Phipps has placed swatting calls from Delaware to police departments and emergency dispatch centers across the country, including Harrison, New Jersey; Opelousas, Louisiana; Russel County, Kentucky; Pasco County, Florida; and Forsyth County, Georgia, according to David C. Weiss, United States Attorney for the District of Delaware.
The calls included false reports that murder, shooting incidents, arson and a hostage situation had taken place or would take place, Weiss said.
"'Swatting' phone calls have the potential to put the lives of law enforcement officers, the intended victim, and innocent bystanders at risk," Weiss said in a release. "Responding to such calls also misdirects resources from local law enforcement and emergency service agencies that could have been used for legitimate emergencies."
Swatting not only is a waste of police resources but can turn fatal. In 2017, a 28-year-old Kansas man was shot and killed by police after they were dispatched to his house for a fabricated report of a gunman holding his mother, brother and sister hostage after shooting his father in the head, officials said.
A feud between two Call of Duty game players sparked the hoax call, though the victim was not actually part of the online gaming community. The intended target gave the other gamer a "fake" address, according to Twitter posts.
Bomb threats in Georgetown
Georgetown Elementary School was put on lockdown and the nearby Walmart on College Park Lane was evacuated on the afternoon of May 9, 2018, after two bomb threats were made by the same caller, according to police.
Officers from several different police departments swarmed both buildings, as well as Georgetown Middle and the Georgetown Kindergarten Center, which share a campus with the elementary school.
Police were also deployed to North Georgetown Elementary School and the Howard T. Ennis School, according to media reports.
Later that day, detectives said "both threats made by the suspect were an attempt to purposely cause a mass law enforcement response to each site."
Records now reveal that police also swarmed Phipps' home on May 9, 2018, believing that he had called in the Georgetown threats, only to learn later that he had been swatted.
Stephen Landes, 29, a Lyft driver from Roswell, New Mexico, had been harassing Phipps for months leading up to the bomb threats, according to court documents. His attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The two men had become acquainted in 2013 through a party line, a telephone chat room that anyone can call into for free, court documents said.
Over time, the men's relationship became increasingly hostile, as both repeatedly insulted, threatened and harassed each other's family and friends, according to court documents.
Things came to a head on May 9, 2018, court documents said.
Landes, who would later tell an FBI agent that he was "(expletive) done" with Phipps, called the Walmart in Georgetown once to make sure he had the right number and again to make a bomb threat, according to court documents.
He pretended to be Phipps and told the manager that he had two hostages, according to court documents.
Landes said one was in the bathroom and had C-4, a type of plastic explosive strapped to him, and that the other hostage, also rigged with explosives, was at the Phipps' home, court documents said.
Landes hung up, then about 15 minutes later called Georgetown Elementary School, according to court documents.
Again pretending to be Phipps, he told an employee that he once attended the school and that he had two children who were buried alive in his basement, court documents said.
Landes said there was a bomb in the school and a bomb in the basement with the two kids, then gave the school employee Phipps' address, according to court documents.
The school was put on lockdown, and Walmart was evacuated. Phipps was arrested and taken to the Georgetown Police Department, where he denied making the bomb threats, court documents said.
An FBI agent would later ask Phipps: "Who did you piss off?"
After he was released, Phipps told officers that he had "reached out to some friends" online and that Landes, who he referred to as a "hacker," had been bragging about making the calls.
David Maull, the spokesman for the Indian River School District, said the bomb threat was incredibly disruptive.
“It’s always an inconvenience when something like that happens," he said.
Some serious beef
Word about the bomb threats quickly spread through the party line the two men had met each other on.
"Getting someone raided by bomb threats is wild," someone texted Landes after the prank, according to court documents.
Landes texted back, "Lol, told you I (expletive) him up."
Later, Landes texted: "Lol I'ma disappear now I'm not in jail but warrant just issued for me I'm changing my number and vanishing."
Landes then texted the other person a link to a Delmarva Now story about the bomb threats at Walmart and the elementary school.
Someone else from the party line later called the Georgetown Police Department about the incident and sent detectives screenshots of another text conversation in which Landes bragged about swatting Phipps.
"I just don't like him," Landes said in the texts. "I did a bomb threat pretending to be him he got raided on it he is in hiding."
Landes talked to an FBI agent on the phone that July and said he had been using party lines since he was 6 and that many of the people he talked to were cybercriminals, according to court records.
He initially told officers that Phipps was a swatter and had called in the bomb threats in May 2018, according to court documents. He said Phipps had made similar calls across the U.S.
Landes said he had swatted people "when he was younger" but had stopped.
Later, after the FBI searched Landes' home and seized his cellphones, computers and hard drives, he admitted responsibility for the bomb threats, according to court documents, saying that he and Phipps "hate each other."
"I did do it," Landes told an FBI agent. "I admit that, but the reason it escalated to that is because I was (expletive) done."
Phone records showed that the calls to Walmart and the school were made using a number registered to Landes' wife, court documents said, though he used *67 to keep the number from showing up on the caller ID.
Landes told authorities that he had also called the White House and made a threat using Phipps' name, telling a staff member that there was a bomb in the executive wing, court documents said.
The Secret Service called him back immediately and told him not to play on the phone, according to court documents.
Landes said that's when he realized he had "(expletive) up," according to court documents.
Landes was arrested on Nov. 13, 2018, but didn't appear in court for a pretrial hearing until January 2019, thanks to a chicken pox outbreak at the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia.
He has been charged with one felony for making threats with the intent to kill, injure or damage property. His lawyers have been working on a plea deal, according to court documents, and as of Tuesday, Landes was still in federal custody.
Phipps has been charged with five counts of making interstate threats and one count of making a false threat involving explosives. The interstate threat charges carry a five-year maximum term of imprisonment. The false threat involving explosives charge carries a ten-year maximum term of imprisonment.
Court documents say Phipps commonly used techniques such as caller ID spoofing to disguise his location. In one call to the Harrison Police Department in New Jersey in 2015, he claimed he had killed the victim's father and shot the victim's mother, court documents said.
In a May 2017 call to the Opelousas Police Department in Louisiana, he claimed he was pointing a gun at a second victim's sister and threatened to shoot any police that responded to the call, according to court documents.
He told Kentucky police in June 2017 that he had shot a female acquaintance, while he told Florida police in August 2017 that he planned to burn down an occupied house, court documents said.
A few days after that, he told the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office in Georgia that he had shot the victim's mother, according to court documents.
"As alleged, Mr. Phipps orchestrated an extensive, multi-faceted swatting campaign that caused a significant amount of angst, alarm, and unnecessary expenditure of limited law enforcement resources," said Special Agent in Charge Jennifer C. Boone, FBI Baltimore Field Office.
This case is being investigated by FBI-Baltimore Division’s Wilmington Office and is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jesse S. Wenger.
An indictment is merely a formal charge that a defendant has committed a violation of criminal laws, and every defendant is presumed innocent until, and unless, proved guilty.
Follow Jessica Bies on Twitter @jessicajbies.
This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: They met playing 'Call of Duty' online. Then their cross-country feud became a 'swatting' hoax