'Swatting' death related to use of Twitter nickname '@Tennessee' leads to 5-year sentence

MEMPHIS, Tenn. – A Memphis federal judge sentenced a man to five years in prison Wednesday in an international "swatting" scheme over the use of the Twitter nickname @Tennessee. Federal prosecutors said the scheme led to a person's death.

"Swatting" is the practice of falsely reporting life-threatening emergencies at people's homes, causing heavily armed police to rush to the scene.

This case involves Shane Sonderman, now 20, a resident of Lauderdale County northeast of Memphis. Federal authorities accused him of working with others, including a minor in Great Britain, to use "swatting" as a harassment tactic to force people to give up control of a valuable asset: cool-sounding social media screen names.

The conspirators wanted control of those screen names because simple, catchy social media screen names can be resold on the Internet, prosecutors said.

Federal prosecutors said the conspirators wanted the potentially valuable Twitter nickname, @Tennessee, which was controlled by Mark Herring of Sumner County, Tennessee, northeast of Nashville.

A screen shot of the "@Tennessee" Twitter account as it appeared on July 21, 2021.
A screen shot of the "@Tennessee" Twitter account as it appeared on July 21, 2021.

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Herring's relatives told Nashville TV station WKRN that Herring was a 60-year-old, tech-savvy grandfather who had joined Twitter shortly after the social media platform launched and when most nicknames were readily available. One of his daughters told the station he chose the name "@Tennessee" because he was a fan of the University of Tennessee Volunteers.

One of the conspirators called authorities to falsely report a murder at Herring's home in April 2020, prosecutors said.

When police arrived at Herring's home, guns drawn, Herring died of a heart attack, federal prosecutors said.

'i plan on killing your parents'

The family members said they later learned that an anonymous caller had contacted Herring earlier that day to demand he hand over control of the @Tennessee screen name. He refused.

The family members also told WKRN that they received unwanted pizza deliveries right around the time Mark Herring died.

An indictment says these events fit a broader pattern: Sonderman and co-conspirators would communicate with the person who controlled high-value social media nicknames to see if they would give up the account name voluntarily, the document says.

If so, the conspirators would take control of the account and sell the screen name. If the person refused to give up the name, Sonderman and co-conspirators would obtain the personal information of that person and their family members, and launch a harassment campaign, the federal authorities alleged.

One Oregon victim is identified in a federal indictment as K.G. Sonderman and the co-conspirators are accused of harassing her parents in Ohio by sending unwanted deliveries of food and by falsely reporting a fire at her parents' house on April 14, 2020.

Around that date, the co-conspirators sent the victim messages that said "did your parent's enjoy the firetrucks?" followed by "i plan on killing your parents next if you do not hand the username on instrgam over to me," the indictment says.

Federal documents list other victims: S.K.K., a resident of New York, S.G., a resident of Virginia, and S.C., a resident of Michigan, as well as Herring, the man in Tennessee.

How Mark Herring died

A statement signed by federal prosecutors Debra L. Ireland and Joseph C. Murphy Jr. describes what happened to Herring:

"One call was made on April 27, 2020, in Sumner County, Tennessee. The caller, who had a British accent, said he was at a particular address, that he had shot a female in the back of a head and she was dead, and that he would use pipe bombs placed at the front and back doors if police responded.

"The address given was that of Mark Herring, who controlled the Twitter handle @Tennessee.

"Shortly before the call was placed, Herring’s address and phone number were posted by Shane Sonderman, the defendant, on Discord." (Discord is a social media website often used for gaming.)

"Emergency responders were dispatched, and when they arrived at Herring’s home, guns drawn, they called for Herring to walk toward them, keeping his hands visible. As he did so, Herring appeared to lose his balance and fell to the ground, unresponsive. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital; cause of death was determined to be a heart attack."

Prosecutors argued that Sonderman deserved a stiff sentence because Herring had died, even if he had not directly caused the death.

"The defendant was part of a chain of events," prosecutors wrote. "Had he not posted Mr. Herring’s information, which led a juvenile half-way across the globe calling for emergency responses to a non-emergency. They arrived prepared to take on a life-and-death situation. Mr. Herring died of a heart attack at gunpoint."

The sentencing hearing

Online court records say Sonderman was first arrested around May 2020. He entered a guilty plea to conspiracy in March of this year.

Multiple witnesses spoke at the Wednesday morning sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge Mark S. Norris, including victims, according to online records.

In papers filed before the hearing, Sonderman's defense lawyer, Bryan R. Huffman asked the judge for mercy:

"Defendant Shane Sonderman is twenty years of age. He is at the beginning of his young life, and unfortunately finds himself in a situation of his own making through youth and inexperience.

"Being at the beginning of life, Mr. Sonderman does not have a history with the criminal justice system, and as noted in the (presentencing report), the instant conviction stems from conduct in which Mr. Sonderman engaged beginning when he was a juvenile."

The defense lawyer had asked the judge to impose a sentence of either 24 to 30 months, or if he calculated the credit for acceptance of responsibility differently, to a sentence of 27 to 33 months.

Investigative reporter Daniel Connolly welcomes tips and comments from the public. Reach him at 529-5296, daniel.connolly@commercialappeal.com, or on Twitter at @danielconnolly.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: 'Swatting' case linked to person's death leads to 5-year sentence