Minnetonka couple becomes target of phony call to police

Published 6:57 am Friday, July 5, 2019

MINNETONKA — A woman and her husband, both in their 60s, were sleeping soundly when they became the victims of a prank call to police suggesting a man inside their Minnetonka home had killed his wife with an AR-15 rifle and was threatening to kill police.

Nearly two dozen armed officers sealed off several blocks and surrounded the couple’s home late Saturday before they realized it wasn’t true.

“My heart was pounding, and I feared for my life,” the woman told the Star Tribune , as she recalled waking up to a phone call from police and exiting her home with weapons pointed at her.

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“Swatting” is a dangerous prank in which a caller falsely reports a serious crime in hopes of scaring someone or eliciting a massive police response.

“These types of pranks are a recipe for tragedy,” said Andy Skoogman, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. “We’ve seen people in other states lose their lives. … It’s a ridiculous and reckless stunt that needs to stop.”

A 2017 hoax call about a killing and hostage situation resulted in an officer fatally shooting a man at his home in Wichita, Kansas. The victim wasn’t even the intended target of the prank.

Skoogman said homicide or hostage calls are high-stress situations for officers.

“Officers are on edge,” he said. “Anyone and everyone they encounter will be considered a suspect, and in many cases a potentially deadly threat. They will do whatever they can to save lives. But as we have seen, these situations can escalate quickly and have ended tragically.”

There are hundreds of swatting incidents nationally each year. The pranks can impact police budgets, slow response to other crimes or lead to injury or death. The FBI recognized swatting as an emerging threat as early as 2008, calling it commonplace among video gamers.

A day after the Minnetonka hoax, police outside Baltimore went to the home of Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard G. Pitts Jr. after someone falsely reported a killing in his home. He told the Miami Herald he was ordered to his knees and handcuffed.

Minnetonka Police Chief Scott Boerboom said the Saturday night call came in through the internet, making it “almost impossible to trace.” In the unlikely event that police do find a suspect, falsely reporting a crime is a misdemeanor, unless there are other consequences.

Skoogman said there is a legislative effort to make swatting a federal crime.

“That’s a good step,” he said. “This type of prank has to stop before more people lose their lives.”