The FBI has criminally charged a Virginia man who allegedly organized dozens of swatting attacks carried out by an online group that targeted Twitch streamers, video content creators, journalists, and even a Facebook executive.
With the rise of streaming culture across gaming communities and the internet at large, swatting has become more and more prevalent in recent times.
The action itself requires the perpetrator to make an anonymous phone call to the police, faking serious threats to draw in extreme responses from authorities, and often even SWAT divisions. These ‘pranks’ can often have deadly consequences.
According to an FBI affidavit unsealed this week, one such ‘swatter’ by the name of John William Kirby Kelley has been charged by authorities for orchestrating a series of these attacks on "prominent gamers, journalists, and government officials."
The affidavit also details that he was found to have had a helping hand in founding Internet Relay Chat channel “Deadnet.” This channel was used for the sole purpose of identifying targets, and carrying out organized swatting attacks.
Perhaps the most high-profile gaming victims Kelley is alleged to have targeted during his time operating on the Deadnet server is Andrea Rovenski, who streams on Twitch under the name ‘Cyberdemon531.’
Rovenski was targetted by a swatting attack in 2018. She was playing through a Sypro 2 speedrun when armed officers surrounded her house, before storming her residence and pinning her, and her disabled mother, to the ground.
“I go outside and what I see is maybe five or six police cars and 10 to 15 riot cops,” Rovenski told Vice. “They all have assault rifles and they‘re all pointed at me. You know, my arms are up and, you know, it’s horrifying.”
According to Vice, the streamer’s mother struggled to recover from the incident, often having nightmares and struggling to sleep, before passing away due to a stroke Rovenski linked to the “extremely stressful event” of the swatting.
Soon after this attack, the FBI began investigating Kelley. They moved their investigation into high gear when the Old Dominion University in Virginia received an anonymous bomb and shooting threat, which was eventually linked to Kelley.
The FBI revealed the swatting organizer used a VPN service to hide his internet location, and employed voice-over-IP services to call the police. After the initial call, Kreb reports, Kelley redialed authorities, but accidentally did it on his own phone.
Officers were then able to determine the voice on the first call was a match to the second, accidental call from Kelley, and conducted an interview with the suspect. Investigators later confirmed he admitted to the hoax attacks, and was found in possession of two phones, and storage devices with hosts of IRC logs.
Investigators also revealed they found photos of him and others wearing tactical gear, armed with automatic weapons, and brandishing pictures of Atomwaffen recruitment material and the neo-Nazi publication Siege, all stored on his phone.
Kelley’s attacks may have been orchestrated and methodical, but not every swatting incident is as nefarious and calculated in nature.
Gamer Nicholas Huffine was sentenced to five years jail or a $250,000 fine after he swatted an opponent, and Fortnite World Cup winner Kyle ‘Bugha’ Giersdorf fell victim to a swatting in August, though he knew the officer that arrived at his door.
Unfortunately, not every swatting ends so well. In 2017, Tyler Barris swatted gaming rival, Andrew Finch. Finch, the victim of the ‘swat,’ was killed by police, and Barris was sentenced to 20 years in prison.