scorecardresearch
Follow Us:
Thursday, September 23, 2021

A grandfather died in ‘swatting’ over his Twitter handle, officials say

Swatting is the act of reporting a fake crime in order to provoke a heavily armed response from the police.

By: New York Times | Tennessee |
July 25, 2021 11:48:32 am
60-year-old computer programmer and grandfather of six was a victim of swatting. (File Photo)

Written by: Maria Cramer

Mark Herring was at home in Bethpage, Tennessee, one night in April 2020 when the police swarmed his house.

Someone with a British accent had called emergency services in Sumner County and reported having shot a woman in the back of the head at Herring’s address. The caller had threatened to set off pipe bombs at the front and back doors if officers came, according to federal court records.

When the police arrived, they drew their guns and told Herring, a 60-year-old computer programmer and grandfather of six, to come out and keep his hands visible.

As he walked out, he lost his balance and fell. He was pronounced dead that same night at a nearby hospital. The cause of death was a heart attack, according to court records.

Herring had been a victim of “swatting”, the act of reporting a fake crime in order to provoke a heavily armed response from the police.

The caller was a minor living in the United Kingdom, according to federal prosecutors. But the caller knew Herring’s address because Shane Sonderman, 20, of Lauderdale County, Tennessee, had posted the information online, prosecutors said.

On Wednesday, Sonderman was sentenced to five years in prison after he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy.

“The defendant was part of a chain of events,” federal prosecutors said in court documents. The police “arrived prepared to take on a life and death situation,” prosecutors said. “Mr Herring died of a heart attack at gunpoint.”

Sonderman’s lawyer, Bryan Huffman, said he had argued for a lesser sentence but believed five years “was fair in light of Shane’s culpability.”

“Mr Sonderman has expressed his remorse on multiple occasions. He has expressed his regret regarding Mr Herring’s death,” Huffman said in an email Saturday. “Mr Sonderman’s family had also expressed their remorse. There are many families affected by Shane’s actions, including his own family.”

Herring was targeted because he refused to sell his Twitter handle, @Tennessee, according to his family and prosecutors.

Smart, blunt and plain-spoken, Herring loved computers since he was a teenager and joined Twitter in March 2007, less than a year after it started, his family said.

He knew people wanted his handle, which he chose because of his love for the state, where he had been born and raised, and had rebuffed offers of $3,000 to $4,000 to sell it, his daughter Corinna Fitch, 37, said in an interview.

“He would laugh it off and say, ‘I’m not selling that,’” she said.

The last time Herring was with his three daughters and their families was a month before his death, at a Sunday dinner hosted by his ex-wife, Fran Herring, who had remained friends with him.

Herring often came over when she was taking care of the grandchildren and would help bathe them and put them to bed.

“The kids called him Graggie,” because they could not say “granddaddy,” Fitch said.

He called the hours he spent with his grandchildren “Graggie time.”

“That was his most precious time,” Fitch said.

Mark Herring was among at least a half-dozen people who were targeted by Sonderman and “co-conspirators,” who created fake online accounts to find social media users with catchy names, prosecutors said. Sonderman and his co-conspirators would then contact the holders of those names and ask them to give them up so they could sell them.

If they refused, “Sonderman and his co-conspirators would bombard the owner with repeated phone calls and text messages in a campaign of harassment,” prosecutors said.

They’d have food delivered at the person’s house or report fires at their homes, according to court documents.

“Gonna need the instagram account … or i will continue to swat and harass you and your family,” Sonderman or one of his co-conspirators wrote in March 2020, according to court documents.

On April 27, 2020, Sonderman posted the names and addresses of Herring and his family members on Discord, a texting and talking app. That night, a minor in the United Kingdom made a call falsely reporting a murder at Herring’s address.

In a statement, Discord said the company has “zero-tolerance for illegal activity on our service, including cases like this that involve swatting and have invested in dedicated resources to combat these forms of abuse.”

When the police responded to the false report, they ordered Herring to climb over the tall cattle gate around his property, according to his family. He offered to open the gate door, but they refused to let him do so, probably because they feared a bomb would go off, said Herring’s son-in-law Greg Hooge.

Too big to climb over the gate, Herring struggled to squeeze his large frame under the fence, which had an opening of about a foot above the ground, Hooge said.

He collapsed soon after he stood back up, Hooge said. Herring’s relatives said they had asked for copies of police reports and any body-camera footage taken by the authorities on the night of April 27. They said those requests had been denied.

Since Herring’s death, other victims of swatting have reached out to Herring’s family to describe how they have been similarly harassed. Herring’s relatives said they wanted tougher laws against swatting and more training for police agencies on how to recognize potential fake calls.

“This is going to happen again,” said Herring’s daughter Casey Monroe, 34. “It’s inevitable.”

Fran Herring said she hoped the tragedy would force parents to monitor more closely what their children do online.

“You really, really don’t know what they’re doing,” she said. “You think you do, but you don’t.”

📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines

For all the latest World News, download Indian Express App.

  • The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.
0 Comment(s) *
* The moderation of comments is automated and not cleared manually by indianexpress.com.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
X