Crime & Courts

What charges could the suspect face in swatting hoax that ended in death?

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It was still unclear Tuesday exactly what criminal charges 25-year-old Tyler R. Barriss might face for his alleged role in last week’s swatting call that left an innocent man dead from police gunfire in Wichita. Wichita police investigators were scheduled to meet with prosecutors Tuesday afternoon to discuss evidence in the case and mull over the possibilities.

Swatting is rare enough that a Wichita police official and prosecutor both said they hadn’t dealt with such a case until Thursday.

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The term is used to describe falsely reporting a serious ongoing crime — like a killing, hostage situation or bomb threat —to draw a swift police presence to an address. Many use caller ID spoofing or other techniques to disguise their number as being local or call local non-emergency numbers instead of 911.

For 28-year-old Andrew Finch the prank proved deadly when police descended on his home at 1033 W. McCormick after a man called authorities, saying he had killed his father at the address, was holding his mother and brother hostage at gunpoint and might set the house on fire.

Finch was unaware of the report and stepped onto his porch when he saw flashing lights outside. Police didn’t know the call was fake. Authorities later learned the 911 call originated from 1,400 miles away.

The officer who pulled the trigger thought Finch, a father of two, might be reaching for a weapon when he raised then lowered his hands, Wichita Deputy Police Chief Troy Livingston has said. Finch wasn’t armed.

Barriss, a known serial swatter thought to go by the name “SWAuTistic” online, was arrested on a felony warrant Friday afternoon in Los Angeles, Calif. Members of the online gaming community have told The Eagle a feud between two Call of Duty players led one to initiate contact with “SWAuTistic,” setting the events of the night in motion.

In an interview posted on the DramaAlert YouTube channel before Barriss’ arrest, a man claiming to be “SWAuTistic” admitted to making the false call but denied responsibility for Finch’s death.

Q: What charges could the suspect face?

A: Giving false alarm — which is making a fake emergency call — is a crime under Kansas law that directly addresses swatting. It can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony.

The crime is a felony when a caller disguises his or her identity using an electronic device or software and in cases where a caller falsely reports violent criminal activity or an immediate threat to a person’s life. The maximum sentence a person convicted under the felony version of the law would receive is probation or less than three years in prison,

Other potential state court charges depend on the fake story a swatter tells. Someone who calls in a bomb scare, for example, could be charged with criminal threat.

Q: Could Barriss be charged with Andrew Finch’s death?

A: Maybe. There is a chance prosecutors could pursue a homicide charge using Kansas’ second-degree reckless murder or manslaughter laws. But it’s unclear whether such a charge ultimately would stick — especially if the shooting by the officer is deemed justified. The question is: Can you charge someone with murder or manslaughter when the person who actually pulled the trigger won’t be charged with the death?

In Kansas, sentences for homicide-related convictions range from probation to prison time depending on the crime and the defendant’s prior criminal history. A second-degree unintentional but reckless murder conviction carries a sentence of nine to 41 years in prison, under the state’s sentencing guidelines.

Q: What about federal charges?

A: Right now there is no federal anti-swatting law. But suspects responsible for other swatting calls around the country have been prosecuted on related charges in federal court.

Under the false information and hoaxes law, a convicted person can be imprisoned for up to 20 years if a victim suffers serious bodily harm as result of a hoax. If a death occurs, the sentence may be “any number of years up to life,” the law says.

Providing false information carries a prison sentence of up to five years. Defendants could also be ordered to pay fines.

Former U.S. Attorney Randy Rathbun also said wire fraud charges might also be possible because a telephone was used in the crime.

“It would be nice to figure a federal angle on the case because the state law claims wouldn’t give the guy longer than a few years in prison or probation,” Rathbun said. If the false information and hoaxes law is used, “there could be a substantial penalty,” he said.

Q: When will we know what charges Barriss might face?

A: In Kansas, specifics on formal criminal charges usually aren’t made public until the time a defendant is advised of them by judge in court. That’s known as a first appearance.

Right now, Barriss remains in jail without bail in Los Angeles, Calif., following his arrest in connection with the case. Authorities in Kansas are seeking his extradition — meaning he will be brought to Wichita to face criminal charges. Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said Tuesday that California authorities received notice of Kansas’ intent to extradite him. He was expected to be in a California courtroom to start the process sometime this week.

If Barriss waives extradition, he could be in Kansas within a matter of days, Bennett has said.

If he fights the process, it could be three months before he appears in a courtroom in Wichita.

Q: Can a person who requests a swatting or who provides an address to a swatter be held accountable?

A: For now, it’s unclear whether anyone involved in the gaming argument tipped off Thursday’s fatal chain of events might be charged with any crime. Reports suggest another gamer gave Barriss the McCormick address where the police ultimately responded.

Bennett’s office hasn’t commented on that aspect. But a case that played out recently in federal court in Maryland indicates that others can be convicted in swatting cases. In November, 25-year-old Zachary Lee of Catonsville, Maryland, pleaded guilty to providing another man with an address that he asked to have swatted. He could be ordered to serve two years in federal prison when he is sentenced Jan. 18.

Amy Renee Leiker: 316-268-6644, @amyreneeleiker