What is ‘swatting’?
With his public defender at his side and two law enforcement officers on guard at his back, Tyler Barriss pleaded guilty Tuesday afternoon to 51 federal charges involving fake bomb threats, murders and other violence reported at schools, shopping centers, TV stations, homes and government buildings across the country.
In brief statements to reporters outside of the federal courthouse in downtown Wichita, U.S. Attorney Stephen McAllister said his office cut what it thinks is a “strong deal” with Barriss in exchange for the guilty pleas that will put the 26-year-old Californian in prison for “a significant amount of time” and bring finality to his victims.
Barriss’ attorney, Rich Federico, did not speak to reporters after court.
But he said during the plea hearing that Barriss “is accepting full responsibility for his conduct.”
“We are comfortable with the end result,” McAllister said, noting that he’ll recommend Barriss be incarcerated for a total of 20 years if he writes apology letters expressing his sincere remorse for his crimes to police, dispatchers and the family of Andrew Finch.
Finch is the 28-year-old father of two who was fatally shot by Wichita police Officer Justin Rapp on Dec. 28, 2017, after officers responded to a report of a murder and hostage situation at Finch’s home, 1033 W. McCormick, not knowing the story was a hoax.
If Barriss refuses to write the letters or fails to do so within a certain amount of time, he’s expected to serve more time in prison. The plea agreement he worked out with prosecutors asks U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren to sentence him on Jan. 30 to at least 20 years in federal prison — but no more than 25 years total for the litany of crimes he admitted to carrying out.
The plea agreement is binding, meaning if the judge gives him some other sentence, he’ll be free to withdraw his plea and ask for a trial.
Barriss’ plea agreement also calls for him to be supervised for five years after he gets out of prison, pay $5,000 in restitution to help cover Finch’s funeral costs and pay $5,100 in other fees.
Barriss appeared calm during his nearly two-hour appearance Tuesday at the federal courthouse, 401 N. Market. He wore an orange jumpsuit with “Harvey County Jail” stamped in black on the back, handcuffs, and shackles around his ankles.
Before the hearing started, he sat alone at a table fidgeting and studied reporters and spectators walking into the courtroom gallery. At one point, he stood briefly and pulled up on the collar of his jumpsuit to adjust it. He rested his chin in his left hand waiting for his attorney to return from a closed-door meeting with the judge.
Barriss chatted quietly with Federico and glanced through court documents in the moments before court began.
When Melgren asked if he was Tyler R. Barriss, his reply was quick and firm: “Yes, I am.”
Barriss then acknowledged his age and that he’d gone to high school through the 10th grade. He said he’d taken a medication he thought treated depression and anxiety in the day before his court appearance but that he was sure it didn’t affect his ability to understand the court proceedings.
Barriss also told the judge that he had attention deficient disorder and had taken a drug called Adderall XR from 2013 to 2015 to treat it but hadn’t had anything since. The only other mental health treatment he’d received was in jail, Barriss told the judge.
Melgren told Barriss to stop him at any point he wanted or needed more explanation about the charges or legal matters taking place during the hearing. Barriss never did.
When the time came, Melgren asked Barriss how he wanted to plead, guilty or not guilty.
“Guilty,” Barriss replied.
Tuesday’s plea hearing resolves cases filed against Barriss in three federal jurisdictions: Kansas, California and Washington D.C. He still faces charges tied to Finch’s death in state court, including involuntary manslaughter. That trial is scheduled for January.
He pleaded guilty to three of 12 charges brought in Kansas involving the Dec. 28, 2017, swatting call that led to Finch’s death — false information and hoaxes, cyber stalking and conspiracy. The other nine were dropped as part of his plea deal.
The two D.C. charges he admitted to — both classified as threatening to kill another or damage property by fire — were for bomb threats against the Federal Communication Commission’s and the FBI’s headquarters on Dec. 14 and Dec. 22, 2017.
He admitted to the most counts, 46, for other swattings he committed while he was living in Los Angeles County, Calif., and for using people’s credit and debit cards to buy things without permission. Those charges include threatening to kill another or damage property by fire, making interstate threats, conspiracy to commit bank fraud and conspiracy. The swatting calls included bomb threats reported at high schools, a middle school, universities, malls, homes, a movie theater, a museum and other buildings — some of which were evacuated by law enforcement — in several states. Sometimes Barriss would tell police he was waiting outside of the buildings with an assault rifle and was planning to shoot people as they fled, according to the plea agreement Melgren read from in court.
Other times Barriss would tell police he had killed a loved one and was thinking about setting the building he and the body were in on fire, Melgren said reading from the plea agreement.
He gave such a story to Wichita police and emergency dispatchers on Dec. 28, 2017 — the night Finch died. One of two online gamers fighting over a Call of Duty match with a $1.50 wager allegedly contacted Barriss and asked that he swat the other. One provided an address, 1033 W. McCormick, that he thought the other gamer lived at. Barriss looked up the number to the Wichita Police Department, called it using a disguised phone number that made the call appear to be local and said his name was Brian or Ryan.
He then told a tale about how he’d shot his father in the head, was holding his mother and a sibling at gunpoint in a closet and was considering setting the house on fire before killing himself. Barriss was in California the whole time.
Police descended on the McCormick address not knowing the call was fake. Rapp shot Finch from across the street with a rifle at 6:28 p.m. after police say Finch didn’t comply with commands to keep his hands up. There was no SWAT team or hostage negotiator on scene.
Finch’s family has said he stepped out onto his front porch that night because he was curious about the flashing emergency lights. He had no connection to Barriss, the online gamers or the Call of Duty match that sparked the swatting request.
Rapp testified at a court hearing in May that he didn’t see a gun in Finch’s hand when he fired and never thought the emergency call might have been fake. Rapp was cleared of criminal wrongdoing earlier this year.
Criminal charges filed in federal court against the two feuding gamers, Casey Viner of Ohio and Shane Gaskill of Wichita, are still pending.
“Without ever stepping foot in Wichita, the defendant created a chaotic situation that quickly turned from dangerous to deadly,” McAllister, the U.S. attorney, said in a written statement. “His reasons were trivial and his disregard for the safety of other people was staggering.”
Federico, Barriss’ public defender, said in court that he hopes Tuesday’s guilty pleas will “clear the decks of the charges” Barriss might face in federal court over the false emergency calls. He said that when California authorities were conducting their investigation, Barriss told them about 16 calls he made that they weren’t aware of, which resulted in charges.
Federico said in court that Barriss apparently made at least one other fake call — on Oct. 3, 2015, to the Dallas area — that he wasn’t aware of until federal prosecutors in Texas contacted him Tuesday, not long before the plea hearing. He told the judge he was hopeful Texas would opt to not pursue charges.
As part of the plea deal, prosecutors in California, Kansas and Washington D.C. agreed to not file any more criminal cases against Barriss for the swattings.