The Ohio teen who recruited Tyler Barriss to make the hoax emergency call that resulted in the Wichita police killing of an innocent man has been ordered to serve 15 months in federal prison for conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
Casey Viner, 19, of North College Hill, Ohio, will be barred from online gaming for two years after he is released. He must also pay $2,500 in restitution for his role in the events that ended with 28-year-old Andrew Finch’s fatal shooting on Dec. 28, 2017.
During a sentencing hearing Friday, prosecutors and defense attorneys urged U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren to sentence Viner to two years of federal probation plus six months of house arrest as recommended in the teen’s April plea agreement.
But Melgren said he struggled with the suggestion that probation fit the crime.
“It’s a serious offense,” Melgren said, noting that the youthful pranks of older generations “are really different from what we’re talking about here today.”
Viner, he said, knew what swatting involved because he was a victim of similar prank by Barriss roughly three weeks before the Wichita call.
“It’s foreseeable that calling on a SWAT team … could result in harm to the individuals present,” he said.
Ohio defense attorney Jack Morrison did not speak to reporters about the sentence after court. But he told the judge he objected to it.
Earlier, he described Viner as a quiet teen from a good family who had attended Catholic school until he was kicked out over his role in the swatting his senior year.
Swatting is a common prank and harassment tactic in the online gaming world where someone reports a fake emergency to prompt a large, swift law enforcement response to an address. It’s named for the special weapons and tactics, or SWAT, teams that often respond.
“Over the last 18 months, this young man has lost about 20 pounds primarily as a result of reflection on the gravity of what occurred as a result of what he believed to be a harmless prank,” Morrison said in court.
“He takes full responsibility for his behavior.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Debra Barnett did not object to the sentence when asked. Early on in the hearing she pushed for probation, saying Viner “is still a kid” who “should know better” but was immature. She said she initially wanted Viner to receive the harshest sentence possible but changed her mind after meeting with him.
“I would like to believe in my heart … that he’s never going to do this again,” she told the judge.
Announcement of the sentence upset Viner’s parents, who were in the courtroom gallery. His mother, tearful throughout the hearing, rushed into the hall when the judge said he intended to send her son to prison. Viner’s father, an Ohio law enforcement officer, put his head down into his hands.
No one from Finch’s family was there.
After the hearing, Viner was escorted from the courtroom in silence. It’s unclear when he will be taken into custody. U.S. Attorney Stephen McAllister told The Eagle that Viner will be allowed to voluntarily surrender.
Melgren said in court that the teen could serve the time in the federal prison closest to his home in Ohio.
The charges and the deadly swatting stem from a spat Viner got into with Wichitan Shane Gaskill while the two played an $1.50 online wager match of Call of Duty World War II. Prosecutors say Viner contacted Barriss — well known in the online gaming community for past swatting antics — and asked him to swat Gaskill in retaliation for Gaskill posting his family’s personal information online.
Gaskill provided an old address — 1033 W. McCormick — and dared Barriss to “try something,” prosecutors have said. After about 20 minutes of back and forth, Barriss called the Wichita police security desk at City Hall using a spoofed number that made the call appear local and said that he had just killed his father and was holding other family members hostage. Police descended on 1033 W. McCormick, believing the call was real.
Wichita police Officer Justin Rapp fatally shot Finch with a single rifle round from across the street shortly after Finch stepped onto his front porch to see why emergency lights were outside his home.
Police say Rapp fired because Finch failed to obey orders to keep his hands up. Other officers were closer to the porch where Finch stood, but none fired their service weapons.
Finch had no connection to the fight between Viner and Gaskill, did not know them or Barriss and did not play online video games. His family is suing the police department, Rapp and other officers over the shooting. Rapp will not face any criminal charges, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said last year.
After Viner learned from the internet that police in Wichita had killed Finch while responding to the prank call, he performed a factory reset on his cellphone to erase evidence of his conversations with Barriss and Gaskill, according to Viner’s plea agreement. Law enforcement officers who seized Viner’s phone were able to recover only a portion of the messages the three men exchanged leading up to and after the swatting call.
Barriss pleaded guilty last year to a litany of hoax emergency reports across the country, including to making the call at Finch’s home. He is serving a 20-year prison sentence.
Gaskill struck a deal with prosecutors for deferred prosecution, or diversion. He is charged with conspiracy, obstruction of justice, wire fraud and making false statements. Those counts are expected to be dropped if he fulfills all of the conditions of his deferred prosecution agreement.
Viner apologized Friday in court for his role in the swatting, saying he never intended for anyone to get hurt.
“I’m horribly sorry to the Finch family for what happened,” he said. “ ... I think about it every day.”