Washington man accused of faking emergency call that sent armed response to unsuspecting Lake Forest family’s home.
SWAT officers expected to find a victim shot to death, drugs and a belligerent armed suspect when they surrounded the home of an unsuspecting couple, but found they were only a part of a false emergency call caused by a teenager who hacked into the county’s emergency response system, authorities said.
As officers swarmed the home with assault rifles, dogs and a helicopter, a Lake Forest couple and their two toddlers inside their home slept unsuspectingly.
On March 29 at 11:30 p.m., authorities allege, Randall Ellis, a 19-year-old from Mukilteo, Wash., hacked into the county’s 911 system from his home and placed a false emergency call, prompting a fully armed response to the home of an unsuspecting couple that could have ended tragically.
Thinking that a prowler was roaming his back yard, a resident of the home, identified only as Doug B. in the district attorney’s complaint filed in court, walked outside with a kitchen knife as SWAT officers from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department waited with assault rifles.
“It was just a horrifying experience,” said Doug B., who requested not to be identified further. “You think you feel safe in your own home. We had no idea what was going on.”
Doug B. and his wife did not feel safe in their home for weeks after the incident and wondered why their home was the one selected.
Doug B. was not able to go back to sleep for hours that night, and he rigged the doors and windows before he was able to go to bed.
“I thought someone was in my back yard, and they were going to get my family,” he said. “It was terrifying for months afterward.”
Officers apprehended and cuffed the resident and his wife, identified as Stacy B. It was moments later they learned the call was false, said Lt. Mike McHenry of the South County Investigations Bureau.
“The danger is significant,” said Lt. Don Barnes, chief of police services for Lake Forest. “That (situation) played out OK, although it scared the victims significantly.”
Ellis is expected to appear in an Orange County courtroom Monday to face charges of computer access and fraud, false imprisonment by violence, falsely reporting a crime and assault with an assault weapon by proxy.
“It’s not a prank,” Emami said. “People’s lives were in danger.”
Farrah Emami, spokeswoman for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, said
Ellis selected the couple’s name and address at random and electronically transferred false information into the 911 system.
Authorities believe this is not the only time that Ellis has done this. As part of their investigation, authorities believe Ellis created similar false SWAT responses in Bullhead, Ariz.; Millcreek Township, Pa.; and in his hometown of Mukilteo, Wash.
False 911 calls are placed all the time, McHenry said, but he said this is the first time someone has hacked into Orange County’s system and created a false call in this way.
“We’ve seen nothing like this,” McHenry said. “This was unique. This was pretty serious.”
Other law enforcement agencies have seen similar breaches into their 911 systems as part of a trend picked up by computer hackers in the nation called “SWATting”, Barnes said.
The purpose is to create a false 911 call that appears to be coming from the residence in question and prompt a SWAT response from local law enforcement agencies, Barnes said.
Authorities would not divulge details on how Ellis hacked into the system, stating that doing so would jeopardize the investigation and possibly create copycats. But the call that prompted a full response to the Lake Forest home started as a call to the Orange County Fire Authority as a drug overdose and progressed into a possible murder, McHenry said.
A supposed teenager stated someone had overdosed on cocaine. The teenager then stated he had been shot in the shoulder and that attackers were going to go shoot and kill his sister, he said.
Canines, a helicopter and SWAT officers responded to the false call.
“It was a pretty large response,” McHenry said.
Through electronic forensics, investigators were able to link Ellis to the false call, Emami said.
Ellis does not appear to have a criminal record, Emami said, but it looks like he’s done this before. He was taken into custody by authorities in Mukilteo on Friday. He waived extradition Monday in court and is expected to appear in Orange County Superior Court on Oct. 22 for an arraignment hearing.
Now Doug B. said he is hoping that the upcoming court proceedings can shed some light into why this happened and why his family was targeted.
“My family is my life and to feel like its being threatened is horrifying,” he said.