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L.A. man charged in fatal hoax phone call pleads guilty to dozens of 'swatting' crimes

L.A. man charged in fatal hoax phone call pleads guilty to dozens of 'swatting' crimes
Tyler Barriss, shown in a Kansas courtroom, pleaded guilty Tuesday to phoning in dozens of bomb threats and other hoaxes across the U.S., including the call that led to the fatal shooting of a Wichita resident last year. (Bo Rader / Wichita Eagle)

A Los Angeles man accused of making a hoax phone call that led to a fatal police shooting in Kansas pleaded guilty Tuesday to placing dozens of similar “swatting” calls, including one to FBI headquarters in Washington and another that may have delayed a hearing on net neutrality last year, authorities said.

Tyler Barriss, 25, will serve at least 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to 51 separate charges brought by federal prosecutors in Kansas, California and Washington, D.C., according to a statement issued Tuesday by the U.S. attorney’s office in Wichita, Kan.

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“Without ever stepping foot in Wichita, the defendant created a chaotic situation that quickly turned from dangerous to deadly,” U.S. Atty. Stephen McAllister said in a statement. “His reasons were trivial and his disregard for the safety of other people was staggering.”

On Dec. 28, 2017, Barriss placed a phone call to the Wichita Police Department claiming that he had murdered his father and was holding other relatives hostage at gunpoint at a Wichita home, court records show.

Police responded to the address Barriss provided and were met by 28-year-old Andrew Finch, who exited the residence confused and placed his hands near his waistband. The responding officers, thinking they were facing an armed murder suspect, shot and killed Finch, authorities have said. Finch was unarmed and police quickly discovered no one had been injured or held at gunpoint at the home.

Cybersecurity experts believe the shooting marks the first time that an incident of swatting, in which someone makes a false report of an emergency to provoke a massive police response, led to a death in the U.S.

Barriss, who was previously arrested for phoning in bomb threats to schools and television stations in Southern California, made the phone call as part of a dispute stemming from a game of “Call of Duty: World at War,” a popular first-person shooter game, according to a federal indictment unsealed in May.

Casey Viner, an 18-year-old Ohio resident, and Shane Gaskill, 20, of Wichita were teammates in a “Call of Duty” matchup when they became embroiled in an argument.

Gaskill posted an address to a home online and challenged Viner to “try some [expletive],” according to court records. The address he posted was on West McCormick Street in Wichita, where Finch was ultimately shot and killed, court records show.

Gaskill had previously lived there, according to the indictment, but Viner did not know that. Viner then asked Barriss to “swat” Gaskill. Gaskill and Viner, who are scheduled to stand trial early next year, are charged with wire fraud, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice, according to Jim Cross, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Kansas.

Barriss confessed to engaging in the hoax that led to Finch’s death shortly after he was arrested, telling a detective that he “knew the risks” of making the call and describing Finch’s death as unfortunate and the “worst-case scenario,” according to the LAPD.

Barriss was originally charged with making false reports to emergency services, cyberstalking, making threats to harm, six counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to make a false report earlier this year.

Under the plea deal announced Tuesday, Barriss pleaded guilty to making a false report resulting in a death, cyberstalking and conspiracy in Kansas, authorities said. He also pleaded guilty to 46 counts filed in Los Angeles related to hoax calls he made to emergency phone lines in Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada, Massachusetts, Illinois, Utah, Virginia, Texas, Arizona, Missouri, Maine, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, New York, Michigan, Florida and Canada, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Kansas.

Barriss also pleaded guilty to making a pair of hoax phone calls to the headquarters of the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission in Washington. The call to the FCC was made Dec. 14, 2017, court records show. That same day, an FCC hearing on net neutrality was interrupted by a security threat, according to published reports.

Kansas prosecutors also charged Barriss with involuntary manslaughter in connection with Finch’s death, and he is still awaiting trial, according to the Sedgwick County district attorney’s office. Attempts to contact Barriss’ attorney were not successful.

Sentencing in the federal case is set for Jan. 30.

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