In some corners of the online gaming world, Tyler Rai Barriss was a notorious figure.
The 25-year-old Los Angeles man had built a reputation for helping others gain revenge on rival players. He also had a history of making fake bomb threats and other hoaxes that sowed chaos and landed him in jail.
“There are 10 backpacks that have bombs in them,” he said in one call to a Los Angeles elementary school that was immediately evacuated, according to court records. “Do not take this lightly.”
Sometimes using his grandmother’s phone and computer, Barriss called in at least two dozen fake bomb threats and other prank emergencies in recent years, targeting a television station in Glendale and venues as far away as Illinois and New Hampshire, police say.
Barriss is now accused of falsely telling police in Wichita, Kan., that he had shot his father and was holding relatives hostage at a home in the city. When officers descended on the address, one of them shot and killed an innocent man leaving the house.
The death has underscored the dangers of placing hoax emergency calls that draw a massive police response — a phenomenon known as “swatting” that has become an increasingly popular tactic among warring factions of online gamers and those who see themselves as hackers.
Law enforcement and cybersecurity experts believe the incident in Kansas last week was the first swatting call to result in a death in the U.S., but some say it was inevitable that such a hoax would lead to a fatality.
Police are trained to launch a rapid response to a bomb threat, active shooter or hostage situation, which are all among the more popular hoaxes perpetrated in swatting incidents, said Kevin Kolbye, a former FBI agent specializing in cybercrimes who now serves as an assistant police chief in Arlington, Texas. But with police increasingly concerned about mass shootings, officers are more likely than ever before to be on edge when responding to the types of situations described in hoax calls.
For some in the darkest areas of the internet, the fake calls provide a thrill.
“They live online and target competitors and even friends,” Kolbye said. “They don’t understand the real-life consequences in terms of the risks to officers, the waste of resources and danger to the people being targeted.”
Barriss was well-known to police in Southern California.
In 2015, he “embarked on a course of conduct that terrorized citizens in Los Angeles County” when he made calls that prompted evacuations of a Glendale television station and two schools, prosecutors alleged in court documents soon afterward.
“He knows exactly what to say. He is very meticulous,” Glendale Police Sgt. Daniel Suttles said. “He knows what a 911 operator will ask and is convincing.”
Barriss pleaded no contest to bomb threat charges in May 2016 and was sentenced to two years and eight months in jail. He was released Jan. 20, 2017, but landed in handcuffs a day later for violating a protective order obtained by his grandmother, jail records show.
The woman, who had cared for Barriss since he was a child, said her grandson screamed at her, made “constant threats to beat my face bloody” and threatened to kill her and harm her dogs after she implicated him in the bomb threats case, according to court records.
Within months of his release in August, he had already become the target of a Los Angeles Police Department investigation into similar hoax calls, according to Deputy Chief Horace Frank, who oversees the LAPD’s counter-terrorism and special operations bureau.
LAPD detectives were planning to meet with federal prosecutors to discuss their investigation when Wichita authorities received a call Dec. 28 from a man who claimed he had fatally shot his father on West McCormick Street in the city.
The caller said that he was holding his mother and younger brother at gunpoint, and that he had doused the residence in gasoline and planned to set the home ablaze.
A recording of the emergency call released by Wichita police shows that the caller told a dispatcher that he would not put the gun away.
“My dad isn’t breathing,” the caller said at one point. “It’s kind of giving me anxiety and making me, like, paranoid.”
Officers were preparing to approach the home when a man, later identified as 28-year-old Andrew Finch, exited the front door. After a brief exchange, Finch was shot after moving his hands toward his waistband, Wichita police said. He died a short time later.
Barriss has been charged with causing a false alarm and is expected to be extradited to Kansas this month. Prosecutors in Kansas have declined to discuss what other charges he may face, or release the charging documents, until he arrives.
Law enforcement sources told The Times the dispute that led to the call stemmed from an argument over an online matchup in Call of Duty: World War II, a recently released first-person shooting game.
Neither Barris nor Finch were involved in the matchup, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing. The sources said investigators believe that someone involved in the dispute contacted Barriss.
In building evidence for their case, Kansas investigators reviewed an interview they believe Barriss gave to the host of a popular YouTube online entertainment channel soon after the shooting, according to one of the sources. During the interview, a man identified only by the online moniker “SWAuTistic” said he was sometimes paid to make swatting calls and admitted making the Wichita hoax call for someone else.
“It’s my personal belief that I didn’t cause someone to die, I guess,” the man said, later adding: “Of course I’m sorry. However you have to understand I wasn’t holding a gun and I didn’t shoot someone.”
The FBI estimates roughly 400 swatting cases occur annually. Some experts said police agencies need to take the phenomenon more seriously and provide formal training to dispatchers and others to better recognize hoax callers.
Cybersecurity experts say most people who engage in swatting frequent online gaming circles or hacking message boards, seeking internet infamy in place of real-world success.
“They do it for the bragging rights,” said Parry Aftab, a cybersecurity attorney. “Often, we find someone who is living in his mother’s basement wearing Pokemon pajamas at the age of 42.”
Swatting has become more prevalent for settling online gaming disputes or arguments on websites such as 4Chan, experts say.
Danielle Citron, a professor of law at the University of Maryland who specializes in privacy and cyberstalking, said the use of swatting as a form of payback gained more traction during the 2014 Gamergate controversy. Hoax phone calls against female members of the gaming industry and journalists were among many forms of harassment that exposed an ugly, misogynistic segment of the online gaming population.
Those who engage in swatting often feel empowered by the anonymity provided by launching attacks from behind a computer screen, Citron said.