BIDDEFORD — Police swarmed a Biddeford apartment building Sunday after a man called to say he had killed his parents and was armed with explosives, but the emergency turned out to be another hoax, similar to recent so-called swatting incidents in Standish and New Hampshire that triggered large police responses.

Several law enforcement agencies are cooperating to investigate the crimes and determine whether the same people are responsible. They say the fake emergencies are dangerous for police and for the people who are targeted.

Swatting incidents, so-called because they intend to provoke a response by heavily armed SWAT teams, have become a problem for law enforcement around the country. Incidents in several states last year led to federal charges against a Connecticut man. An FBI affidavit said others in the group, including three living in the United Kingdom, remained at large.

In Biddeford, police received a call on the department’s business line shortly before 11 a.m. Sunday from a man who said he had shot his parents and locked his girlfriend in the bathroom of his apartment at 41 Clifford St.

“Within a minute, we received a second call from the same number, with the same voice, saying he had explosives in the apartment and that if officers attempted to enter he would explode the device,” Chief Roger Beaupre said.

Officers surrounded the building and blocked traffic to the area before determining the call was a hoax and that the tenant of the apartment knew nothing about the call, the chief said.

ARMED OFFICERS RATTLE NEIGHBORS

Kristine Sampson, who lives across the intersection from 41 Clifford St., said she and her daughter were home when police surrounded their building and blocked the driveway. They were planning to leave to go to nearby Rotary Park, but had to wait while police moved through the neighborhood. She said the heavy police presence included officers standing at the corner of her building and watching the apartment across the street.

“He had a big old rifle with him,” she said of the officer near her house.

Sampson’s daughter, 11-year-old Skyler Verrill, watched the incident with her cousin and a friend.

“All three of us were scared,” she said. “We were looking out the window to see what was happening.”

A day later, Sampson couldn’t stop thinking about the incident and the potential for what could have happened.

“I was horrified,” Sampson said. “I still am.”

This was the first swatting call in Biddeford, but was very similar to incidents last week in Standish and New Hampshire, Beaupre said. Police are trying to determine who made the Biddeford call and whether it is connected to the other two calls.

On July 5, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office responded to a call saying a man had killed his girlfriend and was holding her parents hostage in a Standish home. Police, including a SWAT team, surrounded the home and handcuffed three adults before determining the family that lived there knew nothing about the call.

The case remains under investigation and no one has been charged, the sheriff’s office said.

The following morning, police in Rochester, New Hampshire, responded to a call in which a man said he had a hostage, then told police he had shot that person. After evacuating several homes and closing down Route 202 near the Maine state line, Rochester police determined the call was a hoax, likely made by someone from out of state.

This year, Portland police had a pair of bogus emergency calls for a single address and determined it was someone outside the area who targeted the people who lived there.

Lt. James Sweatt wouldn’t say precisely what the caller reported, but it involved a barricaded person planning to commit a violent act. Police now have a telephone number for that address and can call to check on the veracity of a report while they are responding, Sweatt said.

TRAUMATIC FOR TARGETED PEOPLE

For people who find themselves in a home that is targeted, the event can be intensely traumatic. Police might order them to the ground at gunpoint, unable to know for certain who represents a threat. And it’s stressful for police, who believe they may be in a life-or-death situation in which they might have to shoot someone, Sweatt said.

Even getting to the scene can be dangerous, for officers and the public. “Many officers die (nationally) every year responding to emergency situations,” Sweatt said.

The FBI first became aware of the swatting phenomenon in 2008, and the agency now provides resources and guidance for local police departments dealing with the prank calls. After the Standish incident, FBI agents contacted the department to determine if it might be related to others that the federal agency is investigating.

An FBI spokesman said the agency doesn’t comment on ongoing investigations.

An FBI affidavit in the case of Matthew Tollis, a Connecticut man charged with conspiring to engage in a bomb threat hoax, described a group of computer gamers who perpetrated more than a dozen such hoaxes, including bomb threats at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a gunman fatally shot 20 school children and six staff in 2012. The affidavit also tells of a juvenile who was arrested after he paid $30 through a PayPal account to a member of the gamer group to call in a hoax on a particular house.

The gamers are so adept at uncovering personal information about their targets and using it to terrorize them that the FBI asked to keep the names of its agents off affidavits in that case.

The courts treat it seriously. In 2009, two men convicted in a swatting conspiracy were sentenced to 11 and nine years in prison, respectively.

High-profile swatting calls on the West Coast have targeted celebrities, including Clint Eastwood, Justin Bieber and Ashton Kutcher. Many calls around the country have been directed toward video gamers who participate in livestreams in front of large online audiences while they play from their homes.

POLICE PROBE DISTURBING CASES

After Biddeford dispatchers took the call Sunday, they immediately began trying to trace the number and to locate the tenant of the apartment referenced in the call. Police also called the man who lives in the apartment. Beaupre described him as a clean-cut 22-year-old with no criminal history who recently moved to Biddeford.

“He had no clue what was going on,” Beaupre said. “We talked him through simply walking out of his apartment to waiting officers.”

Eight officers from Biddeford and several from Saco responded to the incident, but a SWAT team was not deployed because the call was deemed a hoax, Beaupre said.

Unlike the rural home targeted in Standish, the Biddeford apartment building identified in the hoax call is in a densely populated neighborhood a few blocks from Main Street. The neighborhood consists primarily of small apartment buildings.

Biddeford police continue to investigate the source of the call and will consult with the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office and Rochester Police Department.

“Hopefully this is not a trend,” Beaupre said.


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