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20 years for man behind hoax call that led to fatal shooting

Posted at 10:31 AM, Mar 31, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-31 10:31:00-04

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A California man was sentenced Friday to 20 years in prison for making bogus emergency calls to authorities across the U.S., including one that led police to fatally shoot a Kansas man following a dispute between two online players over a $1.50 bet in the Call of Duty: WWII video game.

U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren sentenced Tyler R. Barriss, 26, under a deal in which he pleaded guilty in November to a total of 51 federal charges related to fake calls and threats. The plea agreement called for a sentence of at least 20 years — well over the 10 years recommended under sentencing guidelines. Prosecutors believe it is the longest prison sentence ever imposed for the practice of "swatting," a form of retaliation in which someone reports a false emergency to get authorities, particularly a SWAT team, to descend on an address.

Melgren said the case went into "uncharted legal territory," that the law has not caught up with technology and the charges didn't address the severity of what happened.

The 2017 death of 28-year-old Andrew Finch drew national attention to swatting. But Barriss had made dozens of such calls before that and was "known as the guy on Twitter that is good at this," his attorney, Richard Federico, said.

Authorities say an Ohio gamer recruited Barriss to "swat" a Wichita gamer, but that the address they used was old, leading police to Finch, who was not involved in the video game or the dispute. Barriss called Wichita police from Los Angeles on Dec. 28, 2017, to falsely report a shooting and kidnapping at that Wichita address. Finch answered the door, and an officer shot the unarmed man.

Barriss apologized to Finch's family on Friday, saying he takes full responsibility for what happened.

"If I could take it back, I would, but there is nothing I can do," Barriss told the court. "I am so sorry for that."

Federico described Barriss as a loner who "found solace in the gaming community" as he became a "serial swatter." His best friend is someone he knows only online, Frederico said, his father died when he was young and his mother abandoned him.

Outside the courthouse, Finch's sister, Dominica Finch, said Barriss got what he deserved, but that she also wants to see police held accountable. Finch's family has sued the city of Wichita and the officers involved. Police have said the officer who shot Finch thought he was reaching for a gun because he moved a hand toward his waistband. Prosecutors declined to charge the officer.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett defended that decision.

"I am very much sympathetic to the Finch family, but at the end of the day my determination has to be in what the law allows," Bennett said.

Barriss' prosecution in Wichita consolidated other federal cases that had been filed against him in California and the District of Columbia involving similar calls and threats. Bennett also said Friday that he would dismiss state charges, including involuntary manslaughter, because Barriss would be getting more prison time from the federal charges than he could get in state court.

The FBI recognized swatting as an emerging threat as early as 2008, noting it had become commonplace among gamers.

"We hope that this will send a strong message about swatting, which is a juvenile and senseless practice," U.S. Attorney Stephen McAllister told reporters. "We'd like to put an end to it within the gaming community and in any other contact. Swatting, as I've said before, is not a prank."

The intended target in Wichita, Shane Gaskill, 20, and the man who allegedly recruited Barriss, Casey Viner, 19, of North College Hill, Ohio, are charged as co-conspirators. Authorities say Viner provided Barriss with an address for Gaskill that Gaskill had previously given to Viner. Authorities also say that when Gaskill noticed Barriss was following him on Twitter, he gave Barriss that old address and taunted him to "try something."

Viner and Gaskill pleaded not guilty to charges including conspiracy to obstruct justice, wire fraud and other counts. Viner has notified the court he intends to change that plea at a hearing scheduled for Wednesday. Gaskill's trial has been delayed to April 23 amid plea talks with federal prosecutors.