SARATOGA SPRINGS — Neighbors say he looked like a "computer nerd" who was quiet and couldn't hurt anybody.
Friday, residents were in shock as the FBI and Saratoga Springs police announced that the "quiet" 16-year-old boy had been arrested in connection with a bomb threat on the first day of school at Westlake High School on Tuesday.
In addition, police believe the teen is responsible for several "swatting" incidents across the country.
But while investigators say they did not find any evidence of weapons or bomb-making materials at the boy's Saratoga Springs house following the execution of a search warrant on Thursday, he now faces serious potential felony charges of making terroristic threats involving a weapon of mass destruction, 911 abuse, and several threats of violence.
"There have been other incidents by this person that we uncovered during our investigation — multistate incidents. Several states around the country, from one side of the United States to the other, where he has made similar threats," said Saratoga Springs Police Cpl. Matt Schauerhamer.
Swatting is when a person contacts 911 making a false report of an incident and uses a voiceover IP address to cover their tracks. In some cases, Schauerhamer said, a person will do a swatting incident to get back at someone by having police or even SWAT officers respond in force to that person's house, even though there is no problem.
In the Westlake case, police say some "fairly sophisticated techniques" were used by the teenager in an attempt to cover his IP address and Skype account.
On Tuesday, police say the teen not only made a bomb threat at Westlake High, but he also threatened to open fire on anyone who defused the explosives in addition to demanding $10 million ransom. Later, Schauerhamer said, threats against Saratoga Springs police officers and their families were made on a Facebook account created by the teen.
Saratoga Springs police worked in conjunction with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force and served a search warrant on the boy's home about 5 p.m. Thursday. The boy lives more than a mile away from the school, Schauerhamer said. Computers and other electronic equipment were seized from the house.
'Didn't fit in'
Allie Hess, who lives in the boy's neighborhood, said she and her husband immediately knew something big was happening when law enforcement arrived. It was like a scene from a movie, she said.
"It was kind of freaky actually. It's like it's not just the police, it's the FBI," she said. "All these FBI, (my husband) knew it wasn't just someone doing drugs."
Hess said police were still at the boy's house five hours after they arrived.
"They brought a kid out on the porch over there. He had glasses, wearing a red and gray shirt, had no idea what was going on," said neighbor Jessica Allred. "They were just sitting there interviewing him for the longest time, at least an hour. I don't know if that was the kid or not."
While officials were not releasing his name Friday, they said he is a former Westlake student who was taking online classes this school year and no longer had any affiliation with the school. It was unknown Friday if he had any particular grudge against the school that may have prompted his threat.
"This suspect we had never dealt with, ever," Schauerhamer said. 'We were surprised to learn that this kid did it."
The boy's mother said her son confessed to her on Friday, saying he thought the bomb threat would be funny.
She said she had pulled him out of school about two years ago because "he didn't fit in." The boy does not have a violent history, the woman said, but indicated that he has a learning disability. She also claims she had tried to keep him off the Internet.
Police say the Facebook page the teen created specifically threatened two Saratoga Springs police officers and one of the officer's wives. The site also listed the addresses of the officers and taunted police.
"Why yes I did call a bomb threat, no they will not find me," one post said.
"When does the mercy rule come in to play? do I have to bomb a school for REAL?" another said.
"It was kind of creepy," said student Samantha Keffer, who received a "friend" request for the page the day after the bomb threat. "His name (on the site) was 'Iam Flex' and in parenthesis, it was like, 'I am the bomb threat.'"
"The things he was saying on there were pretty creepy, like one of his posts was, 'If this gets 250 more likes by next week, I'll give you another day off of school,'" said student Elsa Hassett.
'Disdain' for police
Schauerhamer noted that police had previous dealings with the boy's family for unrelated incidents. Neighbors confirmed there had been incidents of noise complaints and other problems with the house. The teen is believed to have acted alone.
As for the threats against police, the corporal said investigators believe the boy has a "general disdain for law enforcement in general."
The boy was booked into a juvenile detention facility in Utah County. State and federal prosecutors will now decide whether he should be charged as an adult, and whether he should face charges in state or federal court because the alleged crimes occurred in several states.
In addition to potential criminal charges, Schauerhamer said investigators will likely also seek restitution for the hundreds of man hours that it took to track the boy down.
Alpine School District officials said Friday they were relieved to hear news of the arrest.
"The news that the perpetrator is in custody has just given students and families and community members at large great reassurance that things are back to normal. It's a safe school, safe community," said district spokesman John Patten.
Police had been providing extra patrols around the school all week to reassure parents. Patten said the district is grateful for the hard work of the police department to bring the case to a speedy resolution.
"Even though he was very sophisticated in his use of technology in making this threat and perhaps other threats throughout the country, the message was sent that, yeah, law enforcement can use technology as well to apprehend criminals like that," he said.
Jeffrey L. Coburn, a supervisory special agent over the cyber crimes division for the FBI's Utah office, said the practice of swatting is common, and it puts both law enforcers and the swatting target in "real danger."
"It's not just a joke," Coburn said.
In a typical swatting scenario, Coburn said, a suspect will call in a bomb threat or a life threat to a 911 dispatch center using voiceover technology. The intent is to make it sound like a person's life is at risk, prompting a full police or SWAT response.
The motivation behind swatting is in part wanting attention or popularity, but also seeking revenge on an enemy, he said.
Coburn noted that swatting has become so common, he estimates every FBI field office in the nation sees at least one swatting case on a weekly basis.
"You do have to have some ability on the computer," he said of those who attempt swatting scenarios. "The average person wouldn't know how to do it."
But he admits it wouldn't take a lot to learn how to do it.
Swatting is a crime most likely to be committed by the younger generation, Coburn said. With Facebook and gaming, it isn't uncommon for younger adults and juveniles to have many out-of-state friends and acquaintances who share common interests. If someone gets mad at one of those friends, setting up a swatting scenario out of state isn't uncommon, he said.11 comments on this story
Currently, there is no way to prevent swatting, according to Coburn. But he said police and the public should be better educated about what it is and the harm it causes. Swatting uses up a great deal of police manpower, a lot of money to fight, and takes officers away from assisting those who are truly in danger.
Contributing: Mary Richards, Jed Boal