2016-02-18 / Front Page

Rogers Student Charged in Hoax Threats

By Olga Enger

A Rogers High School student has been arrested on charges related to an ongoing investigation stemming from recent hoax threats made against local schools.

On Friday, Feb. 12, investigators from the Rhode Island State Police Computer Crimes Unit, along with detectives from the Newport Police Department, interviewed and arrested the 16-year-old boy on 15 felony counts of bomb threats and similar false reports, two counts of extortion and blackmail, and one charge of gaining access to a computer for fraudulent purposes.

Police said the student is cooperating with authorities during their investigation as they search for possible accomplices.

“The extortion charge is in there because on two occasions he asked for a large amount of money to be left at the school,” said Rhode Island State Police Major Joseph Philbin.

Rogers High School principal Jeffrey Goss received the first threat on Sunday, Jan. 31. Police determined the threat was unfounded, but 30 percent of students stayed home the following day.

Since the first call, the Newport district received threats almost every school day for over a week. Threats were also received in Middletown, Tiverton, Providence, Bristol, Warwick, East Providence and Cranston. The calls led to school and business evacuations and disruptions, while expending significant resources of local, state and federal law enforcement personnel.

The boy was arraigned at the State Police headquarters in Scituate on Friday night and was held at the Rhode Island Training School in Cranston. He appeared in Family Court at a bail hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 17.

Philbin said they tracked down the student through a series of emails, including one sent by the suspect.

“We were lucky to make an arrest,” Philbin remarked.

Last week, state police announced that the hoax threats had been traced to Russia. Philbin explained that was because the calls were initiated through a Russian website.

The automated hoax calls are sometimes referred to as “swatting calls,” which is a term used by the FBI as far back as 2008. The objective is to trigger a massive police response (S.W.A.T. teams).

The technology is similar to that used by marketing companies and politicians where a user may enter phone numbers and the calls are generated from a computer.

Domestically, law enforcement has seen an uptick in swatting pranks within the gaming community. Gamers often target opponents, who participate in live streams on websites such as Twitch.

In November, U.S. Rep. Katherine

Clark, D-Mass., sponsored a bill called the “Interstate Swatting Hoax Act of 2015,” which aims to make swatting a federal crime. Last month, she was targeted by an automated call that claimed there was an active shooter in her home.

“We are going to establish a protocol for this,” said Newport Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano. “We need to develop a cohesive way of handling this type of thing.” She said such hoaxes achieve exactly what the perpetrators want. “They want to take the kids out of school. It’s incredibly disruptive and it can’t go on. And we have been making such good progress with attendance.”

Despite the unfounded threats, the calls caused a significant disruption in the school week.

When officials made a decision to evacuate Rogers High School on Feb. 3, the other schools in the district experienced a flood of parents picking up their children.

“With social media and parents texting their kids, it’s a domino effect and creates chaos,” said Thompson Middle School interim assistant principal Michael Browner Jr. An individual found guilty of bomb threats and similar false reports is guilty of a felony and may serve up to 10 years in jail, pay a fine of up to $1,000, or both. A person found guilty of extortion and blackmail may serve up to 15 years in jail, pay a fine of up to $25,000, or both. An adult found guilty of access to computer for fraudulent purposes may serve up to five years in jail, pay a fine of up to $5,000, or both.

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