3/31/2023 News Roundup


<<U.S. authorities on Thursday said they arrested a Washington state man who made more than 20 “swatting” calls around the country and in Canada, prompting real emergency responses to his fake reports of bombs, shootings or other threats.

Ashton Connor Garcia, 20, of Bremerton, used voice-over-internet technology to conceal his identity as he placed the calls last year — and he treated them as entertainment, broadcasting them on the social media platform Discord, federal prosecutors said.

He faces 10 felony counts filed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Washington, that could bring up to a decade in prison. Court records did not immediately indicate if Garcia had an attorney who might speak on his behalf.

“Every time Mr. Garcia is alleged to have made one of his false reports to law enforcement, he triggered a potentially deadly event — sending heavily armed police officers to an address where they mistakenly believed they would confront someone who was armed and dangerous,” Seattle U.S. Attorney Nick Brown said in a news release. “Fortunately, no one was hurt, but the unpredictable and terrifying dynamic these calls created for Mr. Garcia’s alleged victims cannot be overstated.”

Garcia’s arrest came as a spate of threats and false reports of shooters have been pouring into schools and colleges across the country, unnerving officials, parents and students who are already on edge about actual school shootings — including at a private Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee, this week.

Computer-generated calls on Wednesday made hoax claims about active shooters in Pennsylvania, and a day earlier, nearly 30 Massachusetts schools received fake threats.

Garcia is not accused of having sent SWAT teams to schools. Instead, prosecutors say, in several cases he collected personal information about his victims and threatened to send emergency responses to their homes unless they turned over money, credit card information or sexually explicit images.

Law enforcement entered some of the homes with guns drawn and detained people inside, authorities said.

In other cases, he called in fake bomb scares for the Fox News station in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 28 and for a flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles on Aug. 23. In another instance, he is accused of threating to bomb an airport in Los Angeles unless he received $200,000 in Bitcoin.

The indictment does not indicate how investigators identified Garcia as a suspect.

Garcia placed the calls to agencies in California, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Washington and Edmonton, in Alberta, Canada, the indictment said.

Authorities have warned that such hoaxes can prove deadly. In 2017, a police officer in Wichita, Kansas, shot and killed a man while responding to a hoax emergency call. This month, the city agreed to pay $5 million to settle a lawsuit, with the money to go to the two children of 28-year-old Andrew Finch.>>



<<There are far fewer law enforcement officers than in western Oregon counties. It’s sometimes more akin to the historic American West, where people say they are independent and protect themselves without the help of police or sheriff’s deputies.

“People need to be able to defend themselves, and I expect them to out here,” said Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley.>>

<<Grant County is big and sparsely populated, with a tiny sheriff’s office. As a result, it can take McKinley and his deputies quite a while in responding to calls, depending on where they’re coming from.

“I have driven my patrol car a hundred miles an hour, for an hour, and stayed inside the county to get to a call,” he said.

If there’s a violent incident somewhere in the county, McKinley said, “It’s gonna be over long before we get there … and hopefully the right side has prevailed.”>>

<<That’s one reason that the sheriff and many of his constituents on this side of Oregon are frustrated with the passage of Measure 114. The gun control law would limit the legal capacity of new gun magazines and require prospective gun owners to take a class and get a permit first.

The law is currently frozen in an eastern Oregon court as opponents argue against its constitutionality.

Sheriff McKinley has little patience for the law, which would require his office to handle the permitting process.

“I don’t have the staffing,” he said. “It’s just not practical. It is not. It’s an unfunded mandate and I don’t know how we expect the local taxpayers to come up with that, and then it’s gonna deprive them of their constitutional right of owning a firearm if I cannot get that program up and running. And it has to be in the county that you reside.”

According to the Oregon Secretary of State’s office, Measure 114 failed miserably in Grant County — voted down 3,471 to 654. But in Multnomah County, where the largest population in Oregon resides and where the effort to pass Measure 114 began, it passed by a landslide: 266,862 yes votes to 93,392 no votes. That helped the measure get across the finish line.

To hear them tell it, this is what many rural residents mean when they say the west side and the big cities control the state of Oregon.>>

<<But the sheriff is just as frustrated as anyone out east over the statewide laws passed by voters in urban areas that impact life out here. He cited Measure 110, for example, which decriminalized user amounts of drugs and allocated funding for drug treatment outreach.

When Measure 110 came up for a vote in 2020, Grant County voted it down on a 2,811 to 1,626 vote. However in Multnomah County, where the measure began, it passed easily: 333,042 yes votes to 115,034 no votes.

“My side of the view on 110, and I’ve voiced my opinion before — it’s an epic failure,” McKinley said. “Measure 110 has, from my observations and who we’re working with and dealing with, it has not been beneficial.”

Like many others in law enforcement, Sheriff McKinley is frustrated that the measure is all carrot and no stick — that there are no consequences now for drug use that can be effectively leveraged as an incentive for users to stop.

McKinley thinks there are more drugs in Grant County as a result, and probably more users.

“Hard to quantify, but I believe (from) what I see out there that’s accurate,” he said. “And I think one of the outtakes of that is our mental health calls that we’re getting — also drug-induced psychosis, different drug-related issues that are affecting the mental health, and we’re seeing more and more of that. And it’s hard for the treatment provider to help them if they show up at the hospital and they’re under the influence because they need to be sober for them to be able to help them.

“And now the tool of getting them into jail on a crime for the possession and actually using that as the stepping stone to get them to get help is gone. I can’t even have ’em here, get ’em sobered up, they go see a treatment provider, sober, and usually they do that while they’re in custody — that’s ended.”>>