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The swatting syndrome: Domestic terror hits home

Photo Credit: Ron Bombaro
Photo Credit: Ron Bombaro
Photo Credit: Ron Bombaro
Photo Credit: Ron Bombaro

WHAT WE THINK: Once again, SWAT team members, police and other emergency responders descended on a local neighborhood last night, responding to a call from a man threatening to kill his family — only to be victimized by a “swatting” hoax.

Last week, the cavalry rushed to a video game store in a Clifton shopping complex for a purported hostage-taking involving “men with shotguns” that was also bogus. The strip was surrounded and Route 46 was closed in both directions as responders with helmets, body armor and high-powered weapons cleared the area.

Prank calls are as old as telephones. But as unchecked tech runs wild, and the tense, dramatic nature of rescues gets replayed over and again on screens everywhere, we’re seeing more remote calls triggering needless — and potentially dangerous — responses.

Sporting events have been held up, hotels, housing complexes and shopping malls have been evacuated, and ordinarily-quiet neighborhoods have been upended in an instant.

These are hardly pranks. More like domestic terrorism.

Jerry DeMarco
Publisher/Editor

The FBI has been tracking swatters for more than a decade and a half, in fact.

Six years ago, federal agents joined scores of police who evacuated a Morris County apartment complex and set up a perimeter around one unit after a caller told them someone inside was holding a shotgun to his sister’s head. The upshot has become an all-too-frequent result: The tenant had no idea what was going on outside the door.

The same happened in Cliffside Park last night.

A caller claiming to be the brother of a Jefferson Avenue man told police he’d barricaded himself in his home and would unleash a family bloodbath if anyone tried to take him into custody.

“He said he stabbed his girlfriend and was holding her and other family members hostage,” Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “He said he’d kill them all if he sees a police car.”

On Jefferson Avenue in Cliffside Park last night

Police, in turn, cut their lights as they evacuated homes and surrounded the two-family house around 8 p.m.

Members of a Bergen County Regional SWAT team were summoned from their families and their lives.

Hostage negotiators, too.

EMTs and firefighters were put on standby. Local, county and state police were notified.

Meanwhile, neighbors and others flocked to social media, concerned or nervous or hungry for information.

As the mobilization swelled, confused family members eventually emerged from the targeted house.

“It was a pure hoax,” Saudino said.

It was suggested to the sheriff that the event served as a training exercise of sorts.

“True,” he told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “But we’d prefer not having to mobilize like that.”

Detectives from the Computer Crimes Unit of the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office were trying to determine who was responsible — and not just because of the valuable resources that were wasted.

“Everyone’s worst nightmare is that someone could get hurt,” Saudino said. “Or what if something real was happening somewhere else?”

Perhaps coincidentally (or perhaps not), authorities in the southern Westchester County town of Eastchester were enduring a similar event in a similar neighborhood last night with the same result. Once again, the caller said he’d stabbed his girlfriend and tied up his family.

In Clifton last week (PHOTO: Ron Bombaro)

We want to feel that, as Americans, we can solve any crime, catch any miscreant. But swatting has created a treacherous form of terrorism that, sooner or later, could at the very least strike an innocent with a seizure or heart attack caused by the anxiety of such a terrifying moment.

Several years ago, a 19-year-old Washington state man was charged after pretending to be calling from the home of a married California couple, saying he had just shot and murdered someone. The SWAT team was met by the husband who, hearing a noise, grabbed a knife — that’s how close we came to a potential tragedy.

Swatters have been caught — one was sentenced in Dallas in late 2000 to 11 years in federal prison — and they will continue to be.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to hold our collective breath each time one of these calls comes in, while hoping no one ever falls victim to the boy-who-cried-wolf syndrome..

Motive doesn’t matter. Safety does. Unless more sophisticated communications systems are developed, authorities could be chasing more red herrings, at an even steeper cost.

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