Free Speech

41-Month Prison Sentence for Multiple Swatting


From a Justice Department press release yesterday:

A former leader of the Atomwaffen Division in Texas, a racially motivated violent extremist group, was sentenced today to 41 months in prison for his role in a conspiracy that conducted multiple swatting events targeting journalists, a Virginia university, a former U.S. Cabinet member, a historic African American church, an Islamic Center in Arlington, Texas, and members of various minority groups and communities across the United States.

"The reprehensible conduct in this case terrorized communities across our Nation, as innocent Americans simply tried to attend school, practice their faith, and exercise their First Amendment rights," said Raj Parekh, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. "The defendants caused irreversible trauma to the victims of these hate-based crimes. This case sends an unmistakable message that those who target individuals because of their race, religion, or any other form of bias, will be identified, apprehended, and brought to justice."

According to court documents, John Cameron Denton, 27, of Montgomery, Texas, participated in a conspiracy that conducted swatting attacks on at least 134 different locations across the United States between October 2018 and February 2019. Swatting is a harassment tactic that involves deceiving emergency dispatchers into believing that a person or persons are in imminent danger of death or bodily harm and causing the dispatchers to send police and emergency services to an unwitting third party's address. Many of the conspirators, including Denton, chose targets because they were motivated by racial animus.

"Denton's swatting activities were not harmless pranks; he carefully chose his targets to antagonize and harass religious and racial communities, journalists, and others against whom he held a bias or grievance," said Timothy Thibault, acting Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's Washington Field Office Criminal Division. "Today's sentence demonstrates the FBI's commitment to holding accountable anyone who terrorizes communities and threatens public safety by diverting emergency resources, which puts innocent people and first responders at risk."

Conspirators targeted multiple locations in the Eastern District of Virginia, including a then-sitting U.S. Cabinet official living in northern Virginia on January 27, 2019; Old Dominion University on November 29 and December 4, 2018; and the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Old Town Alexandria on November 3, 2018. In each instance, conspirators selected the targets and called emergency dispatchers with false claims of pipe bombs, hostage takings, or other violent activity occurring at the targeted locations. As a result of these swatting calls, police were dispatched to Old Dominion University and the Alfred Street Baptist Church, and individuals in each location were required to shelter in place while the bomb threats were investigated. According to court documents, a conspirator admitted to choosing the Alfred Street Baptist Church as a target because its congregation is predominantly African American.

Additionally, Denton personally chose at least two targets to "swat": the New York City office of ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism; and an investigative journalist who produced materials for ProPublica. Denton chose these two targets because he was angry with ProPublica and the investigative journalist for publishing Denton's identity and discussing his role in the Atomwaffen Division, a U.S.-based violent extremist group with cells in multiple states. The group's targets have included racial minorities, the Jewish community, the LGBTQ community, the U.S. government, journalists, and critical infrastructure.

During the investigation, Denton unknowingly met with an undercover law enforcement officer and told the undercover officer about his role in the swatting conspiracy. Denton stated that he used a voice changer when he made swatting calls and admitted that he swatted the offices of ProPublica and the investigative journalist. Denton also stated that it would be good if he was "raided" for the swatting because it would be viewed as a top-tier crime, and he felt that his arrest could benefit the Atomwaffen Division….

Assistant U.S. Attorney Carina A. Cuellar prosecuted the case.

I haven't followed the case, but, based on the press release, the result seems quite right to me. Knowingly false statements to law enforcement are generally unprotected by the First Amendment, especially when they are designed to lead to needless and potentially dangerous confrontations between the police and innocent third parties. And punishing people who target journalists, religious groups, and universities for such behavior itself helpfully protects free speech and religious freedom (though of course such swatting should be punished even when its targets aren't chosen based on their First-Amendment-protected activities).

NEXT: Massachusetts High Court on Zoom Evidentiary Hearings in Criminal Cases

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Yes, swatting should be punished, and severely.

    1. Those are false reports to government officials. All costs should also go to the defendant. What is the cost of renting a police assault vehicle for 2 hours? What is the cost of hiring 10 police for 2 hours? What is the cost of closing off traffic without justification? A checklist should be generated. He needs to pay every cent.

      Then, the victims should be compensated by the negligent police agencies for any violation of professional standard of due care. These dunderheads are the agents of the lawyer d-word prosecutor. Make him pay from personal assets. End all immunities. Make the actual people causing the damage pay as well.

  2. “Denton unknowingly met with an undercover law enforcement officer ”

    Thank goodness most dudes like this pig are stupid.

  3. “This case sends an unmistakable message that those who target individuals because of their race, religion, or any other form of bias, will be identified, apprehended, and brought to justice.”

    I find this infuriating — what hell difference does it make whom this perp victimized with his quite reprehensible crimes?!?!? Is a White male dragged out of bed at gunpoint by the SWAT team any less traumatized?

    He shouldn’t have done this to anyone and I really don’t care who he did it to — and I think that 41 months is way too light a sentence for something as severe (and potentially lethal) as this.

    It’s almost like if some BLM activist did this, you kinda wonder if there even would be a prosecution. That sort of thing doesn’t bode well for the stability of the Republic, and Lady Justice needs to put her blindfold back on and stop deciding cases on who the victim is — instead of what the crime was…

    1. SWATTING is NOT funny — I personally know several people (e.g. retired military) who really do sleep with a pistol under their pillow and never would believe that it was a police department breaking in as they’d never have done anything to justify that.

      So they would instinctively shoot to kill and wouldn’t miss — the first police officer through the bedroom door would die, as would the innocent homeowner, along with probably a few more people. And then what? I’m not even getting into the police immunity and homeowner self-defense arguments here — I’m keeping it simple and presuming that there isn’t anyone left alive to face criminal charges on either side — and even then, it’d be a mess.

      It isn’t funny — it’s actually far worse than calling in bomb scares or pulling fire alarms because armed officers don’t respond to those at gunpoint.

    2. “. . . what hell difference does it make whom this perp victimized with his quite reprehensible crimes?”

      I agree with your general sentiment, however, in this particular case, the perp was deliberately targeting people and groups because of their race, religion, etc., so, again, i̲n̲ ̲t̲h̲i̲s̲ ̲p̲a̲r̲t̲i̲c̲u̲l̲a̲r̲ ̲c̲a̲s̲e̲, the “This case sends an unmistakable message,” statement is appropriate.

      1. If you don’t follow the general sentiment in particular cases, it’s not really your general sentiment, now, is it?

        No, it doesn’t matter why he did it, how he picked his victims. It matters what he did.

        Once you start caring why he did it, how he picked his victims, you’re going to start blowing it off when somebody on your side does it to somebody on the other side.

        In fact, after all the swatting cases I’ve heard of, this one gets the big write-up? Looks like that happening: They finally found a right-wing swatter to go after, so it was time to crack down on swatting.

        1. No, I don’t care how a person identifies victims.

          If this person targeted oil refineries, then an appropriate statement would have been, “This case sends an unmistakable message that those who target oil refineries will be identified, apprehended, and brought to justice.”

          1. In this case, it was “people” who were targeted. That’s the only relevant criterion.

            1. I mean, that’s wrong. It was a specific subset of people who were targeted.

              1. Sure, he targeted more specifically than that, but that’s the only relevant criterion, because HE might be a bigot, but WE aren’t. WE think all lives are equally important, so that it’s no worse murdering one person than another.

                Don’t we?

    3. Leave it to Dr. Ed and our right wing grievance people to be told a story about a neo-Nazi targeting the typical racial/ethnic targets of neo-Nazis and come up with the takeaways that:

      1) Why are they reporting that the victims who were chosen for being minorities are in fact minorities? and
      2) I bet that if a black guy did this nobody would prosecute him, and oh boy then I’d get that race war that I so desperately pine for.

  4. “…Denton also stated that it would be good if he was “raided” for the swatting because it would be viewed as a top-tier crime, and he felt that his arrest could benefit the Atomwaffen Division….”

    I love it when a case is a win-win. He wanted to be arrested (and, presumably, charged and convicted), and he is getting exactly what he wanted. Been a long time since a VC post brought such an unequivocal smile to my face..

    1. George Washington probably wasn’t the best of military leaders, particularly as his service as a Colonel during the French & Indian Wars, but he *was* a very good psychologist. He particularly understood men who wished to become martyrs and the need to prevent them from becoming that, e.g. Daniel Shays.

      Denton is prosecuted (he’d argue “persecuted”) and what happens next? Do his followers suddenly realize that he’s a perp who got what should have been coming to him? — NO — they conclude that the evil (whatever) has crucified their righteous leader because the evil (whatever) doesn’t like him — that it has nothing to do with anything that he’d actually done, only that the evil (whatever) considers him a threat and hence the evil (whatever) must destroy him so as to preserve its ability to be evil.

      Please note that this is generic — the “whatever” is as generic as I can possibly be — and this is the standard martyr syndrome.

      1. Are you still making up the fake claim that Washington pardoned Shays even though I already pointed out the other day that you were making it up?

        1. OK, this time I was wrong — it was the newly-elected MA Governor John Hancock and the Mass General Court (legislature) who pardoned Shays.

          George Washington was very much behind it though — or perhaps you wish to accuse the entire UMass Amherst History Department of fabrication?

  5. “Denton’s swatting activities were not harmless pranks”

    I suppose this one was more of the harmless prank variety because it wasn’t racially motivated:

    Prankster sentenced to 20 years for fake 911 call that led police to kill an innocent man.

  6. 41 months times about 30 days per month is 1230 days, divided by 134 incidents is less than ten days per incident.

    Seems low.

  7. Good

    Now lets do the same to every single Left wing “swatter”

    1. If you don’t think that’s happening, post evidence, don’t throw out a wild accusation.

      It would seem to me that the dislike for swatting is rather nonpartisan within law enforcement and the judiciary, for obvious reasons.

      1. Bullshyte.

        I personally lived through an earlier incarnation of this, the infamous UMass Campus Pond Rapist HOAX of 22 years ago.

        There was no rapist. No mortal human male could possibly do the things which were alleged — not the rapes, but the stuff necessary to be the rapist, including not only issues with time & space but the ability to move through physical objects.

        For example, there is no way that a woman can be dragged into wet brush and raped without her clothing getting wet. If the officers who go out and investigate the reported crime return soaking wet, and the purported victim’s clothing is bone dry, you gotta ask some questions about not the rape but her related claim that she’d physically been present in the brush (i.e. raped there).

        UMass knew this was all a hoax, but since the feminists threatened to sue for libel, they had to tell everyone it was real…

        I only wish that I were making this up…

        1. I only wish that I were making this up…M


          1. Convenient, unverified anecdotes do not an argument make.

            1. I think you mean “convenient, unverified, irrelevant anecdotes do not an argument make.” Why is Dr. Ed talking about false reporting of having been victimized when the topic is swatting, which is an only loosely related phenomenon?

              1. Well, I have the dude muted now so not gonna worry about his lies, nor his doomsaying nonsense anymore.

              2. Every White male on that campus was victimized.

          2. Tough crowd. FWIW, when this was posted yesterday, I did my usual ‘trust but verify’ thing, and searched for ‘umass campus pond rape hoax’, which found this.

            n.b. these accounts list 4 rapes in a short interval, and that in one the lady admitted it was a hoax – these sources, anyway, don’t say what happened to the other three cases.

            1. OK. The first one might have happened — or might have been a drug dealer trying to collect a debt. While after dark, it was on a busy path that a hundred or more students would have walked inside the 15 minutes it allegedly happened and no one saw anything. That one I never said was a hoax — just the rest.

              The second one allegedly happened in the midst of a Rhododendron patch that was soaking wet because it had rained that morning. In clear view of the Student Union plaza. Without any broken branches — and the cops (investigating an hour later) came back with wet clothes, yet the victim’s weren’t.

              I’d learn about the cop’s clothing later — what did it for me was the fact that a white tail deer couldn’t have gone through those bushes — with me chasing it with a gun. And a deer is both smaller and more able to go through bushes than an adult human, let alone one being attacked. Not a broken twig or torn leaf, and Rhododendrons are brittle in the fall…

              Third involved a woman who — after being sprayed in the face with pepper spray, was able to physically overwhelm THREE male attackers and then run 500+ yards to a help phone to call the police. Oh, and could tell the cops the brand name of the spray. On an unlit sidewalk.

              Fourth involved two girls and a bicyclist and they couldn’t even agree on which way he had fled — up or down a very steep hill.

              Another involved a report of a woman screaming at the 7 am police shift change — *both* shifts went and scoured Southwest but couldn’t find any women, screaming or otherwise, as it was 7am on a cold November morning and everyone was still in bed.

              There were more, but it happened…

    2. And, you have knowledge of a left wing swatter who has been identified and not prosecuted? This is not an easy crime to solve, unless the guilty party is a serial moron, as appears to be the case with Denton. I know of some credible allegations against some left wing nutjobs, but no good evidence. You know differently?

  8. Swatting would be a lot less dangerous if the police tried to keep people safe and healthy as their paramount objective. Instead the police enforce laws and fight crime. Safety is somewhere on their list but not at the top.

    1. Swatting rarely comes in to emergency dispatch centers. Typically it’s through a non-emergency or off-hours secretary, who then transfers the call. Why? It’s harder to trace.

      So it would also be less dangerous if dispatchers were trained to be suspicious of possibly false calls and not send SWAT teams out.

      Police also need to change their tactics. A single call should not set off a dangerous chain of events.

      1. A swatting attempt was made in a small town in western Massachusetts. The officer who took the call knew the voice didn’t belong in the household it was allegedly coming from. Nobody died.

        I think there are a lot of departments that will be cautious. You don’t hear about those. You hear about the ones who are ready to blow some punk away, whether because they are trigger happy or because the call sounds plausible for the bad neighborhood.

        1. The Melrose Police didn’t have that level of discretion and responded to a “computer generated voice” to the home of Congresswoman Katherine Clark (D-MA).

        2. And just this week in western Massachusetts, high schoolers blacked out the orange tips of their toy guns for a game. Police did not shoot any of them.

  9. My impression is that most swatting is not left-wing or right-wing, but rather done for personal reasons (e.g,, a divorced couple mad at each other).

    But doing so for ideological reasons is worse, because such people feel they can break all boundaries in pursuit of their ideology.

  10. “Many of the conspirators, including Denton, chose targets because they were motivated by racial animus.”

    But this was not mentioned in the press release about the guilty plea and was not the offense he pleaded guilty to. And I don’t care enough to pay for PACER to see the PSR; the sentence is adequate even if he only swatted 134 straight white guys.

    “The group’s targets have included racial minorities, the Jewish community, the LGBTQ community, the U.S. government, journalists, and critical infrastructure.”

    Try 134 times at random and you are going to get Jews, Ls, Gs, Bs, probably some Ts, and probably some Qs. Maybe both kinds of Q, the kind that comes before + and the kind that dresses up in a costume and storms the Capitol.

Please to post comments