BRANDON — Debora Marshall wasn't sure what she was witnessing. She came home from work to find sheriff's cruisers blocking streets in her sleepy Timber Pond subdivision. Deputies with guns drawn and bulletproof vests surrounded her house.
"They had it blocked off at both ends. I thought a murderer was on the loose," she said.
So did the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
Authorities thought her son had killed her.
"My son was home and clueless," Marshall said. "I was at work, and all my neighbors thought I was dead."
In what appears to be the first incident of its kind in Hillsborough County, someone falsely and anonymously reported a murder and hostage situation that easily could have drawn a special weapons and tactics team — and deadly consequences.
Authorities are still investigating that Aug. 9 bogus call. It has since escalated into a federal case, said Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Debbie Carter.
The Sheriff's Office learned the report of the fake emergency came from out of state and was filtered through an online service for the deaf instead of coming through the 911 system.
Marshall, 51, said she believes her son is the victim of "swatting" — a prank hackers and phone phreakers have used for a decade to draw a SWAT team to the door of an enemy.
"I just don't understand how anyone could do this to someone," she said. "I just thank God because my son could have been killed."
• • •
Jonathan Marshall, 21, was home alone as deputies surrounded the house, pushed neighbors inside and blocked access to his subdivision.
He had decided to head over to a neighbor's house and stepped out his front door.
"Get on the ground!" deputies shouted as a stunned Jonathan Marshall saw dozens of guns and rifles pointed in his direction.
He got down. He was cuffed and questioned. Deputies searched for his supposed victims.
The person who reported the emergency said he had killed his mother, had an AK-47, a house full of bombs and a little sister locked in a closet.
Carter said Jonathan Marshall had gotten into an argument with another Microsoft Xbox Live player online.
"This may have been retaliation," she said.
Debora Marshall's neighbors looked at her like she was a ghost as she approached the police tape that afternoon.
Investigators eventually realized the call was a hoax — Jonathan Marshall didn't even have a sibling — and released him.
He was unharmed, but shook from fear the first time he left home afterward, his mother said.
Neighbors told her in the days afterward how afraid they were during the incident, and how scared they were she was gone.
"We're close-knit," Debora Marshall said. "It was really tense around here. Really tense. We just need to heal and they need to heal."
• • •
"Swatters" are out for entertainment, intimidation and revenge, according to the court documents from several convicted pranksters.
From 2002 to 2006, Dallas FBI agents tracked a group of suspected "swatters" who lived all over the country but frequented the same telephone party line.
The FBI said five suspects were responsible for 100 "swatting" calls in 60 cities, with some of the victims in Texas.
The methods of disguise included fake-phone number generating "spoof" cards, hacking phone systems to use someone else's number or using TTY phone services for the deaf.
Several of the now-convicted participants made the false calls to draw SWAT teams to the homes of people more than once. One victim in Victoria, Texas, was "swatted" 12 times.
Most incidents didn't end in violence, only inconvenience for the victim and first responders, according to an FBI fact sheet.
But there were close calls.
In 2007, a California victim heard rustling outside his home and went to check it out after picking up a knife from his kitchen. It was a SWAT team gathering outside. He wasn't injured.
Not every armed suspect a SWAT team is after is so lucky.
• • •
Authorities have tried a number of ways to combat a relatively new crime. The results vary.
In the case of the California victim, a teen from Seattle was sentenced to three years in prison for making the false call. The state formally charged the perpetrator with false imprisonment, assault with a deadly weapon, misuse of the Internet and filing a false emergency report.
Those state remedies haven't been tested in Florida.
When Dallas FBI agents took down the ring of swatters, they were all convicted in federal court of conspiracy to use access devices to modify telecommunications instruments and to access protected telecommunications computers. Some of the stiffest penalties were five years in prison and thousands of dollars in restitution.
Without federal communications laws, states have fewer prosecution options.
Making a false 911 call is a first- degree misdemeanor, which carries a jail sentence of up to one year and a fine of $1,000, according to Florida statutes.
But even then, if swatters use third-party services and don't call 911 directly, they aren't likely to be charged under that law, the Sheriff's Office's Carter said.
Carter said she hopes jail time served by other "swatters" will serve as a sufficient deterrent.
"There's really nothing you can do (to prevent false alarms) when it comes to the 911 system because we so rarely receive Internet calls," Carter said.
Debora Marshall said whoever made the call about her son did so to harm her family. She wants justice. And she wants peace.
"I'd never heard about anything like this," she said. "But my situation compared to others is pretty darn lucky."
Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or firstname.lastname@example.org.