By Maria Medina

PALO ALTO (CBS SF) — A hoax call reporting a fatal shooting, children being held hostage and multiple pipe bombs triggered some tense moments in a Palo Alto neighborhood Tuesday night before police realized there was no threat.

The hoax was an example of the practice of known as “swatting;” sending police and emergency services to another person’s address as a prank or harassment.

Palo Alto police said they received a call placed from an untraceable cell phone at 9:16 p.m. Police said the caller identified himself by name and was impersonating a Facebook employee. He then said he had just shot his wife in a home in the 900 block of Emerson St.

He also told police he had his children tied up, had multiple pipe bombs and would harm police if they responded to his house.

“I thought it was possible it was a false alarm,” said Monisha White who lives a few doors down from where the incident happened.

The call triggered a large police response of SWAT officers and trained crisis negotiators. The house was surrounded and bullhorns were used to make contact with the residents.

White said police officers surrounded the home just after 9 p.m. and could be heard telling the residents inside to come out with their hands up.

“Two residents, including one man with the same name as the caller, came outside and had no idea what was going on,” investigators said in a news release.

Officers entered the home and confirmed there was no threat.

“Hoax threats such as this are not only criminal in nature, but they also create a great deal of stress and anxiety for the neighbors,” authorities said.

“We thank the city of Palo Alto for their swift and thoughtful response,” Facebook spokesman Anthony Harrison said in a statement. “They quickly identified this as a prank, and we are glad that our colleague and his family are safe.”

Although Tuesday’s incident ended peacefully for both the police and victims, that’s not always the case in swatting situations.

In 2017, police body camera footage showed officers shooting and killing man in Wichita, Kansas. They believed the man had just told a 911 dispatcher he’d shot his father.

Investigators, however, later discovered the caller was another man hundreds of miles away in California, and that it was all a prank.

“I think it’s unfortunate that some people take advantage of that,” said White.

She’s relieved the call in her neighborhood turned out to be a hoax. But it has residents wondering the identity of the caller, and why he targeted the man living in the home.

“It’s a very safe neighborhood around here and I haven’t heard of a serious incident that requires 20 cop cars in my whole time being here,” White said.

Investigators said the caller could face multiple charges if he is identified. Because he called from an untraceable phone, police said it may be a challenge to locate him.

Anyone with information was asked to call the Palo Alto police at 650-329-2413.

© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Bay City News Service contributed to this report.

Comments (2)
  1. Chuck Lantz says:

    If I drive a car on public roads, I have to register it. If I buy a gun from a dealer, I have to register it. But if I buy a so-called “burner phone”, I don’t have to register it. Since such untraceable burner phones are the ones used for “swatting” as well as other criminal activity, why aren’t there laws requiring registration of some sort when purchasing them?

    The process for such registration could be as simple as requiring the merchant to take a photo of the person buying the phone, plus a photo of their ID, when the phone is being activated at the point of sale. The burner phone itself would be the one used to take the photos, which would then be texted to some government agency. That way, there would be a permanent record of the original owner should that phone be used for criminal activity.

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