10/17/2007

SWAT team storms sleeping family after teen hacks into Calif. 911 system

By Garrett Therolf
The Los Angeles Times

LAKE FOREST, Calif. The Lake Forest couple were asleep in their house with their two toddlers when a SWAT team alerted that a killer was on the loose stormed the residence with a helicopter circling overhead and police dogs prowling the perimeter.

Deputies handcuffed the couple at gunpoint in their backyard as the night in the south Orange County suburb turned dramatic.

Now, eight months later, a young man from Washington state is being blamed for an elaborate hoax that blended high-tech planning with a juvenile prank.

Randal T. Ellis, 19, of Mukilteo was arrested Friday on charges of hacking into a telephone network to trick Orange County's 911 dispatchers into sending the SWAT team to the home of a randomly selected Lake Forest family, authorities said Tuesday.

Ellis allegedly impersonated a caller from the Lake Forest home shortly before midnight March 29, saying that he had murdered someone in the house and threatened to shoot others.

Hacking into systems maintained by America Online and Verizon, Ellis allegedly used the couple's names, which he had confirmed earlier in a prank call to their home.

The Orange County Sheriff's Department dispatched a SWAT team and surrounded the home with dozens of officers, dogs and a helicopter.

As the children of Stacey Cerwin-Bates and Doug Bates slept, Doug Bates thought he heard a prowler outside and grabbed a kitchen knife.

When he entered the backyard, deputies armed with assault rifles confronted Bates and handcuffed him and his wife until officers were able to determine that the report was fake.

Authorities spent more than six months tracking down Ellis before arresting him in his hometown last week.

He was in the process of being extradited to California on Tuesday and was charged with false imprisonment by violence and assault with an assault weapon by proxy. The crimes carry a possible prison sentence of 18 years.

Elizabeth Henderson, the assistant Orange County district attorney in charge of the economic crimes unit, said sheriff's and district attorney's investigators spent much of the intervening time piecing together the steps Ellis allegedly took to execute his scheme.

"It was fairly difficult to unravel," she said.

In the end, investigators said, they discovered evidence that he had committed the scam in at least three other states Arizona, Washington and Pennsylvania since 2005.

That evidence has been given to authorities in those states, but it is unclear if they will press charges.

"Not everyone holds onto the 911 tapes that you may need to prosecute," Henderson said.

Few details were released about Ellis' background or how he acquired his alleged computer expertise.

A police source said he had a juvenile criminal record in Washington but that he had not been accused of a similar hacking scheme.

Among hackers, the technique in which a prank call is made to 911 dispatchers is known as "SWATting."

"It's not a vulnerability that you can protect against," Henderson said. "Ellis could have been anywhere, even internationally."

In 2006, Deputy Assistant U.S. Atty. Gen. Barry Sabin told Congress that 30 to 40 such incidents had occurred nationwide.

The Lake Forest incident was the first to occur in Orange County, local authorities said.

Neither Ellis nor the Bates family could be reached for comment.

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times

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