How a grandpa’s death — and lucrative Twitter handle — sent US man to prison

The 'swatting' attack was part of a 10-month campaign in 2019 and 2020 waged by Sonderman and several others targeting people with desirable social media account names, prosecutors said. — Reuters

Mark Herring was sitting on his front porch in Middle Tennessee when law enforcement showed up with their guns drawn on April 27, 2020, according to federal prosecutors.

As he walked toward them with his hands up, Herring fell to the ground, the government said.

He never woke up.

The 60-year-old grandfather was the victim of a “swatting” campaign by a group of people who wanted to wrest control of his Twitter handle, “@Tennessee,” and sell it online to the highest bidder. But none of the emergency responders on scene knew that, prosecutors said.

Herring died of a heart attack. Now, more than a year later, a 20-year-old who lived three and a half hours away at the time of Herring’s death has been sentenced for his role in the “swatting” campaign.

Shane Sonderman was ordered to spend five years in prison after he pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges in March, the US Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Tennessee said Tuesday in a news release. Sonderman is from Lauderdale County on the Arkansas border.

On the day of the “swatting” attack, the government said, Sonderman shared Herring’s address and phone number on the social media app Discord where others could see it.

A person with a British accent made a 911 call, according to court documents. He claimed to be at Herring’s address in Sumner County, Tennessee, just northeast of Nashville, and said he shot a woman in the back of the head and killed her. If police responded, the caller reportedly said, he would place pipe bombs at the entrances to the home. That led to the police showing up at Herring’s home.

Herring appeared to stumble and fall while walking toward law enforcement with his hands up after they arrived, the government said in court documents. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

The “swatting” attack was part of a 10-month campaign in 2019 and 2020 waged by Sonderman and several others targeting people with desirable social media account names, prosecutors said. “Swatting” is when individuals make hoax 911 calls reporting fake emergencies to send first responders to a person’s home, often armed, as a form of harassment.

Sonderman and his team made fake social media accounts to find their targets — typically users with “simple, catchy, interesting, and descriptive user names that other social media users might desire to have,” prosecutors said in the indictment.

If the users willingly gave up the name, the group would reportedly put it up for sale on internet forums where highly-desirable usernames have sold for thousands of dollars, court documents state.

But if the person refused, prosecutors said, Sonderman and his crew bombarded them with phone calls and text messages to try and force their hand.

One of their victims was a person living in Oregon whose Instagram handle they wanted. When the person refused to give it up, the group reportedly spent months harassing the person and their parents.

According to the indictment, they had food delivered to the parents’ house that hadn’t been paid for, called in a fake fire at their home and sent cryptic text messages demanding the username be turned over. Sonderman is accused of leaking the parents’ address.

He was charged by a criminal complaint in May 2020 and released on bond, court filings show. A grand jury indicted him a few weeks later.

Sonderman pleaded guilty to one count of the four-count superseding indictment in March.

His bond was revoked the following month after prosecutors said he violated the terms of his release by harassing people online for their social media handles again. The government pointed to the violation in sentencing documents as evidence that Sonderman has not accepted responsibility for his actions.

Defense attorneys for Sonderman had asked for a lesser sentence, saying he was a teenager when the crime occurred and has no criminal history. They also said Herring’s death was the result of a heart attack and not any “use of force” by Sonderman.

“Defendant Shane Sonderman is 20 years of age,” they said. “He is at the beginning of his young life, and unfortunately finds himself in a situation of his own making through youth and inexperience.” – The Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service

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