US student paid 'swatters' in bitcoin to phone bomb threats to school

Garrison, who was arrested Wednesday, appeared in Dane County Circuit Court on Thursday, where he was ordered released on a signature bond and banned from being at any Madison School District property. — Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash

A 17-year-old Memorial High School student, who according to court documents admitted to running an online service that trafficked stolen online account passwords for money, also admitted he paid others who ran online "swat" services to phone bomb threats to the school on his behalf, a criminal complaint states.

The complaint charged Joseph H. Garrison with five counts of making a bomb threat, three counts of making terrorist threats and one count of attempted bomb threat, all as party to a crime. The charges relate to threats made against Memorial High School on five occasions between Feb 28 and April 27, all through a third party Garrison paid in bitcoin to phone in the threats, the complaint states.

Some of the calls announced that there were bombs in or near the building, or threatened a school shooting. One said grenades would be thrown at the school. No explosives were found after any of the calls.

Garrison is also suspected of having connections to two other "swatting" incidents at schools in Pennsylvania and Texas, according to the complaint.

"Swatting" is falsely calling police to report violent or threatening situations in order to draw a large or heavily armed police response to a location. It is generally done to harass the target of the police response.

Garrison, who was arrested Wednesday, appeared in Dane County Circuit Court on Thursday, where he was ordered released on a signature bond and banned from being at any Madison School District property.

Attorney Eduardo Castro, appearing with Garrison, objected to that condition, telling Court Commissioner Brian Asmus that it was effectively a suspension or expulsion for Garrison, when those matters are handled by school districts through a process laid out in state law.

But Asmus said he does not believe that law is intended to usurp his authority to set conditions of bond.

"I don't think I should abdicate my responsibility to protect the public and make people feel safe at school," Asmus said.

In a statement released Thursday, the Madison School District said the safety and security of students and staff is a top priority for the district.

"These threats caused a tremendous amount of anxiety for our scholars, families and staff, and we are relieved to hear the investigation continues to progress," the statement reads. "However, we are saddened to hear the person in custody is connected to our school. We appreciate MPD for their diligent work on this case, especially due to the impact it had on our school community."

Online exchanges

According to the complaint:

After Garrison became a suspect, he met with police on June 14. During the interview, police showed Garrison a screenshot from social media that exposed him as the operator of an online service that sold stolen online account credentials to enable fraud.

Garrison said he was paid for stolen credentials in bitcoin or through Cash App, and that the service at its peak made US$15,000 (RM66,667) per day. He said at one point he had an estimated US$800,000 (RM3.5mil). Garrison denied knowing anything about the Memorial threats, but allowed police to search his cellphone and two computers.

On his cellphone, police found screenshots of what appeared to be threats demanding the balance of Garrison's cryptocurrency holdings, which threatened "swat" calls would be made against him or his family if he didn't comply.

During a second interview, Garrison denied knowing who sent the threats, but ultimately admitted knowing people who made "swatting" calls for money. At first, he denied ever using such a service, but ultimately admitted he did.

On his phone, police found a long text conversation between Garrison and a contact, and in it is a conversation about a bomb threat made to Memorial on Feb 28.

A probable cause affidavit filed with Garrison's case states that before the threat was made, Garrison wrote to his contact, "I am bored as (expletive). Wanna go home."

Later, around 10am, he sent the contact an image of a text conversation with another person concerning the threat. He then wrote, "swat man." The bomb threat was reported at 10.48am.

In a conversation on March 1, Garrison bragged about getting a lockdown to happen at a school in Pennsylvania that a friend apparently attends. The same day, in a conversation with another contact, Garrison provided bitcoin to that person for a second bomb threat at Memorial. Two calls were made to Memorial that day. Another conversation between Garrison and that person precedes another threat call made to Memorial the following day.

In addition, there are conversations with Garrison's initial contact on April 27, the day that Memorial again received a bomb threat and one occurred at Vandergrift High School in Austin, Texas, where Garrison's contact is apparently a student. Despite the threat, the contact reported still having to take a test. Garrison reported that since that threat didn't work, another contact was carrying out one against Memorial. – The Wisconsin State Journal/Tribune News Service

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