Houston, Texas-Area Teenager Pleads Guilty to “Swatting” and Making Bomb Threats to Minnesota High School
United States Attorney Andrew M. Luger today announced the guilty plea of ZACHARY LEE MORGENSTERN, 19, to calling in multiple false bomb threats, making harassing text messages, and making “swatting” phone calls, in which he falsely reported hostage situations. MORGENSTERN was arrested in Texas on May 14, 2015, and was transported to Minnesota. He pleaded guilty today before U.S. District Judge Joan N. Ericksen in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, Minn.
“‘Swatting’ is dangerous to victims and a significant drain on scarce law enforcement resources,” said U.S. Attorney Andrew M. Luger. “This defendant made swatting attacks, bomb threats and threats to shoot students at schools in Minnesota, in an attempt to harass and intimidate. Schools in Marshall were disrupted by these threats and law enforcement was forced to deploy in order to address imagined hostage situations. The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office will not allow such threats to go unanswered.”
According to the defendant’s guilty plea and documents filed in court, between October 2014 and May 2015, MORGENSTERN, made a series of threatening communications against a number of different victims in the Marshall, Minnesota area. The defendant, cloaking himself in anonymized email addresses, Twitter handles, and Internet-based phone accounts, made threats to kill a police officer and her family; threats to use explosives to blow up a school; and threats to use guns to shoot up a school. MORGENSTERN also engaged in a series of “swatting” attacks, in which he made hoax phone calls to law enforcement making it appear that there was a violent crime in progress at a residence, when in fact no such crime was taking place. The defendant engaged in these “swatting” calls with the intent that they would result in an emergency police response to the residence, ideally involving a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team.
According to the defendant’s guilty plea and documents filed in court, one such attack came on October 7, 2014, when MORGENSTERN called the Marshall Police dispatch center and claimed to have taken two people hostage at a residence of H.M., a minor, in Marshall. MORGENSTERN further claimed that he had shot one of the hostages in the knee cap and that he was going to kill both hostages unless he received a duffel bag containing a half a million dollars. The Marshall Police Department determined that call was a hoax.
According to the defendant’s guilty plea and documents filed in court, beginning on January 6, 2015, MORGENSTERN, claiming to be D.R., a 17-year-old from Marshall, made at least three separate bomb threats to Marshall High School. Approximately four hours after the first threat was called in on January 6, MORGENSTERN used the twitter handle @RIURichHomie, to tweet to D.R., “OOPS. NICE BOMB THREAT. TEEHEEEEEEEE :).” MORGENSTERN later sent a tweet to both D.R. and his friend, S.V., in which he claimed responsibility for the bomb threat.
According to the defendant’s guilty plea and documents filed in court, on January 8, 2015, MORGENSTERN twice called the Marshall Police Department dispatcher. During those calls, MORGENSTERN claimed to have taken hostage a father and son in their home in Marshall. The address provided to police was the residence of D.R. Shortly after each call to Marshall Police, MORGENSTERN tweeted D.R. that he was in the process of “swatting” D.R.
According to the defendant’s guilty plea and documents filed in court, on January 9, 2015, MORGENSTERN called the Marshall Police dispatch and, claiming to be D.R., threatened to “shoot up” Marshall High School in 30 minutes and kill everybody. MORGENSTERN then tweeted from the account, @RIURichHomie that D.R. was going to shoot up a school in 10 minutes. On January 11, 2015, an email was sent to the Superintendent of the Marshall Public Schools, which had purportedly been sent by D.R. The sender claimed to be D.R. and that D.R. and had planted a bomb in at a Marshall, Minn., school that would detonate at 10:00 a.m. the following day. The sender also claimed that he/she would arrive at a different Marshall school at the same time and shoot students and faculty members.
According to the defendant’s guilty plea and documents filed in court, MORGENSTERN engaged in additional threats, harassment, and swatting attacks against individuals in other states. For example, on or about December 24, 2014, the defendant called the Amelia, Ohio Police dispatch center and claimed to be a boy hiding in the closet while a home invasion was in progress. He falsely stated that he was calling from a residence in Amelia, and that three men broke into his house and shot his mother. On or about February 10, 2015, the defendant contacted the Amesbury, Massachusetts Police dispatch center and claimed to be a boy hiding in his closet at an address that was the residence of G.Q, a minor. He falsely stated that four black men had broken into his residence and shot his mother. The call resulted in an armed police entry into the residence, after which police concluded the call was a hoax.
“The multiple calls to law enforcement and the Marshall High School spread fear and taxed the resources of the Police Department and the school,” said Marshall Police Chief Rob Yant. “Even after the first couple of threats, when it appeared that they were being done as a hoax, we had to take them seriously because what if we hadn’t and they turned out to be real? The Internet has made us vulnerable to these types of threats, even when the perpetrator turns out to be halfway across the country, and it has also made it easier for people making the threats to conceal their location and identity. Local police departments do not have the time or the expertise to investigate these cases. That is why we are so grateful for the assistance of the FBI and the US Attorney’s Office in locating and bringing the perpetrator to justice in this case.”
This case is the result of an investigation conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Marshall Police Department.
This case is being prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota.
ZACHARY LEE MORGENSTERN, 19
- Threats to kill, 1 count