Saskatoon

Saskatoon teen charged with 'swatting' bomb threat that closed Princeton University in September

A fake bomb threat forced Princeton University in New Jersey to shut down last September. Police say a 15-year-old Saskatoon boy is responsible.

15-year-old boy arrested while travelling with family in Louisiana

The art museum, library, chapel and study hall at Princeton University were closed. (Princeton University)

American police say that a 15-year-old boy in Saskatoon made a false bomb threat in September that closed the art museum, library, chapel and study hall at Princeton University in New Jersey.

U.S. investigators also allege the teen made a similar swatting call to an unspecified location in Connecticut.

Swatting is when someone dials 911 with a fake emergency call, such as a bomb threat or active shooter, disguising their identity and location by using computer software. The name derives from police responding to the calls with their special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams.

Police allege that the Saskatoon teen manipulated the phone system to make it appear the Princeton bomb threat was coming from New Jersey — not another country.

The university alert from Sept. 19, 2020. (Twitter)

In a March 25 news release, Saskatoon police said the boy had been arrested in Louisiana.

"This individual committed many other calls to law enforcement agencies, schools, universities, airports, businesses, and personal residences, threatening violence with weapons had occurred and people were critically injured," the news release said.

"All of the incidents committed by the individual were false yet incited panic and fear, and cost tens of thousands of dollars in emergency response throughout both Canada and the U.S. Thankfully, no persons were injured as a result."

The ongoing investigation involves local, state and national police across the U.S. and Canada. The agencies include Saskatoon Police Service, Edmonton Police Service, the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, the United States Secret Service, the Regional Enforcement Allied Computer Team (REACT), Princeton University police and the Louisiana State Police.

None of the agencies contacted wanted to talk on the record about the investigation.

Investigation predated Princeton bomb threat

But a law enforcement officer in Louisiana close to the investigation was authorized to speak on background about the role played by the sheriff's office in St. James Parish, where the teen was arrested March 24.

The tiny community of Vacherie, La., is on the banks of the Mississippi River in St. James Parish, midway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. It's home to about 7,000 people split between two subdivisions.

The community's known for its historic Oak Alley Plantation and as a filming location for the first season of the TV series True Detective starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.

The Saskatoon teen was arrested at a residence in South Vacherie, the officer said. The arrest capped a cross-border investigation that began a full two weeks before the bomb threat at Princeton.

On Sept. 3, 2020, the Saskatoon and Edmonton police services joined with police in the U.S. to investigate "a youth engaged in 'swatting' activities on both sides of the border," said the Saskatoon police news release.

On Sept. 19, the bomb threat was made against Princeton. Around the same time, a threat was made to an unspecified location in Connecticut. The FBI in Connecticut declined interview requests.

On Nov. 19, Saskatoon police executed a search warrant on a home in Saskatoon and "seized evidence of the [swatting] offences." The release did not say whether the home was occupied or any charges laid. 

An oak tree and cane fields near Vacherie, as featured in True Detective. (Louisiana Travel)

The search warrant information is sealed and police said they will not be identifying the address.

In early March, the Princeton University police reached out through the FBI to the St. James Parish Sheriff's Office. The officer said they wanted to confirm the teen and his family were in Vacherie.

"We were able to 100 per cent identify that he was at the residence. It's a residence in a pretty nice subdivision," the officer said. 

Officers got a search warrant and went to the house on March 24.

"We did not know if the family would be co-operative so we obtained a search warrant for the juvenile person and also electronic devices, just in case," the officer said.

"And when they did consult with the family, they were very co-operative with us and we were able to take him into custody without any incident at all."

According to the officer, the boy's family had travelled from Saskatoon to Chicago to New Orleans and then on to Vacherie.

"We were told by the family that he was still enrolled in virtual classes with a school he goes to in Canada," the officer said.

The officer did not know how investigators connected a teen in Saskatoon with a bomb threat in New Jersey, or how the authorities learned that the teen's family would be travelling to Vacherie.

Extradition to N.J. pending

The officer said the teen had a detention hearing within 72 hours of his arrest. 

"We had Princeton University Police Department participating in this and we also had Connecticut FBI participating because they had most of the facts of the case," the officer said.

"The judge determined he should stay in custody."

At a second appearance, the boy's parents were asked whether they'd return their son willingly to New Jersey to face charges "but they declined to do that."

The teen is charged with "one count of second degree false public alarm for calling in a bomb threat at Princeton University on Sept. 19, 2020," said Casey DeBlasio, a public information officer with the Mercer County prosecutor's office in New Jersey.

"He is pending extradition back to New Jersey."

The officer in Louisiana said there is no date yet set for the teen's next hearing. He remains in custody in a Louisiana juvenile detention centre.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dan Zakreski is a reporter for CBC Saskatoon.

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