MENDOCINO Co., 4/9/23 — For more than a year, hundreds of hoax phone calls about active shooters have been coming into schools in at least 42 states, similar to the ones that hit Mendocino County schools on Monday. Many of those calls have been traced to a man with a thick African or Middle Eastern accent, sometimes as a robotic voice and sometimes as an actual caller, media and local law enforcement investigations have found. More than 450 schools, including colleges, have been hit with reports of active shooters or bomb threats during that period. But the FBI, in charge of the investigation, has issued no guidance at least publicly, and made no arrests. Hundreds of cases have occurred since March 2022, most attributed to a foreign person/company or foreign robocalling.
A Louisiana Parish investigation found hundreds of active shooter threat calls came from the same number, apparently in Ethiopia, almost always to a school or to emergency agencies about schools. If anybody in Mendocino County had been made aware by the FBI of the pattern of threats prior to Monday, nobody had told the public, media or the bulk of law enforcement, all of which were taken by surprise.
But everybody learned very quickly about hoax calls when on Monday first Fort Bragg, then Ukiah, then Willits and then a San Rafael school or schools were hit by similar threats, all on the same day. A huge police response was made (read more here). In several other states from Hawaii to Nevada and Wyoming, other schools were being hit by these Monday calls. The event appears to match a regional, one-day pattern that has emerged in other cases over the past year. Calls come in regional clusters over the course of a day. The FBI has known about these calls being made by the hundreds and perhaps thousands for over a year, but the pattern was not visible in published reports about the cases and the agency was slow to share the information with local law enforcement, both locally and in other jurisdictions contacted by The Mendocino Voice. Although no police departments were critical of the FBI, two private consultants with resumes in law enforcement were, on the condition they remain unnamed.
“This is a significant terrorism campaign in our nation’s history, regardless of who is ultimately found to be responsible,” one retired law enforcement officer said. “More information would help everyone react better to this. It seems that there has been no information offered even to other law enforcement agencies.”
Locally, criticism was confined to social media prophets who spread false rumors all day.
Caller the same man in Fort Bragg and Ukiah
Fort Bragg Police Chief Neil Cervenka said the caller was the same adult male in both Fort Bragg and Ukiah. He did not have access to the Willits case. “It was clearly an adult male. We are only releasing`a heavy foreign accent not common in our area.’” The same caller gave a similar report in Fort Bragg to the one in Ukiah. Some details were different, Cervenka said.
The caller in Fort Bragg reported he was a teacher hiding in a room and even gave a room number. He gave another room number where he said four people had been shot. The police department could see the call wasn’t likely coming from the school, but acted quickly because of the seriousness of the report. There was no such room number at Fort Bragg High, but there was at another Fort Bragg school, so officers were sent to both schools. Playbacks revealed that the caller, in his thick accent, had been saying a room at Fort Bragg High. When police arrived it was lunchtime and there was no sign of problems, but the school was quickly locked down as a precaution..
The chief made a show about the incident with Councilman Lindy Peters, who hosts “What’s Going on” which you can see here.
Meanwhile, terrifying rumors about deaths and four people being shot were broadcast on social media throughout the incident. Huddled in rooms, students with phones read these rumors and called parents. Local circuits were jammed with panicked parents..
“The entire district shut down, and we were all terrified,“ said Fort Bragg teacher Amanda Gray, responding on the MCN listserv. “Nobody knew what was going on.”
Rumors made a bad day worse
In Fort Bragg, scanner traffic was published by some news outlets and rebroadcast on social media, some of it saying people had been shot. One outlet published the race of the non-existent shooter, based on scanner traffic.
“All anybody knew was what was being said on the police radios, which was only what the caller had said,” Gray explained. She added that the rumor-mongering made a bad day worse.
“We spent a really, really long time huddled in the gloom in our classrooms, trying to keep our kids quiet and calm, while social media went nuts with rumors and nobody could learn anything of substance,” she said.
The response was huge in Fort Bragg. Several helicopters from the Coast Guard flew toward Fort Bragg as agencies responded to the call. “Helicopters pounded over the grammar schools, further terrifying the littlest ones, and parents descended in crowds on each school site, driven to desperation by what they were seeing on Facebook and Instagram. It was a cluster, um, hug,” Gray said.
Fort Bragg Fire blocked the road in front of the high school. Local schools went into lockdown, with all students confined to rooms. The dispatch center was inundated with phone calls as were all the police numbers. The caller had engaged and gone back and forth with the dispatcher, Cervenka told Peters on the show. In other parts of the nation, the voice making the hoax calls appeared to be a recorded robocall and made statements in a loop, with no response to questions.
The Mendocino Voice did not report specific details from the calls on police scanner traffic at the time of the incident. Other news outlets did. Cervenka said publishing scanner traffic is a bad idea. “What goes over the police scanner is very rarely what the real incident is,” Cervenka told Peters. “There were a lot of people sharing information that was completely false, based on the scanner traffic that caused a great deal more panic in the community.”
Cervenka said they would not be releasing the call made to the business line of the police department, as it is an ongoing FBi investigation.
The FBI issued only bland statements about public safety when asked about the case on Thursday. The federal government has been slow to respond to the entire matter. NPR, Wired magazine and even Education Week did investigations into this phenomenon, some beginning in March of 2022.
The local Louisiana investigation and NPR turned up a treasure trove of facts about the Ethiopian caller, the NPR story reported. But there was no sign of FBI involvement then, or in October-November of 2022 when NPR, with no help from the feds in sight, documented that more than 190 schools in 28 states had been hit by these callers during that time period. Other sources show clearly that far more calls have been made, possibly into the thousands. NPR also found that the calls would usually come all in one day and then pause for a week or two. Then they would hit all in the same area (such as they did from Hawaii to California on April 3). The Internet is full of dozens of local stories on the hoax calls, usually reported by local television and radio sources, but the story has not made news nationally, though the calls have increased in 2023. The Mendocino Voice contacted the Attorney General’s media line and the FBI without getting any specific responses. Investigations by NPR and others found that a single number in Ethiopia would make single hoax calls all day long, with as little as four seconds in between calls.
The calls, including the ones in Mendocino County were likely made on VOP lines (over the Internet rather than phone lines). While investigations led to Ethiopia, that could be a hoax, the NPR investigation found. The caller had been using the Canadian VOP service TextNow, up until last November. After multiple media outlets, private investigators and law enforcement contacted that company, they cut off all customers from Ethiopia. That has not stopped the calls, although it’s not clear if the caller from last year is the same as the one that has been calling recently. This reporter listened to five recordings, and they all sounded like the same person, the two found in the NPR link from November and three other calls, one recent in a different state. The Mendocino Voice put in public records requests with the county and city of Ukiah, which handles both Ukiah and Fort Bragg calls.
To its credit, the FBI was quick to arrive in Fort Bragg after the fact and take over the investigation, along with its usual ban on communication. “The call was traced to a nonexistent company in a foreign country. It was quite probably a VOIP call, so tracing the call is much more challenging with technology at the local level,” Cervenka said. “Yes, there is connection to the other calls in the USA, which is why the FBI is taking the lead on this and others.”
Mac Hardy, director of operations at the National Association of School Resource Officers, has been following the cases since last year and has yet to hear about any arrests. He said at least 42 states have now been hit with the hoax calls. There have been arrests for crank calls outside of schools, but usually those cases involve someone pulling scams or “swatting” enemies, which is a term that refers to people calling in law enforcement, and possibly the SWAT team to prank or attack someone else.
But the motive for the school cases is as hard to find as the suspect or suspects. Some of the facts are bizarre, such as that some of the calls that this reporter heard are clearly from a robotic, yet heavily accented foreign voice. And why Ethiopia, if indeed the calls originated from there.
In the 1990s, bomb threats were common. Newspapers this reporter worked for did not report on bomb threats as an ethical matter (just as they did not report scanner traffic). Bomb threat reporting made for more bomb threats. Hardy remembers times when a student would leave school and go to a pay phone to make a call. Arrests and confessions were common.
“Then the payphones went away, and the bomb threats did too. Now we have this and it’s totally different.” He said school resource officers can be a big help in such circumstances. Hardy too is baffled that the issue hasn’t gotten more interest from politicians or the national news media.
In working with the nearby National Computer Forensic Institution in Alabama, Hardy and others at the organization have learned how easy it is to disguise one’s location and make calls.He said the issue becomes much worse when it follows a horrible school shooting as this event did. “This is terrorism. Parents, teachers and especially students are being terrorized on a regular basis. Some students suffer trauma. Some don’t ever want to go back to school.”
Fort Bragg does not currently have a school resource officer because of funding/staffing issues, the chief said.
Cervenka too has said the calls are acts of terrorism. “This was an act of terrorism on the United States. If you can imagine the thousands of people impacted by these heinous calls, these sick and twisted acts,” he told Peters.
A juvenile was charged but not arrested for similar calls, all made to historically black colleges and universities in early 2022. All of those were bomb threats.
Campus Safety magazine reported that the FBI has said that other calls to other colleges and universities were made since that teenage caller was put under monitoring (but apparently not arrested). The magazine reported that the second round of calls to at least 250 colleges and to hundreds of other schools are believed by the FBI to be from a foreign source, not another teen.
Read our earlier coverage on the incidents in Mendocino County here: