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Far-Right Extremism

FBI Arrests Suspect in Neo-Nazi Swatting Ring That Targeted 'Hundreds'

A neo-Nazi ring allegedly made calls that sent heavily armed police to the homes of people of color, transgender streamers, journalists, among others throughout the U.S. and Canada.

by Mack Lamoureux
Jan 14 2020, 4:59pm

Photo via Alexandrea Sherif Department and Wikimedia Commons. 

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

In the summer of 2018, Andrea Rovenski was on the tail end of a Spyro 2 speedrun when, unknown to her, a contingent of armed police officers started organizing outside of her house in Maryland.

Seeing light reflections on her wall and hearing the muffled sound of someone yelling into a megaphone, Rovenski, a streamer by the name Cyberdemon531, looked outside, saw the authorities, and knew exactly what was happening—she was being swatted. Someone had called 911 pretending to be Rovenski, claiming she had a hostage in the basement.

“I go outside and what I see is maybe five or six police cars and 10 to 15 riot cops,” Rovenski told VICE. “They all have assault rifles and they‘re all pointed at me. You know, my arms are up and, you know, it’s horrifying.”

Rovenski, a transgender streamer who had been doxed previously, was familiar with the idea of swatting—lying to authorities about a dangerous situation in the hopes of getting someone raided by armed officers—but her mother was not. After Rovenski was tackled to the ground by police her mom came to the door and was swarmed by the cops. Rovenski said police weren’t kind to her mother’s disability, preventing her from getting on the ground easily and manhandled her. In Rovenski’s livestream from the event, you can hear her mother screaming.

The experience left the two rattled and Rovenski’s mother with nightmares. Less than two months later Rovenski’s mother suffered a stroke—something Rovenski believes is connected to the extremely stressful event—and never fully recovered.

Over a year and a half later, on January 10, 2020, the FBI arrested John William Kirby Kelley in connection to an online neo-Nazi network tied to “hundreds of swatting calls.” The 19-year-old is charged with conspiracy to transmit a threat and faces five years in prison if convicted. Kelley‘s alleged role in the network was finding and researching potential victims.

One of those victims is alleged to be Rovenski.

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The network Kelley is tied to is an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) called “Deadnet"—a previously accessible chatroom that, according to a criminal complaint filed by an FBI agent, now exists on the dark web. The users were also connected to DoxBin, a dark website that hosted “the personally identifiable information of potential and past swatting targets.” The group used Deadnet to organize and share its swatting exploits and seemingly built a community around the practice—if the person listed on the site was swatted, the group would put a gun next to their name. It would use VPNs and anonymous Google Voice accounts for the calls. Police were able to link “hundreds” of swatting incidents to the group via the use of the moniker “kasey” or “kayla” in the dummy emails, the discussions in the Deadnet chat, and who had control of the Google Voice account when the calls were made. The criminal complaint makes it clear that others involved in the Deadnet chat are under investigation.

The group selected its targets with intent to watch a livestream of the police raid. According to the complaint, Kelley allegedly used the alias of “carl” on Deadnet, and would help identify targets and conduct research to “determine their physical location to direct a swat response to the location of a live video feed.” A staggering table included in the complaint shows the group made enough phone calls in 33 days to affect 134 different law enforcement communities all across North America.

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Just a small portion of the allegedly affected communities. Photo via screenshot

The criminal complaint makes it clear that the group exists in the far-right ecosystem. One individual told law enforcement “he and the other co-conspirators were white supremacists and are sympathetic to the neo-Nazi movement.” After searching Kelley's belongings, police found “recruiting materials for Siege and Atomwaffen.” Siege is a collection of writings by influential neo-Nazi James Mason and Atomwaffen is an infamous neo-Nazi group linked to several recent murders. Kelley was also found with “bumper stickers glorifying school shootings” as well as photos of weapons. As Brian Krebs reported last summer, one of the members of the Deadnet channel and DoxBin claims they run SiegeCulture, an extreme-right site strongly tied to Atomwaffen.

At times the group is alleged to have targeted minorities in their swatting calls. These include a November 3 swatting of a predominately African American church in Kelley’s town in which a member is said to have called up police and say they had planted three pipe bombs in the church and was going to shoot everyone inside. Rovenski says she was targeted because she is transgender.

Swatting has been around in some form since the 70s but grew with popularity in the internet age when phone number spoofing and protection of identifying information became easier. In 2017 a man named Andrew Finch was shot and killed by police after being swatted by people he was playing Call of Duty with. The person responsible for the call was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Rovenski says whether swatting ends in tragedy or not comes down to who is on responding to the call.

“It depends on who's on duty and the police force, what their day has been like,” said Rovenski. “You know if someone was in a bad mood, theoretically, I could have been shot in the street.”

Joshua Fisher-Birch of the Counter Extremism Project, a U.S.-based terrorism watchdog, told VICE doxing and swatting are common “intimidation tactics” used “to target racial, ethnic, or religious groups, harm opponents, or to try to prevent journalists from covering them.”

“These measures can be preventative or retributive, but have the effect of telling an intended target that they’re vulnerable,” said Fisher-Birch. “In recent years, swatting has been used by members of online gaming communities, and it’s no surprise that members of the extreme right, some of whom are members of similar gaming communities or are ‘extremely online,’ would use the same tactic.”

Kelley appears to have been incredibly careless with hiding his identity, according to the criminal complaint. The FBI investigation into Kelley began in November 2018 when the user carl suggested that his group “swat” his school, Old Dominion University in Virginia, as he didn’t want to go to class in the morning. Kelley allegedly called the school saying he was “armed with an AR-15 and had placed multiple pipe bombs within the campus.” Later in the evening, only two and a half hours after the initial call, Kelley is alleged to have accidentally called the school he just swatted. The accidental call spurred suspicion in the campus police and they compared the threat with the voice apologizing for calling. Finding the two voices were similar, and having Kelley’s actual number on file, the campus police decided to visit Kelley.

Kelley also allegedly kept proof of the crimes. When police searched Kelley’s property after his mistaken call they found numerous hard drives that contained evidence of swatting. The complaint states that documents seized during a search of Kelley’s room “show countless examples of swatting activity over an extended period of time.” Within these documents were videos of the swatting, logs of Deadnet, and a video of Kelley explaining why he used his moniker. The other users on Deadnet were none too pleased with the incident.

“First step, DON’T BOMB THREAT YOUR OWN SCHOOL,” wrote a Deadnet user after Kelley’s visit by police. “You hear that carl?”

One of the videos police found among Kelley's belongings focused on the doxing of Rovenski. The criminal complaint says that in video researching her information and chronicling the call and complaint Kelley recorded his full screen, which “show numerous identifying items” such as being logged into his school email and blackboard account. When asked how it felt that the video the young man made gloating about her dox may very well be used as evidence against him, Rovenski was blunt.

“They're neo-Nazis so obviously they're not very smart,” said Rovenski. “It’s just kind of funny, it's irony in its purest form, I think.”

Kelley will next appear in court on January 15.

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