MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A Tennessee man was sentenced to five years in prison this week for his role in an international “swatting” scheme that led to a person’s death, The Commercial Appeal reported.
Authorities said Shane Sonderman, of Lauderdale County, worked with others, including a minor in Great Britain, to try to force people to hand over control of desirable social media usernames through harassment, including swatting. Swatting is an illegal practice of falsely reporting life-threatening emergencies at a person’s home, causing heavily armed police, and sometimes SWAT teams, to rush to the scene.
In this case, Sonderman, 20, provided contact information to a co-conspirator about Mark Herring, of Sumner County, who controlled the Twitter handle @Tennessee, according to court documents.
On April 27, 2020, that co-conspirator called Sumner County police to say “that he had shot a female in the back of a head and she was dead, and that he would use pipe bombs placed at the front and back doors if police responded,” according to a statement signed by federal prosecutors. The address the caller gave was Herring’s home.
“Emergency responders were dispatched, and when they arrived at Herring’s home, guns drawn, they called for Herring to walk toward them, keeping his hands visible. As he did so, Herring, 60, appeared to lose his balance and fell to the ground, unresponsive. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital; cause of death was determined to be a heart attack,” court records state.
Sonderman entered a guilty plea to conspiracy in March.
Herring’s relatives told WKRN-TV in Nashville in a recent interview that Herring was a tech-savvy grandfather who joined Twitter in the early days when many handles were still readily available. They said an anonymous caller contacted Herring on the day he died, demanding he hand over control of the @Tennessee handle, but he refused.
“He just wanted to be @Tennessee because he loved the Vols,” daughter Corinna Fitch told the station, referring to the University of Tennessee football team.
Sonderman and his co-conspirators are accused of using similar harassment tactics with other people, including a victim in Oregon called K.G. in court papers. They are accused of harassing K.G.’s parents in Ohio by sending unwanted deliveries of food and by falsely reporting a fire at their house on April 14, 2020.
They then sent K.G. a message reading, “did your parent’s enjoy the firetrucks?” followed by “i plan on killing your parents next if you do not hand the username on instrgam over to me,” according to the indictment. Federal documents list other victims in New York, Virginia and Michigan.
U.S. District Judge Mark S. Norris declined a defense attorney’s plea for leniency on Wednesday, sentencing Sonderman to five years in prison with limited Internet access and requiring him to receive mental health treatment.