Cops surround home of video game exec after high-tech hoax

SAMMAMISH, Wash. -- The constant sound of the helicopter whirring overhead startled Janette Gould out of bed around 4 a.m.

"It was so loud and it lasted for 45 minutes. A very long time," Gould said Thursday. "It's very unusual. We never have airplane activity in this neighborhood. I was thinking it was a flight for life."

Police did, too - fearing an armed intruder was holding a family hostage just up the street.

"The caller said he had an assault rifle and he had placed explosives in the yard and he was holding a family hostage," said Nathan Elledge, chief of police at the Sammamish Police Department. "He wanted $20,000 to release the family."

Emergency vehicles rushed to the scene. A SWAT team was put on standby. A sheriff's office helicopter hovered overhead.

"They are responding as if this is an in-progress hostage situation," Elledge added.

Turns out, there was no hostage situation - just a family sleeping inside. The home belongs to a high-up executive at Bungie, the Bellevue-based video game developers behind "Halo," "Destiny," and more. It took police nearly an hour, however, to figure out the executive was okay, asleep, with no armed intruders around.

Detectives later determined the call didn't come from inside the house, as first thought, but instead was generated by a network of computers. Police call it "swatting," where officers are sent on a phony emergency, often because someone is able to trick dispatchers into thinking an emergency call is coming from somewhere else.

This summer, police were fooled into thinking a young man in Lake Stevens had shot his father. Around the same time, Redmond officers swarmed a middle school after a caller phoned in a fake threat.

"They haven't been able to unravel the knot of where it comes back to," said Deputy Jason Houck with the King County Sheriff's Office of Thursday's call. "They were able to tell there were no bombs in the yard, no one with a rifle holding the family hostage."

Officers eventually reached the homeowner, who came out in his bathrobe, Houck said.

"He seemed very confused at what was going on," Houck added.

A Bungie spokeswoman said the victim is okay and didn't want to discuss the incident.

Detectives believe the suspect has ties to the video game community.

"Maybe a contractor for his work or someone at his work who didn't have a great experience with him," Houck added.

If caught, the caller faces up to a year in jail, along with a $5,000 fine. Elledge also warned that false calls tie up precious resources.

"This is not a game. This is a very serious response that could've had serious consequences and we're just fortunate that didn't happen this time," Elledge said. "It puts officers' lives at risk when you respond to something this serious. It puts the citizens' lives at risk."