Online feud led to Delaware bomb threats, nationwide manhunt

Xerxes Wilson

| Delaware News Journal

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What is swatting? An explainer

Swatting, a cybercrime, is intended to get innocent people arrested or injured by the police.

Rodney Allen Phipps knew federal authorities were on to him by the end of 2018.

Federal agents had already met with the Georgetown man twice over two years. During those meetings, they played recordings of him calling police departments across the country pretending to be people he was feuding with online.

In those calls, he’d tell police things like: “I just killed my dad.” And, “The second I see a cop, I am gonna put a hole in them,” prompting police to crash down on his rivals’ homes, sometimes in the middle of the night.

The feds also knew Phipps, 30, had been the victim of the same stunt when one of his online rivals called in bomb threats at a local high school and the Georgetown Wal-Mart in 2018.

PREVIOUSLY: Man in swatting hoax that locked down a Delaware school, evacuated Walmart pleads guilty

But he wasn’t arrested during those meetings with federal investigators and when agents signaled that they were looking to bring charges, he ran. Over the succeeding months, officers could only catch glimpses of him online.

Phipps traveled from state to state, but agents captured him soon after seeing him speaking in an online chatroom and making threats toward an investigating FBI agent and his family.

“I don’t know if he likes roses or mums in his coffin,” he said of the agent.

In another recorded online chat, he trashed a federal prosecutor.

“She has a cocaine problem,” he said. “She literally snorts cocaine in Philadelphia clubs.”

In the same chat, he bragged that he was in Juarez, Mexico, not on the run, but on an extended vacation. He explained that he had paid for a “sh** load” of plane and train tickets with cryptocurrency so investigators would have work to do.

And if they did find him, they’d be shot, he bragged. He added that he found it “hilarious that the … American FBI agents are going to send some American police over to Juarez looking for me and they are going to wind up dead.”

But his downfall was not that dramatic.

After about three months on the run, in June 2019, local police found Phipps asleep on a sidewalk in a California town about an hour north of the Mexican border.

They ran his name, saw he was wanted by the feds, and the game was up.

Swatting battle

On Tuesday, Phipps will stand in front of a federal judge and be sentenced after pleading guilty to six federal felonies related to making threats online.

His attorney did not respond to a request seeking comment.

The sentencing will bring closure to a strange saga in which insults online led to real-world fears, including bomb threats at local schools.

Prosecutors say Phipps’ crimes followed a familiar pattern. He would disguise his phone number and call police departments around the country. He’d pretend to be someone he was feuding with on the internet and tell the police he had either committed or was soon to commit a heinous act.

To ensure a heavily armed police response, Phipps would often make an explicit threat to shoot officers attempted to respond to the call. And time after time, in several states, police swarmed his unwitting rivals’ homes. In some cases, police arrested Phipps’ targets before realizing the ruse, prosecutors said.

Such schemes, which cause police and SWAT teams to respond to fake emergencies, are known as “swatting.”

Other times, he’d simply post his rivals’ personal information, including everything from family member information down to the VIN number of his target’s vehicle, according to prosecutors.

He did this multiple times, targeting multiple people across at least five states, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors say his conduct could not only have led to people actually being hurt, but also did waste police and emergency-responder time and money.

Prosecutors said instances of swatting have spread from a prank among gamers to greater prominence used from white supremacists targeting minorities to others seeking to terrorize public officials.

“One of the reasons swatting has proliferated is because those who engage in the practice believe they can do so with impunity,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Jesse Wenger in a letter addressed to Phipps’ sentencing judge.

Federal prosecutors say the crimes deserve four and a half years in prison.

Local bomb threats

While Phipps targeted people in several states from his home in Delaware, the swatting incident Delawareans are probably most familiar with was actually targeting Phipps.

One of Phipps’ victims was Stephen Landes of New Mexico. Landes told federal authorities the two met online and that they “hate each other.” He detailed a tit for tat of retaliation between him and Phipps that led to real-world fear for others.

Phipps is accused of calling local police where Landes lived and making repeated threats to get police to show up at Landes’ house. He also made calls to Landes’ wife’s employer, trying to get her fired, prosecutors said.

In turn, Landes admitted to making bomb threats at a Delaware school and Georgetown Walmart in May 2018, months after Phipps targeted Landes, prosecutors wrote in court documents.

PREVIOUSLY: Chronic ‘swatting’ hoaxer becomes victim of long-distance bomb hoax, police say

Landes, who would later tell an FBI agent that he was “(expletive) done” with Phipps, called the Walmart in Georgetown once to make sure he had the right number and again to make a bomb threat, according to court documents.

He pretended to be Phipps and told the manager that he had two hostages, according to court documents.

Landes hung up, then about 15 minutes later called Georgetown Elementary School, according to court documents.

Again pretending to be Phipps, he told an employee that he once attended the school and that he had two children who were buried alive in his basement, court documents said.

Georgetown Elementary School was put on lockdown and the nearby Walmart on College Park Lane was evacuated.

Police swarmed Phipps’ home in Georgetown that day, according to court documents.

Landes was sentenced to two years and three months in prison for the threats.

Contact Xerxes Wilson at (302) 324-2787 or [email protected] Follow @Ber_Xerxes on Twitter.

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