A Grandfather Died in ‘Swatting’ Over His Twitter Handle, Officials Say

Mark Herring had a fatal heart attack after the police swarmed his house after a fake emergency call. A Tennessee man was sentenced to five years in prison in connection with the episode.

Credit…via Corinna Fitch

Mark Herring was at home in Bethpage, Tenn., one night in April 2020 when the police swarmed his house.

Someone with a British accent had called emergency services in Sumner County and reported having shot a woman in the back of the head at Mr. Herring’s address. The caller had threatened to set off pipe bombs at the front and back doors if officers came, according to federal court records.

When the police arrived, they drew their guns and told Mr. Herring, a 60-year-old computer programmer and grandfather of six, to come out and keep his hands visible.

As he walked out, he lost his balance and fell. He was pronounced dead that same night at a nearby hospital. The cause of death was a heart attack, according to court records.

Mr. Herring had been a victim of “swatting,” the act of reporting a fake crime in order to provoke a heavily armed response from the police.

The caller was a minor living in the United Kingdom, according to federal prosecutors. But the caller knew Mr. Herring’s address because Shane Sonderman, 20, of Lauderdale County, Tenn., had posted the information online, prosecutors said.

On Wednesday, Mr. Sonderman was sentenced to five years in prison after he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy.

“The defendant was part of a chain of events,” federal prosecutors said in court documents. The police “arrived prepared to take on a life and death situation,” prosecutors said. “Mr. Herring died of a heart attack at gunpoint.”

Mr. Sonderman’s lawyer, Bryan R. Huffman, said he had argued for a lesser sentence but believed five years “was fair in light of Shane’s culpability.”

“Mr. Sonderman has expressed his remorse on multiple occasions. He has expressed his regret regarding Mr. Herring’s death,” Mr. Huffman said in an email on Saturday. “Mr. Sonderman’s family had also expressed their remorse. There are many families affected by Shane’s actions, including his own family.”

Mr. Herring was targeted because he refused to sell his Twitter handle, @Tennessee, according to his family and prosecutors.

Smart, blunt and plain-spoken, Mr. Herring had loved computers since he was a teenager and joined Twitter in March 2007, less than a year after it started, his family said.

He knew people wanted his handle, which he chose because of his love for the state, where he had been born and raised, and had rebuffed offers of $3,000 to $4,000 to sell it, his daughter Corinna Fitch, 37, said in an interview.

“He would laugh it off and say, ‘I’m not selling that,’” she said.

The last time Mr. Herring was with his three daughters and their families was a month before his death, at a Sunday dinner hosted by his ex-wife, Fran Herring, who had remained friends with Mr. Herring.

Mr. Herring often came over when Ms. Herring was taking care of the grandchildren and would help bathe them and put them to bed.

“The kids called him Graggie,” because they could not say “granddaddy,” Ms. Fitch said.

He called the hours he spent with his grandchildren “Graggie time.”

“That was his most precious time,” Ms. Fitch said.

Mr. Herring was among at least half a dozen people who were targeted by Mr. Sonderman and “co-conspirators,” who created fake online accounts to find social media users with catchy names, prosecutors said. Mr. Sonderman and his co-conspirators would then contact the holders of those names and ask them to give them up so they could sell them.

If they refused, “Sonderman and his co-conspirators would bombard the owner with repeated phone calls and text messages in a campaign of harassment,” prosecutors said.

They’d have food delivered at the person’s house or report fires at their homes, according to court documents.

“Gonna need the instagram account … or i will continue to swat and harass you and your family,” Mr. Sonderman or one of his co-conspirators wrote in March 2020, according to court documents.

On April 27, 2020, Mr. Sonderman posted the names and addresses of Mr. Herring and his family members on Discord, a texting and talking app. That night, a minor in the United Kingdom made a call falsely reporting a murder at Mr. Herring’s address. (In a statement, Discord said the company has “zero-tolerance for illegal activity on our service, including cases like this that involve swatting, and have invested in dedicated resources to combat these forms of abuse.”)

When the police responded to the false report, they ordered Mr. Herring to climb over the tall cattle gate around his property, according to his family. He offered to open the gate door, but they refused to let him do so, likely because they feared a bomb would go off, said Mr. Herring’s son-in-law Greg Hooge.

Too big to climb over, Mr. Herring struggled to squeeze his large frame under the fence, which had an opening of about one foot above the ground, Mr. Hooge said.

He collapsed soon after he stood back up, Mr. Hooge said. Mr. Herring’s relatives said they had asked for copies of police reports and any body camera footage taken by the authorities on the night of April 27. They said those requests had been denied.

In a statement, Joseph C. Murphy Jr., acting United States Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, said his office would continue to investigate swatting episodes.

“Our office views ‘swatting’ as serious criminal conduct,” Mr. Murphy said. “It needlessly and dangerously ties up first responder resources and disrupts the lives of the victims and others.”

After he pleaded guilty on March 22, Mr. Sonderman continued to “conspire with others to harass people online in order to obtain control of their social media handles,” federal prosecutors said in court records. They did not provide more details and declined to say whether the minor in the United Kingdom could be extradited to face charges in Tennessee.

In a sentencing memorandum, Mr. Huffman said Mr. Sonderman had no criminal history before his arrest but came from an unstable environment and has a family with a “history of severe mental illness.’’

Mr. Sonderman also struggled with mental illness, and his father killed himself two weeks after Mr. Sonderman turned 18, Mr. Huffman wrote.

He described Mr. Sonderman as a young man who “unfortunately finds himself in a situation of his own making through youth and inexperience.”

Since Mr. Herring’s death, other victims of swatting have reached out to Mr. Herring’s family to describe how they have been similarly harassed. Mr. Herring’s relatives said they wanted tougher laws against swatting and more training for police agencies on how to recognize potential fake calls.

“This is going to happen again,” said Mr. Herring’s daughter Casey Monroe, 34. “It’s inevitable.”

Ms. Herring said she hoped the tragedy would force parents to monitor more closely what their children do online.

“You really, really don’t know what they’re doing,” she said. “You think you do, but you don’t.”