The typical Wichita City Council meeting is a dull affair, dominated by bureaucrats droning on about street repairs, zoning codes, and general obligation bonds. But even before the April 17, 2018, meeting was called to order, its atmosphere was electric. As the council’s wood-paneled chambers filled up that Tuesday morning, a dozen or so spectators made a point of settling into the front rows. A group of women wore matching black T-shirts that read "Arrest WPD officer Justin Rapp." And when the police department’s spokesperson came forward to offer the opening prayer, several in the group refused to stand.
Mayor Jeff Longwell, who oversees the weekly meetings, appeared to dread the drama he knew was about to come. After reading an Arbor Day proclamation and cracking a wan joke about his poor gardening skills, he sank into his high-backed leather chair and wearily asked the clerk to call the next item on the agenda. The clerk announced the name of a Wichita resident who’d asked to address the council, as well as her chosen topic: “Lisa Finch. Andrew Finch shooting.”
A woman in the audience got up and walked gingerly down the right-hand aisle. She had fine black hair and matronly eyeglasses, and was clad in sweatpants and a hoodie that were different shades of gray. Once she’d adjusted the lectern’s flexible microphone to suit her modest height, she began to speak in the flat yet steely accent of a proud Kansan.
“The death of my son has changed every iota of my being,” Lisa Finch said, reading from the speech she’d spent weeks writing by hand on ruled paper. “I am astonished by the transformation that has been brought to me. I have a different idea of myself. I have been basically forced to alter everything I do. I do not recognize the person I was before. That person is now a stranger from long ago.”
Her heartfelt rumination soon segued into a stinging critique of Wichita’s police, whom she largely blames for what happened to her son. His death last December, in bizarre circumstances that made headlines around the world, turned Finch into an advocate for holding cops to account when they make fatal errors. Her scrappy campaign for justice has rattled her city, a place where the police are far more accustomed to being admired than scrutinized.
As she spoke at length about her rage and anguish, Finch conspicuously failed to mention the nihilistic Angeleno who has been widely vilified for his role in her son’s death. She goes out of her way to avoid letting this young man’s name cross her lips, even though he has become a global symbol of all that’s rotten in gaming culture. She has never tried to learn about his extensive history of using the internet to sow real-world mayhem. All she knows is that his idea of a prank randomly smashed apart her family on a frigid winter night, and that she’s been adrift in a haze of grief ever since.
The man who called the Glendale, California, police department at 1:52 pm on September 30, 2015, said his name was Alex. In a quiet, almost childlike voice, he stated that he’d placed several backpacks containing bombs inside the news studio of KABC-TV, adjacent to Griffith Park. The bombs would be remotely detonated in 10 minutes.
The studio was evacuated, and as K-9 units swept the premises the news team broadcast its afternoon show from the lawn outside the building. No explosives were found, which is why the response was more muted when an identical threat was phoned into the police nine days later: The bomb squad gave the studio a careful once-over, but the employees stayed at their desks.
Detectives were initially stymied in their efforts to find “Alex.” His calls had come from a number with a Tennessee area code that traced back to a spoofed IP address. Then investigators received a crucial tip: A Cal State Northridge police officer reported that a friend of his, Wendy Gregory, had confided that her 22-year-old grandson was responsible for the ABC bomb threats. The man’s name was Tyler Barriss.
A detective made arrangements to meet privately with Gregory, who had been the primary adult in the young man’s life. Barriss’ father had died in a car accident when Tyler was an infant, and his mother, Gregory’s daughter, had a long history of drug possession and prostitution charges. It had fallen on Gregory to raise Barriss, and he still lived with her in a tiny stucco home in the northwest Los Angeles neighborhood of Chatsworth. Gregory explained that her grandson, who was unemployed and spent most of his time playing online Halo matches on his Xbox 360, had said something odd to her while she’d been watching ABC’s local newscast a few weeks earlier: “Do you think I can clear out that building if I wanted to?” After learning of the first bomb threat, Gregory had confronted Barriss, who readily confessed to the crime. But he’d warned his grandmother not to snitch: If she did, he said, he’d beat her face into a bloody mess and then blow up their house. Gregory knew from experience that her volatile grandson might well make good on his promise.
The police soon went to Gregory’s house to arrest Barriss, a tall and disconcertingly gaunt man with patchy facial hair and melancholy eyes. They also searched his bedroom, where they found an iPhone that contained some 40,000 messages. Examining them, detectives discovered evidence that Barriss was behind a nationwide wave of bomb threats. He had forced the evacuations of numerous high schools and colleges where his Halo friends were enrolled; his goal was to give them a day off class. But he’d also taken aim at more personal targets, such as the middle school for gifted students he’d once attended. Barriss gleefully boasted about his threats on , where he operated multiple accounts under variations of one of his gamer nicknames, Torture God.
The messages also revealed that Barriss’ repertoire of mischief had recently expanded to include a type of hoax known as swatting: A malefactor calls emergency services and claims there’s a violent crisis at his target’s house; the aim is to trick the police into sending a heavily armed SWAT unit to the victim’s house so that its occupants will be both surprised and terrified.
Deceitful internet enthusiasts have been swatting strangers and acquaintances for more than a decade, using VoIP providers and virtual private networks to make themselves difficult to catch. The FBI issued a dispatch about the crime’s rising popularity in February 2008, noting that “individuals did it for the bragging rights and ego, versus any monetary gain.”
- Christopher Raleigh Bousquet
Why Police Should Monitor Social Media to Prevent Crime
- Brendan Koerner
The Young and the Reckless
- Lily Hay Newman
Police Bodycams Can Be Hacked to Doctor Footage
But the members of online communities where swatting is commonplace, such as certain hardcore gaming circles, consider that assessment too simplistic. Though they acknowledge that swatting is obnoxious, they also view it as a necessary form of frontier justice—a surefire way to stop vulgar “keyboard warriors” from slandering or threatening their online associates. “When you’re on the internet and your actions have little weight in real life, and then suddenly that translates into something as physically heavy as a swatting, it makes you realize the weight of your actions on a computer a lot more than you normally would,” says one former Call of Duty fanatic who has taken part in swattings. He maintains that his adversaries usually tempered their behavior after getting startled by a horde of cops: “It did reestablish boundaries on the internet for them and remind them that just because they were behind a computer talking shit, it didn’t mean they were untouchable.”
Barriss himself was swatted by a fellow Halo player in February 2015, but the experience titillated rather than cowed him. “I remember hearing the helicopter hovering over our house for about five minutes before I realized it had to be a police chopper,” he tells me. “How cool would it be, I thought, if I could do that to anyone I wanted. It was just appealing to me, to be able to completely and anonymously own someone like that and not get caught.” Soon after that epiphany, he began to teach himself the skills necessary to swat his enemies. He wrote and revised call scripts, making each one more dramatic yet plausible than the last. He figured out how to obtain temporary phone numbers with area codes that wouldn’t make 911 operators suspicious. And he tried to scrub the internet of his personal information, so his victims would find it difficult to locate his home address and respond in kind.
Barriss quickly became addicted to the thrill of swatting. “It was like a kind of online power,” he says. “Knowing that you’re breaking the law, and knowing that they won’t be able to find you, and knowing you just sent the SWAT team or bomb squad somewhere, and knowing you could do that over and over again.” He crowed to his grandmother about his achievements and described himself to her as a “hacking god.”
But Barriss’ swatting career was interrupted by his arrest for the KABC-TV bomb threats. He pleaded no contest to two felony counts of making a false bomb report and was sentenced to two years and eight months in the Los Angeles County Jail. With credit for time served and good behavior, he was released on January 20, 2017.
The next day, Barriss was arrested for illegally entering his grandmother Wendy’s house. According to police, Gregory lived in constant fear of her grandson and had taken out a protective order against him. Barriss pleaded no contest to violating that order and was sentenced to another 364 days in jail. When he finally went free again that August, after serving about half his term, he moved into a homeless shelter near Exposition Park in South Los Angeles as he waited for a Section 8 apartment to open up. The shelter is a 15-minute walk from a public library, which is where Barriss used the free computers to quietly resume his campaign of terror.
He started with bomb threats again. Barriss had once harbored a vague aspiration to earn fame on the professional gaming scene as a Halo champion; now he sought to make a name for himself by tormenting gamers who’d attained celebrity. In early December 2017, he twice caused the evacuation of a major Call of Duty tournament at the Dallas Convention Center. When the social media star SoaR Ashtronova tweeted about the confusion she felt as she fled the event beneath the whir of police helicopters, Barriss taunted her from one of his Twitter accounts: “It got ran, baby girl. Thats what happens.”
Six days later Barriss tweeted, “Gonna evacuate the net neutrality meeting guys don’t be upset.” That afternoon, the members of the Federal Communications Commission were compelled to scurry out of their Washington, DC, meeting room in response to a bomb threat, delaying a key vote on the future of net neutrality—an issue of vital importance to bandwidth-hungry gamers. Barriss took credit for the incident on Twitter and also marveled at the lack of any law enforcement response. “Where the cops at?” he wrote. “I’m too godly.”
Barriss became addicted to the thrill of swatting. He loved having the power to transform police into playthings as if they were videogame characters.
Barriss orchestrated swattings from the library too. His most high-profile victim was Lisa Vannatta, a Canadian gamer known as STPeach who livestreams to more than 770,000 followers on the video platform Twitch. On December 22, Barriss contacted the Calgary police and pretended that he’d shot his father and was holding his mother and brother hostage inside Vannatta’s apartment. The police surrounded the building with a squad of vehicles—a situation that Vannatta only became aware of after calling a pizza delivery man to check on her order and learning that he couldn’t get her pie through the cordon. Barriss ultimately deemed the swatting a disappointment because Vannatta shut down her Twitch stream before he could watch the cops burst into her apartment. (“Going off stream when I swat you @STPeachy ruining my clout,” he grumbled on Twitter.) Vannatta, meanwhile, was traumatized by the experience; she spent months agonizing over what she might have said or done to merit such hateful treatment.
Barriss became so renowned for his swatting skill that he was able to parlay it into a business. If a client sent him an agreed-upon amount via PayPal—usually $10, but occasionally upwards of $50—Barriss would swat a victim of their choosing; for a price he would also call in bomb threats to schools, though he typically charged a 200 percent premium for that service. Demand swelled whenever he gained fresh notoriety by pulling off a major operation; the week after he twice evacuated the Dallas Convention Center, for example, he claims to have made more than $700. (His only other source of income was $220 a month in government benefits.)
Though he took pleasure in profiting off his sinister craft, he got an even bigger kick out of showing people mercy on occasion: Instead of following through on a swatting, he’d sometimes tell a potential victim that he’d spare them just this once. For someone so on the skids in life, those brief moments of omnipotence were intoxicating.
According to court records, on the afternoon of December 28, 2017, Barriss was at the library when he was contacted by an avid Call of Duty gamer named Casey Viner, known online as Baperizer. Ten days earlier, someone had hired Barriss to swat the 18-year-old Viner’s home outside of Cincinnati. Now Viner wanted Barriss to turn the tables and use his talents to punish a fellow gamer named Shane Gaskill. Viner explained that he and the 19-year-old Gaskill had been teammates in a four-versus-four Call of Duty match on a site that lets gamers compete for cash. Their team had lost the match and a $1.50 wager, in part because Gaskill had killed Viner’s character in a friendly fire incident. A bitter argument ensued, and Viner had sought out Barriss—whom he knew by the Twitter handle @SWAuTistic—to help him exact revenge.
Barriss began to follow Gaskill on Twitter as he gathered the research necessary to carry out the swatting. But Gaskill noticed his new follower and immediately suspected his intentions. He sent Barriss a series of taunting direct messages:
Please try some shit
I’ll be waiting
1033 w McCormick st Wichita Kansas 67217
I’ll have you in prison for 5 years buddy Casey already gave me all the proof I need bahahahahah
Hello pussy bitch say something
Barriss knew just how to respond to such trash talk—with action rather than words. And since he’d now been personally insulted by Gaskill, he decided to do the swatting for free.
When Andrew Finch was in grade school in the early 2000s, he and his three siblings—Adrianne, Dominica, and Jerome—often stayed over at their grandmother’s trailer in eastern Wichita. Late one night when he was 11 years old, he picked up the trailer’s ringing phone and heard the slurred voice of one of his aunts; she was drunk at a bar on the other side of town and needed a ride home. Andy swiped the keys to his sleeping grandmother’s brand-new Dodge Neon and, despite being barely able to peer over the dashboard, drove across the sprawling city to fetch his aunt. His grandmother never found out what he had done, but it wasn’t out of character. The whole family knew that Andy could never resist the urge to try to protect those he loved.
A year after Andy took his illicit jaunt in the Dodge Neon, Adrianne died in a car accident at the age of 20. Their mother, Lisa Finch, took over raising Adrianne’s two young children despite her own difficulties: She was a single mom of three, and she subsisted on disability payments due to a range of serious ailments, including diabetes, hypertension, and mental-health issues that stemmed from childhood abuse. Andy pitched in however he could, taking charge of the housework and serving as a father figure to his niece and nephew while also attending classes at Metro-Boulevard Alternative High School. (The children’s biological father had been deported to Mexico after serving a federal prison sentence.)
But Andy, whom everyone called Snow because his lumpy physique resembled a snowman, lost his way after graduating in 2007. He studied air conditioner repair at a local technical college but dropped out due to boredom. His chief hobby was making elaborate pencil sketches of weeping angels and menacing cartoon characters, so his mother urged him to enroll in a computer-graphics program to capitalize on his artistic talent. But Andy ignored that advice and instead took a series of go-nowhere jobs fixing roofs and laying cement. At 20 he fathered a son, Aiden, with his on-again, off-again girlfriend; the new financial pressure spurred him to get into hustling on Wichita’s streets, where there was easy money to be made in the methamphetamine trade.
It wasn’t long before Andy got into serious trouble with the law. One night in October 2012, he was on his way to a drug deal, gun in tow, when the police tried to pull him over for having the wrong registration tag on his Honda Accord. Andy panicked and sped off, leading to a high-speed chase that ended with the Honda submerged in a residential swimming pool. He eventually served a year in prison, during which time he came to realize that the encounter with the police might have saved his life: If the deal had gone down, there was a good chance it would have ended in gunfire. Andy was alarmed to think he’d come so close to abandoning his mother, who depended on him to help her eat right, take her medications, and care for her grandchildren.
Andy pulled back from the streets after his prison stint, then left them for good when his girlfriend gave birth to his second child, Danica, in March 2016. He got a job cooking burgers at a Sonic Drive-In to provide for the two kids, who lived with their mother. In his free time he practiced tattooing friends, with an eye toward someday working in a tattoo shop. He also found comfort in faith for the first time, regularly attending services at a small brick church run by an ex–gang member who is also a Christian rapper.
In early 2017, Andy and his mother went looking for a new house to rent. Andy’s favorite was a Victorian in a seedy neighborhood west of downtown. Lisa was put off by the fact that a flock of blackbirds had taken advantage of some broken windows to colonize the attic; the avian trespassers struck her as an ill omen. But Andy loved the old house and dreamed of building a firepit in the backyard, while Lisa liked that her grandchildren’s high school was just a five-minute walk away. That March, the Finches moved into 1033 West McCormick Street.
Though it looked decrepit, the house stayed warm enough when the next winter hit in December. Three days after Christmas, the outside temperature dipped into the mid-20s after the early sunset. Wearing shorts and a gray hoodie, the 305-pound Andy splayed out on the living room couch to fiddle with his phone. His niece Adelina, who was 17, and his mother were relaxing in their bedrooms; two of their three other housemates were home too. At 6:27 pm, Andy thought he heard a noise outside. He knew the kids’ friends often drove through the alley on the west side of the house, and he got up to see who might be dropping by to visit. He couldn’t tell much by looking out the foyer’s narrow windows, however. So he opened the front door.
Though the Wichita City Hall closes at 5 pm on weekdays, a civilian employee of the police department works the night shift to field whatever calls come into the building. The one he received at 6:10 pm on December 28 came from a soft-spoken man who he thought said something about his mother hitting his father with a gun. The employee tried to transfer the call to 911, but the connection got lost in the process.
The caller, whose number bore a local 316 area code, rang City Hall again at 6:15 pm, and again the transfer to 911 failed. On the third try the call went through, and the 911 operator picked up at 6:18 pm. She asked the caller for his address.
“Um, I’m at one, zero, thirty-three West McCormick Street,” the man replied. “I just shot my dad in the head. ’Cause he was arguing with my mom, and it was getting way out of control.”
“Is that a house?” the operator asked.
“Yeah, it’s a house. My mom and my brother are really scared right now, so I’m just pointing a gun at them and holding them in the closet right now.”
“And what’s your name? What’s your name, hon?”
The caller went on to say that he hadn’t meant to kill his dad and that he was now thinking about lighting the house on fire and committing suicide. Seconds after he made that last statement, the line went dead.
By 6:24 pm, several Wichita police officers were already on the scene—not members of the department’s SWAT unit or anyone trained in hostage negotiation, but rather patrolmen who’d been in the vicinity when the initial radio alert went out. No one informed them that the alleged hostage-taker had first contacted City Hall rather than 911, an irregularity that suggested something might be amiss.
Two of the officers glanced up at a second-story window and saw what they thought was the silhouette of a person bobbing up and down; one of them remarked that it could be someone performing CPR. A pack of officers soon began to creep toward the front porch from the east; three of their colleagues positioned themselves directly across West McCormick Street, about 40 yards away, so they could provide cover fire if necessary. The cops’ hastily concocted plan was to make contact with the hostage-taker by using a public-address system.
But before the sergeant with the PA could make his first announcement, the wooden front door to the house cracked open. Andy Finch emerged, pushed the exterior screen door ajar, and took a small step onto the porch.
Blinding white lights were trained on Andy’s body as voices yelled at him from multiple angles to raise his hands. Andy did as he was told, but then he lowered at least one of his arms toward his waist—perhaps because he was instinctively recoiling from the sudden assault of light and sound, or perhaps because he was bewildered to find himself in a very different situation than what he could have possibly imagined.
Andy’s inability to become a human statue amid disorienting circumstances sealed his fate. An officer named Justin Rapp, who was across the street and viewing the scene through his rifle’s nonmagnifying scope, made a snap judgment: The figure on the porch had to be reaching for a weapon. Rapp fired a .223 round that nicked the edge of the partially open screen door, then ripped through Andy’s chest, puncturing his heart and knocking him backward into the house.
Adelina Finch rushed down the stairs to find her uncle bleeding on the foyer floor. As she tried to comprehend the surreal sight, the police stormed the home. They hustled her, Lisa, and their housemates out a side door to the sidewalk, where they were handcuffed and made to wait in the 24-degree chill as the police searched for the nonexistent family of “Ryan.” No one told them a thing about Andy’s condition. (The Wichita police refused to respond to multiple requests for comment about that night or its aftermath.)
As the police tore through the house, flipping over dresser drawers and the plastic tubs that contained Lisa’s knickknacks, Tyler Barriss once again called the Wichita City Hall and asked to be connected to 911; he couldn’t dial the number direct from Los Angeles. Unaware that the swatting had already gone monstrously awry, Barriss told a slightly more detailed version of his story: He had shot his father in the head with a black handgun, and he was forcing his mother and little brother, Alex, to stay in a closet in their one-story house. “Yeah, I’m thinking about, um, ’cause I already poured gasoline all over the house, I might just set it on fire,” he said.
When the information from the new 911 call was relayed to the officers at 1033 West McCormick Street, the gravity of their error began to dawn on them. There was no scent of gasoline; the house had two stories, not one; and the police hadn’t found a black handgun or any other weapon on the person of Andy Finch, who was declared dead at St. Francis Hospital at 7:03 pm.
This video contains graphic language and footage showing a man being shot. Viewer discretion advised.
Shane Gaskill, the gamer who allegedly dared Barriss to swat him, appeared to be in a triumphant mood when he messaged Barriss at 7:50 pm Central time, court records show. “This shit has me dying,” he wrote. “They showed up to my old house retard.” Gaskill and his family were former tenants at the West McCormick Street residence; they’d been evicted a year earlier and had moved to another part of town.
Barriss scrambled to save face. “You gave an address that you dont live at but you were acting tough lol,” he replied. “So you’re a bitch.”
Gaskill wasn’t fazed. “Anyways good job,” he wrote, “but you failed the mission because I trolled the fuck out of you guys.” Before signing off, he advised Barriss to delete a tweet he’d made on his @SWAuTistic account—a screenshot of the direct messages in which Gaskill had given him the wrong address. Barriss declined.
Gaskill’s smugness didn’t last long. Over the next two hours, news of the fatal shooting on West McCormick Street—the first time a swatting had resulted in a death—spread across TV channels and social media nationwide. When Gaskill wrote back to Barriss at 9:51 pm, he was clearly in a panic: “Me you and Bape need to delete everything. This is a murder case now.”
Instead of covering his tracks, Barriss tweeted out a nonchalant admission of what he had done: “That kid’s house I swatted is on the news.”
Barriss was behind a nationwide wave of bomb threats targeting high schools attended by some of his fellow Halo players. His goal was to give them a day off class.
When the online mob took to Twitter to shower @SWAuTistic with abuse, Barriss defended himself in all caps. “I DIDNT GET ANYONE KILLED BECAUSE I DIDNT DISCHARGE A WEAPON AND BEING A SWAT MEMBER ISNT MY PROFESSION,” he wrote. But his attempt to split hairs only inflamed his critics. “Imagine being 50 years old and having to live with yourself knowing you swatted and got someone killed cause you lost a videogame,” read one of the more poignant and less profane replies.
The next day, as the story of Andy Finch’s death became a global sensation, Barriss sought out even more attention. He agreed to be interviewed on DramaAlert , a YouTube show with more than 4 million subscribers that normally shares gossip about internet celebrities like Jake Paul, RiceGum, and Lil Tay. During the audio-only interview, the show’s host, Daniel Keem, pressed Barriss to offer some sort of apology to the Finches, and he became increasingly frustrated as Barriss—who identified himself only as SWAuTistic—kept steering the conversation back to the “numerous people” who’d played roles in the catastrophe.
“This whole situation’s just sad, dude,” Keem said as he moved to wrap up the call. “I can’t believe you’re not more remorseful.”
“I am,” Barriss said. “The only thing I wasn’t going to take responsibility for was killing someone, because I didn’t kill anyone. Now I didn’t say that I have absolutely no responsibility in, uh, regarding this individual. Which admittedly I do, unfortunately. And it really sucks being connected to this incident in any fucking way. If I could rewind I would because this is all stupid.”
Hours after his DramaAlert appearance, Barriss was arrested at the library near Exposition Park that had served as his de facto headquarters. He hadn’t been hard to locate: Wichita’s police had quickly found a tweet in which someone had outed @SWAuTistic as Barriss by posting a 2015 Los Angeles Times story about the KABC-TV bomb threats. Given the incident’s unprecedented nature, gamers felt no compunctions about breaking their tradition of omertà.
Some people who’d been tracking Barriss’ malicious deeds questioned why he’d been allowed to act with impunity for so long. Barriss had been frank about his crimes as they’d escalated in frequency and ambition, but law enforcement had seemed in no rush to prevent him from weaponizing the country’s emergency services with fake information. One Twitter user said he’d alerted the Dallas police to Barriss’ activities on December 10, right after the second bomb threat at the Call of Duty tournament. “@DallasPD ignored this and 2 weeks later this same person swatted someone and a father was murdered,” he wrote. “This death could have been prevented on so many levels.” (A Dallas police spokesperson says the incident was turned over to the FBI but declined to say when that occurred.)
As she awaited questioning at the police station downtown, where she, Adelina, and her two housemates had been taken, Lisa Finch was desperate to know what had become of Andy. She hadn’t seen him bleeding in the foyer—the police had led her straight from her first-floor bedroom to the side door—so she was still hoping for the best. When the detective in charge of her interrogation finally entered the room where she was being held, she blurted out a simple question: “What about my son?”
When the detective told her that Andy had died, Lisa’s reaction was an eerie sense of calm. Now I have a mission, she thought, to bring as much trouble as I can to the Wichita Police Department.
A few days later, amid the mess the police had left behind at 1033 West McCormick Street, Lisa heard a knock at the house’s side door. The visitor was Gordon Ramsay, Wichita’s chief of police, who had come wearing civilian clothes. He and Lisa sat opposite one another in the ransacked living room. Ramsay offered his condolences and gave Lisa a business card with his personal phone number written down the side. Then he asked whether she’d like to join him in watching the officers’ bodycam videos of Andy’s final moments. Lisa was gobsmacked by the tone deafness of the chief’s offer: Why would I want to watch the footage of my son being shot by a cop, with a cop?
A friend of Lisa’s soon put her in touch with a prominent Chicago attorney, Andrew Stroth, who was keen to help her take on the WPD. Stroth had recently ditched a lucrative career in sports and entertainment law—his clients had included elite athletes such as Dwyane Wade and Michael Vick—to build a new firm dedicated to representing victims of police brutality. He primarily works with African American families whose stories rarely receive much attention, even in their own towns; the death of the white Andy Finch, by contrast, was front and center on every cable news network. But Stroth was disturbed by the apparent egregiousness of the Wichita Police Department’s conduct—particularly the fact that the unarmed Andy had been shot in his home—and he agreed to take Lisa’s case and file a civil-rights lawsuit against the city.
As Stroth pieced together the complaint, which he would eventually file in late January, prosecutors in Wichita were figuring out what to do about Tyler Barriss, whom they had extradited to Kansas. Marc Bennett, the district attorney for Sedgwick County, considered prosecuting Barriss for felony murder, since Andy had been killed during the commission of another crime. But after much deliberation he ultimately settled on involuntary manslaughter as the most fitting charge.
The homicide indictment did little to assuage either Lisa or her growing legion of supporters in Wichita, who couldn’t fathom why there’d been no repercussions for the police officers involved in the shooting.
Wichita police have long been viewed with suspicion by the city’s communities of color, who believe they are policed with a much heavier hand than their white counterparts. The city is 76 percent white, but of the 17 people reportedly killed in police shootings in the city since 2010, seven of them, or 41 percent, have been black or Hispanic. Andy’s death, however, disquieted people who hadn’t previously thought ill of law enforcement. “A lot of white people in Wichita, you have these police shootings where there’s a black victim and—I’m just being honest here—they think ‘Oh, well, they probably deserved it for some reason,’ ” says Levi Henry, a Wichita political consultant who works with progressive candidates and campaigns. “But here there’s a white father, and for a lot of white people in Wichita—white dads—they’re like, ‘That could be me.’ ”
The signs of popular discontent were small at first: “Justice for Andrew Finch” flyers, illustrated with a clenched fist, taped to lampposts downtown, or a Facebook group that directed members to email local politicians. But by February, citizens in "Arrest WPD officer Justin Rapp" T-shirts were becoming fixtures at the City Council’s weekly meetings. With Lisa usually looking on from the front row of the chambers, the activists used the council’s open-microphone policy to express their anguish. “We are scared of those who are supposed to protect us. We are angry that our questions are being ignored,” a resident named Kathy Camden said at the February 6 meeting, calling for Ramsay’s resignation and the prosecution of Rapp. “We are sickened by the hypocrisy of those we hold to a higher standard not being held responsible for their own actions. We are demanding justice, demanding it for Andrew.”
In March, Lisa’s supporters considered demonstrating outside the arena that was hosting first- and second-round games of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. But they worried that potential allies might be turned off by the confrontational optics of a street protest, especially one that interfered with a beloved sport. (“I mean, it’s still Kansas,” notes one close ally of the Finch family.) They instead got their point across by renting four electronic billboards, which they programmed to greet basketball fans with a stark message in red and black LEDs: "Andy Finch is dead. If you believe in justice, it's time to file charges."
Despite the public pressure, DA Bennett announced on April 12 that he wouldn’t prosecute Rapp. “This shooting should not have happened,” he wrote in a 42-page report on the case. “But this officer’s decision was made in the context of the false call. To charge [Rapp] would require evidence—not 20/20 hindsight—that it was unreasonable for him to believe in that moment that the man who came to the door posed a risk to the officers near the house … There is insufficient evidence to overcome self-defense immunity under Kansas law.”
Lisa tried to resume her sermon. She found, however, that her microphone had been cut—a last-ditch effort to get her to sit down. She kept talking anyway.
Distraught by Bennett’s decision, Lisa spent the next five days polishing a speech she intended to deliver at the April 17 City Council meeting—the meeting where she came to the lectern dressed in a gray hoodie, a sweatshirt very much like the one Andy had worn on the night of his death. Once she started speaking that morning, she had no intention of sticking to her time limit.
After her philosophical preamble about the transformative nature of grief, Lisa pivoted to picking apart Bennett’s report. She noted, for example, that Rapp’s partner had stated that he thought Andy was trying to retreat into the house—not reach for a weapon—when he lowered his arms. “What was the reason to shoot?” she asked. “How was anyone able to think about anything, especially Andy?”
At that point, Wichita mayor Jeff Longwell tried to intervene. “Lisa, can you wrap it up right quick?” he said from his seat at the center of the council’s dais. “You’ve gone over five minutes.”
Lisa paused for a beat as she absorbed the mayor’s dismissive words. “My time has been taken away from me, sir,” she growled back. “I have no time, no leisure time, no time to enjoy anything. This is my time.” And on she went with her speech, lambasting Rapp for being too quick to pull the trigger, questioning why it had never occurred to the police that Andy might be a hostage being used as a human shield, and meditating on the government’s constitutional obligations to its citizens. (“The concept of due process goes back to 1215 AD, to clause 39 of the Magna Carta …”) Her thoughts were often jumbled or repetitive, but such messiness is perhaps to be expected of someone trying to talk her way toward catharsis after losing a child.
At the 21-minute mark, Mayor Longwell again tried to coax Lisa away from the lectern, offering her face-to-face time in his office if she would yield the floor. Lisa turned to her supporters in the audience: “Do you think I need to wrap it up?”
“Hell no!” they shouted, and Lisa tried to resume her sermon. She found, however, that her microphone had been cut—a last-ditch effort to get her to sit down. But she kept on talking for another five minutes, even though her words were barely audible.
Once Lisa was finished, four of her supporters took turns at the lectern. All simmered with anger over what they characterized as the municipal government’s indifference to their grievances. “We hear nothing from you—no comments, not even a kind word to the victim’s mother, who is also a victim,” one activist said. “We can barely get you to look up from your computers and your phones to give us the attention we deserve.”
When offered the chance to respond, the city manager stated that the police department was in the midst of reviewing its policies and training methods. Mayor Longwell then tried to end the discussion, telling the restive audience, “We’ve always said we appreciate participation.”
Lisa and her supporters rose in unison to walk out of the meeting. When they were nearly to the door, Brandon Johnson—the only African American member of the City Council—called out: “Ms. Finch?”
Lisa stopped to listen. “I just wanted to acknowledge you and extend my sympathies to you,” Johnson said. “I know that my words may not mean a whole lot, but I wanted to acknowledge you and thank you for your courage and your strength to continue to fight for change.”
For the first time that day, the activists applauded for someone other than their own.
On May 22, Tyler Barriss appeared in Sedgwick County District Court for the preliminary hearing in his manslaughter case. He wore an oversize gray suit that made him seem even more cartoonishly slender than usual. His frail appearance conveyed no hint of the defiant swagger he’d expressed on April 6, when he’d gotten access to a jail computer and exploited a Windows 10 vulnerability to connect to the internet for three hours. “How am I on the internet if I’m in jail?” he’d written on his @GoredTutor36 Twitter account. “Because I’m an eGod, that’s how. All right, now who was talking shit? Your ass is about to get swatted.”
The surprise of the hearing came when officer Justin Rapp took the stand. He stated that he had never actually seen a weapon in Andy Finch’s hand—he had just thought that Andy was reaching into his waistband for a gun, and so he’d fired to protect his fellow officers. That admission seemed to contradict what appears in Bennett’s 42-page report. (“I believe that I see a, a gun in his hand,” the report quotes Rapp—identified as Officer #1—as saying.) Rapp also testified in court that he’d never heard of swatting before that fateful night on West McCormick Street.
On the same day as the preliminary hearing in state court, a federal grand jury in the District of Kansas indicted Barriss, Casey Viner, and Shane Gaskill for an array of crimes including cyberstalking (Barriss only), wire fraud (Barriss, Viner, and Gaskill). Then, on May 24, federal prosecutors in Washington announced that Barriss had been charged with phoning in bomb threats to both the FCC and the FBI in December 2017. In late September, Barriss was transferred into the custody of the US Marshals, who moved him to a detention center in Newton, Kansas, about 25 miles outside Wichita.
It was there that Barriss learned that he would have to face a third federal case: On October 24, prosecutors in the Central District of California charged him for many of the bomb threats and swattings he’d allegedly carried out in 2015 and 2017. Barriss’ federal public defender has requested that this case be transferred to the District of Kansas, a move that would require Barriss to plead guilty to the California charges. With plea negotiations apparently underway on the federal level, the state manslaughter case could be delayed or even dismissed. 1
Bennett, who is overseeing Barriss’ prosecution in Wichita, describes the case as grim for all the parties involved: “There are no happy outcomes here for anyone,” he says. But he also believes the death of Andy Finch is an important cautionary tale that has already made American police officers more wary of being hoaxed. He points to a January swatting in Overland Park, Kansas, during which the cops kept a safe distance from the victim’s house until they could establish contact with the people inside and sort out the facts. An Overland Park police spokesperson later said that the officers took such a careful approach because the Wichita incident “was in the back of our mind.”
Authorities nationwide are now intent on reducing not only the potential lethality of swattings but also their volume. The aggressive prosecution of Barriss seems designed to deter others who might be tempted to seek swatting’s buzz of power—a stratagem that has made Barriss fatalistic about his future. “Well, a life sentence is dangling over my head,” he wrote to me in one of eight letters from jail. “But assuming I get out, I’m just going to try and live a modest, normal life.”
- Brendan Koerner
Forging a Relationship With the Internet’s Most Hated Swatter
Lisa doesn’t much care what happens to Barriss. “This person, I don’t want to know him, I don’t want to understand him,” she says. “Have you ever seen pictures of his eyes? There’s no light there, no shine there, there’s nothing there. I would liken it to darkness.”
But not everyone in the Finch family is so committed to shunning Barriss. In January, Andy’s devout younger brother, Jerome, felt compelled to write to Barriss in jail. “The letter was an invitation to let the Lord Jesus Christ into the situation, to bring grace and to begin the process of healing,” Jerome says. “And even for that grace to extend to Tyler, because he’s going through a lot too.”
When Barriss responded, he expressed what seemed to be a grudging sliver of remorse: “I cannot say that I don’t feel a level of guilt for what happened to your brother.” But he also tried to argue that he’d been powerless to resist Gaskill’s goading. “A kid on Twitter was claiming to live at 1033 W. McCormick and was begging to be swatted,” he wrote. “I mean BEGGING.”
Reminding friends to vote on Election Day used to be the extent of Lisa’s political involvement. But she now finds it therapeutic to engage in other ways. In February, for example, she went to Topeka to testify before the state legislature, which passed a bill—the Andrew T. Finch Act—that toughens the penalties for swatting; it stipulates a maximum sentence of 41 years in prison. (Governor Jeff Colyer signed the bill into law in April.)
But it is the police, not swatters, who are the primary focus of Lisa’s activism. She still keeps tabs on the weekly City Council meetings, where her supporters continue to agitate on her behalf. In June a close friend of hers recited the lyrics to N.W.A’s hip hop classic “Fuck Tha Police” in front of Mayor Longwell and the council before leading a walkout.
And in May, Lisa drove 1,200 miles to Washington to speak at a Capitol Hill rally against police violence. She did so alongside other mothers whose children were killed by cops—a group of women who refer to themselves as “sisters in a sorority we never wanted to pledge.” Lisa was deeply moved by the experience. “The people that I’ve met, I hate the circumstances that we’ve met under,” she told the crowd that had assembled in the shadow of the Capitol’s dome. “But you. Are. Family. Because nobody else understands what we’re going through.”
There are days, however, when Lisa wakes up so dejected that she can barely move. In her gloomiest moments, she becomes overwhelmed by the incomprehensibility of the events that collided to doom her eldest son. “My daughter died in a car wreck,” she says. “And that’s—‘acceptable’ is not the word, ‘normal’ is not the word. But people die in car accidents all the time. But how Andy went out …” She has yet to figure out a satisfactory way to complete that sentence.
But when her mood brightens, Lisa revels in discussing all the things she still wants to do to ensure that Andy didn’t die in vain. She has vague and fanciful designs, for example, on working to pass federal legislation that will somehow increase police accountability and transparency. And she dreams of winning more than just money in her federal civil-rights lawsuit: She also wants the city’s downtown park, Riverside Park, to be renamed in Andy’s honor, and for its centerpiece to be a memorial with an inscription that reads: “Donated by the Wichita Police Department.”
- This article has been updated to reflect the new charges filed against Barriss on October 24,2018.
Contributing editor Brendan I. Koerner wrote about a gang of Xbox hackers in issue 26.05 .
This article appears in the November issue. Subscribe now.
Listen to this story, and other WIRED features, on the Audm app .
Let us know what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor at [email protected]