For 18 months, a teenager allegedly operated a “swatting” service out of his father’s California home where criminals could call in a hoax bomb threat or mass shooting almost as easily as ordering a burger on UberEats.
Alan Winston Filion, 17, is suspected of targeting hundreds of high schools, mosques, historically black churches, US Senators and even the Supreme Court with swatting attacks that placed thousands of people in the crosshairs of heavily-armed police response teams.
Prosecutors say the 6ft 3in teenager advertised his services under the pseudonym Torswats on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, charging as little as $40 to get someone’s gas shut off, $50 for a “major police response” and $75 for a “bomb threat/mass shooting threat”.
Mr Filion would then post chilling audio of the 911 calls on Telegram as a proof of purchase, according to court documents.
Among the hundreds of “swats” that Torswats allegedly claimed credit for were multiple hoax callouts at the home of Patrick S. Tomlinson, a Milwaukee-based science fiction author who says he has been swatted dozens of times in the past four years as part of a targeted harassment campaign by a group of “sociopathic” stalkers.
“You can’t fathom the amount of clinical obsession that grips these people,” Mr Tomlinson told The Independent this week. “Trying to destroy my world is their full time lives.”
Mr Tomlinson told The Independent he had woken in the middle of the night to find officers banging on his door, been handcuffed, and had guns shoved in his face during the yearslong ordeal. He was once swatted four times in one day.
Mr Filion has not been charged in relation to the swats on Mr Tomlinson’s home, and investigators believe there are at least two individuals behind the Torswats account.
The FBI, Milwaukee Police Department and the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office in Florida where the teenager is facing four felony counts declined to provide further information, beyond an extensive account of Mr Filion’s activities in a probable cause charging document.
After Mr Filion was arrested on 18 January at his home in Lancaster, Los Angeles County, Mr Tomlinson said he and his wife Niki Robinson had their first decent night of sleep in years.
Their relief was short-lived. A new Telegram channel named “Torswats Return” was created by someone claiming that their “partner has been arrested”, according to posts viewed by The Independent.
The channel stated that it would continue offering “swats” for as little as $40, and offered returning customers a discounted rate. It also posted derogatory photographs and text about Mr Tomlinson — noting that there would be no charge for requested swats against him.
“And of course swats to Patrick… are free,” read the Telegram message.
On January 31, Milwaukee Police Department officers arrived at Tomlinson’s home after receiving a hoax report of a shooting at the address — for what Tomlinson says is the 47th time their home had been “swatted” in a little over three years.
“It’s just farcical at this point,” Mr Tomlinson told The Independent. “Nobody told them this had happened 46 previous f…ing times.”
The MPD denied an open records request by The Independent for callouts to Mr Tomlinson’s home, citing an open FBI investigation.
The science fiction author has endured relentless harassment from an anonymous online army of what he describes as “cyber terrorists”. He says they have stalked and impersonated him, defaced his home, and continue to send a daily avalanche of abusive phone calls, voicemail messages and emails.
“I wont stop until one of them die (sic),” a message posted to the channel, referring to Mr Tomlinson, on 6 January stated.
As swatting incidents have spiked in recent months, victims and cybersecurity experts say law enforcement are failing to deal with the threat.
Last month, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley revealed she was targeted by swatting hoaxes twice in two days, and has requested Secret Service protection amid the rising threats to her safety. She is among the dozens of lawmakers, judges in Trump trials and public figures who have experienced tactical response teams turn up at their homes in response to the false callouts.
Swatting, defined by the Anti Defamation League (ADL) as a “malicious act of reporting a false crime or emergency to evoke an aggressive response”, emerged from online gaming communities in the early 2000s, where rivals would call 911 on each other and watch the armed response on livestream.
The ADL estimates there were over 1,000 swatting incidents in 2019, but the true figure is unclear as there is no federal statute against swatting that would enable convictions to be recorded.
Schools, synagogues, mosques and churches are frequent targets. When hackers stole cancer patient records from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle in December, they threatened to “swat” their homes if ransom demands weren’t met.
Even the White House itself was “swatted” last month, sending multiple Washington DC fire and emergency units to the nation’s most famous address.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre addressed the growing swatting scourge from the presidential podium last month, saying it was “creating a danger and a risk to our society”.
Experts say swats not only place the victims in danger of being shot by police, they also cost law enforcement around $10,000 per callout.
Gregory Winger, a cyber security expert and assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati, told The Independent that current laws are not fit to properly punish or deter swatters.
He says that lawmakers and celebrities will typically have additional security measures in place, while regular citizens such as Mr Tomlinson are exposed to the very real danger of being shot by police.
Mr Tomlinson notes the dangers posed by heavily militarised US police departments.
“If one of these calls came in in Nottingham England, they wouldn’t show up with ballistic shields and sub-machine guns. That’s why it’s so dangerous, that’s why it’s attempted murder.”
Mr Tomlinson wants to see repeat swatters charged with attempted murder and terrorism.
“You’re not dealing with internet trolls here, these are hardened criminals,” he told The Independent.
“You have to treat it like a domestic terror cell, they get off on creating chaos and trying to harm people. And in order to keep chasing that high they are only going to escalate.”
The most swatted man in America
Mr Tomlinson, who dabbles in stand-up comedy, came to the attention of a hardcore group of online stalkers five and a half years ago after posting an innocuous tweet about the late Saturday Night Live comedian Norm Macdonald.
“Hot take: I’ve never found Norm Macdonald funny and was pretty sure all my comedy friends who did were either nuts or screwing with me,” he posted on 11 September 2018.
Days later, Mr Tomlinson was locked out of his verified Twitter account @stealthygeek. He later discovered a 30,000-strong Reddit group of fans of the former shock jock radio show Opie and Anthony had mass reported him for breaching community standards.
Opie and Anthony was canned by SiriusXM in 2014 after the network said co-host Anthony Cumia made “racially-charged and hate-filled remarks” on Twitter. Fans of the show later coalesced on the internet around a shared enjoyment of posting hateful content attacking the LGBTQ community, their supporters and any left-wing commentators they took a dislike to.
Mr Tomlinson told The Independent his accounts on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook were targeted over the next few months with false complaints.
He said the trolls created Twitter accounts impersonating him, which he says posted racist, homophobic abuse in an attempt to discredit him.
The Reddit group also posted photoshopped images of Mr Tomlinson and doxxed his home address and phone number.
The harassment quickly escalated to death threats left on Mr Tomlinson’s voicemail. Mr Tomlinson said the stalkers began following him to science fiction conventions where they would secretly photograph him and post the images online, and contacted his book publishers claiming they had kidnapped his wife.
In June 2019, one of the stalkers paid MacDonald to record a Cameo in which the comedian, who died in 2021, says he was told that someone named Patrick had said he wasn’t funny. He then calls on “Patrick’s friends” to “please continue insulting that fat loser.”
The video appears to have encouraged the stalkers to ramp up their efforts.
In May 2020, Mr Tomlinson’s home was swatted for the first time when two police officers turned up “ready to go” at his home late one night demanding to know where “the children” were.
The swat came soon after stalkers had created a bogus Craigslist advert with Mr Tomlinson’s home address bizarrely claiming that he was kidnapping African-American children, and “grinding them down to make pepperoni”.
The twisted claim has echoes of the “pizzagate” conspiracy theory, which claimed that Democratic Party insiders were keeping child sex slaves in a pizza parlour in Washington DC.
The coordinated campaign continued to escalate. The harassers flooded book sale sites Amazon and Goodreads with bogus one star reviews of Mr Tomlinson’s publications in a coordinated assault.
After the Opie and Anthony subreddit was removed in 2019 for repeated breaches of its terms of service, the harassers migrated to the website new.onaforums.net where the campaign of torment continued.
The site’s message boards have attracted more than 40,000 threads and around one million comments dedicated to what Mr Tomlinson describes as their “total, clinical obsession with my every tweet, thought, public appearance”.
Mr Tomlinson wrote in a lengthy tweet thread at the time that the site was being used “to coordinate new attacks, execute, and then brag about the crimes and suffering they’ve inflicted”.
The group’s stated goal was to “destroy his career, his marriage and drive him to suicide”, he said.
Mr Tomlinson says that security cameras captured stalkers defacing his house and motorcycles. In another cruel move, the group also posted audio on YouTube of Mr Tomlinson screaming in frustration as he is being swatted.
Mr Tomlinson reported the group’s obsessive harassment to police and the FBI in May 2020. He said a special agent from the Milwaukee field office was assigned to look into the case, but that he has heard little back about their investigation.
“The FBI is a black hole as far as their investigation is concerned,” he told The Independent. “We throw evidence down the hole, and nothing comes out.”
Mr Tomlinson said he has reported each swat to the Milwaukee PD and the FBI, and personally gone to his local precinct on several occasions to ask that they stop sending armed police to his home “every time our stalkers tell them to”.
In a response to The Independent, The Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) declined to address why it hasn’t put measures in place to recognise serial swatting attacks at Mr Tomlinson’s home, instead just sharing the same statement it has given other outlets.
“Swatting is unacceptable, illegal and potentially very dangerous behavior, as it can lead to a very dynamic situation, placing both the residents involved and our officers at risk,” an MPD spokesperson said.
“Out of an abundance of caution, MPD has a duty to respond to calls for service in order to ensure that no one is in danger and that the necessary precautions are taken into consideration during these incidents.”
Mr Tomlinson’s attempt to involve law enforcement only seemed to embolden his stalkers, who doubled down on the campaign of emotional torment.
At 1am on 25 July 2022, the MPD responded to a hoax 911 call by someone claiming to be Mr Tomlinson saying he had killed his wife and a man in their bed. Mr Tomlinson said he was in bed asleep and woke up to hear pounding on his door, and officers armed with assault rifles surrounding his home.
Security footage taken by his home cameras shows him handcuffed on the porch while the MPD searched his home.
Mr Tomlinson may be the main target but the stalkers also harass those around him. The same month, while attending her grandfather’s funeral, Mr Tomlinson’s wife discovered she had been impersonated by someone who sent racist emails to Black influencer Marvin Toliver.
She was temporarily suspended from work before being cleared of any involvement in sending the hateful messages. Mr Toliver later posted a video to Instagram explaining that the racist messages he’d received were a hoax.
Mr Tomlinson’s elderly parents have also been swatted three times, he said.
In September 2022, cyberstalkers sent a “detailed, explicit” death threat to the organisers of the WorldCon in Chicago where Mr Tomlinson was due to appear.
A few months later, singer Patti LaBelle was pulled off stage at a concert in Milwaukee and 2,000 audience members were evacuated due to a bomb threat. Six downtown city blocks were shut down for hours while bomb-sniffing dogs checked buildings.
Mr Tomlinson told The Independent that MPD officers stopped by his home that night to tell him that the bomb threat had come from stalkers using his name, one of more than half a dozen such hoax bomb threats he had been accused of.
In April 2023, he was swatted four times in one day. The fourth time the MPD sent six officers with assault rifles to his home at 9pm.
His home has since been swatted a further 20 times, the most recent being just last week.
Mr Tomlinson has documented the years of harassment on Twitter, now X, with the posts often enraging the stalkers and drawing dozens of abusive responses.
He first spoke at length about the harassment to the Daily Beast in October 2022, and has given interviews to local and national media in the hope it might deter the stalkers, but each time it only seemed to spur them on.
Mr Tomlinson also filed a lawsuit in 2020 to try to force the internet service provider Cloudflare to reveal the names of the individuals behind the website.
The request to subpoena Cloudflare was denied by the Superior Court of California after a judge ruled it fell under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields blogs and social media sites from problematic content on their platforms posted by third parties.
A judge also ordered Mr Tomlinson to pay the anonymous blogger behind the website $23,700 in legal fees.
That figure has ballooned to $50,000 with interest and penalties, and Mr Tomlinson said the group behind the blog was trying to bankrupt him and take his house.
Mr Tomlinson has refused to cave despite the ongoing threats to his life, and he and his wife suffering from PTSD and chronic insomnia.
Rather than relocating or going into hiding, he said he had invested in a top-of-the line security system and bought a “small arsenal of weapons” to protect himself.
“I bought my wife a gun for Christmas, just so she could feel more at ease.”
‘Nobody would ever dare swat himself, right?’
Court documents from Mr Filion’s arrest this week provided a rare glimpse into the dark web nexus between an underground network of professional “swatters” and the criminal stalkers who hire them.
According to a charging document, the Torswats Telegram channel first came onto the law enforcement’s radar in October 2022, when Anacortes High School in Skagit County, Washington was targeted five times in a week with hoax bomb threats and shooting callouts.
Police initially believed a 17-year-old student at the school was behind the swats, before concluding that he had also been a victim of swatting attempts. The Telegram channel that authorities have tied to Mr Filion later posted audio of the 911 calls.
Over a month-long period, Torswats posted recordings of fake 911 bomb threats at schools and non-profit organisations in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas, Maryland and Iowa.
In one swatting incident in February 2023, a teenager in Dubuque, Iowa, who had been in contact with Torswats was arrested for ordering a bomb threat at a local high school.
In April 2023, Motherboard revealed for the first time how the Torswats Telegram channel was offering to swat victims using a synthesized speech programme for a $75 fee.
The next month, Torswats posted audio of a swatting at the Masjid Al Hayy Mosque in Sanford, Florida.
The caller allegedly told a dispatch operator that he had a handgun and explosive devices and was going to kill everyone inside “in the name of Satan” while playing audio of gunfire.
Around 30 heavily armed police officers were sent to the mosque, Seminole County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.
The Torswats Telegram channel was also filled with screeds of racist, misogynistic, transphobic and anti-LGBTQ postings, according to prosecutors.
In one post, Mr Filion allegedly wrote that he “sent police to the homes of people I don’t like (f… and transsexuals) for fun”, according to a charging document.
“While a number of victims targeted by Torswats were the product of conducting a swatting’ service, there is an obvious trend observed in the subject’s targeting and his own words, in which victims are chosen due to their sexual orientation and identity, race or religion,” detectives from the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office wrote.
In May 2023, the FBI set up a national database to “track and create a real-time picture of swatting incidents” and share information between hundreds of police departments and law enforcement agencies across the country.
In late June, Scott Schubert, the section chief of the FBI Criminal Justice Services Division, gave an interview to NBC News about a new swatting national database that would enable law enforcement to monitor the growing threat.
In the following days, Mr Schubert, and the FBI special agents in charge in Pittsburgh, San Antonio and Oklahoma City were targeted in swatting calls.
An FBI spokesperson told The Independent that more than 550 swatting incidents have been reported to the database, known as the National Common Operation Picture, in the past seven months.
Experts say that figure could be just the tip of the iceberg, as police departments are often reluctant to report swats due to the embarrassment of being duped.
“That the FBI is starting to take this seriously and get some data, is a useful thing,” Professor Singer, the cybersecurity expert, told The Independent.
“It helps you identify underlying systemic behaviours that might indicate a larger problem.”
Swatters are typically prosecuted under state False Information and Hoaxes laws.
But without a federal statute, law enforcement are constrained from devoting additional resources to training 911 dispatchers or investigating cases, Professor Singer said.
Meanwhile, “swatters” are sharing information and learning from one anothers’ tactics to stay one step ahead of authorities, Professor Singer said.
He called for more sophisticated IT systems in police call centres to identify the location of where the phone call is coming from, and mandatory reporting of swats.
“People seem willing to do things online that they would never do in real life. And this is an illustration of where that kind of online harassment mentality can lead. It’s never been good, but now it’s actually dangerous,” Professor Singer said.
“It used to be spamming, it used to be doxxing, it used to be pizza orders — swatting is a much more destructive evolution of online harassment.”
The FBI alleges that in order to learn his trade, Torswats placed nine swatting calls to his own home in Andale Avenue, Lancaster, over a three month period between September and December 2022 to test what the police response would be.
The suspect allegedly boasted about calling out the swats on Telegram: “How would I know my methods would work otherwise. Swatting my neighbor means I’m in suspicion. But nobody would ever dare swat himself, right?”
His listed home address is in a quiet residential neighbourhood, across the street from a daycare centre.
Mr Filion would frequently post content from JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings on Telegram, Google, Discord and YouTube. He allegedly used the handles “Witch King of Angmar” and variations of the word “Ringwraith” to call in swatting incidents, and posted images of Nazgul to Telegram.
The LOTR references left investigators with a trail of clues that led FBI agents to his parent’s home in Lancaster, Los Angeles County, in July that year.
They interviewed Mr Filion in the presence of his father William and seized phones and computer equipment. A search of the devices located screenshots and images posted to the Torswats Telegram channel, Google map searches of some of the targets, and emails between Mr Filion and cryptocurrency companies Crypto.com, CoinGate and CoinPayments.
A person who answered William Filion’s phone hung up when contacted by The Independent.
‘If you hire a hitman, you’re just as guilty of murder’
Mr Tomlinson says the swatting attacks against him stopped suddenly in July last year, right around the time of the FBI raid on the Filion home.
Then the day after Thanksgiving, Mr Tomlinson said his home was swatted again for the first time in months. He captured screenshots from a Torswats Telegram channel advertising that it would “resume normal operations” on Christmas. Mr Tomlinson’s home was then targeted again on Christmas morning.
The same day, swatters called in hoax threats to the homes of GOP House member Marjorie Taylor Greene and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. Florida Senator Rick Scott’s home in Naples was swatted on 27 December while he was having dinner with his wife.
Mr Filion was arrested on 18 January, and extradited to Seminole County, Florida, where he was charged with four felonies related to making a false police report of a mass shooting at a local mosque in May 2023. His arrest was first reported by Wired.
His attorney did not respond to The Independent’s multiple requests for comment.
Mr Filion made his first appearance in court on 31 January and is being charged as an adult on four felony counts including false reporting of a bomb or weapon of mass destruction, and use of a two-way communication device while involved in an act of terrorism. Both are punishable by decades in prison.
Mr Tomlinson told The Independent he hopes the arrest will allow police to work out who was paying Mr Filion and who else is behind Torswats. Investigators stated in court documents that they had traced a Discord account to a “privacy friendly ‘virtual private network’ in Sweden”.
Mr Tomlinson says the stalkers who ordered the swats should be just as liable as the person phoning them in.
“If you hire a hitman, you’re just as guilty of murder.”