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Call of Duty swatting feud
Photography Alex Haney, via Unsplash

Casey Viner: what you need to know about the gamer prank that killed a man

How a $1.50 bet in a game of Call of Duty and a ‘swatting’ hoax call to police turned deadly

Gamers are renowned for their heightened passion – whether that’s through their investment in PewDiePie feuds, their rush to get the latest Red Dead Redemption, or their skills at hacking Fortnite for money. But two years ago, one gamer’s Call of Duty fervor went so far that it resulted in an innocent man’s death.

On Friday (September 13), 19-year-old Casey Viner was sentenced to 15 months in prison for his involvement in a 2017 gamer feud in which 28-year-old Andrew Finch was ill-advisedly shot by police in a revenge ‘swatting’ event – this is what it’s called when emergency services are called to an address via a hoax call.

Here, we outline the circumstances that led to Finch’s death, how the perpetrators have been punished, and why gamers use ‘swatting’ as a threat to their online rivals.

WHAT HAPPENED?

On December 28, 2017, Los Angeles resident and gamer Tyler Barriss – then 25-years-old – called the police to falsely report that he had shot his father and was holding the rest of his family hostage at an address in the Kansas city of Wichita. Police arrived at Finch’s house, where he emerged from his front door after hearing commotion outside. He was subsequently fatally shot by an officer from across the street.

WHY DID BARRISS MAKE THE HOAX CALL?

Barriss was hired by Viner after the latter got into an argument with a fellow gamer over a $1.50 wager in an online game of Call of Duty: WWII. The feud was with 20-year-old Shane Gaskill who reportedly killed Viner’s in-game character, resulting in both players losing the match and their small sums of money. 

Viner threatened to ‘swat’ Gaskill after the pair fought on Twitter, which led to Gaskill providing his rival with the address of a house he no longer resided in – an address that now belonged to father-of-two Finch. Satisfied that he had the correct location, Viner contacted Barriss – who had previous convictions for making false bomb threats, and was known to swat people for hire – to arrange the hoax phone call that ultimately led to Finch’s death. 

In the phony call, Barriss – who claimed to be called Ryan and used an app to make it seem like he was calling from Wichita, rather than his base in LA – calmly tells police: “My mum and dad... they were arguing and I shot him in the head and he’s not breathing any more.” Barriss goes on to claim he’s pointing a handgun at his mum and younger brother, before asking the dispatcher if she’s sending police to the house and clarifying if she has the right address. He also lied that he’d “poured gasoline all over the house” and was planning to set it on fire.

Before he’d got through to 911, Barriss had contacted City Hall – apparently an irregularity for a real hostage situation – though none of the officers were told this at the time. Following Finch’s shooting, Barriss called City Hall again to give a more detailed version of his fictional story, unaware the raid had already taken place. 

HOW DID AN INNOCENT MAN DIE?

After receiving the hoax call, Wichita police officers – who weren’t SWAT members, nor trained in hostage situations – surrounded the address given by Barriss. According to authorities, Finch moved his hands towards his waist after emerging from his front door, leading to officer Justin Rapp shooting the victim after fearing he may have a gun. Finch – who had nothing to do with gaming or Viner and Gaskill’s feud – wasn’t the intended target of the swat call. After reports of the shooting surfaced, Gaskill allegedly messaged Barriss on Twitter to urge him to delete all correspondence. “This is a murder case now,” he wrote. “Casey deleted everything, you need to as well.”

Following the tragedy, the police department was criticised by locals for its handling of the situation, including questioning why just seven seconds of body cam footage was released. “Police swarmed this house,” Finch’s mother Lisa said at the time, “They shot him; they didn’t give him any warnings. Why did they handle it the way they did? You don’t open fire in a hostage situation.” On January 3, 2018, Lisa begged the police department to return her son’s body so she could give Finch “a proper funeral service and burial”. 

Just over a year later, Finch’s 18-year-old niece Adelina – who witnessed the shooting – died by suicide, with Lisa blaming her death on Finch’s killing. “Adelina was made to step over his dying body,” Lisa told a local newspaper. “She’s been going downhill ever since, she didn’t know how to handle it.”

WHAT IS THE PUNISHMENT?

Police were able to trace Barriss’ call because he used public library WiFi, and were able to make the arrest the following day. He was later extradited to Kansas and charged with involuntary manslaughter. In April this year, he was sentenced to 20 years in jail for making numerous hoax calls, including the one that led to Finch’s death. Barriss was also required to formally apologise to Finch’s family.

Viner was charged with wire fraud, conspiracy to make false reports, and conspiracy and obstruction of justice, and has been sentenced to two years probation – during which he’s banned from playing any video games – as well as 15 months jail time. Gaskill was initially charged as a co-conspirator after knowingly giving a false address and taunting Barriss to “try something”, but has reportedly struck a deal for deferred prosecution that could allow the charges against him to be dropped. 

Local residents called for Rapp’s resignation, protesting weekly city council meetings and wearing ‘Arrest WPD officer Justin Rapp’ t-shirts. Rapp was never charged. “This shooting should not have happened,” district attorney Marc Bennett said in his report on the case, “but this officer’s decision was made in the context of the false call.” 

WHAT’S HAPPENED SINCE?

In response to Finch’s killing, Kansas introduced the Andrew T. Finch Memorial Act in March 2018, which states that anyone involved in hoax police calls that result in injury or death could receive a prison sentence of 10 to 41 years. In August this year, police in Wichita announced a programme in which they would place alerts on addresses where potential swatting targets could be living. Concerned gamers can provide their address to be added to the alert system, which first responders and police officers have access to. “This alert would not minimise or slow emergency services,” Wichita policeman Paul Cruz said, “but rather create awareness for officers responding to potential swatting incidents.” 

WHY IS SWATTING SO PREVALENT IN GAMING?

Although swatting isn’t exclusive to the gaming community – Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg was targeted last year – it’s been most notoriously used by disgruntled gamers. Earlier this month 16-year-old Fortnite world champion Kyle Giersdorf was confronted by police in the middle of a game, but escaped unscathed after one officer recognised him as a high-profile gamer. While just two days ago, a Missouri couple fell victim to a swatting while livestreaming video games via their Twitch platform (a website where people watch others play games).

Swatting isn’t a new phenomenon – The New York Times Magazine reported in 2015 that law enforcement encountered a ring of swatters in the mid-00s – but it’s become more prevalent over the past few years, with the rise in popularity of sites such as Twitch. Live video gamers are particularly susceptible to swatting because their cameras make them “irresistible targets, allowing mischief makers to indulge their voyeurism by watching the tense and confusing moments of a police raid”. Competitive online gaming also encourages feuds, with swatting being a relatively easy way to troll a rival, made particularly appealing by the ability to watch the police raid unfold in real time.

In recent years, the US has updated its laws on swatting, with many advocates urging lawmakers to describe the phenomenon as terrorism due to its intimidatory nature and the very real threat of injury or death.