It began, as it always did, with a phone call to 911. “Now listen here,” the caller demanded, his voice frantic. “I’ve got two people here held hostage, all right? Now, you know what happens to people that are held hostage? It’s not like on the movies or nothing, you understand that?”
“OK,” the 911 operator said.
“One of them here’s name is Danielle, and her father,” the caller continued. “And the reason why I’m doing this is because her father raped my sister.”
The caller, who identified himself as John Defanno, said that he had the 18-year-old Danielle and her dad tied up in their home in Security, a suburb of Colorado Springs. He’d beaten the father with his gun. “He’s bleeding profusely,” Defanno warned. “I am armed, I do have a pistol. If any cops come in this house with any guns, I will fucking shoot them. I better get some help here, because I’m going fucking psycho right now.”
The 911 operator tried to keep him on the line, but Defanno cut the call short. “I’m not talking anymore,” he snapped. “You have the address. If I don’t have help here now, in the next five minutes, I swear to fucking God, I will shoot these people.” Then the line went dead.
Officers raced to the house, ready for an armed standoff with a homicidal suspect. But when they arrived, they found no gunman, no hostages, no blood. Danielle and her father were safe and sound at home — alone. They had never heard of John Defanno, for good reason: He didn’t exist.
“John Defanno” was actually a 15-year-old boy named Matthew Weigman — a fat, lonely blind kid who lived with his mom in a working-class neighborhood of East Boston. In person, Weigman was a shy and awkward teenager with a shaved head who spent his days holed up in his room, often talking for up to 20 hours a day on free telephone chat lines. On the phone, he became “Lil’ Hacker,” the most skilled member of a small band of telephone pranksters known as “phreaks.” To punish Danielle, who had pissed him off on a chat line, Weigman had phoned 911 and posed as a psycho, rigging his caller ID to make it look like the emergency call was coming from inside Danielle’s home. It’s a trick known as “swatting” — mobilizing SWAT teams to exact revenge on your enemies — and phreakers like Weigman have used it to trigger some 200 false raids in dozens of cities nationwide.
“When I was a kid, a prank was calling in a pizza to a neighbor’s house,” says Kevin Kolbye, an FBI assistant special agent in charge who has investigated the phreaks. “Today it’s this.”
Weigman discovered at an early age that his acute hearing gave him superpowers on the telephone. He could impersonate any voice, memorize phone numbers by the sound of the buttons and decipher the inner workings of a phone system by the frequencies and clicks on a call, which he refers to as “songs.” The knowledge enabled him to hack into cellphones, order phone lines disconnected and even tap home phones.