Midnight, June 12, 2006. A 911 dispatcher in northern Texas receives an urgent call.
A man calling himself James Proulx says he just killed his family. He has more hostages and is carrying a loaded AK-47. If police don't want anyone else to die, they need to hand over $50,000 and arrange transportation across the Mexican border.
Proulx hangs up the phone.
Lieutenant Mike Gaudet tracks down the address of the call — a trailer home in rural Alvarado owned by James Proulx.
Officers from the surrounding vicinities rush to the scene. The lights in Proulx's home are off, and the place looks peaceful. But that means nothing, Gaudet knows. Proulx could be hiding. Or already dead. Anything is possible.
SWAT officers, looking like beetles in their bulky bulletproof vests, wake the neighbors and shepherd them to a high-school gym.
Negotiators throw a phone through an open window. Hello, James, a mediator says in a calm, steady voice. This is the police and we want to talk.
Outside, the SWAT team officers have their guns drawn, the silence leaving them edgy.
Finally, a man's voice echoes over the phone. He sounds befuddled and scared. He doesn't know why police are here. Only he and his wife are home. He agrees to come out slowly, hands in the air.
The man who emerges is old, tired, and wearing his undershirt. His eyes struggle to adjust to the light. "Why are you here?" he keeps asking. "What's going on?" He's confused, then angry, as he's shoved like a misbehaving dog into the back of a squad car.
The SWAT team storms the house, guns drawn, where they find . . .
Nothing. No blood. No bodies. No guns. Only Proulx's wife, trembling in the cold Texas air.
Gaudet slams his foot down in disgust.
That night, the only real victim is the town of Alvarado, which sent its entire police force to the Proulx home. "We took all our resources, all of our people out to a place they didn't need to be," Gaudet says. "God forbid something should have happened somewhere else. We were all here."
Meanwhile, in five states around the country, six social recluses gather on a phone chat line to congratulate themselves on another perfect hoax.
Stuart Rosoff often felt that life had granted him a raw hand, that God had delivered a deck without any kings or aces. So he spent most of his life feeling the world owed him reparations.
He was now 32, perpetually unemployed, living with his girlfriend and their young son. When he ran out of money, which was often, he'd appeal to his parents for help.
But Mom and Dad couldn't save Rosoff from himself. In 1999, he was driving through Brecksville with his girlfriend, Katherine Whisler, when police lights flashed. He was doing 80 in a 35-mph zone.
Instead of stopping, he took police on a high-speed car chase through residential neighborhoods. It ended with Rosoff's car slamming into a utility pole. Whisler was taken to the hospital with massive injuries.
Rosoff fled, he would claim, because he thought that police were hijackers in disguise. But in pastoral Brecksville, this is not an assumption easily made or an excuse easily believed. Judge Eileen Gallagher certainly wasn't convinced. She sentenced him to three years in prison.
But a man who struggled even in a world without bars wasn't suited to a cell. Rosoff sent dozens of letters to Gallagher, pleading for leniency. "I am taking auto mechanics class in prison, I am staying out of trouble," he wrote from prison. "I have no tickets and never been to the hole . . . I am going to get a job as an interior painter if I were released. I would also like to take some accounting classes at Cuyahoga Community College . . . I am very remorseful. Please give me a chance."
When he got no response, he tried again: "I have paid my court costs in full. I have the ability to make it on the outside, and follow all the rules of probation down to the letter. I have a positive attitude . . . I blame nobody but myself for having to go to prison. I request that a hearing be set up for a motion to be let out early on probation."
But when Gallagher didn't write back, Rosoff began to blame with a vengeance. His later letters seem as if he's stabbing the paper with his pencil, the words slanted and scrawled angrily across the page.
"I am a very decent human being that has been degraded to some kind of animal, having to be locked up, and around these people who are the lowest forms of human life to walk on this earth," he wrote in 2002. "I have been robbed in here, when I wrote you and told you did you celebrate that with detectives? I am suffering here if that makes you happy your honor."
When Rosoff was finally released that year, his plans of becoming a painter, a mechanic, an accountant disintegrated. He was estranged from Whisler, and the courts, worried about his temper, restricted access to his son. His parents, big names in Cleveland's Jewish community, broke off communication. Rosoff spent his nights on other people's couches.
It was at this time that he was introduced to phone chat lines. Much like internet chat rooms, they're places where people from across the globe can mingle. They tend to attract the lonely, the bored, those who struggle to blend into the face-to-face world. Here, you can be anyone, adopting whatever persona suits you. Rosoff became "Michael Knight." And he would soon become the most feared man on the phone line.
In the 1990s, chat lines began advertising their services in the back pages of periodicals like TV Guide and Scene. "Lonely?" the ads would ask. "Call this number and chat for free!" Sometimes services were local. Others required a long-distance call.
With names like Cleveland Raven, Seattle Donut, and Boston Roach, they were the electronic version of singles parties — only callers didn't have to worry about pimply faces or thunder thighs. On the phone, everyone could be Keira Knightley or Brad Pitt.
Users felt a sense of acceptance, community — and sometimes addiction. It wasn't uncommon for some to run up $50,000 long-distance bills in the course of a year.
When a new person called, he was greeted by an electronic "concierge," who thanked the caller for having the good sense to choose that particular service. More users than other chat lines! The best quality reception! But the welcome message would end with a rather ominous caveat: Callers weren't prescreened, it warned, so there were bound to be some "bad people" on the line. If the newbie felt nervous about this, he should hang up now.
Many dismissed this warning.
Callers were then shuttled to different "rooms" — or different lines — where people talked about whatever came to mind, usually politics, sports, or Hollywood. But as internet chat rooms have shown us, anonymity tends to make the meek bold, and the lines would often devolve into discussions of penis size or the inferiority of minorities. The men would often try — mostly unsuccessfully — to convince the women to have phone sex with them.
If the caller didn't like the conversation in one room, he could ask the concierge to move him to another one. But for the hard-core users, the phone lines often became life itself.
Callers had "phone girlfriends" and "phone boyfriends" — people they'd never met in person. There were "phone weddings," complete with "phone bridesmaids" and "phone justices of the peace." If a couple got into a fight, one partner would angrily declare that he or she "wanted a phone divorce."
But mostly the lines served as a fiber-optic stage, allowing people to conjure new identities and life stories. "You got to be the person you couldn't normally be," explains "Beth," a former caller.
Most of the men, like "Black Jordan" (Bryan Barnett), liked to bill themselves as tough Mafioso types, though in real life Barnett was a skinny, pimply guy from Chicago who lived with his mom. On the phone, however, he was someone to be feared.
"Every guy basically out there had to show off," explains "Mary," another longtime caller. To flex their electronic biceps, they would try to out-trash-talk each other or outdo each other with pranks.
Barnett's greatest talent was "social engineering" — but not in the conventional meaning of the term. His version involved conning people into revealing personal information like passwords and phone numbers. The young entrepreneur was a deft manipulator. With little effort, he could make himself sound like a bank manager or a southern gentleman.
Barnett would start up a friendly chat with his intended victim. He'd ask where the person was from, then inevitably exclaim, "Oh, I'm from that city too. Where do you live?" Within minutes, he'd have the street address. Then he'd ask for a phone number, so they could "meet up." The people who populated the lines, hungry for friends and social interaction, gave out information freely.
Barnett also exploited shifting alliances. When chatters fought, he'd convince the aggrieved to hand over personal info on their enemies. Then he'd store the information, retrieving it only when he felt the need for vengeance.
His victims could be anyone: Someone who'd talked shit about him. Someone who'd stolen his "phone girlfriend." Many didn't even know why they'd been targeted. But the next thing they knew, a delivery guy would be at their door with three pizzas they'd never ordered.
Over time, the pranks would become more complex. Barnett figured out how to have people's phones turned off, their power and water shut down. And like a proud teacher, he felt the need to pass along his expertise. Stuart Rosoff was a willing student.
For months Rosoff listened on the phone, marveling at "Black Jordan"'s craftiness. He asked Barnett to teach him these secrets. Black Jordan began to coach him on the basics of social engineering, Rosoff wrote proudly to Scene.
Others believe the master had simply found a willing pawn. "Michael Knight was Jordan's puppet," says "Lotus," a longtime chatter.
By 2003, Barnett had turned his gifts into a lucrative swindle. He pretended to be a fraud investigator, convincing hundreds of credit-card holders to reveal their account and security code. He'd then use the information to take out cash advances, stealing $400,000 before he was arrested in Missouri.
His 10-year sentence left a vacuum atop the phone-line food chain. Rosoff assumed the role, gathering his own gang of followers from across the country.
For most in the group, the lines had become an obsession. In real life, "John from California" was a Texan named Jason Trowbridge who drove a silver Porsche and ran his own collections agency. But his nights were spent on the phone.
Fortunately, the chronically unemployed Rosoff didn't have to worry about the diversion of work. He was known to spend up to 24 hours a day on the phone, so immersed he began to believe he was actually "Michael Knight."
"This was their social entertainment," explains FBI agent Kevin Kolbye.
Rosoff liked to call his group the "cavalry." Targets for their pranks were often chosen randomly, though Rosoff liked to go after women and underage girls who refused him phone sex.
In the beginning, the stunts were more annoying than dangerous. As a debt collector, Trowbridge had access to people's personal information, including phone numbers, addresses, and Social Security numbers. Someone in the cavalry would use the information to pose as a customer and call the electric company, for example. He'd claim that he'd recently moved, and the power at his old place was supposed to be shut off. The info from Trowbridge allowed the prankster to answer any identification questions.
A few hours later, the victim would suddenly be without juice.
But after a few months of shutting off power and phone lines, the group grew tired of these elementary tricks. Hoaxes, once mastered, become dull. So the cavalry began looking for more advanced ways to seek vengeance. Around 2003, they found it in a new form of long-distance calling card.
"Spoof" cards worked like any other phone card that's purchased by the minute. But they had a handy feature that allowed users to change the number that would show up on someone else's caller ID.
They weren't meant to be used nefariously, but rather as a business tool. An executive working from home could use the card to make it appear he was calling from his office. Telemarketers used them to hide their locations. But in the hands of Rosoff's cavalry, they became the vehicle for a dangerous new prank called swatting.
They would choose a victim, someone who had pissed them off. Then a group member would buy a spoof card, input the victim's phone number, and call 911 with a fabricated story. "My name is X," he might say. "I've just murdered my sister, and now I've got a hunting rifle aimed at my wife. If you don't hand over a million dollars, I'm going to go on a killing rampage."
Then he'd hang up.
Police would naturally trace the call to the victim's phone. Roads were closed. SWAT teams broke down doors. And innocent people suddenly found themselves with guns pointed at their heads, accused of heinous crimes.
The cavalry, meanwhile, would be convening in a chat room somewhere to celebrate their wit.
"They looked at it as if it were a victimless crime," explains agent Kolbye. "They thought it was amusing."
But the victims never seemed to get the joke.
"Beth," a 42-year-old single woman, never really fit in. She's introverted and self-conscious, and struggles to click with the other women in her upscale New York City neighborhood. And guys rarely gave her a second glance.
"I'm not drop-dead gorgeous," she says. "I'm a heavy woman — I know that."
But on the phone, Beth found a supportive community, filled with new friends. As time wore on, she saw little reason to leave home, sometimes spending 13 hours a day on the chat lines.
Then she started seeing a man. The boyfriend didn't approve of all the time Beth spent on the phone lines. He asked her to quit. Beth, feeling happier than she had in decades, acquiesced.
When the man received a job transfer to Michigan, he asked Beth to move with him. She was delighted and stayed behind for a few weeks to pack.
But with nothing to do at night, she drifted back to her old habits. It wasn't long before Beth was again spending hours on the phone. That's where she encountered Rosoff.
As his alter ego Michael Knight, Rosoff wasn't just some jobless schlep from Ohio. He was a mean bastard, trash-talking his way across the lines, threatening to shut off the phone service of women who wouldn't have phone sex with him.
Beth informed him he was an ass. Told him to stop.
"I'll screw you," Rosoff warned. Beth laughed. "You can't find me."
She was wrong.
A few weeks later, she was sitting in her new home in Michigan when the phone rang. "Gotcha," said a voice that sounded suspiciously like Michael Knight.
Scared, Beth called a chat-line friend. "Don't go to bed tonight," the friend warned, relating rumors she'd heard about Knight's swatting gang.
For the next few hours, Beth sat on her front steps chain-smoking, hoping her presence would calm police. It didn't.
At 2:30 a.m., a team of officers surrounded her house. Beth ran to meet them. But before she could open her mouth, there were shotguns leveled at her head and handcuffs around her wrists. Officers stormed the house, waking up her sleeping boyfriend to see if he was hurt. Beth sat crying in the front yard and yelling that it was "all a mistake."
Police eventually realized they'd been had. But Beth's boyfriend was irate. "You lied to me," he screamed. "You said you stopped calling those lines. I want you gone. Call your mom."
Beth sat on the floor and sobbed. A few days later, she was on a bus to New York. She hasn't been on the phone line since.
"I hope that guy rots in hell," she says of Rosoff.
In the course of three years, Rosoff's gang called out SWAT teams on more than 100 people, according to the FBI. The victims were phone-line chatters or their families. Many were young girls who refused to have phone sex and were too scared to go to police.
The cavalry reveled in its power. "They took this seriously. It was the extent of their mission in life," says JJ, a chatter who started taping the calls for evidence. "They had no social life."
In a taped conversation from 2005, cavalry members are heard laughing about a swat Jason Trowbridge had done in Canada. "It was really funny," Rosoff is heard saying. This was the third time the cavalry had swatted the house. Police had taken the victim's children into temporary custody.
"I wish they would do that in the states," Rosoff says wistfully.
In New York, one panicked middle-aged man took off running when police surrounded his house. Believing they were after an armed suspect, police tackled him, resulting in injuries.
In Florida, one chatter told her grandfather about the phone harassment. When police arrived at the house, the grandfather mistook the officers for harassers and scuffled with them.
But since the swats were spread across the country, police departments were only seeing their local incidents. No one noticed the larger pattern. The swats might have gone on forever — if Rosoff's gang hadn't begun to focus their wrath on each other.
They were more like "frenemies" than true friends — just partners of convenience. Though they worked in tandem to conduct pranks, "They had no problems stabbing each other in their backs," says Lucky225, a longtime caller. After all, there could only be one king of the line.
"Stuart E. Rosoff is going to get on his knees and suck my pole, dude . . . suck my throbbing cock," L'il Hacker, a blind 17-year-old from Massachusetts, announced one night. Though the two occasionally partnered in pranks, Rosoff had turned off his phone service and was threatening to do it again.
"You won't get it back on," Rosoff responds in the recording of the conversation.
"Yes I will, little girl," L'il Hacker fires back.
The joust rambles on through a series of uninventive taunts, with L'il Hacker finally swearing revenge.
"You're not going to find me," Rosoff says with assurance.
He was wrong.
The Michael Knight persona had gone to his head — to the point where he claimed to be "unstoppable." But his ego gave fuel to foes. Now others were plotting against him, becoming citizen detectives. They dug up Rosoff's personal information, then they dispersed it over the phone lines.
Soon, Highland Hills police were being flooded with complaints about Rosoff. The Ohioan, victims claimed, had shut off their phone and water lines. He'd sent SWAT teams to their homes on false alarms. Police Chief James Cook had never heard of anything like it before.
In June of 2003, officers arrived at Rosoff's apartment. They found not the Michael Corleone of the phone lines, but a demure man with the body of a teddy bear. Rosoff denied any involvement, blaming the complaints on "enemies."
But after two more months of fielding calls from around the country, Sergeant Ferrell Ridgeway had probable cause to search Rosoff's apartment. He found a three-ring binder filled with hundreds of people's personal information, like addresses and bank account numbers. Some of the names were familiar. They were the same people who'd complained of harassment.
Rosoff was arrested. Suddenly the intimidator was shaking like a hypothermic child. He told Ridgeway he felt faint, and asked to see a doctor. He insisted that the information in the binder came from "friends" who wanted him to have it.
But for reasons unknown, Highland Hills never prosecuted the case. When asked why, Ridgeway shakes his head. "It was five years ago. I don't remember."
New Jersey investigators were also receiving complaints, but they were more vigilant.
A woman had called Maple Shade police to tell them that Rosoff was threatening to swat her. Two weeks later, Rosoff indeed called 911, pretending to be an enraged boyfriend who had stabbed his girlfriend and her child. When police arrived at the woman's home, there was nothing to investigate.
A Manahawkin, New Jersey woman warned police of a similar threat against her. Sure enough, a man soon called Manahawkin police, claiming to have stabbed multiple victims. A SWAT team stormed the house, finding nothing.
New Jersey prosecutors weren't about to let the incidents slide. They charged Rosoff with four misdemeanor counts of harassment and calling in false public alarms. In 2004, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years.
Yet even a second stint in prison couldn't rid Rosoff of his need to be king of the telephone. On the day he walked out on early release, he moved back to Ohio — and was soon joining up with his old cavalry.
Though a big man on the phone, Rosoff remained insignificant off of it. He was spotted begging for change outside the Giant Eagle in Lakewood. At night, he shuffled through halfway houses across the city.
And his one true love had changed. During his time away, it seemed as though the people populating the phone lines had become brasher, and they weren't particularly impressed by the legendary Michael Knight.
The most annoying, the cavalry agreed, was "Untouchable Constance" (Stephanie Proulx). She "constantly aggravated people and threatened people on the party line," Rosoff explains in a letter to Scene. "She started trouble with people most of the time."
Another caller is more blunt: "That bitch ran her mouth one too many times."
Proulx constantly taunted the cavalry, telling them they'd never find her — a dare they couldn't pass up. It was like waving a $100 bill in front of a degenerate gambler.
By 2006, the group had an established rhythm. Trowbridge dug up Proulx's parents' phone number and address on his work database. Then Guadalupe Santana Martinez, another cavalry member, used a spoof card to place a 911 call to Alvarado, Texas, claiming to be James Proulx. I just shot and killed members of my family . . .
When the cavalry learned of the chaos they'd caused in Texas, they gloated. "Untouchable Constance" wasn't so untouchable after all.
But they'd underestimated their enemy. Within days, to their astonishment, Stephanie Proulx was back on the phone, as obnoxious as ever. It seemed the swat on her parents' house hadn't bothered her in the least. It's not like they'd hit her own home.
So the group began planning another swat.
Chad Ward, a cavalry member who owned a chat line in New York, put a message out across the phone lines: $300 to anyone who could swat Stephanie Proulx.
Soon, L'il Hacker was able to trace her calls back to an address in Fort Worth.
On October 1, 2006, Martinez placed an emergency call to 911 in Fort Worth. He didn't bother to change plotlines. His name was James Proulx. He had killed family members and was holding hostages. All would be shot if his demands weren't met.
Fort Worth police raced to Stephanie Proulx's house, evacuating the area. Like so many cops before them, they stormed the home, enraged to find it empty.
But they also had something other departments didn't: a lead.
A Fort Worth detective remembered hearing of a similar incident in Alvarado. When he pulled the police report, he saw matching names. The FBI was called.
Agents began consulting field offices around the country. They quickly realized the Texas cases weren't isolated incidents. And once they publicized their investigation, smaller departments called in with additional leads. Suddenly, swatting was being reclassified as a "new trend, a new crime," says agent Kolbye.
And Stephanie Proulx was ready to talk. So were others.
The FBI sifted through hundreds of hours of 911 calls. In the fall of 2006, investigators arrived at the Texas apartment Trowbridge shared with his girlfriend, Angela Roberson, also a phone-line participant. They simply wanted to talk. But the moment agents flashed their badges, Roberson started blabbing about the swatting ring. She and Trowbridge were arrested.
Meanwhile, Rosoff was having problems of his own. Twice that summer, someone identifying himself as Stuart Rosoff had called Cleveland police, saying he had just shot his wife and was about to kill himself. Officers rushed out to Rosoff's downtown apartment, expecting a hostage situation. Both times they found no one but Rosoff.
Unfamiliar with spoof cards, police assumed he was the culprit and arrested him for inducing panic.
Rosoff insisted they had the wrong guy. This was the handiwork of Guadalupe Martinez, who was angry at Rosoff for something or other, he told police. But detectives found it impossible to fathom the lengths to which people from the phone world would go.
After all, records showed that the calls emanated from Rosoff's phone. And he'd done time for a similar crime in New Jersey.
Rosoff's lawyer, Tony Bondra, knew the case wasn't looking good. He suggested his client cop a plea. If he went to trial and lost, the sentence would be much harsher.
Then Bondra got a call from a U.S. Attorney's office in Texas. The lawyer was shocked. He hadn't realized that he was dealing with a "big, big issue." Or how the FBI was squeezing his client.
In January of 2007, Rosoff pleaded guilty to swats on his apartment. Judge David Matia sentenced him to eight months.
Six months later, he was indicted in Texas for extortion and the misuse of interstate communication. Rosoff pleaded to the communication charge.
His sentencing hearing will come in March. He faces up to five years in jail. But his new lawyer, Victor Vital, is painting Rosoff as a victim, a weak man overpowered by peer pressure. "Without going into too much detail, Stuart got caught up with the wrong folks and fell under some bad influences," Vital says.
Those influences presumably include Trowbridge, Ward, and Martinez, all of whom pleaded guilty to tampering with phone lines. Along with Rosoff, they were placed in the Seagoville prison in Texas. It was the first time most had met in person.
Rosoff penned four letters to Scene before Vital cut off communication. At first, he wanted money for an interview. But when none was forthcoming, he still couldn't resist the chance to explain himself, largely blaming others for his predicament.
He fills two pages with invective aimed toward Barnett and L'il Hacker (who hasn't been charged), claiming they're the real enemies. "Weigman [L'il Hacker] may be blind, but he is an extremely dangerous individual," Rosoff writes.
He ignores questions about his own role in the swats. The letters read much like the scrawling of a child who feels unfairly punished. Prison is lonely, he says. He's being unfairly singled out because he's Jewish. The warden purposely put him in a "cell with a member of the [Aryan] brotherhood — like the KKK."
Worst of all, they hardly ever let him use the phone.