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Police look for clues in Wal-Mart "swatting"

Grand Forks Police are seeking information on who made the call threatening to shoot up the southside Wal-Mart Sunday night, which sent about 100 employees and patrons fleeing from the store and dozens of law enforcement officers pouring in.

Grand Forks Police are seeking information on who made the call threatening to shoot up the southside Wal-Mart Sunday night , which sent about 100 employees and patrons fleeing from the store and dozens of law enforcement officers pouring in.

Grand Forks law enforcement blocked entry to the Wal-Mart at 2551 32nd Ave. S. shortly before 9 p.m. Sunday, the same store where a fatal shooting occurred in late May.

However, in this case, it appears the threat may have been a hoax, as no gunman was found in the store, which reopened at about 5:30 a.m. Monday.

"At this point, it does not appear an actual threat was present within the store," said Grand Forks Police Lt. Bill Macki Monday morning.

The incident remains under investigation, Macki said, with police trying to track down the person who made the call.


Prank calls are nothing new to law enforcement.

Grand Forks Police Lt. Brett Johnson estimated city officers have responded to about half a dozen prank calls this year, some of which drew a significant police response.

The calls are part of a phenomenon known as "swatting," in which a person makes a contrived call to 911 to draw a response from law enforcement, often a SWAT team.

In March, Grand Forks Police were called to a threat at Valley Vision, where officers spent more than three hours on scene, at one point deploying a remote-controlled robot to search the scene, only to find there was no threat.

In May, there was a call of an emergency at Grand Forks Air Force Base, which was locked down for an hour and a half while deputies investigated the call that turned out to be a hoax.

The Wal-Mart call Sunday drew 18 officers with the Grand Forks Regional SWAT Team, a half dozen Grand Forks Police detectives, a handful of crisis negotiators as well as Grand Forks County sheriff's deputies and UND police officers to the southside Wal-Mart, Johnson said.

Police are investigating whether the call is connected to other recent bogus calls, he said.

They are also looking into whether the call was made locally or from elsewhere in the country, he said.


But it sometimes is difficult to trace the calls, such as when callers use devices to hide the their phone number or identity, Johnson said. He declined to go into detail on how the callers mask their identities.

If suspected of such a call, a person could be charged with terrorizing, a Class C felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Under North Dakota law, a person may be charged with terrorizing for threatening to commit a violent crime with the intent of placing others in fear for their safety.

The call

It took three hours before officers determined there was no threat at the store.

Grand Forks Police received reports of a gunman inside the southside Wal-Mart threatening to open fire at about 8:45 p.m. Sunday.

Police were on the phone with a Wal-Mart manager, while another Wal-Mart employee was speaking via telephone with the suspect, Macki said. The manager relayed information to police as he learned it from the employee.

The suspect reportedly told the employee he was in the store with two hostages and that he had a gun. He allegedly demanded money and threatened to harm a hostage if he did not receive the cash. He also allegedly threatened to kill a hostage if any police officers entered the store.


Multiple officers, including agents with special operations teams, arrived on scene shortly before 9 p.m. and evacuated Wal-Mart staff and customers, Macki said.

While evacuations were underway, the SWAT team escorted detectives and management to an area of the store where they could view store surveillance video, Macki said.

But three hours after law enforcement arrived on scene, they were not sure if a threatening person had ever entered the store.

Police determined the call had likely been a hoax.

The Wal-Mart location has been the target of other crimes, notably a shooting in May.

Marcell Travon Willis, a senior airman who had been stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base since February 2013, walked into the same Wal-Mart shortly after 1 a.m. May 26. Wielding a 9 mm handgun, Willis, 21, shot two Wal-Mart employees. Lisa Braun, 47, was injured, and Gregory Weiland, 70, died. Willis also shot at a third employee but missed before turning the gun on himself.

In June 2013, a bomb threat-which turned out to be a hoax-was called in to the store, which was evacuated and closed for several hours.

Grand Forks Police Department is asking anyone with information about Sunday's incident, including the identity of the caller, to call the police department at (701) 787-8000.


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A Grand Forks police officer sets up a perimeter behind Wal-Mart on 32nd Ave. S. Sunday in Grand Forks. Photo by Tim Albrecht/Grand Forks Herald

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