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Inside the 'swatting' threat at a Colorado high school

Records obtained by 9NEWS show how authorities in Durango responded to one of 17 hoax phone calls last week.

DURANGO, Colo. — Naomi Marquez-Smith had been on the job for less than a year when she picked up a call at the Durango-La Plata Communications Center on Feb. 22. It was a call the young dispatcher said she won’t forget.

A man’s voice told Marquez-Smith he was outside Durango High School with a pipe bomb and an AR-15 and was about to go inside and shoot every kid he saw.

The threat against Durango High School that day was one of 17 hoax calls targeting schools across Colorado. A spokeswoman for the FBI’s Denver office said on Thursday that no investigative updates were available on the late February calls. Another round of hoax threats were sent to several Colorado schools on Wednesday, as well.

9NEWS obtained a recording of the Feb. 22 call regarding Durango High School and police body camera video of the response to the school that morning.

“I was trying to stay calm the whole time because I was like, wow, this is really happening,” Marquez-Smith said.

She first asked the caller where he was at the school, having attended the school herself and knowing there are multiple entrances. The caller told her he was out front.

“My second thought was that I should try to keep him on the line instead and try to somewhat convince him not to,” she said. “Maybe I can convince him not to do this. If I could, or stall it in some way so somebody could catch him before he walked in.”

Shortly after she asked the caller to keep talking to her, a recording of gunfire played and then the line went dead.

> Audio below: The swatting call that Naomi Marquez-Smith took at the Durango-La Plata Communications Center:

“I was definitely freaking out on the inside,” she said. “My heart started beating really fast. I was just thinking oh my God – these kids are going to get shot …my brother goes to that school.”

Marquez-Smith immediately put the call out to dispatch. Moments later, Durango Police Officer Sam Kullberg raced toward his squad car.

“Unfortunately, in today’s day and age, this is something that we have to train for, and it’s something that we train for quite often,” Kullberg said.

During the three-minute drive from the police station to the high school, Kullberg said he was trying to focus on his training, but some emotion slipped in.

“Definitely some anxiety, you know, as a police officer that’s a call that you hope you never have to respond to,” he said.

Once Kullberg arrived on scene, he and other officers worked to secure a perimeter while other officers went inside the school. Then Kullberg headed inside the school to help clear rooms.

“We’re evaluating our threats," he said. "… Is somebody in the school right now? Are they still outside? What’s going on?"

Kullberg, who’s been a police officer in Durango for three years after attending Fort Lewis College, grew up in Brighton.

“Growing up in that era after Columbine, it’s sad,” he said. “When I was in high school, we had a similar situation where somebody had called in and said there was an active shooter situation.”

> Video below: Body camera footage of Durango Police officers clearing the high school after the swatting call:

Kullberg said that living through the experience as a student helped inform the way he responded inside the school to help keep kids safe.

“I think kids growing up in that era kinda know, it could be real, it could not,” he said.

About 20 minutes into the call, Kullberg said officers on scene started to realize this was a hoax.

“I think most of all the most traumatic thing is just knowing and thinking someone could do this – not just call in a hoax saying that they’re doing this to innocent children [who are] just going to school trying to learn, but to think that this has happened and it could happen tomorrow, could happen right now," Kullberg said. “That’s still something that’s tough to think about.”

Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer said calls like this drain all of the policing manpower in the region. Even wildlife officers respond to these calls.

“When a call like this goes – everything gets dropped – everybody goes,” he said. “Anything else that someone has in need at the time … it could be a traffic crash, it could be another investigation of some sort …everybody goes.”

Brammer, who started his law enforcement career with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, was on duty the day of the shooting at Columbine High School. He was working in the county jail and didn’t respond to the school that day, but he said he spoke with friends in the department who did. He said at the time, law enforcement trained for mass casualty events like that, but it was different.

“We knew we had been training for that, but we kind of trained in a different way because it was that unforeseen threat that’s low frequency high intensity sort of thing, now it’s the norm and we have to be prepared for this every single day,” he said.

More 9NEWS stories by Steve Staeger:    


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