On June 28, 2014, a SWAT team showed up at the home of Max and Victoria Zeisberg. Bright lights blared into the couple's windows. Officers came equipped with assault rifles and shotguns. They'd gotten a tip that Max had murdered his wife.
None of this was true. The Zeisbergs had just been swatted.
When someone is swatted, a SWAT team shows up under false pretences. It's a costly, scary, and dangerous "joke" that's resulted in a Canadian teen being arrested and parents getting mixed up in misguided gaming rivalries. Swatting isn't exclusive to video games, as several Hollywood celebrities can attest, but modern gaming often involves live streaming our experiences. A quick glance at Twitch's front page makes it easy to find people playing. Anyone could be a target.
If police receive an anonymous tip or call about an alleged crime, unless they can quickly and easily verify otherwise, there's reason to believe it could be credible. Better safe than sorry. That's how the Harriman Police Department in Harriman, Tennessee interpreted a man on the phone calling himself Max, who claimed he had killed his wife and was ready to kill others.
Here's how the sergeant Gregory Sims described the situation in the official report:
"While holding perimeter, Central Dispatch was attempting to keep the male caller online, where he had called in on the non-emergency administration phone line and was stating his name was Max Ziegler. He then stated that he was sitting in his bedroom and wanted officers to come in. He then told dispatch that he was a current heroin user and that he had used heroin earlier in the day. He then stated that he used an AR-15 Rifle to kill his wife and that he knew the cops were there was going to start killing them. Central was still attempting to talk the male into lying the gun down and coming out of the house but he was continuing to refuse."
The caller has already made a big error, as Max's last name is Zeisberg, not Ziegler, but that wasn't enough for police to ignore. The caller had the address of Max and Victoria Zeisberg.
The police believed they were talking to Max. In reality, Max had been busy playing various Call of Duty games with Victoria. They have been married for six years, take care of three kids, and the couple's idea of a Friday night is playing video games with one another. Call of Duty is a personal favourite because it means they can play with each other and against friends. That night, though, they wanted to stream, to broadcast it to the public.
"We'd started watching other people streaming to get a feel for it, to see how it was, to see people's responses," said Victoria. "Overall, everything we saw was very positive. People enjoyed watching other people and interacting with one another. A lot of times people would say 'I'm playing this game and watching you guys at the same time!'"
Streaming games used to be a pain, an endeavour requiring expensive equipment and trained professionals. These days, it's no harder than clicking a button on your Xbox One or PlayStation 4. This is what drew the Zeisbergs into the world of streaming: it was easy.
"I thought 'look at these guys, they're streaming, people like watching them,'" said Max. "If I'm gonna play it, might as well just stream it, right?"
"It seemed really cool to do," said Victoria.
On June 28, the Zeisbergs were enjoying their most successful streaming night yet. The Zeisbergs are not popular streaming personalities with thousands of followers. For them, a big streaming night meant a few dozen people were watching. It also meant they were dealing with a more lively chat room than usual. When some users started calling Max a Nazi, they were quickly banned. But the Nazi comments kept coming and eventually became more specific. Some users were pointing out how Max was German. He had, in fact, lived in Germany for 10 years. How someone would know these details about Max's life seemed curious but not alarming. The bans kept flowing.
Since it was a Saturday night, the whole family was up later than usual. The Zeisberg's three children -- a two-year-old, 11-year-old, and 13-year-old -- were still awake, too. At 11:00 pm, it was time for everyone to sleep. Victoria announced the stream would be winding down, but the chat room wasn't having it. Soon, people were offering money for the couple to play a little bit longer.
"They were throwing the idea of money in my face," said Victoria.
The offering of money is when the night took a turn.
As the family puzzled at the offers flowing in, Victoria received several abusive phone calls. She's an insurance agent, so she has a website with her contact information online. This is common for people in her field, and Victoria hadn't dealt with any real problems before.
"They started calling and going 'oh, I hope your whole family dies.'" she said. "And they left some really scary messages on my phone. Really, really terrible. That's when I said 'this is enough, shut this off.'"
Most likely, some of the people watching the stream wanted the SWAT team to invade while the stream was still going to have public evidence everything went as planned.
The chat room soon filled with messages pasting the couple's home address, as well.
Around this time, the oldest daughter walked into the room, and announced there were cops outside. Her parents thought she was kidding or maybe over-reacting to police pulling a speeding driver outside or something.
According to the police report, here's what authorities were thinking at the time:
"Central was still attempting to talk the male into lying the gun down and coming out of the house but he was continuing to refuse. I was advised by Deputies that they had saw movement at the rear of the building."
It was dark outside by this point, and Max stepped out of the room where they were playing. When he left the room, he noticed shadows of people wielding huge guns and bright lights.
This is when Max realised his family had just been swatted.
"I was just freaking out," he said. "In my head, I was like 'The kids, the kids! Put 'em somewhere!' [The police] were coming up. I didn't want to get near the window anymore. I can't be near the window because if anything is called out, I'm a target."
Max was terrified. If he made one wrong move, if he gave the police reason to believe he was up to something, the police might start shooting. Victoria had an idea. She decided to call 911 and get in touch with the police. This is how she would learn why the police had showed up.
Compounding the situation, the couple was very new to the neighbourhood. Nobody had their number, which meant the police were unable to get in touch.
Cars, trucks, and other emergency vehicles had quickly pooled outside. This was an event.
The police told Victoria to send her husband outside, but the two decided to leave together.
"The first thing I said to my kids was 'stay there, and if anybody comes up, listen to instructions,'" said Max.
As the two ventured out, they were greeted by guns and a chorus of "Put your hands up!"
"It's an experience to have so many guns pointed at you at one time," said Victoria.
Max immediately went to the ground, while Victoria protested. Not wanting to cause any confusion, Max followed any instructions thrown at him. To her, the situation was ridiculous. The police relented and told the couple to walk over. They were both immediately handcuffed.
For police, the next step was to clear the house. This meant heading inside, guns and all.
"It wasn't enough feeling violated over everything that happened," said Max. "Now, the entire police department, the SWAT team, just checked my house."
The kids were asked to put their hands up.
"They didn't know what to do with the baby," he said. "She's flapping around. It made no sense to her."
As Max and Victoria waited for the police to finish their sweep, he thought of the "what ifs."
"They're pointing [guns] on us, ready for, if anything happens, [to shoot] for their life's sake," he said. "That's the scary part of it. They're humans. Humans make mistakes all the time."
Here's how the police described this moment in time:
"Upon the couple coming out of the front door, officers did make request for them to come toward them with their hand raised. Upon the couple reaching my location the couple was detained for safety reasons. I did explain to them that they were not under arrest and that they were only detained for safety. Officers did clear the apartment where there did not appear to be any type of assault or criminal act. We did locate three children in the home which was consistent with the wife/mother's statement to me before went entered the residence."
Fortunately, nothing went wrong. The kids were shaken up but otherwise safe and sound.
"The baby was like 'Mummy! Mummy!'" said Victoria. "And, of course, I'm frickin' handcuffed. The baby's trying to come to me, I'm handcuffed, I can't carry her. The SWAT team comes downstairs and goes 'OK, it's clear. Everything's fine. And, then, they couldn't get my stupid handcuffs off.' So I'm sitting there, the baby's trying to lunge at me. She's scared, she doesn't know what's going on. She had no shoes on. She kept crying 'Mummy! Shoes! I have no shoes!' [laughs] That was the biggest problem of the night. The baby didn't have any shoes on, and she was outside."
She doesn't harbour any ill-will to the officers involved, however.
"They wanna go home to their families at night, too," she said.
After all this, the original "Max" who had called in to police was still on the phone. It's briefly noted in the police report:
"Offender called numerous times and made threats toward dispatch."
A little after midnight, the police went home. The night calmed. Dreams didn't come easy, though. Both Max and Victoria had trouble finding sleep for several hours. At one point, they even saw the familiar pulsing of red and blue police lights flashing outside their bedroom.
"When we saw the lights," said Victoria, "we went 'Oh my god. We're fucked.'"
Someone had been pulled over on the side of the road.
It took a few days for the incident to sink in. Victoria started to avoid games and lost interest in streaming. Max was forced to enjoy his favourite hobby with the volume muted. Their friends would ask them to come online and play, but they couldn't find the energy. It was now tainted.
It's unclear who was behind all this. The detective assigned to the case told me he could "not release any information on the case as it has been turned over to the FBI for investigation." The Zeisbergs have not received many details but aren't overly concerned with who made the call but why.
"They see you playing," said Max. "They're angry at you, they're not happy with what you've said or they're not happy with the way you've played. They just want to bother you. But what they don't realise is that when they come up with these pranks, everybody else is affected in the house."
The two eventually resumed streaming, as it was important to Max, if only out of principle. Max didn't want to live in fear, even if, privately, he was nervous about a repeat performance.
"There's always gonna be trolls," said Victoria. "At first, right after it happened, [after] every terrible comment, I'd be like 'What are they gonna do?'"
When they started their first stream after the swatting, Max tried to put on a brave face.
"I told her I had confidence," he said. "Inside, I was like 'Here I go again! Let's start streaming! Hi, everyone!' [nervous laughter] I didn't even tell anybody it happened."
During our conversation, the Zeisbergs often laughed about the incident. It seems so ridiculous now. Mostly, they worry about how swatting reflects on the gaming community.
"We've met a lot of people streaming," said Victoria. "We've made friends."
"For every two guys that come in and bother you, there's 10 that aren't," said Max.
"They're amazing," said Victoria.
"That's the message," said Max. "Let's just keep doing it for those 10, and not ruin it for the two that are just messing around. "
Pictures: Jim Cooke, Shutterstock