Elementary school administrator Charlie Chalfant was at his desk in the District on Thursday when his wife Rachel, who teaches at the same school, walked in with an odd message:
Chalfant knew their only child was at day care.
Still, what if two people for some reason had gotten into their family’s home?
That was the police concern as well, Chalfant learned after talking to them.
As it turned out, more than 40 officers swarmed the Chalfants’ neighborhood on Ferrara Drive in the Wheaton area. Chalfant drove there to give officers a front-door key. A SWAT team went in and found no one, leading police to say the incident appears to have been a hoax.
The call at about 10:30 a.m., police said, probably was a “swatting,” when prank callers fake an emergency that draws a SWAT team response to storm a house or building.
Swatters use different call-routing methods to make it appear they’re calling in a legitimate emergency while trying to avoid being detected later as a fraud.
On Thursday, the caller called a district police station, not the county’s central 911 line where calls can be more easily traced.
“We took it seriously,” Capt. Paul Starks, a police spokesman, said of the response. “We have no choice.”
He ticked off the dangers and resources the hoax calls consume: officers and hostage negotiators speeding to the scene, heavily armed SWAT members taking positions, officers entering a house not knowing fully what awaits them. “You’re putting a lot of people in harm’s way,” Starks said.
He said investigators are working to find the caller: “We’ll be backtracking, electronically determining how this call came in — in an attempt to determine the identity.”
By 2 p.m., Charlie Chalfant was back at Murch Elementary in Northwest Washington, where is dean of students.
In a previous career, from 2008 to 2011, he worked as a deputy for the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office. He said he understood why the police responded so strongly and empathized with them about being misled.
“I gave them my keys,” Chalfant said, “and they took care of business.”