The international scheme to obtain a coveted Twitter handle ended on a sleepy, country road in Tennessee when police surrounded the home of Mark Herring and ordered him to come out with his hands up.
In the hours before, Herring, 60, and his family had been harassed by several people aiming to acquire and then resell lucrative social media handles through a range of intimidation — from phone calls and text messages to false reports of fires and unexpected, cash-only pizza deliveries at their homes.
But Herring’s refusal to give up his @Tennessee handle, federal prosecutors say, led to police surrounding his home with their weapons drawn, and caused the computer programmer to suffer a massive heart attack that killed him. His death in Bethpage, Tenn., was triggered by “swatting” — the illegal practice of calling in fake life-threatening emergencies to provoke a heavily-armed response from police.
“I didn’t understand how this happened,” Corinna Fitch, Herring’s eldest daughter, told The Washington Post. “We saw all this news coming out about these people wanting his Twitter handle and how this was the reason he died. It was just mind-boggling to know the man who forever preached Internet safety died this way.”
On Wednesday, Shane Sonderman was sentenced in Memphis federal court to five years in prison for one count of conspiracy. Sonderman, 20, of Lauderdale County, Tenn., pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charge in March in exchange for several other charges to be dropped.
Federal prosecutors say Sonderman targeted at least five people and attempted to pressure them to sell him their social media handles, according to court documents obtained by The Post. Herring, a father of three and grandfather of six, is the only person targeted who died as a result.
Sonderman posted Herring’s contact information online on April 27, 2020, and a co-conspirator — a minor in the United Kingdom — falsely reported a murder at Herring’s home to police shortly thereafter, court documents say. The British minor, identified as “C.B.” in the indictment, was not extradited to the United States for charges.
Bryan R. Huffman, Sonderman’s attorney, said he thought his client’s sentencing was fair and emphasized that Sonderman has expressed remorse for actions that helped lead to Herring’s death.
“He has expressed his regret regarding Mr. Herring’s death,” Huffman said to The Post. “He further was able to convey his sincere remorse to the other victims as well.”
This week’s sentencing is the latest example of how people have escalated online disputes or harassment into real-world consequences — some that end in tense scenes involving heavily-armed police or SWAT teams.
Several people were sentenced this year for committing what one prosecutor described as “the most widespread swatting conspiracy in the country” known to federal law enforcement. In that case, journalists and government officials were targeted by the leader of a violent neo-Nazi group.
Fitch, 37, recalled how smart her father was in grabbing the @Tennessee handle when he joined Twitter in March 2007. Herring, who loved technology, wanted the Twitter name because he loved his home state, especially the mountains and the University of Tennessee Volunteers, she said. Fitch was always surprised when Herring would tell her about the offers he would get for the handle, some worth thousands of dollars.
“Several times a year, he’d be like, ‘I got another offer,’” she said. “It was unreal.”
The @Tennessee name was a clear target for Sonderman, who joined several other suspects in creating fake accounts to target people in multiple states — New York, Virginia, Michigan — with interesting social media names, prosecutors say. If people did not hand over their social media handles, which could be resold for thousands of dollars, then Sonderman and his associates would barrage them in a variety of ways.
One victim in Oregon reported how Sonderman’s co-conspirators falsely reported a fire at her parents’ house last year.
“did your parent’s enjoy the firetrucks?” they wrote to the Oregon victim in a text message with grammatical errors, according to the indictment. “i plan on killing your parents next if you do not hand the username on instrgam over to me.”
Neither Fitch nor the rest of Herring’s family could have expected what happened next in Bethpage, an unincorporated community about an hour outside Nashville.
Family members were befuddled when they received cash-only pizza deliveries in Herring’s name. Thinking it was a joke, Fitch tried to reach out to her father over Facebook after he did not respond to calls or text messages. It wasn’t until Greg Hooge, Herring’s son-in-law, got a hold of Herring’s girlfriend that they knew this was no joke: “She said, ‘Everything is not okay.’”
“That was the first indication that something was wrong,” Fitch said.
The family would later learn that Herring refused to give up the @Tennessee handle to an anonymous caller who on April 27, 2020, demanded the name, according to court documents. After this unfolded, Sonderman went on the video game chat platform Discord to share the names and addresses of Herring and his family members, prosecutors say.
Then, as the pizza situation was happening, police responded to a call from someone with a British accent about an alleged murder and bomb threat — and “arrived prepared to take on a life and death situation,” according to the indictment.
“Emergency responders were dispatched, and when they arrived at Herring’s home, guns drawn, they called for Herring to walk toward them, keeping his hands visible. As he did so, Herring appeared to lose his balance and fell to the ground, unresponsive,” prosecutors wrote. “Mr. Herring died of a heart attack at gunpoint.”
Fran Herring, his ex-wife, said the timing of his death was no coincidence.
“I believe he was scared to death, and that is what caused his heart attack,” she told WKRN.
Investigators later determined Sonderman played a role in the fatal “swatting.” Prosecutors said it was clear he “was part of a chain of events” that “led [to] a juvenile halfway across the globe calling for emergency responses to a non-emergency.”
After Sonderman pleaded guilty in March, Huffman argued his client deserved a shorter sentence because he did not have a criminal record and came from a family with a “history of severe mental illness.”
“Shane is a very young man at the beginning of his life. He fell into the online gaming community and began communicating over the chat functions,” Huffman told The Post. “Unfortunately he succumbed to the mischievous and criminal elements which exist on these platforms.”
A spokesperson for video game chat platform Discord said in a statement that the company takes safety matters “incredibly seriously” and does engage with authorities when suspicious activity arises.
“We have zero-tolerance for illegal activity on our service, including cases like this that involve swatting,” the official said.
Fitch said she and her family are angry over a sentence that she described as “a slap on the wrist.” Mark Herring’s relatives are pushing for better education about “swatting” for police and hope to meet with elected officials to help stiffen the punishment for the illegal practice, especially in cases where people end up dead.
She remains grateful for the last time she saw her dad. At a neighborhood parade in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Herring showed up to the festivities and kept his distance, waving at her and his grandson, who had just turned 7.
“He said, ‘I wish I could hug you,’” Fitch said. “Days later, he was gone.”