On Thursday, hundreds of Pokemon players from around the globe began arriving to the Hynes Convention Center in Boston for the game’s annual World Championship. There were grand masters from Mexico, senior champions from Chile and a junior Pokemon prodigy from Portugal — all competing for a first prize of $25,000.
Each brought with them their own armada of cards: paper armies of fictional creatures with names like Blastoise and Charmander, Jigglypuff and Pikachu.
Two contestants, however, showed up packing a much more potent type of arsenal.
Kevin Norton and James Stumbo had driven cross-country from Iowa to participate in the Pokemon tournament. According to Boston Police, the disgruntled gamers had threatened online to kill fellow contestants and had packed accordingly.
Their secret weapons weren’t adorable cartoons but rather real, secret weapons: a 12-gauge Remington shotgun, an AR-15 assault rifle, scores of bullets and a hunting knife nearly a foot in length, all stored in the trunk of their car.
On Saturday, cops arrested the men after receiving a tip from tournament security, searching their car and seizing the weapons. Norton, 18, and Stumbo, 27, did not have the proper licenses, cops said, and have been charged with unlawful possession of both a firearm and ammunition.
But Boston Police painted the arrests as much more than a permit issue. Officers had prevented “a potential tragedy,” they said.
“This incident is a good example of private security reaching out to their local Boston police district and relaying information to detectives and BRIC analysts in order to identify the very real threat,” according to Bureau of Intelligence and Analysis Commander Superintendent Paul Fitzgerald.
Neither Norton nor Stumbo could be reached for comment Sunday night.
Their arrests have divided America’s Pokemon community, with some supporters suggesting that the incident was a joke gone too far and others arguing that the arrests had prevented a possible bloodbath.
“It’s good to know they were arrested,” one person wrote on PokeBeach, a popular Pokemon-related Web site. “Such a shame people aren’t taking this as seriously because [of jokes like] ‘It’s Pokemon, people still play Pokemon?'”
Indeed, the arrests are revealing just how seriously some people take Pokemon.
Crime at card games is nothing new. Many times a bad black jack hand or a marked poker card has led to violence. Some men have even lost their lives at the table: victims of rage or robbery or gambling grudges.
Earlier this year, a man was arrested at a poker tournament in Ontario, for instance. Harnam Matharu was arrested for allegedly assaulting and robbing someone at a previous tournament, the Globe and Mail reported. Matharu was the chip leader and close to winning $200,000 when cops intervened. Despite being detained, he still received $80,000.
But that was poker, a game associated with the Wild West and still notorious for high stakes, high tempers and hijinks.
This is Pokemon.
As the prize money demonstrates, however, Pokemon tournaments are no joke. They routinely draw hundreds of contestants. And in one weekend, winners can earn enough money to live on for the rest of the year.
Although most Americans think of it as a child’s game from the mid 1990s, Pokemon has proved a resilient and powerful cultural force.
“The franchise keeps revamping itself, creating new ways to get kids hooked on the game and keep the money flowing out of parents’ pockets,” Colleen O’Neil wrote in 2013. “Pokémon is in its sixth generation, with the recent release of Pokémon X and Pokémon Y for the Nintendo 3DS in October 2013, which sold more than four million units worldwide in the first two days of its release.
“But while most of the kids who grew up with Pokémon have moved on to other device-driven addictions (collecting Facebook friends instead of Pokémon), some of them have taken advantage of the franchise’s long history to hone their skills and become true Poké-masters,” she wrote. “There’s even a well-established, invite-only Pokémon World Championships. That’s right, every year a whole convention center fills with men and women in Pikachu costumes, hunched over their Game Boys, tapping away at their screens for a chance at glory (and cash prizes).”
From his social media posts, Stumbo appears to have been a successful player.
In a recent Facebook post, for example, he boasted that he planned to spend his earnings from this year’s national Pokemon tournament on “guns and strippers[s].”
“Boys an girls this is going to be a guns and stripper weekend!!!” he wrote on July 30 above a photo of an e-mail announcing that his $1,000 Pokemon check was in the mail.
Stumbo, seated at left, during a 2010 tournament in Hawaii.
That post eerily foreshadowed this weekend’s arrests in a number of ways.
First, there was the company.
One of the commenters on the Facebook post was none other than Kevin Norton.
“But imagine [what] would she do for $1,000,” Norton said, referring to a stripper. “I approve of pokemans [sic] funding strip clubs.”
According to his Facebook profile, Norton is a high school student in Ames, Iowa, about 36 miles away from Stumbo’s hometown of Des Moines.
From Facebook, the two appear to be friends, frequently messaging each other about late-night Pokemon games or prospective tournaments.
The other hobby they seemed to share, however, was guns.
Norton’s Facebook profile picture appears to show the skinny 18-year-old firing a pistol. It was posted June 20 and the only comment on it is someone writing: “Thug.”
On Wednesday, the two Iowans apparently merged their two hobbies into one ill-fated trip.
“Kevin Norton and I are ready for worlds,” Stumbo wrote on Aug. 19 above a photo of a white car with a shotgun and an AR-15 on the trunk. “Boston here we come!!!”
Some of Stumbo’s friends appear to have shrugged off the photo as a joke.
“Columbine pt 2,” wrote one.
“Don’t worry about it,” answered Stumbo.
“Just don’t get mad when you lose the auto win,” the friend replied with a smiley face.
“My AR-15 says you lose,” Stumbo answered.
“Another Boston massacre,” the friend wrote.
Another series of comments was even more chilling.
“Good luck!” a second friend commented on the photo.
“With killing the competition?” Norton replied, according to the Daily Beast.
Whether or not Norton and Stumbo were serious, the Facebook posts worried fellow Pokemon players, who then tipped off tournament organizers.
When the two arrived in Boston for Thursday’s opening ceremony, they were blocked from entering the convention center, according to BPD.
“Hynes Convention security called the Boston Police Department, which radioed two officers to look into Norton and Stumbo,” according to the Daily Beast. “The ‘officers were informed’ of Stumbo’s post on Facebook, according to the police report. When Stumbo was questioned, he claimed the post was taken out of context. However, Norton told police where their car was parked and that it had weapons inside. Norton said the shotgun was his but the AR-15 was Stumbo’s. Neither man produced a permit to carry firearms.”
Cops seized the vehicle, while Norton and Stumbo were released pending a search warrant, according to BPD.
When a judge approved the warrant the next day, police popped the car’s trunk to allegedly find a 12-gauge Remington shotgun, a DPMS model AR-15 rifle, several hundred rounds of ammunition and a hunting knife. They then issued an arrest warrant for the Pokemon players.
Norton and Stumbo were arrested on Saturday at a hotel in Saugus, near Boston, according to police. They will be arraigned Monday in Boston Municipal Court.
“Prior to the event this weekend, our community of players made us aware of a security issue,” the Pokemon International Company said in a statement on Sunday, according to the Daily Beast. “We gathered information and gave it as soon as possible to the authorities at the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center who acted swiftly and spearheaded communication with the Boston Police Department. Due to quick action, the potential threat was resolved. The Pokemon Company International takes the safety of our fans seriously and will continue to ensure proper security measures are a priority.”
Reactions from the Pokemon community ranged from surprise to disgust.
“Woah,” wrote one commenter on the PokeBeach article about the arrests. “That’s not very Pokemon master-like!”
“And just when I thought the playerbase couldn’t sink any lower,” wrote another.
“Wow, just wow,” wrote a third, before praising the Pokemon gods for intervening.
“Thank Arceus the authorities got it all under control.”