The caller from an unknown number Sunday night was polite but firm: Jay Ashcroft was asked where he was, if everyone was safe, and to come out of his house with his hands up. The caller asked what he was wearing, “so we know it’s you.”
He believed, but didn’t know for sure, that it was a police command he’d gotten. So he told his wife to get the kids upstairs.
“I didn’t know if I was really walking out to the police. I didn’t know what was going on,” he told The Heartlander Monday morning. “I walked out of my house very slowly with nothing in my hands, with my hands up, to a waiting group of several heavily-armed police officers coming out of the darkness.”
On an otherwise relaxing evening at home, the Missouri secretary of state soon learned law enforcement had been called to his home in a “swatting” hoax in which a third party falsely reports a violent crime to harass someone with a SWAT-team-style police response.
He says he heard from an officer later that a caller to 911 had claimed the “wife was shot and killed, and it was at least intimated that several other people have been shot” at Ashcroft’s address.
“My home was just swatted,” he posted on X just before 10 p.m. Sunday. “My family and I are safe. I am grateful to Jefferson City law enforcement for the professionalism with which they handled the situation.”
Ashcroft is just the latest government official to be victimized thusly – reportedly including four lawmakers over Christmas – in what is a crime so serious that people have died and the FBI has created a national database to track it.
Targets of recent swatting crimes have largely been conservatives, including the Georgia Secretary of State’s chief operating officer last week. Firebrand conservative U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was swatted at her Georgia home on Christmas morning.
“I was just swatted. This is like the 8th time. On Christmas with my family here. My local police are the GREATEST and shouldn’t have to deal with this,” Greene posted on X. Police determined it was a hoax and didn’t send officers, according to the Associated Press.
But at least a handful of police, perhaps more, did go to Ashcroft’s home, in a frightening episode – even as cautiously and caringly as it was handled by police.
“It felt surreal,” Ashcroft said Monday morning, still battling adrenaline and a swimming mind – and noting that, in some ways, the scene is scarier to him now that he’s had time to think than it was at the time.
“It was not something that happens in Jefferson City. It’s not something that happens to Jay Ashcroft. This is something that happens in crazy states to crazy people. I’m still, in some respects, kind of internalizing it.
“I should say the police officers, Jefferson City Police Department, I think did a wonderful job, very professional, very polite, but also very much in control of the situation, so it didn’t go badly for anybody. Really appreciate them doing that.
“I’ll know better when I talk to my kids again this evening to see how they’re doing.”
Did it cross Ashcroft’s mind that he could be shot?
“Yeah,” he says emphatically. “But let me restate, not because the police officers didn’t handle it well, but just because in that sort of situation people have been shot. Thinking about it later, I was like, ‘What if I had been out to dinner with my wife? What if it had happened when it was just the kids home and I wasn’t there, or I didn’t take the call because [the phone didn’t indicate] who was calling?
“It clearly could have been much worse. I thought the police did a wonderful job. And it’s dangerous for them. They don’t know what sort of a situation they’re getting into, and yet I’m thankful that they’re willing to put themselves into those situations.”
Though he says the crime of swatting is reprehensible and “it is not something that anyone should have to go through,” Ashcroft wasn’t prepared so soon after the terrifying incident to calmly say what the penalty for it should be. All he says is that the punishment should be the same for swatting anyone, and no different for doing it to people of prominence.
“I’m in favor of making sure that it’s not just a slap on the wrist, because this puts normal civilians in danger, and it puts police in danger, and there’s no call for that,” he said. “I think regardless of who you are, all Missourians should know that if someone does this to them or to their family, the consequences will be severe.”
At least a thousand such crimes are reported every year nationally, with incidents appearing to tick up sharply in recent months.
“Police had for months reported a huge surge in fake claims about active shooters at schools and colleges,” the AP reports. “There have also been reports of hundreds of swatting incidents and bomb threats against synagogues and other Jewish institutions since the Israel-Hamas war began.”
Each one can cost communities $10,000 in agency responses. But the main effect is that of terrorizing families.
“This is becoming an alarming trend,” Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden posted on X Monday morning. “I will be filing legislation ASAP to increase penalties for swatting in Missouri. Regardless of the person or the party being targeted, this is wrong!”
The danger from swatting can involve more than even the intended victim. In 2017, a potential swatting victim gave the threatening party a false address; when police arrived at the uninvolved man’s home in Wichita, Kansas, an officer shot and killed the oblivious resident, Andrew Finch.
The perpetrators in that case at least received prison time, one of them 20 years in federal prison. But most often the crime goes unpunished.
“Too often, perpetrators are getting a slap on the wrist compared to the consequences suffered by their victims,” Lauren R. Shapiro,an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told NBC News.
“It’s just one more thing that the police have to investigate,” Ashcroft says. “Frankly, I don’t know of a police department in this country that doesn’t have more things to deal with than they have manpower and time for.”