A TEENAGER who caused havoc in the US by sending threatening email messages to police departments and sparking bomb hoaxes at schools and an airport when he was just 16-years-old has been spared prison.

Connor John Robert Ash, 18, worked with others in an online gang, known as The Goon Squad, to carry out a campaign of hoaxes across the USA, Durham Crown Court was told.

Operating under the pseudonym Sinister from behind a computer in his father’s home, he engaged in the activity of “swatting” – deliberately creating situations to trigger the armed response of a US Swat team.

Ash of Hawthorn Terrace, Stanley, pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing to three charges of making an electronic communication with intent to cause distress and anxiety. He also admitted a further count of making threats to kill and three offendes of sending malicious communications.

Passing sentence Judge Jonathan Carroll said the levels of harm Ash had caused were “quite staggering”, adding it was one of the most difficult cases he had to pass sentence on, as he had to do so on the basis Ash was juvenile at the time.

He said: “But for the grace of God, nobody was seriously hurt or killed as result of your truly shocking and reckless activities.

“If you were an adult, even a young adult when you committed the offences, notwithstanding the mitigation, I would have sent you to prison.”

He added: "If I had to send you to prison it would be catastrophic in my judgement and would significantly increase the risk of you reoffending."

The judge noted a psychiatric report diagnosing Ash with an internet gaming disorder, even though the condition was not universally recognised.

He said: “When you were 16 years of age you immersed yourself in an artificial world.
"You lost yourself in gaming and reached the point, it seems to me, you were simply incapable of distinguishing reality from fiction. You certainly were unable to understand the impact of your behaviour on others."

Ash was sentenced to 16 months imprisonment with the sentence suspended for two years.
Shaun Dryden, prosecuting, said on February 2017, Ash had contacted a school in Brooklyn, New York, saying there was a bomb on the premises. It caused the evacuation of 4,000 pupils onto a major traffic route into Brooklyn.

A month later he made a similar threat to a school in Los Angeles.
On April 8 2017, Charlotte Douglas Airport, in North Carolina, was all but shut down when Ash contacted it saying there were five men with explosives and assault rifles who would start killing people if people if a sum of money was not sent to him. Around 300 members of staff and 1,000 passengers were evacuated.

The first threatening email, sent to Maryland Police Department, on or around February 20, 2017, inferred a male armed with an assault rifle was coming to a police station to kill officers, unless he was given $15,000 and a helicopter to escape.

In one chilling email, sent in March of 2017, he also contacted a US detective who was investigating his offending, threatening to send a hitman to his house to kill him and his family.

The detective took the threat seriously enough to arrange for his family to move to a safe house.

In a further message, sent to York Poquoson Sheriff’s Office, in Virginia, on September 3, 2017, he claimed to have been armed with an assault rifle and had taken four hostages who would be killed if he was not given $15,000.

The other threatening message, sent to the Stanford Police Department, in California, on October 17, 2017, he again said he was armed with an assault rifle and would kill four hostages if he was not paid $20,000.
The judge said this case was “spectacularly terrifying”.
He said: “The couple living in the house had an autistic child and when the woman realised what was going on she had to leave her house from her bed with her hands in the air screaming ‘this is a prank there is no danger.

“She said, although it had ended peacefully, it would have been catastrophic if a police officer had shot or killed anyone in her family.”

In police interview, Ash claimed that some pupils had encouraged him online to target their own schools simply to get them out of lessons, in exchange for payents. 

Christopher Knox, mitigating, said Ash was “bitterly remorseful”. He said Ash, who had been in the grip of internet gaming addiction disorder at the time, had put his life back in order and was completing a plumbing course.

Diane Spence of the CPS, said: "From behind a computer in his father’s home, Connor Ash made serious threats to US police departments between February and October of 2017. Amid a wave of gun violence in the US, these threats were seen as both serious and credible by law enforcement agencies.

“Connor Ash committed these offences, at least in part, for his own amusement and showed little regard for the terrifying consequences that his actions would create. One parent described hearing about a potential attack on their child’s school and being so afraid that she drove to the school in tears in an effort to find her child.
“The Crown Prosecution Service has worked closely with Durham Constabulary our US justice colleagues, drawing on comprehensive digital forensic evidence to build a robust case against him.
“I sincerely hope that this case serves as an ample demonstration that, where digital communications are exploited for criminal purposes, the trail that you leave will inevitably lead the criminal justice system to your front door.”
Ash was also ordered to to 300 hours unpaid work, complete 50 rehabilitation activity days, made subject to a curfew from 7pm to 7am for three months and ordered to undertake supervision from the probation service.