MATTOON — Police are seeking the public's help identifying an unknown caller who claimed that he had two pipe bombs and an M16 at a Mattoon church on March 6 and that he was "ready to start shooting people."
Mattoon Police Chief Jason Taylor said this threat, which was later determined to be a hoax, necessitated an immediate response by police officers to the targeted church — Maranatha Baptist. Taylor said officers had to enter the church with assault rifles at the ready when a church service and children's Bible study were in session.
"It was a rotten thing to have to do, but we couldn't take any chances," Taylor said of the prospect of the threatened mass shooting being real.
Taylor said the incident occurred at 7:28 p.m. March 6 when an anonymous caller, using a “spoofed” phone number, called the Mattoon Police Department dispatch line claiming to be at the church and preparing to commit an act of mass violence there. The caller specifically gave the address of the church, 3400 Dewitt Ave.
Mattoon police have been investigating the threat ever since. Taylor said the caller used a computer application to create a "spoofed" number and apparently made the call via the internet to mask his identity.
"This was an attempt to rattle the church and he did it during the time of the evening service. He knew services were ongoing at the time. This was planned," Taylor said, adding that he suspects the caller is a local resident. Taylor said this is the first threat of mass violence against a Mattoon church that he has encountered during his 23 years with the department.
Taylor said search warrants have been served at six phone companies in the U.S. and Canada to trace the call, "trunk line to trunk line, phone company to phone company." He said Mattoon-based Consolidated Communications has been especially helpful. He said if they can get the IP address for the device that the caller used, they can link it to a physical address.
The latest phone company to be served with a warrant is in Hong Kong, Taylor said. The FBI is assisting Mattoon police with the warrant overseas, he said.
"Everything is hinging on a phone company in Hong Kong," Taylor said, adding it has been challenging to get information from this company.
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Mattoon investigators also provided a recording of the call to FBI audio analysis personnel in Quantico, Virginia, Taylor said. The 15-second call does not meet the 30-second minimum they need to create a voice comparison for the suspect, he said.
With the approval of Maranatha, Taylor said investigators recently decided to release the recording to the general public in the hopes that someone in the community can help identify the caller.
This incident occurred two days after Maranatha pastor Dan Haifley spoke publicly in favor of retaining an opening prayer at Coles County Board meetings, Taylor said. There were heated discussions among those in attendance at that county committee meeting. Taylor said it's possible the threat was associated with that event.
"It's unknown whether the event is related, but the timing is certainly odd," Taylor said.
Taylor said investigators believe that whoever made this threat likely told someone else about it. He said they also believe that someone will recognize the caller’s voice as he makes the threat and twice asks for a "negotiator" before ending the call.
"We note that the caller appears to be trying to disguise his voice, but that it does sound rather nasally or higher pitched for a male. We also note that the caller is articulate in speech, and references an M16, verbiage and a weapon common to the era and generation of the Vietnam war," Taylor said. He added that the caller may be "some type of activist."
Taylor said a cash reward of $1,000 or more is offered for information regarding this crime. Anyone with information is asked to contact Mattoon police at 235-5451, private message Mattoon police via Facebook, or call Coles County Crimestoppers at 1-866-345-8488. Anyone providing information may remain anonymous.
Police are investigating the incident as a case of making a terrorist threat, a Class X felony that could result in sentence of six to 30 years in prison.
"This hoax is viewed as an assault on basic religious freedoms enjoyed by all citizens. We ask for public assistance in solving this crime," Taylor said.