A horror movie come to life
Three Fircrest families receive death threats via cell phone. Even when the phones are off. Even when they get new phones.
SEAN ROBINSON; The News Tribune
Published: June 20th, 2007 06:15 AM
Maybe it’s just a long-running prank, but the reign of terror endured by three Fircrest families buries the needle on the creepy meter.
For four months, the Kuykendalls, the Prices and the McKays say, they’ve been harassed and threatened by mysterious cell phone stalkers who track their every move and occasionally lurk by their homes late at night, screaming and banging on walls.
Police can’t seem to stop them. The late-night visitors vanish before officers arrive. The families say investigators have a hard time believing the stalkers can control cell phones without touching them and suspect an elaborate hoax. Complaints to their phone companies do no good – the families say they’ve been told what the stalkers are doing is impossible.
It doesn’t feel impossible to Heather Kuykendall and her sister, Darci Price, who’ve saved and recorded scores of threatening voice mails, uttered in throaty, juvenile rasps stolen from bad horror films.
Price and Kuykendall have given the callers a name: “Restricted.” That’s the word that shows up on their caller ID windows: on the land lines at home, and on every one of their cell phones.
Their messages, left at all hours, threaten death – to the families, their children and their pets.
“They tell us that they see us,” Kuykendall said Tuesday. “They tell us that they know everything we’re doing.”
It’s gotten so bad the sisters’ parents have offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who identifies the culprits.
The stalkers know what the family is eating, when adults leave the house, when they go to baseball games. They know the color of shirt Courtney Kuykendall, 16, is wearing. When Heather Kuykendall recently installed a new lock on the door of the house, she got a voice mail. During an interview with The News Tribune on Tuesday, she played the recording.
The stalkers taunted her, telling her they knew the code. In another message, they threatened shootings at the schools Kuykendall’s children attend.
“I’m warning you,” one guttural message says. “Don’t send them to school. If you do, say goodbye.”
Somehow, the callers have gained control of the family cell phones, Price and Kuykendall say. Messages received by the sisters include snatches of conversation overheard on cell-phone mikes, replayed and transmitted via voice mail. Phone records show many of the messages coming from Courtney’s phone, even when she’s not using it – even when it’s turned off.
Price and Kuykendall say the stalkers knew when they visited Fircrest police and sent a voice-mail message that included a portion of their conversation with a detective.
The harassment seems to center on Courtney, but it extends to her parents, her aunt Darcy and Courtney’s friends, including Taylor McKay, who lives across the street in Fircrest. Her mother, Andrea McKay, has received messages similar to those left at the Kuykendall household and cell phone bills approaching $1,000 for one month. She described one recent call: She was slicing limes in the kitchen. The stalkers left a message, saying they preferred lemons.
“Taylor and Courtney seem to be the hub of the harassment, and different people have branched off from there,” Andrea McKay said. “I don’t know how they’re doing it. They were able to get Taylor’s phone number through Courtney’s phone, and every contact was exposed.”
McKay, a teacher in the Peninsula School District, said she and Taylor recently explained the threats to the principal at Gig Harbor High School, which Taylor attends. A Gig Harbor police officer sat in on the conversation, she said.
While the four people talked, Taylor’s and Andrea’s phones, which were switched off, sat on a table. While mother and daughter spoke, Taylor’s phone switched on and sent a text message to her mother’s phone, Andrea said.
The Kuykendalls and Prices report similar experiences. Richard Price, Darcy’s husband, is a 26-year military officer, assigned to McChord Air Force Base. On a recent trip to the base, the stalkers sent him a message.
“McChord needs us,” the voice said.
Mari Manley, 16, one of Courtney’s close friends, is another victim of the harassment. She tried to avoid the calls by ignoring her phone. Late one night, she heard the phone making an unfamiliar noise. Her ringtone had changed.
“Answer your phone,” a guttural voice said. Manley saved the ringtone, and played it during an interview Tuesday.
The families and their friends have adopted a new routine: They block the cameras on their phones with tape. They take out the batteries to stop the calls. The Prices and Kuykendalls returned all their corrupted phones to their wireless company and replaced them with new ones. The threatening messages kept coming.
Fircrest Police Chief John Cheesman is familiar with the case and knows the families. His department is working the case with the Tacoma Police Department and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, he said. The agencies filed a search warrant for the phone records, but they didn’t reveal much. Many of the calls and text messages trace back to Courtney’s phone, which the family believes has been electronically hijacked.
Cell phone technology allows remote monitoring of calls, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Known as a “roving bug,” it works whether a phone is on or off. FBI agents tracking organized crime have used it to monitor meetings among mobsters. Global positioning systems, installed in many cell phones, also make it possible to pinpoint a phone’s location within a few feet.
According to James M. Atkinson, a Massachusetts-based expert in counterintelligence who has advised the U.S. Congress on security issues, it’s not that hard to take remote control of a wireless phone. “You do not have to have a strong technical background for someone to do this,” he said Tuesday. “They probably have a technically gifted kid who probably is in their neighborhood.”
Courtney Kuykendall says she has no idea who the stalkers are, though she knows police are suspicious. She believes someone followed her at school – a man in a hooded sweatshirt with a beard.
“They’re accusing my daughter of threatening her own family,” Heather Kuykendall said.
“Why would I do that?” Courtney said. “Why would I do that to people I care about? Why would I harass my own family?”
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