Update: Sept. 16, 5:15 p.m.
Local law enforcement and the FBI have been communicating with a suspect believed to be responsible for cyber threats against Flathead County schools and every indication is that the individual is not in the area, according to authorities.
Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry confirmed that a negotiation team has been engaged in ongoing communication with a suspect.
The situation escalated Saturday after the individual began contacting and threatening families in Columbia Falls. Law enforcement says the suspect has breached electronically stored directory information in the Columbia Falls School District and is sending threatening electronic messages via text or email to some students’ and staffs’ families. The school district has sent out messages to all families warning them of the breach and advising them to contact police as soon as a message is received. People should not reply to any conversations with the suspect.
The breach compromised student and family contact information, law enforcement said. The threats include specific student names.
The threats made against Columbia Falls families are similar to those that arrived earlier this week against schools and school officials.
“They are similar yet more disturbing and personalized,” Curry said.
Curry declined to provide details of the specific threats due to their nature.
Curry said progress continues to be made in identifying the suspect but the threat does not appear to be imminent.
“We believe that the suspect is not in this area,” Curry said.
Curry declined to elaborate as to how law enforcement came to that conclusion and declined to provide details into the suspect’s motivations.
“This person is only trying to gain power and self satisfaction through fear and intimidation,” Columbia Falls police officials said in an announcement Saturday afternoon. “If you receive a text from a phone number that you do not recognize please do not engage in conversation or try to respond. Instead, please contact the Columbia Falls Police Department at (406) 892-3234 and press 1 for dispatch to report the incident.”
There has been no indication that any other school districts’ data systems were breached at this time, and all school districts in the Flathead Valley are taking necessary precaution to ensure that no data breach occurs, according to law enforcement.
“I would also like to commend our community for refusing to be paralyzed by fear and continuing your day to day lives in the face of this threat,” Columbia Falls Police Chief Clint Peters said. “The resolve and strength of Columbia Falls is unmatched and it truly makes us proud to serve this city. The law enforcement agencies will continue to investigate every lead, will continue to protect our citizens, and will stand strong around the clock to support our communities.”
Curry said the suspect has taken “extraordinary measures to conceal his electronic identity and location. We have and are continuing to fully investigate every local lead or person of interest and rule them out.” The communication has been via written electronic messages.
Schools were closed across the valley late last week and school officials have not decided whether school will resume Monday. An announcement will be made no later than 6 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 17 with an update.
“We continue to work around the clock, with both national and international assistance to determine both the identity and the location, in the U.S. or internationally, of the suspect in this case,” Curry said. “We have made and continue to make progress in those efforts.”
“As always, the public safety of our community and our children remain our paramount concern and focus,” Curry said.
Curry said there does not appear to be any immediate public safety threats. The threats, which were delivered via text message and email, have been isolated to schools and school functions and school personnel, he said.
Authorities are investigating a series of threats made against local schools earlier this week. The threats, which emerged Wednesday and Thursday, forced the closure of more than 30 schools across Flathead County as well as the cancellation of numerous events, including homecoming festivities in Whitefish.
“We are all disappointed for our students and families that homecoming activities were canceled this weekend. We will be working to celebrate many homecoming activities with our community as soon as we can,” Whitefish Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt said Friday.
Few details have been released about the threats as the investigation continues.
“We realize this incident has created a lot of frustration and many of you have questions you want answered,” the Kalispell Police Department said in a statement. “This is an ongoing investigation and therefore we cannot discuss further details at this time. When the appropriate time comes we will gladly share details of the investigation. We thank you for your patience, understanding, and cooperation during this difficult time. We are working diligently with other agencies to resolve the situation as soon as possible.”