MIT Says Its Gunman Hoax Claimed to Be Retaliating for Aaron Swartz's Suicide

The story about the gunman-on-MIT campus hoax called in to Cambridge police Saturday morning  took a strange turn Wednesday afternoon. According to a school official, the hoax centered around someone seeking revenge for deceased hacker and Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz. 

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MIT told its students in a campus-wide email today that gunman hoax this past Saturday centered around the story of a staff member seeking revenge for deceased hacker and Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz.

Early Saturday morning, Cambridge police officers raced to MIT's campus where a gunman was reported to be trawling the halls of the campus' Main Group Building with a rifle and sporting body armor. Over the course of a three hour period, police searched the building up and down looking for the gunman before realizing they'd been duped. The whole thing was a hoax. The report came "over a system used by people with hearing or speech disabilities to communicate with others on phone calls," Cambridge police said. But until now, we didn't know much else about the hoax report.

According to an email from executive vice president and treasure Israel Ruiz, republished by MIT's student newspaper The Tech, the call came in at 7:28 a.m. via a text to the "Sprint relay message service" designed for people with hearing or speech impairments and warned that a gunman, who was a member of the school's staff, was "getting out of control," and looking for school President, Rafael Reif. "At 7:37 AM, the caller indicated that the alleged gunman was retaliating against people involved in the suicide of Aaron Swartz," reads the report, and Reif was the fake gunman's main target. The report doesn't say whether whoever sent in the hoax was motivated by Swartz's death, but MIT seems to be taking that possibility seriously. "This hoax also involved a malicious allegation against a member of our community and direct threats of physical harm to MIT staff," wrote Ruiz. "We should all understand that this is not a game."

The connection between Swartz and MIT isn't hard to see. As detailed at length in this New Republic piece, Swartz and MIT will forever be linked following his death. Swartz committed suicide in January for reasons that remain unclear to this day. But many have pointed to the potential 30 years in jail Swartz was facing for breaking into an MIT broom closet and downloading millions upon millions of academic articles. Swartz was accused of wanting to distribute them for free on the internet, and charged with 13 felony counts, including wire and computer fraud. His death prompted an MIT investigation into their role of the prosecution to see if, perhaps, they overstepped their boundaries in any way. The federal prosecutor in charge of the case stood by their quest for jail time even in the face of overwhelming criticism.

But to use his death and report a hoax of a gunman on campus, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings and the number of school shootings that followed, is just gross. Cambridge police, along with the FBI and Secret Service, are still searching for the source of the electronic communiqué that led them on the wild goose chase.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.