Contact made with suspect in school threat investigation

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A row of school buses parked outside Hedges Elementary School in Kalispell waiting for the end of the school and the students they’ll be taking home on Monday afternoon, October 24. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

The investigation into the Flathead Valley’s school-threat scare took two new turns on Saturday.

The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office said Saturday morning that a negotiation team had made contact with a suspect in the ongoing investigation into text and email threats that shut down schools valleywide on Thursday and Friday. Later in the day it was revealed that the suspect had hacked into servers at the Columbia Falls Schools District and had threatened individual families and teachers.

Sheriff Chuck Curry explained in a media release that the negotiation team, assisted by the FBI, “have been in ongoing communication with the suspect in this case. The communication has been via written electronic means.”

The release also said the suspect has taken “extraordinary measures to conceal his electronic identity and location,” and described the latest threats as “cyber terrorism.”

“I think it clearly meets that definition,” Curry told the Daily Inter Lake. “Somebody that is making cyber threats to us, and somebody that is making threats and demands online.”

He declined to confirm further details about the threats’ origins or the nature of the demands.

“We have and are continuing to fully investigate every local lead or person of interest and rule them out,” Curry said.

“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. We have made, and continue to make progress in those efforts.”

Saturday afternoon it was revealed that the suspect had breached an electronically stored directory of information at the Columbia Falls Schools District.

Columbia Falls Police Chief Clint Peters wrote in a media release that “the cyber terrorist who has been spreading fear and panic in our community through text message and email threats against our school has now stooped to the low level of texting parents and students in hopes to continue his barrage of digital fear mongering.”

Peters told the Inter Lake that the police department had confirmed reports that individual parents and students had received threatening texts.

He said he did not know the extent of the data breach, but believed the hackers had obtained the district’s entire list of phone numbers of students, teachers and staff.

He also said that these are stored separately from physical addresses, social security numbers and email addresses, and that a group is working to fix the breach.

He urged anyone who receives a threatening text to not engage in conversation or try to respond, but to report it to the Columbia Falls Police Department at 892-3234.

Kalispell School District Superintendent Mark Flatau sent a message to parents and students Saturday saying that there has been “no indication that Kalispell Public Schools or any other school district’s data system has been breached at this time.”

“All school districts in the Flathead Valley are taking every necessary precaution to ensure that no data breach occurs.”

The threats that led to the two-day district-wide school closure reportedly started with the Columbia Falls School District and eventually spread throughout the evening Wednesday and early morning hours to other area schools.

Classes were canceled Thursday and Friday, and all activities for Flathead Valley schools, home and away, were canceled over the weekend. The closure impacts about 15,700 students in more than 30 public and private schools.

A decision on whether school will resume on Monday is expected to be made Sunday afternoon.

Peters said that despite the new developments Saturday, “there is no immediate threat to you or our community.”

He declined to elaborate on that statement.

“The nature of the threats themselves prevent us from divulging too much information at one time and we know this can be frustrating to everyone affected by this incident,” he stated in the media release.

“Our department recognizes the difficulties and sacrifices families across the valley had to make in order to stay home with their children or make childcare arrangements so you could continue to work.”

Later he added in a separate media release,

“This community is strong and resilient and will not let this person paralyze our community with his digital threats.”

The FBI is aiding local and regional police jurisdictions in the ongoing investigation.

Check the Daily Inter Lake online for updates on this developing investigation.

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