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Hostage hoax at home of Wyckoff cyberpredator foe has serious consequences

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

EDITORIAL: Serious consequences await whoever called Wyckoff police Saturday afternoon claiming to be a madman who murdered two people, wounded another and was holding four more hostage until authorities brought $10,000 and a police car for his escape from the home of Parry Aftab, an attorney and child advocate considered one of the founders of U.S. cyber law.

Parry Aftab praises her local police; someone is in serious trouble

If an adult was responsible, he will be charged with creating a false public alarm, among other crimes. And these, indeed, are crimes. We’re not talking about the equivalent of jaywalking here.

If a teenager was responsible, his or her parents will be socked with an enormous bill to pay for the cost of dispatching 30 police officers to the quiet street, of damaging the house after Aftab gave them the go-ahead to fire a tear-gas canister through the window and other incidental  expenses.

On a hot day following a sweltering week, in a tumultuous world where all of our senses are heightened, seven weeks from the 10th anniversary of what was the worst terrorist attack on American soil, this may have seemed someone’s idea of a harmless prank. Or it’s the work of a severely troubled adult mind.

If it turns out that Aftab specifically was targeted, even more severe charges will brought.

If you’re in law enforcement, your materials about catching online predators were probably written by Aftab. She is the founder and executive director of , the world’s oldest, largest and most popular cyber-safety group. She wrote and promoted the first law enforcement investigators’ guide for social networks, authored the first Internet safety book for parents: A Parent’s Guide to Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace (1997), and last year received the Director’s Community Leadership Award from the New Jersey FBI Field Office.

Even in the unlikely event that the caller didn’t know her, you can be sure of one thing: There will be no slap on the wrist when – and not “if” – this person is found. Police will snap on the handcuffs.

“It’s probably some type of a prank but a very serious crime nonetheless and something that will be investigated,” Aftab, a longtime friend, told me last night.

Parry is extremely passionate about what she does. She single-handedly created a free Stop Cyber Bullying Toolkit, with nearly $1 million worth of resources, guides, computer games, animations, videos and risk management pointers, as well as lesson plans, presentation materials and community activities for students, parents, and teachers.

Two years ago, she joined Diane Sawyer in the first town meeting on morning TV on the topic of sexting. She’s also quietly working with families of girls who’ve killed themselves after images they sexted from their cellphones were spread around and used to harass them.

In 1999, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, recruited Aftab to lead its awareness campaign of online sexual exploitation of children. When the program was not funded as planned, she continued her work — gratis.

A dynamo of good, indeed. But Aftab is also calm, measured, sharply focused in her dealings. This was no different. Her first response was to praise Wyckoff Police Chief Benjamin C. Fox and his department.

“Police in Wyckoff take the safety of residents very, very seriously. It’s a town I’m happy living in because things like this make me feel safe,” she told me. “I wanted to allow them to do what they needed to do, so I told them they could shoot tear gas into the home.”

Yes, police would have done the same had it been you or me. But Aftab’s activism made this an even dicier situation.

Since the beginning of the FBI’s “Innocent Images” initiative in Newark in 1999, she has taken a direct role in helping catch countless cyber predators – with just about every one of them going to prison, some for considerable amounts of time. Aftab “continues to be an important ally in staying ahead of the ever-growing threat of internet crime,” said Michael B. Ward, the Special Agent in Charge of the FBI‘s Newark Field Office. “Her work is vital to getting the message of internet safety out to individuals, companies, and the world.”

Just three days after 9/11, Aftab was asked to the White House to address the growing fear that children of Middle Eastern descent would be targeted by hate groups. She organized the “Email to America” project, inspiring her clients and supporters in the industry to create a portal where children worldwide could voice their fears and concerns.

It’s not as if no one had a motive.

The culprit phoned in at exactly 3:38 p.m. Saturday, claiming to be at Aftab’s home, where he had “killed four persons, wounded a young girl, and was holding two others hostage,” according to an official release by Wyckoff police. He also asked for $10,000 in cash, and a police vehicle to use as a getaway car.

Wyckoff and Midland Park officers got there in minutes. Close behind was the Bergen County Police Department SWAT team. The neighborhood was immediately locked down.

Police followed every step in the protocol.

They tried calling inside the house – nothing. They tried getting hold of Aftab, who said that at that same moment she was recharging a dying cellphone battery (with the Droids and other new phones, who doesn’t know from that constant aggravation?). They called Parry’s friends and co-workers, as well as area relatives.

Two hours later, Aftab was on the phone with police, who gave her a blow-by-blow description of what was going on. They couldn’t be sure someone wasn’t inside, she said, and neither could she. She just knew no one was supposed to be there.

At times, police saw shadows and sudden movements inside, Aftab said. As it turns out, it was her cat.

“Verbal commands to exit the home were met with no response, and at about 6:30 p.m., a decision was made [with Aftab’s full consent] to fire tear gas into the house,” an official release says. “About 30 minutes later, four members of the Bergen County SWAT Team conducted a full search of the home and nobody was located inside.”

There was also no evidence anyone had been in there. Police, needless to say, were relieved. After finally exhaling, Chief Fox praised the officers who showed restraint and prudence and thanked the specially trained SWAT team.

Aftab, meanwhile, felt sympathy for law enforcement and the ordeal the officers had to endure because of someone who, with one perilous act, has jumped to No. 1 on the list of Bergen County’s Most Wanted.

“They did what they should have done, by the book. They were great about the whole thing. I respect them so much,” she said.

After all of the commotion and anxiety, leave it to Aftab to be understated about the entire affair as she prepared to turn in for the night.

“This has been a very trying afternoon,” she said.

does this often when a criminal is being sought, but now it is extremely critical: If you have any information whatsoever about who is responsible, dial 911, or call Wyckoff  Police directly at 201.891.2121 . Mention CLIFFVIEW PILOT . CrimeStoppers likely will be offering a sizable reward.

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