January 5, 2011 in Nation/World

Police get to bottom of mystery phone call

John P. Huston And Megan Craig Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO – In a spectacular misunderstanding sparked by an accidental cell phone call, a worried wife caused SWAT teams to swarm the Illinois school where her husband worked, officials said Tuesday.

The wife received the disturbing, garbled call from her husband’s phone Monday evening, Winnetka police said.

“You know how when you sit on your phone when it’s in your back pocket and it calls the last number that was dialed? His wife was the last number he’d dialed,” said Winnetka police Chief Joseph De Lopez. “The conversation led her to believe there was someone holding him hostage.”

In the popular vernacular, it was a butt call, the bane of many a chagrined cell-phone user. This time, it led to a frantic 911 call from a wife. Soon, more than 30 gun-toting officers converged on Carleton Washburne School, which also houses the District 36 offices where the man works.

“He was listening to music and he had, I don’t know, hip-hop … or music like that, where there were lyrics that were gangster-like,” explained Mark Friedman, interim co-superintendent of District 36. “So there were lyrics on the radio as he was driving home, and she listened to it and became concerned.”

Armed with machine guns and wearing bulletproof vests, SWAT team members circled the school about 5 p.m. Monday, searching for a reported gunman who might be holding a hostage. The all-clear sounded nearly three hours later, after the man was found safe at home by police.

The district employee did not want to comment, Friedman said.

“He’s embarrassed,” the superintendent said. “Who wouldn’t be? He’s taking it hard that it created such a response.”

About 500 seventh- and eighth-graders attend the middle school, but they had left for the day when the call was placed.

One upside to the incident: The Winnetka police SWAT team got a little real-time training, De Lopez said.

“It was good practice,” he said. “It’s not the way we want to practice. We want to know when a situation isn’t real.”

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