About a call a minute - that was the number of calls law enforcement officials received following the local outbreak of a coast-to-coast hoax Wednesday.
According to Detective Sgt. Sha King with the Stephenville Police Department, the phone rang off the hook Wednesday evening as residents called to report that something bad was going to happen at Wal-Mart. King said concerned citizens called 911 to alert law enforcement officials and others dialed the department’s non-emergency number.
“We were getting four to five calls every five minutes,” King said.
The hysteria not only alarmed Erath County residents, media outlets across the nation reported the scare had worked its way through their communities, as well. The ruse continued Thursday as Brownwood residents were falsely alerted that their local super center was not safe.
It all began with a text message.
The message, which spread like wildfire thanks to text messaging’s timely technology, warned bargain hunters to avoid any and all Wal-Mart stores and that gang members would kill three women at every location.
That would mean that in Texas alone, more than 1,300 women would be murdered.
“Don’t go to any Wal-Marts tonight,” the message read, “There will be a gang initiation and they have to kill three women at each Wal-Mart.”
While the hoax is not a new one, according to King and an urban legend busting Web site, www.snopes.com, the widespread popularity of text messaging has revolutionized the speed in which rumors circulate. King said unlike the past, when people relied more on e-mail to forward such “warnings” and often got the messages days after they were sent, a person receives a text message and forwards it to 10 friends immediately.
Snopes states the hoax dates back to mid-July 2005 and spread via e-mail. The site reports that no murders or attempted murders were reported and no gang members were arrested.
While King said he understands the alarm the message created for the recipients, he cautioned people to think twice before forwarding messages that could create panic. And he also requests that citizens only dial 911 in the case of an emergency.
“If you receive a message that causes alarm, call law enforcement officials. Please, don’t forward the message, allow us to investigate,” King said. “As far as I know, no actual emergency calls were missed or delayed because of the high volume of calls we received, but we were so busy, it could have been a very bad, serious situation.”
King said callers not only called 911 in a frantic panic but also dialed the emergency line to drill dispatchers for information. He said calls came in saying since the police had been alerted, the location of the planned murder had changed to a residence on Lingleville Road.
“This is an unsubstantiated rumor,” King said. “We have no reason to believe such a crime will be committed in Stephenville.”