OMAHA, Neb. — An investigator for a Nebraska law enforcement agency said Wednesday he is reviewing hundreds of confirmed or possible threats against an Omaha basketball official who worked Kentucky’s NCAA tournament loss to North Carolina.
Matt Barrall of the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Department said he was in his fifth day of working full time on the case and that no end was in sight.
“We are taking this very, very — extremely — seriously,” Barrall said. “Some people might say, ‘Oh, it’s just a basketball game.’ But what if some mentally unstable person decides this is the way to make a name for himself?”
Referee John Higgins’ roofing company was inundated with harassing emails, phone calls and voice mails — including death threats against Higgins and his family — starting shortly after Kentucky’s 75-73 loss to North Carolina on March 26. Kentucky coach John Calipari criticized the officiating during his postgame news conference.
Barrall said he has identified 450 phone calls or messages and another 200 to 300 messages on social media or in emails that were “of a threatening nature.”
Some of those met the criteria to be considered terroristic threats under Nebraska law. Barrall said he wouldn’t disclose how many until after he reviews all the messages. Under Nebraska law, making terroristic threats is a felony punishable by up to three years in prison.
“This case offers up a lot of potential offenders, most of whom made a stupid decision in joining in on a prank, but serious injuries are possible, and we should draw the line at the law,” Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
About 3,000 phone calls came into Higgins’ office in the two days following the Elite Eight game, Barrall said. He estimated 75 percent were from Kentucky area codes.
Higgins’ business also received a flood of bogus negative online reviews, causing his Google rating to plummet. Higgins’ website got more than 28,000 hits in the days after the game, and he was forced to take down his business’ Facebook page.
Barrall said he also has been listening to about five hours of audio from Kentucky sports radio shows with an ear for threatening comments toward Higgins, whether by hosts or callers. Barrall also continues to monitor Kentucky fan websites.
Barrall said he suspected a video showing contact information for Higgins and posted on fan websites sparked the harassment. That video has been removed, he said.
“There is a lot of mass anonymity once something like that goes viral,” Barrall said. “People that on their own wouldn’t do something, their social values change when a lot of other people do it, and they decide to join in. This is the 21st-century version of a mob mentality because of social media.”
The next phase of the investigation likely would require subpoenas to be issued for phone records and other records of those suspected of making terroristic threats.
“It was not that long ago where courts were reluctant to convict when offense was not initiated in our jurisdiction, but we do not face that anymore,” Polikov wrote. “Also, depending on the facts, we would collaborate with the local authorities where the offenses were initiated. I have not studied the federal options but would consider turning to the FCC if in fact a talk show created the environment for harassment.”
The sheriff’s department has provided extra patrols around Higgins’ office, and Omaha police have done the same near Higgins’ residence. Higgins has not returned phone messages from the AP.
Higgins told Omaha radio station KFAB on Wednesday that he initially was wary of working the Final Four game between Gonzaga and South Carolina on Saturday and that his wife has talked to him about giving up officiating. He said he wouldn’t let fans who act inappropriately get the best of him.
“I’ll continue it. It’s fun. I’m competitive,” he said. “I’ll be fine going forward.”