Woman sentenced for making hoax distress call

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A Chicago woman was sentenced in federal court Thursday for making a false distress call nearly two years ago which led to several agencies launching a dangerous search and rescue operation in Lake Michigan off of Rogers Park Beach.

Leona Chewning, 24, was sentenced to 180 days of community confinement, three years of probation and $13,613 in restitution for knowingly and willfully causing the Coast Guard to attempt to save lives and property when no help was needed, in violation of Title 14, U.S. Code, section 88(c).

Chewning pled guilty at her arraignment before U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle in federal court in Chicago in January.

Shortly after 9 p.m. Feb. 4, 2013, Chewning called Chicago 911 from Rogers Park Beach stating a person was in distress in the icy water just off a seawall. An ice rescue team from Coast Guard Station Wilmette Harbor responded by land.

A Coast Guard aircrew also launched aboard a Dolphin helicopter from Air Station Traverse City, Michigan. Members of the Chicago Police and Fire departments also responded with personnel and assets.

Chicago Fire Department divers entered the water near the location where Chewning claimed a person fell in, but did not locate anyone. Chewning later admitted that at the time she made the call she knew her report was false. The case was subsequently turned over to the Coast Guard Investigative Services and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Hoax calls are an expensive and dangerous felony rescue crews deal with nationwide.

Coast Guard Sector Northern New England responds to more than 12 cases on a typical summer day. False alerts restrict their ability to respond to real emergencies.

In 2014, Sector Northern New England responded to 464 search and rescue cases: 76 were never resolved.

“When our searches come up empty-handed, the hardest part is never knowing whether the distress was real or not,” said Lt. Scott McCann, Command Center Chief at Coast Guard Sector Northern New England. “We have a limited amount of boats, aircraft, and personnel. Responding to hoax calls puts our crews at risk and decreases our ability to respond to boaters who need our help.”

Knowingly and willfully communicating a false distress message to the Coast Guard and causing them to attempt to save lives and property when no help was needed is a violation of Title 14, United States Code, Section 88c. The violation is punishable by up to six years in prison and a $250,000 fine. If a minor makes the hoax call, parents can be held responsible.