Even In Rural Areas, North Florida Law Enforcement Turns To Facebook To Catch Suspects

By on October 23rd, 2013

After a Lakeland girl’s Sept. 9 suicide, authorities turned to a nontraditional source to make arrests in the case: Facebook.

Rebecca Sedwick, 12, committed suicide after allegedly being repeatedly bullied at school and online by fellow students Guadalupe Shaw, 14, and Katelyn Roman, 12.

It was evidence of Shaw’s abuse through Facebook that helped investigators arrest her and Roman and charge them with aggravated stalking on Oct. 14.

North Central Florida agencies have often used the site when gathering information for a case.

“People put an incredible amount of information about themselves out there for the world and through that media,” said Sgt. Hancel Woods, spokesman at the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office.

Woods said as technology has evolved, it makes sense to take advantage of it.

At the Bradford County Sheriff’s office, Facebook is being used to get information out to the public faster, said Capt. Brad Smith.

“It’s resulted in cases being solved or problems being corrected in such a manner that it’s just become a tremendous asset to this agency,” Smith said.

The Bradford County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page has more than 5,200 followers.

“Just this past week, we had an incident where a babysitter had left town with the child that they were sitting,” Smith said. “We immediately put it on Facebook, the same time we put out the press release.”

Within an hour of posting the information, they located the child and quickly notified residents through Facebook that the child was in safe hands.

The Bradford County Sheriff’s Office also uses social media to warn the public of sexual predators and where they currently reside, Smith said.

After Sheriff Gordon Smith started placing street signs with the names of the predators in front of each of their homes and posting the photos to Facebook, the response was immediate.

“Within two weeks, it had 1.2 million hits on it,” Capt. Brad Smith said.

The posts attracted international attention. A news crew from Australia, where laws protect the names and locations of sex offenders and sex predators, flew to Bradford County to shoot a story on the posts.

“What they’re trying to do is change that mindset of the politicians over there to get some laws on the books,” Smith said. “All that transpired off of Facebook.”

Mary Justino, Clay County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman, said they were “a little late to the dance” when it came to social media. The office started using Facebook in late 2011.

Within the last year and a half, the office added YouTube and Twitter to its toolkit, Justino said.

She said many detectives who work criminal investigations use social media to track the location of suspects.

“Even if you know who the suspect is in a case, locating them so that they can be questioned, or if there is already a warrant, so they can be arrested,” Justino said. “Facebook in particular has been key to that part of the investigation.”

Social media has also provided another outlet for the community to report criminal activity, she said.

When a teenager assaulted a handicapped man at an Orange Park basketball court in July, a video posted to Facebook helped the agency find the teenager.

“Within 24 hours, we were able to locate the suspect, obtain a warrant, interview the victim and close that case with an arrest,” Justino said. “I think, if anything, this will become more prevalent in law enforcement investigations as the years go by. This is sort of the tip of the iceberg right now.”

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