Social media posts can lead to jail
For law enforcement, social networking is proving to be a useful investigative tool, especially in catching criminals who think nobody is watching
By Tresa Baldas
Detroit Free Press
DETROIT — A Detroit man who posted pictures of himself holding guns on Facebook got more than a "like" out of his posts: He got arrested.
Unbeknownst to Oliver Weddington, court records show, a federal agent who was investigating him for federal gun crimes was combing his Facebook page and came across several pictures that raised red flags.
For law enforcement, social networking is proving to be a useful investigative tool, especially in catching criminals who think nobody is watching.
"Social media is big now, so we'd be foolish not to look at it," said ATF spokesman Donald Dawkins, adding social networking postings might not always "solve anything, but at least it gives a direction in which to go in."
Weddington, 27, a convicted felon who is not supposed to carry guns, was posing in multiple pictures with a Glock, a Smith & Wesson, and an AK47, court records show.
The discovery led to felon in possession charges, which were detailed in a criminal complaint filed Friday by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in U.S. District Court in Detroit.
A team of law enforcement officers tracked Weddington down at a home on Bagley in Detroit and arrested him on an outstanding warrant for a probation violation out of Southfield, according to the complaint. When officers showed Weddington the photos, he confirmed the weapons were real, the complaint said.
Court records show Weddington has had several brushes with the law.
In 2010, he was convicted in Wayne County Circuit Court of carrying a concealed weapon, which is a felony. He has an active felony warrant involving marijuana and gun charges in Austin, Texas, from 2009, and a pending case in North Carolina involving the possession of a firearm in a motor vehicle.
Dawkins said that in the last few years, that ATF has successfully used social networking sites in at least half a dozen criminal investigations.
"We don't use it all the time," Dawkins said of Facebook evidence. But like employers and universities, he cautioned, "we will check it out."
So will plenty other law enforcement agencies.
On Friday, Facebook — in the wake of a scandal involving National Security Agency leaks — reported on its own website that in the last six months of 2012, it had received between 9,000 and 10,000 user data requests from local, state and federal governments. Between 18,000 and 19,000 Facebook user accounts were affected by the requests, which ran the "gamut — from things like a local sheriff trying to find a missing child, to a federal marshal tracking a fugitive, to a police department investigating an assault, to a national security official investigating a terrorist threat," stated Facebook's general counsel Ted Ullyot.
Facebook evidence meanwhile is turning up in court.
In 2011, for example, the FBI in Detroit arrested a serial bank robber — who is now serving a 46-month prison sentence — thanks to his Facebook page.
Anthony Wilson, 25, was linked to five robberies in metro Detroit after photos on his Facebook page showed him wearing the same clothes he wore in two of the bank heists, as captured by surveillance video.
In one Facebook photo, Wilson wore a blue baseball cap with a Polo emblem and blue hooded Polo sweatshirt — the same outfit he wore during a $390 bank robbery in Grosse Pointe Woods.
In another Facebook photo, he wore a red ball cap with the Philadelphia Phillies logo, which is what he wore during a St. Clair Shores robbery, when he made off with $1,363. He ended up cutting a plea deal, admitting to bank robbery.
In April 2012, a verbal assault on Facebook landed an aspiring model from Mt. Pleasant in federal court, charged with threatening a woman in a series of rants, including one that stated, "I'd love to kill you." Three weeks after that message was posted, the woman tried to run the woman off the road in a high-speed chase, records show. She was sentenced to probation and a $2,500 fine under a plea deal.
More recently, in New York, a Rockland County man pleaded guilty last month to making death threats on Facebook against some of the nation's highest ranking officials, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi. He said he meant no harm. Under his plea deal, he is facing 12 to 18 months in prison.
"Criminals are sometimes quite brazen with what they post online," said U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, noting some individuals have posted threats on Facebook, "creating evidence of their crime in a way that would never occur with a traditional verbal threat."
Facebook comments are easily obtained by law enforcement. If the account is public, information is up for grabs. If it's a private account, McQuade said that a search warrant can be obtained if police have probable cause to believe that the social media account contains evidence of a crime.
And if they find that evidence, it proves helpful in the courtroom.
"We have had trials against gang members where we have presented defendants' own Facebook posts in which they are wearing gang colors and posing with guns," McQuade said, summing up the benefits of social networking with two words: communicating and investigating.
Copyright 2013 The Detroit Free Press