Legally Speaking: Foiled by Facebook

John G. Browning Jan. 20, 2010, 6:44am

Social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook have hit society with the force of a juggernaut.

With more than 350 million users worldwide, if Facebook were a country it would be the fourth most populous in the world. Almost half of its users visit the site everyday.

A September 2009 Nielsen survey revealed that time spent on social networking sites is growing at three times the rate of overall Internet usage, making social networking now the fourth most regular online activity. Fortunately for law enforcement personnel and prosecutors everywhere, the criminal element seems to be just as addicted to Facebook and similar sites as everybody else.

Generally speaking, if you're going to do something illegal, it's really stupid to go on a social networking site with evidence of the misdeed – sort of a "don't post about the crime if you can't do the time" principle.

Vanessa Palm and Alexander Rust, two 20-something Americans vacationing in the Bahamas last February, decided to catch and eat an iguana – a species protected under Bahamian law. Unfortunately for them, they also decided to post pictures on Facebook of their illicit meal.

Bahamian authorities were alerted to the photos, and promptly proceeded to track down and arrest the two tourists for killing and eating a protected iguana.

Perhaps they used the jail time to debate whether or not it tasted like chicken.

Similarly, a 20-year-old employee of a Petland pet store in Ohio not only drowned rabbits from the store, she creepily bragged about it on her Facebook "wall." Someone from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) learned of this, and she was soon charged with two counts of animal cruelty.

Meanwhile, it wasn't enough for 38-year-old Jacob Rehm of Morrisville, Vt., to steal a tour bus from his former employer, Lamoille Valley Transportation, and take it on a joyride. No, he had to go and make a four minute video of his little adventure (complete with a tour of the $500,000 bus itself) and post it on YouTube.

After the bus was recovered in another town and Rehm was charged with the theft, the prosecutors found that video very helpful when they went to court.

Closer to home, police in Austin were wondering how to prove that Robert Fitzgerald was in fact the notorious graffiti "artist" who had scrawled the tag "KUDOS" on more than 44 structures in the city last year. Fortunately, the ever-thoughtful "tagger" had made sure to leave examples of the distinctive writing throughout his MySpace page, and police matched photos from that page to samples on local buildings.

Just in case that wasn't overwhelming enough, Fitzgerald had also left samples on the wall and mirror of his cell from a previous stay at the Travis County Jail. He might want to get comfortable and order some art supplies, since he faces up to two years in state jail if convicted.

And in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Gamaliet Figueroa might have to find a new hobby. In 2009, Figueroa was on probation for gun charges back in 2007; one condition of the probation sentence was not to possess any firearms. But not only did he disregard that, he actually posted pictures of himself on MySpace holding a rifle and shotgun.

His probation officer discovered the photos and tipped off police. In October, 2009 Figueroa was sentenced to prison by a federal district court judge. I guess he'll have a lot of time to think about updating his MySpace page.

For the criminally-inclined, it's a good idea to remember that you never know who's watching social networking sites. Radford, Va., clothing boutique owner Stacey Price suspected that someone was shoplifting from her store, but she was without any clues about the suspect until a tipster let her know that a student from nearby Radford University had a seemingly inexhaustible wardrobe.

Unfortunately for the culprit, Price was not merely a mild-manner merchant, but also a media studies professor at Radford who regularly discussed with her students the impact of social networking sites on the business world. Price looked up the student on Facebook, and a link led her to another suspect.

Photos posted on the sites for both young women featured them in various social settings wearing items that Price recalled being stolen from the store. Price printed out the incriminating photos, along with the purchasing history of both students in her store, and turned them over to the Radford police department. Police questioned Alison Robertson and Heidi Chantry, both 20 years old, and both confessed that same day to having stolen the merchandise. According to Officer Bryon Mayberry, "The Facebook pictures were invaluable to making the case."

Twenty-six-year-old Maxi Sopo will probably be reconsidering the wisdom of his "friend" requests for a long time. The Cameroon native moved to the United States in 2003, and after a stint selling roses in Seattle nightclubs he apparently moved on to bank fraud.

When he got wind of federal agents investigating the fraudulent activities, Sopo headed off to Cancún, Mexico. There he apparently lived the dream of fugitives everywhere, relaxing on the sunny beaches by day and partying in the clubs at night.

Sopo was having so much fun that he regularly posted Facebook updates about what he was doing "living in paradise", as he put it. A Secret Service agent saw a photo of the happy fugitive, but was unable to do anything about it because Sopo's profile was set to private. His list of Facebook "friends," however, was not.

An assistant U.S. Attorney helping with the investigation, Michael Scoville, pored over the list and found one such "friend" who had been a Justice Department official. The official had moved to Mexico and met Sopo in a Cancun nightclub, after which the hard-partying fugitive "friended" him.

Upon learning that Sopo was wanted by the law, this Justice Department "friend" found out where Sopo was living and provided that information to Scoville. Shortly thereafter, Mexican authorities paid Sopo a visit, and he was taken to a Mexico City prison to await extradition to the United States.

Presumably, his Facebook status has changed to "sitting in jail."

Among criminals addicted to social networking, however, 19-year-old Jonathan Parker of Fort Loudoun, Penn., is in a class by himself. Parker was arrested in connection with the burglary of a home on Aug. 28, 2009.

What led police to Parker – outstanding forensics work? Eyewitness testimony? Actually, it seems that when the victim returned home to find her home ransacked and items such as two diamond rings missing, she also noticed that her computer was on and someone's Facebook account was still open – Jonathan Parker's Facebook account, that is.

Believe it or not, Parker had apparently stopped in mid-burglary to check his Facebook page. Police tracked him to another residence in the vicinity of the victim's home, where they spoke with someone Parker had approached about helping with the crime. Parker was arrested, and now faces one to 10 years in prison. His Facebook status: "busted."

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Thompson, Coe, Cousins & Irons, L.L.P. He may be contacted at:

More News