An Instagram Post Threatened A School Shooting. Here's How Police Quickly Found A Suspect.
NORFOLK -- Detectives tracked down a 14-year-old boy who'd threatened to shoot his classmates this week -- not by searching his backpack, room, or even his phone, but by following his digital scent through a crime scene in cyberspace.
It happened fast, even though they were getting evidence from thousands of miles away.
Such threats proliferated across the country after last week's school shooting in Parkland, Fla. The rapid police response, which has included at least seven arrests of local teenagers this week, is possible thanks to a well-oiled process at technology companies.
Detectives can apply for and get users' data in minutes from a social media giant in Silicon Valley or a telecommunications company based in Kansas. For more traditional police work, they have to submit physical evidence like blood and shell casings, and then wait months for state forensic scientists to kick back DNA and ballistics reports.
"Everyone's connected," said Cpl. William Pickering, who worked as a Norfolk police detective for eight years and is now a department spokesman.
Police know social media is a fixture in most Americans' lives. And, Pickering said, "We take advantage of that."
On Sunday night, Instagram user "Isiah.500" posted a picture of Lake Taylor Middle School and a message threatening to "shoot (everyone) that step foot in this building on tuesday so if u dont wanna die dont come to school."
Norfolk police got word of the threat the following morning. A a 14-year-old girl had seen it on Instagram and told her mom, who then called 911. Officers passed the information to investigators.
At 9:56 a.m., Detective Lenny Melendez applied for a search warrant. He had no eyewitness or physical evidence to show the magistrate, but instead a description of the photo and threat he'd seen online.
Magistrate Kimberly Hutson granted the search warrant, and less than half an hour later Melendez had information from Facebook, which owns Instagram, from nearly 3,000 miles away in Menlo Park, Calif. The data included email and I.P. addresses tied to the Instagram account.
Melendez plugged the I.P. address into a free website, which told him the address was tied to Cox Communications Inc., headquartered in Atlanta.
That gave him the target of his next search warrant. At 2:24 p.m., Melendez applied for a second warrant, this one ordering Cox to turn over information.
Melendez told magistrate Ryan McLaughlin that "Isiah.500" had accessed his account several times from two different I.P. addresses between Saturday and Monday.
McLaughlin granted the request.
Fourteen minutes later, at 2:38 p.m., Cox had beamed subscriber information for those two I.P. addresses to Melendez.
Later that afternoon, police arrested a 14-year-old Lake Taylor Middle student, charging him with threatening to shoot and kill his classmates. He faces a felony conviction.
With the help of the telecommunications company, an I.P. address gives detectives the location of where the threat was made, Pickering said. They may have to do more investigating if someone was using a library computer, an open WiFi connection at a coffee shop, or another source where several people can log onto the internet.
Even if it traces back to a house or apartment, detectives keep an open mind and rule out the possibility that a visitor or freeloader might've been using that internet access point to make a threat.
But they will home in on anyone who commits a crime or provides evidence of it online, whether it takes hours as with the Lake Taylor threat or days, Pickering said.
"We will find out who you are," he added.
More law enforcement officers are trying to get that kind of information. They requested data from Facebook more than 32,700 times in the first six months of 2017, a 37 percent increase over the same period in 2016 and triple the number of requests from five years ago, according to the company's self-reported data.
Facebook provides some information in 80 to 85 percent of cases where law enforcement seeks it.
Detectives are glad when suspects have a cell phone or social media accounts because it can give them a trove of evidence, Pickering said. They can find evidence of a crime itself -- if, say, a suspect messages friends via Facebook Messenger about shooting someone. Or they can see who he interacts with and who his friends are.
"We can get a sense of who we're dealing with," Pickering said. ___
This article is written by Jonathan Edwards from The Virginian-Pilot and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.