On Wednesday, in an unprecedented action by the Horry County Police Department, two men have been arrested with obstructing justice after they posted information on social media about the missing Heather Elvis case, that was deemed misleading, reports The State.
Heather Elvis, 20, from Myrtle Beach, S.C. has been missing since Dec. 17. Her case has gone national as it has appeared on news stations across the US along with the Nancy Grace show and Good Morning America.
William Christopher Barrett, 52, who Heather's dad Terry Elvis said he has known for five years and Garrett Ryan Starnes, 25, evidently posted several updates about Heather on Facebook. Barrett has also gone as far as questioning a witness to get confidential information from them and finding evidence and not telling the police. Also, Barrett was charged for telling the police false information about the case, according to the Horry County Sheriff's Department.
"During the course of the investigation, suspect (William) Barrett began posting misleading information on a social media site regarding the disappearance of Heather Elvis, which created a community reaction that diverted investigating officers," police said.
Barrett told WBTW news that he had received 200 tips from emails, Facebook and the Tip Tent he set up near Bob Evans in Myrtle Beach by the railroad tracks.
"It has been amazing all the things people have come and given us. Vehicle descriptions, plate numbers, things that they'd seen that there's no possible way they would tell the police," said Barrett.
What Barrett has allegedly done, has been done before by supporters of missing people who are on Facebook. You just don't hear about it, because it usually doesn't lead to an arrest.
Over the last few years, it has become a new way to reach the masses by creating a Facebook page for a missing person to provide support and get the word out that someone is missing. The page is not always owned by a family member or friend, but by someone who has become emotionally vested in the case and becomes the unauthorized proxy. In some cases the Facebook page becomes bigger than life, with thousands of followers that are now hanging on to every new bit of information that comes out. Theories are thrown around with no restraint and before you know it, the page becomes a parody of itself, with the owner of the page trying to provide constant entertainment for the followers.
In my 2012 article, When "Advocacy becomes Lunacy" I wrote about Tony Calabrese who was asked by the TBI to stop interfering with the investigation by posting information about Holly Bobo, the young 20-year-old nursing student from Tennessee who went missing after being led into the woods in 2011. Calabrese ended up with being served a warrant and having his computer confiscated after he didn't heed their warnings, and went so far as to make up his own list of people of interest and posting it on Facebook.
I have seen time and again where these self-appointed leaders of a Facebook cause can create an online lynch mob, that will terrorize and harass a person they have decided is responsible for someone's disappearance.
Back in late 2011, a Facebook page that I will not name, harassed a man and accused him of knowing the whereabouts of a missing woman, because he was the last one known to have been talking with her on Facebook. They demanded he tell what he knew and called him a liar. The result of the case came when the woman's husband confessed to killing her. Did any of the online mob apologize to the man. Nope.
The reason this is so serious is because you never know if a vigilante might read one of the conversations and believe that the accusers know what they were talking about and take it upon him/herself to go after an innocent person, because they do not realize that owners or followers of a Facebook page are not privy to all the information that the police know.
It can also be serious because when the law enforcement agency develops leads and evidence, it can all be undone by a simple post on a Facebook page.
Interestingly enough, you would think that Terry would be upset about his friend Barrett spreading lies about his daughter, but instead he is supporting him.
"This doesn't sway my friendship and doesn't sway my opinion about him," said Terry.
And Terry is not the only one. The Bill Barrett page is full of support and accolades for a man they consider selfless for spending all his time trying to help fined the missing daughter of a friend.
Between the arrest and the contradictory support for Barrett, it is hard to understand what happened. Did law enforcement warn Barrett about his involvement in the case, like Tony Calabrese was and he chose to ignore them or did Barrett get in over his head and turn vigilante which caused him to break the law unknowingly?