JUSTICE

How Crowdsourcing Cracked The Case Of A Gay-Bashing Attack

Twitter sleuths—and one real detective—joined forces after an assault in Philadelphia and helped police arrest three suspects

JUSTICE
Photo and video composite with key produced by Reddit user plopous — plopous/Reddit
Aug 16, 2015 at 1:13 PM ET

It was by all accounts a brutal beating.

On September 11, 2014, 28-year old Zachary Hesse and his 27-year old boyfriend Andrew Haught were going out for pizza on a Thursday night in Philadelphia’s trendy Center City neighborhood. They walked past a group of about a dozen well-dressed males and females. Clean cut, preppy types. The women in dresses. The men in oxfords and polos, one in a loud orange vest.

There was bumping. According to testimony in the criminal case that followed, words were exchanged. “Is that your fucking boyfriend?!” one of the people in the large group yelled. “Yeah he is my fucking boyfriend. Do you have a problem with that?” replied Hesse. “So you’re a dirty, fucking faggot?” said one of the men. “Maybe I am a dirty, fucking faggot,” said Hesse.

Then it went haywire. The assailants allegedly yelled, “You dirty faggot!” as punches and kicks rained down on the two men. At one point, Hesse claimed his hands were held while a woman in a white dress scratched his face, yelling, “Fuck you faggot!”

Haught eventually passed out in a pool of his own blood.

Hesse and Haught spent the night at Hahnemann Hospital, Haught in surgery with two broken cheekbones, getting his jaw wired shut and patching up the deep lacerations on his face.

Police analyzed a video surveillance tape of the individuals they believed were part of the attack, but could not identify them. So they released the tape to the public. The case then morphed into one of the best examples to date of crowdsourcing leading to an arrest. And it was the Twitter relationship between a snarky sports blogger and a police detective that was one of the main keys to the tale.

“That’s my Twitter account. Yelled at for one thing, and getting some fucking award the next week. But I don’t care. That shows me I’m doing the right thing.” — Philadelphia Detective Joe Murray

@FanSince09 is the Twitter handle of a Philadelphia sports fan who wishes to remain anonymous. In the fall of 2014, he had around 6,000 followers—mostly Philly sports fans who would read his often sarcastic tweets about local sports. But when one of his followers tweeted the CCTV video of the alleged assailants, he felt compelled to act.

“I just felt that it was shocking cause it was young people. But that’s my demographic—I would say predominantly guys in their twenties who are white. And I said ‘ok, well these are guys in their twenties, who are white. I’m sure somebody knows them.’ It made me mad. I don’t like people being picked on. “

@FanSince09 has used his Twitter account for justice in the past. When Philadelphia Flyer Wayne Simmonds, who is black, scored a goal against the Boston Bruins, racist comments peppered Twitter. “If you surfed Wayne Simmonds and the N word, you would find people screaming it. So I would retweet it, (and say) “Oh, look through their pictures, their employer is there, their school is in there, they play for a jr. hockey league, here’s all their coaches’ contact information. And just kind of tweet it out there, and people would email their coaches—‘hey, you have a player saying this kind of stuff.’”

A month before the attack, he had retweeted the many offensive tweets directed against female Little League phenom Mo’ne Davis, in the hopes of exposing the people behind the racist, sexist and homophobic comments.

So while he was at work (his job is one of the reasons why he doesn’t want to be identified) on Sept. 16, @FanSince09 began tweeting out links to the video. He also reached out to friends with larger Twitter followings, direct messaging Philadelphia Eagles lineman Evan Mathis and asking for him to spread the word to his 100,000 followers.

Mathis did, and @FanSince09’s Twitter DMs began to fill up.

“I started getting: ‘Hey, here’s a possible name.’ I was trying to verify all names. I would say maybe 45 minutes after we started, this guy Greg Bennett posted the picture of the entire group in this restaurant.”

Bennett is a former cast member of the Real Housewives of New Jersey, and his run on the reality show earned him more than 166,000 Twitter followers. He declined to be interviewed, but answered questions publicly over Twitter, saying that he posted the link to the video and “A person (still don’t know who it was) was trying to get it to police and couldn’t, so it got passed on to me thru a few people.”

The photo sent to Bennett showed a group of about two dozen well-dressed white men and women in posing in front of a stone wall in what looks like a restaurant. It appears to be a party, as there are balloons in the frame—and right there, peeking out from behind balloons, is a guy in a bright orange vest. It looked very similar to the vest one of the persons of interest was wearing in the initial photos the police released.

@FanSince09 tweeted out the photo, and almost immediately his followers identified where it was taken.

“People started saying, ‘Oh, hey, it’s this restaurant La Viola,’ referring to a family-owned Italian restaurant in Philadelphia’s Center City neighborhood.

Now in full detective mode, @FanSince09 switched over to Facebook, went to La Viola’s Facebook page, and scanned it to see if anyone had checked into the restaurant on the night of Sept. 11. “I went through there and saw anybody who fit the bill, and saw who they were friends with.”

He compiled a list of names of people whose profile pictures looked like the individuals in the photo. But instead of tweeting them out to the general public, he sent them via direct message to his Twitter buddy, a detective with the Philadelphia Police Department named Joe Murray, with the caveat: “I’m not 100 percent sure, looks like it could be a match.”

At the same time, a follower messaged @FanSince09, writing “’Hey, I go to school with all those people and here are their names,’ and it matched to one of the names on Facebook.”

“So I went right to Joe after that and said, “This person doesn’t want to talk to the police directly, but here’s who the party is for.’”

The whole process—from when @Fansince09 sent his first tweet about the incident to when he sent names over to Murray—took about two hours.

“I was trying to keep everybody calm during this,” says @FanSince09. “I could have tweeted out every single profile people gave me and people would have been harassed for no reason.”

Once all the names had been delivered privately, he couldn’t help but tweet: “If you’re going to gay bash don’t fill your FB profile with gay slurs and also delete that restaurant check in from earlier.” He was still a snarky sports guy. But he didn’t name names in public.

“This was so delicate, but it had to be handled the right way…and it helps that I was already friends with Joe. “

And that was the reason why the justice hunt did not turn into a witch hunt like the one that occurred in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing. Detective Murray, a Philly sports fan, was a follower of @FanSince09. The two had even met and tailgated at Phillies games.

Murray has used the Internet for more than a decade to reach out to the public, first through message boards and a personal email list he used to send out with crime information. In 2009, he moved to Twitter.

A special investigations detective working non-fatal shootings and commercial gunpoint robbery in West and Southwest Philly, Murray became a mini-celebrity in the neighborhoods he patrolled, becoming known as “The Twitter Cop.” His feed talks about him staying up late to watch Big Trouble in Little China, gives information on missing persons and offers thoughts from the job like “When you google your judge and all of the images are a bunch of sad people walking out of the courthouse you may want to flee to Honduras.”

“I’m in the unique position as a detective, where I can do more than a cop can, more than a boss can. I have the ability to get shit absolutely done,” Murray says.

Three years ago, the powers that be actually had Murray pull his Twitter account altogether. A citizen started a petition to urge the department to get Murray and the handle he was using at the time, @TheFuzz9143, back on the microblogging site. The department eventually relented—with Murray using a new handle, @PPDJOEMURRAY—and rolled out a social media program that allowed for detectives to have their own personal accounts.

Through the years, Murray says, tips from Twitter have helped him solve break-ins and shootings. The Center City beating did not happen on his beat—but that didn’t matter to him. “I work in the hood, I really don’t get that cooperation. But I encourage people, even if it is anywhere in the city, to reach out to me.”

Murray was in a criminal justice class (he is earning a degree) when he received a text message telling him to look at his twitter. He was aware of the beating, which took place near his home, and when he opened up the app on his phone he found many DMs from @FanSince09. “He is private messaging me. 9:30 at night. I am in my car, in a parking lot, just looking at all the stuff. And I forward to my buddies [involved in the investigation].”

Murray says that the detectives had a lead in the case, but the “social media stuff helped a ton…This is a big deal. People want to help. “

Two days later, Kathryn Knott, 24, daughter of Chalfont Borough Police Chief Karl Knott; Kevin Harrigan, 26, and Phillip Williams, 24 were brought in for questioning. And on Sept. 25, they were arrested and charged with aggravated assault, criminal conspiracy, simple assault, and recklessly endangering another person.

Even before the arrests, Murray tweeted, “This is how Twitter is supposed to work for cops. I will take a couple thousand Twitter detectives over any one real detective any day.”

The three were not charged with a hate crime—because Pennsylvania hate crime law did not include lesbian, gay, bi, and transgender citizens.  But after the alleged attack, gay rights supporters pressed for a change in the law, and in early October, a bill, sponsored by state Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Philadelphia) was approved by the House Judiciary Committee to expand the law to include sexual orientation, gender identity and mental and physical disabilities.

There is a good chance the spotlight on the crime and the unique way it was solved will lead to legislative change. “My point of this whole thing is I put myself out there for this reason. I want to be a direct connection to people so they can reach out to me. This really sealed it for me. I felt great that it actually worked,” says Murray.

Most every large city police department has an official Twitter account, “but they also have that caveat—call 911 during an emergency, this is not monitored 24/7,” says Murray. “I wonder how much of it is public relations and trying to be cool and how much is actually trying to get a job done and build trust. It will actually hurt you. If you put up some bullshit social media account that’s not monitored, that you don’t really follow, that you’re not aggressive with it.”

People now send @FanSince09 unsolved crime information to retweet, and while he will always oblige, he knows that it’s a long shot.

“Every aspect lined up and it was like ‘Cool, I can do something about this.’ Where other people send me stuff, it’s more of a shot in the dark.”

The suspects are currently scheduled to go on trial in September. Their lawyers have reportedly been discussing plea deals with prosecutors.

A few months after his Twitter presence helped with the investigation, Murray was in the office of his superiors again—and again was getting harassed at for his account on the site.

“A kid (West Chester University Senior Shane Montgomery) walked out of a bar, fell into the canal and drowned, cause he was so fucking drunk he had no idea where he was.

“I don’t know what his mindset was at the time. Did he not have enough money for a cab? I don’t know. Maybe there was a small chance he didn’t have a ride home. I said, ‘You know what, if anyone ever feels like they are too fucking drunk to drive, or you just can’t get a ride home cause you’re hammered, give me a call; I’ll make sure you get a ride home. And I would. If I’m working I’d get you an Uber.’”

So he sent a tweet: “We’ve all been there. We’ve all made bad decisions.” Then he listed his personal phone number and continued, “That’s my cell. Call or text. Not bothering me at all.”

Afterwards, he said, “I got called into the bosses’ office. They said, ‘You can’t do this. We’re not a taxi service. You can be totally held liable.’ I said, ‘You know what, you totally miss the fucking point.’”

“I yessed them to death. And a week later I get called to the fucking city hall to get the biggest award you can get for a city employee.”

“That’s my Twitter account,” says Murray. “Yelled at for one thing, and getting some fucking award the next week. But I don’t care. That shows me I’m doing the right thing.”