By Kevin Flowers

Ruth Thompson Carroll knows firsthand about the intersection of crime and social media.

Carroll is director of Erie's Association for Needy and Neglected Animals (A.N.N.A.) Shelter, which cares for animals in need. On June 8, a man walked into the nonprofit and allegedly stole $30 in cash, a box of syringes, a digital camera and four bottles of medication, according to Erie police.

Carroll called it the type of crime "that's not a big deal to a lot of people, but was a big deal to us."

She also said she believes that without Facebook, an arrest might not have been made.

"We had a volunteer of ours come in a few days later who said, 'I heard a guy in a bar bragging about how he broke into the A.N.N.A. Shelter,'" said Carroll, 42. "She knew his name. ... Right away I got on Facebook."

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Police said photos of 24-year-old Kyle Bish's Facebook account matched pictures of the burglary suspect from the shelter's surveillance cameras.

Bish was arrested and charged with burglary, theft, receiving stolen property, acquisition of a controlled substance and possession of a controlled substance.

His case is pending.

"The Internet is such a powerful tool, it doesn't surprise me that it can help you solve crimes," Carroll said. "And with social media, people put so much information out there. With Facebook, you have a name and you can immediately do a search and see pictures of that person or whatever. Without it, maybe we would have been waiting a lot longer to find this guy."

'A Fundamental Shift'

Across Erie and the nation, social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Foursquare are hugely popular. The website reported in June that worldwide, 1.73 billion people will use social networking in 2013.

The sites, though, are also part of the nexus between social media and crime, an issue that demands increased attention from law enforcement.

"The overall statement I would make about it is ... it seems like people have this need to talk about themselves and put things out there," Erie Bureau of Police Chief Randy Bowers said. "And that's what makes it a valuable tool for us. We have seen people (bragging) about crimes on Facebook. I have seen victims providing us with information they have seen online that helps during the course of an investigation.

"Everybody's aware of social media and the potential of it aiding us in an investigation," Bowers said. "Then it becomes a training issue."

That is one reason why the Erie Bureau of Police will send 18 officers to a Nov. 18 seminar called "The Darker Side of Social Networking" at the Bayfront Convention Center.

The free training, offered by the Northwest Pennsylvania Business Coalition for Homeland Security, will focus in part on using social media as an investigative tool and safety issues associated with social media sites.

James Dill, a retired investigative technology inspector with the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office, will conduct that training.

In a telephone interview last week, Dill said his training focuses on the fact that social media "is a fundamental shift in the way we communicate, and it's grown faster than any other form of communication. It has a profound impact on law enforcement in many ways."

For example, Dill said, criminals nationwide are using social media "check-ins" — geographic tagging of a user's whereabouts — to plan burglaries. He said pedophiles use fake social media profiles to lure young children, and stalkers can follow victims via social networking sites.

"This stuff is public, it's searchable, and people use it for bad purposes," said Dill, who now works as an investigative technology consultant.

Dill said he tries to explain the nuances of social networking sites, including how to use privacy settings. His training, Dill said, also addresses the best ways to verify information and/or handle potential evidence discovered online.

"This stuff is an investigative and intelligence tool," Dill said. "But if law enforcement is going to use it, they have to understand the nature of the beast."

In northwestern Pennsylvania, authorities said they are seeing, with greater frequency, some social media element regarding crimes like homicide, sexual assault, burglary, witness intimidation and harassment

A few recent examples:

Facebook posts and text messages became important evidence in the case of Rachel A. Kozloff, who was convicted of third-degree murder in the April 2012 shooting death of her boyfriend, Michael Henry. Kozloff was sentenced to 18 to 40 years in state prison.

"I think we will see more of these cases," Erie County District Attorney Jack Daneri said, referring to crimes with some link to social media.

Erie police were granted a court order requiring Facebook to provide investigators with 27-year-old homicide victim Nikkia Sawyer's account information as part of their probe into her June 2011 slaying. The information sought by police included a list of friends and her photographs.

Sawyer's neighbor, James Duncan, was sentenced to 21 to 42 years in state prison for the killing.

"There's a lot of positives to law enforcement with social media," Daneri said. "We can use it to find out someone's whereabouts to keep track of someone, learn who their associates are, and even get into their mental state by their posts that day."

Law enforcement paid attention when at least three Facebook pages were created recently with posts about the names and photos of Erie people believed to be cooperating with police. Those pages — using the name "Jay Reed" or some variation — labeled people as "snitches," and local authorities expressed concern the sites could discourage people from coming forward about crimes.

The sites, which went inactive after reporters tried to contact the creators, were the subject of a Sept. 15 Times-News article.

Facebook tips helped police in 2010 track down Laramie Torres, a man who fled to Erie after he was indicted on rape and sodomy charges in Oregon. Torres was accused of sexually abusing a girl, beginning when she was 11 years old.

The girl's family created the Facebook page, "Help Catch Child Rapist Laramie Torres," to help authorities find him; a tip forwarded to the page indicated that Torres was in Erie.

Millcreek Police Chief Tom Carlotti said his department has paid attention to social media "for some time" when it comes to crime in the township.

"We've established Facebook accounts, investigative accounts, to look into juvenile cases where we've been able to, let's say, access the accounts of individuals who are bragging about being involved in crimes," Carlotti said. "Mostly for burglaries, things like that."

Millcreek Police have also published crime prevention tips related to social networking on the department's website, Carlotti said.

Carlotti said that he wishes more people realized that when it comes to social networking, caution and common sense are important.

"Even though you might think what you're doing on there is somewhat secure," Carlotti said, "it's not hard for other people to get that information."