The Lessons We Can All Learn from Shocking Social Media Crime Cases
From Facebook murder to sinister dates.
It has always amused me how people publish their lives on social media and then wonder why they become victims of crime.
We have all seen the couple on Facebook that advertise they have gone to Spain for two weeks, leaving their house empty. A quick search of their photos reveals where they live, and then shock horror, they are robbed while away.
The police deal with hundreds of cases yearly where people state they do not know why they were targeted. Their social media reveals all the answers.
These five cases are some of the more extreme times that social media, and the internet has played an active part in a case.
Stephen Port was born in the United Kingdom on 22nd February 1975. He became known as the Grindr killer when he lured and killed four men. However, his capture wasn't easy, as the police failed to recognise a serial killer was on the loose.
Little is known of his early years. He grew up in Dagenham, East London, with his family. Described as a loner, he was often bullied at school. In his mid-twenties, he moved to Barking, London and came out as gay. Taking a job as a chef at the local bus station, Stagecoach.
Those who know him commented that he was always a strange individual. He had a child-like personality and, even in adulthood, preferred to play with children's toys.
Port used to meet his victims through gay and bisexual dating applications. He used Grindr, a gay hook-up app. Using false profiles, he used to attract men to meet with him. Some of the lies he told on his profile were that he was a Navy officer, an Oxford graduate and special needs teacher.
Once he had attracted his victims, he lured them to his flat. Then, using GHB, a date rape drug, he raped and murdered them. Post-mortems of all the victims revealed high levels of GHB, Amyl Nitrate, Viagra and Crystal Meth.
Anthony Walgate was Port's first victim, a fashion student and occasional escort. Port contacted him pretending to be a client and offered him £800 to spend the night with him. Walgate went to the meeting and was found by police dead in front of Port's flat on 19th June 2014. In a strange twist, Port was the person who reported the body. Making an anonymous call, he reported an unconscious man outside his flat.
Port was charged on 26th June that year for perverting the course of justice. Police found out about the hook-up but never considered him for murder.
Whilst out on bail, Port killed both Gabriel Kovari and Daniel Whitworth. Kovari was killed on 28th August and placed in a graveyard close to Port's house. The police noted this as a drug overdose.
One month later, on 20th September, Port murdered Whitworth. Placing Whitworth in the same graveyard, Port planted a suicide note on him. The note stated that Whitworth had killed himself because he couldn't live with the guilt of killing Kovari. Whitworth's family would question this note. They proclaimed his innocence, but the police were not interested in investigating again.
In March of the following year, Port was charged with perverting the course of justice and received a jail sentence of eight months. However, he was released on a tag three months later, on 4th June, ready to kill again.
Jack Taylor was 25 when he became Port's latest victim. Again Port placed the body in the same graveyard, propped up against a stone. The police ruled the killing was an accidental overdose. This verdict did not convince Taylor's sisters.
In October 2015, CCTV footage of Taylor leaving the train station with an unknown man was found. The family were shocked that the police had failed to identify this stranger. Urged on by public opinion, the police decided to open the case and look for the mysterious man.
Port was convicted a year later of four accounts of murder; assault through penetration; 3 cases of rape; four counts of sexual assault, and ten counts of administering medication with intent. The previous inquest verdicts for the victims were removed, and a police inquiry started.
Ashley Wadsworth was a Canadian teenager murdered by her boyfriend in Essex. Her grieving mother states that her daughter flew out excitedly, alive and well and flew home in a box.
Ashley was nineteen when she arrived in Chelmsford on a tourist visa. She had flown to England to be with her boyfriend, who she had met online.
She didn't know she was flying into a highly violent relationship in a country where she felt she had no one to seek help from.
Jack Sepple became angry when Ashley told him she wanted to fly home to be with her family. Not wanting her to leave him, he stabbed her multiple times. When she died, he phoned his sister on FaceTime and told her what he had done.
He was later found guilty and given a twenty-three-year sentence.
The case highlights the risks of meeting people you meet on the internet, especially those in a different country.
When a father sat at the computer, he was looking for answers. His fourteen-year-old daughter Molly Russell had just taken her own life through an act of self-harm.
That was when he discovered that two weeks before her death, she had received an email from Pinterest labelled 'Depressive Pins You May Like,' the content included an image of a bloody razor.
Instagram was no better on there; he discovered she had shared, liked and saved more than two thousand self-harm-related posts six months before her death.
When the evidence was heard at the inquest in 2017, the coroner, Andrew Walker, stated that he was in no doubt Pinterest and Instagram had contributed towards Molly's death.
This is a landmark case as it is the first time social media companies have been required to participate in legal proceedings linked to a child's death. It was found that the platforms hosted content that glamorised self-harm and promoted feelings of depression and secrecy.
Both companies will state that they have changed considerably in the five years since the tragedy. Pinterest has taken markedly more steps in de-platforming content that does not meet its new standards.
Instagram and Facebook have taken a more free-speech outlook. However, it is also noticeable that whilst Pinterest provided significant data in the case, Meta gave the court minimal detail, much of which was redacted.
The Facebook Murders
Jenelle Potter was in her thirties. Due to a combination of medical conditions and strict parents, she was isolated from her peers. Moving to a new town did not make this easier, especially in Mountain City, Tennessee. Jenelle openly stated that she felt isolated as she was not born in the town.
Rather than socialise in person, Jenelle carved out a little place in cyberspace. Through Facebook, she gained friends and interacted with people. So it is fair to say Jenelle spent much of her time online. That was until she met Tracy Greenwell.
Tracy worked in the local pharmacy as an assistant. One day when the quiet Jenelle came to pick up prescriptions, they talked, and she befriended the quiet girl. Tracy was eager to help Jenelle to socialise and introduce her to her friends and family.
On one occasion, she introduced Jenelle to her brother Billy Payne who Jenelle was instantly attracted to. Unfortunately, Billy did not reciprocate the feelings. However, the friendly Billy tried to interact with her by adding her as a friend on Facebook.
Tracy also introduced Jenelle to an older cousin Jamie Curd; Jamie was interested in a relationship with Jenelle, who refused initially due to her attraction to Billy. However, Jamie was allowed to visit the family home as he was a friend of the Potters and fixed their computer. Although all of them deny there was a relationship, selfies posted on Facebook tell a different story.
Around this time, a gentleman called Matt started posting hateful comments about Billy on a local site. He started saying they were drug dealers, HIV positive and other nasty comments.
Whenever anyone said anything negative about Jenelle, he supported her. He was not her only support on the site; Rose was equally supportive of Jenelle, stating she was beautiful.
Chris stated he was a friend of Janelle's and was monitoring her online bullying. His job was to support and protect his friend. To Jenelle's mother, he said he was concerned for the whole family's safety as Billy was a killer. To Jamie, he mentioned that he believed Jenelle was suicidal and needed support.
This correspondence went on for a year. Chris wanted the situation with Jenelle to improve. He stated that he would like to kill Billy and his girlfriend, Billy Jean but could not due to work commitments. Barbara said she wasn't a killer but would if she had to.
She, however, had another plan. Buddy was an ex-marine with a record of being a sharpshooter and had an array of guns. The Potters were described as a God-fearing, gun-packing family.
Barbara decided to get her husband and Jamie together. Buddy asked Jamie if he would drive him to Billy's house at some point. Jamie agreed. One morning he received a phone call to say that Buddy needed a lift. Jamie and Jenelle's text messages show she knew what was happening during this time.
The two men sat outside the house, waiting for Billy's father to leave for work. When the coast was clear, the pair approached the house. Jamie stood guard whilst Buddy entered the property.
Buddy shot Billy and then slit his throat. Leaving the room, he motioned to Jamie, who pointed to where Billy Jean had gone. Billy Jean was found dead, shot through her head. She was still clutching her toddler to her chest, who was unhurt.
When the bodies were found, the police started to investigate. The crime scene yielded few clues, with no forensics or gun cases. They commented that the murder looked like a professional hit. They soon uncovered Jamie, who had fallen out with the couple due to Jenelle. They brought him in for questioning.
After several hours of denying what had happened, he told the truth — turning state witness for a reduced sentence. He agreed to help set Buddy up. Making a phone call to him, Jamie asked if Buddy had thrown everything from Billy's house away; Buddy replied yes. The police had enough to arrest Buddy Potter.
Once this was over, Jamie was charged; he mentioned that he was curious why Chris from the CIA had not supported their story. The police found this a strange statement.
On searching the house, the police removed an arsenal of weapons; when they looked into Buddy's truck, they found three bags of shredded emails. When painstakingly put back together, these emails would prove Chris's identity.
During an interview, Buddy admitted nothing, then in a freak twist, he confessed to Barbara during a phone call.
Both Buddy and Jamie were convicted of first-degree murder. Buddy was incarcerated for two life sentences, and Jamie with one count of murder and a twenty-five-year sentence due to his participation in the case. However, this would have been the end if not for the work of one district attorney, Denis Brooks.
It was clear that Chris had played a significant part in both the plotting and encouragement of the murders. The investigation started as to who this man was. He did not work for the CIA. The IP address was traced for the emails found at the Potter's house. So, which of the women had been responsible for the emails?
Linguistic experts then analysed Chris's emails and Jenelle's writing style and identified a precise match. Jenelle had not only lived her life in cyberspace but had created several lives. Further research found she was also Matt and Rose, two personalities who had abused Billy Jean online. In addition, Jenelle Potter had catfished her parents into committing murder.
Jenelle Potter and her mother were both tried on charges of first-degree murder. Jenelle for catfishing her parents and Jamie. Barbara because police believed she had persuaded Buddy to commit murder. Despite the evidence only being circumstantial, both were convicted.
The Missing Man Google Found
It would be wrong for me not to leave on a positive note. The internet has not always wrecked people's lives; there are times when it has helped, as in this missing persons case.
William Moldt was a mortgage broker who travelled a lot with work. On 7th November 1997, he went to a nightclub in Lantana in Florida. He messaged his girlfriend to say he was on his way home and then completely vanished.
The police launched a missing person investigation, which soon when cold. Finally, however, two decades later, he would be found on Google Maps.
In August 2019, Mr Hayes was doing some research for his company. As a transport surveyor, he looked at bus routes on Google Maps. During one of his searches, he looked at the area he used to live in, Moon Bay Circle, Wellington, Florida. There he spotted something strange in the water.
He phoned his ex-girlfriend to go to the bottom of the garden and look into the pond, she said she could see nothing so she went to her neighbour. The neighbour sent his drone over the area and confirmed that there was indeed a car in the lake. The lake was built as an artificial retention pond to store runoff waters from heavy rains.
They contacted the police, who pulled the vehicle from the water. As the car emerged, it became clear that skeletal remains were in the driver's seat. Thick calcium deposits coated the vehicle, which was a white 1994 Saturn saloon. Experts with the Medical Examiner's Office examined the bones, and on 10th September, they identified the remains as William Moldt.
After investigation, authorities presumed that Moldt had lost control of his car and driven into the pond. However, the area being under massive development at the time, was more of a building site than a community, so his accident went unnoticed.
The lake quite simply had hidden its secret for two decades. Although the family will never know what happened to Moldt, they now have the closure to bury him. He remains one of many bodies that have been found on Google Maps.
We are a society that is a slave to social media. But social media itself is not evil. On the contrary, it has allowed families to stay connected when they can't see each other. The problem with social media is our use of it; we struggle to create a balance and exhibit any common sense around it.
Most of us would not walk into the street and tell strangers we are going away for two weeks, yet we do it virtually. Half the things people say to each other on social media, they would not say face to face.
These cases highlight that with any interaction on any platform, it is best to exhibit caution and not take unnecessary risks. No one truly knows who they are talking to until they meet them face to face, and for some, it is too late to escape then.