PLACERVILLE (CBS13) — They’re called “arm-chair detectives” or “social media sleuths”: Neighbors who act as online police, trying to solve crimes through social media forums.
The practice is growing in Placerville, but are these efforts doing more harm than good?
It’s been two weeks since Roman Lopez‘s body was found in Placerville. Police call his death suspicious but have yet to release much of anything. No one knows how he died or why.
His mother Rochelle Lopez said, “He didn’t deserve this, and I wish I could’ve been there, anyway I could have stopped it.”
He was living in a Placerville home with his father, step-mom and seven other kids at the time of his death. His biological mother found out about his death online.
“They told me it was Roman, and that was the last thing I was expecting to hear,” Lopez said.
Now, almost 6,000 people from all around the country have joined three Facebook groups dedicated to finding answers about Roman’s death.
“I think it’s the fact that police have been so tight-lipped about the investigation,” said Kristin Jabs.
The case has taken over the city of Placerville and surrounding areas, but Lopez’s story has also reached 92-miles away in Ripon where one mom joined the movement to help solve this little boy’s case and help his family in the process.
“I simply searched ‘Roman Lopez’ in there, and then came up two different groups and I joined both of them,” said Jabs.
It was through these social media groups that Jabs made contact with Lopez’s mother.
“It just really made me want to help her,” she said.
Jabs now acts as a liaison between the family, the media, and helps administrators run the Facebook groups. She says people post theories about what they believe happened to Roman.
“There was a lot of people taking pictures of him and saying, “Look at the bruises on his wrists,'” Jabs said.
Some of the posts publicly accuse others of being responsible for his death.
“There are people saying, ‘I believe both parents know exactly what happened,'” said Jabs.
Attorney Mark Reichel said in unsolved cases, he too has taken to social media to see what the public believes happened.
“You can get honest observations, and I have in cases, just like that actually,” Reichel said.
But you have to know what to look for. He says those pointing fingers online can face consequences.
“You can sue for slander if you’re damaged by it or harmed by it,” Reichel said. “The law will give you your remedy.”
But, Reichel says these cases are hard to prove.
“To prevail on it, you have to have some real evidence that there is some damage to your reputation,” he said.
Reichel says the real problem is that these mass Facebook groups could taint a potential jury pool if any charges are filed in this case.
“That could result in a jury pool being moved out of that county,” said Reichel.
Former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness calls any information the lifeblood of an investigation, even what comes from social media.
“It warrants some review to look at what people are theorizing,” he said.
McGinness says these sleuths and their posts won’t be harmful to a police investigation. He says the Placerville Police Department is paying attention.
“I think competent investigators in the 21st century routinely look at social media,” he said.
Roman Lopez’s remains will be buried Saturday in Wisconsin. The Placerville Police Police Department says they’re waiting for toxicology reports to come back before they release more information.