Law enforcement officials from the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Indiana State Police, and the Plainfield Police Department joined the Superintendent of the Plainfield Community School Corporation on Jan. 19 to address the online threats that have been made against Hendricks County communities since mid-December.
A near-capacity crowd was on-hand in the auditorium of Plainfield High School for the forum as hundreds of parents sought information and reassurance regarding an issue that has gripped the community.
I was one of those in attendance, and I'll do my best to summarize the forum as objectively as possible.
The forum was moderated by Assistant Chief of Plainfield Police Carri Weber, and it began with Indiana State Police Captain Chuck Cohen outlining the general procedure for investigating Internet crimes such as this one.
Balancing Act: Expectation of Privacy vs. Solving Crimes
As a society, we don't want the government reading our emails, reviewing our social media, or otherwise monitoring our online communication and habits. We have an expectation of privacy in the United States, and there are several laws and procedures in place to protect that expectation.
As you might imagine, this becomes problematic when law enforcement is trying to solve a crime quickly. Subpoenas, search warrants and other court orders must be obtained prior to investigating an individual's online behavior. All of these safeguards take time -- and judicial approval -- to obtain and execute.
Why Is It Taking So Long?
Capt. Cohen told us that investigating Internet crimes is nothing like popular fictional television shows -- it's not done in an hour, including commercials.
In any potential Internet crimes, law enforcement has to begin by serving a subpoena to the applicable provider service, such as Facebook or Google. After that subpoena is served, it routinely takes days or weeks for the provider to respond with the records that law enforcement is requesting.
In the case of Facebook, Capt. Cohen advised that it normally takes at least 10 days to hear back.
The information obtained is an Internet Protocol address, more commonly referred to as an IP address.
Then law enforcement must find the carrier for the IP address to try to locate the device in question. That requires another subpoena and another wait for that carrier to respond.
In many cases, the carrier is a cellular service provider, and they have been known to only retain records for around 72 hours. That's a problem when several days or weeks have now passed since the Internet crime occurred.
Capt. Cohen also advised that there are lots of apps available that make concealing an online identity easy. If such an app is used, it takes more time to investigate.
A number of additional factors can complicate matters, and law enforcement simply isn't equipped with the tools necessary for a rapid resolution to cases like these.
In this particular case, law enforcement has served more than 200 subpoenas so far, and only about half of the requested information has come back. Every piece of information that police finally do obtain then takes time to analyze.
Police officials at the forum warned parents that it could take several months to finally resolve this case.
Why are the Threats in Hendricks County Not Considered 'Credible'?
Law enforcement does not deem the online threats that Hendricks County has been experiencing since December as "credible." Parents understandably want to know what leads them to that conclusion.
Jay Abbott is the Special Agent in Charge of the Indianapolis FBI Division, and he told parents that law enforcement has analyzed over 160 active shooting incidents, including 27 that occurred at schools, and not a single one of those shooters advertised their intent in advance.
For over a month, the perpetrator in this case has made multiple threats but has never acted upon any of them.
Law enforcement believes that the perpetrator in this case enjoys victimizing people -- first the female Plainfield High School student, and then the community at-large -- and gets some sort of gratification from the reaction it causes.
There's always a first time for everything, of course, but based on the information they have at this time, police do not believe that the threats will lead to actual violence.
Should that belief change, however, Special Agent Abbott assured everyone that he has "an absolute duty" to inform schools and the public.
Why Doesn't Law Enforcement Keep Parents Better Informed?
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tiffany McCormick assured parents that law enforcement is working tirelessly on this case, but they cannot safely give out all of the information that they discover along the way. To do so would compromise the integrity of the investigation.
Special Agent Abbott reiterated that point, as did Capt. Cohen and Asst. Chief Weber.
Parents simply have to trust law enforcement.
Mitch Wheeler Says Arrests Have Been Made and Charges Won't Be Filed
Someone named Mitch Wheeler has posted somewhere on Facebook that "Unfortunately the Plainfield threats have been arrested [sic]. However they will not be prosecuted or criminally charged because they did not act on the threats. They say it's still freedom of speech. I know this [because] I'm on the safety committee for this area. They are going to work on and change language to the legislature so this won't happen in the future. But you heard it here. No criminal charges!"
When a parent asked law enforcement at the Plainfield forum about this, AUSA McCormick stated that this is absolutely untrue, and no one on the panel has ever heard of Mitch Wheeler.
AUSA McCormick said that the First Amendment freedom of speech only goes so far -- and when someone makes threats that shut down schools and businesses, that First Amendment protection no longer applies.
She said that when the perpetrator in this case is caught -- and parents received multiple assurances that it will happen -- there absolutely will be charges filed.
What criminal charges the perpetrator will face and whether s/he is tried in state or federal court will depend on the evidence, whether s/he is a juvenile or an adult, and where the most effective means of prosecution would take place.
Are There Any Ties to International Terrorism, Specifically ISIS?
Special Agent Abbott gave an emphatic one-word answer to this question: "No."
Why Weren't People Searched at the Forum?
Someone was removed from the forum by police, and the media is reporting that an Avon man has been arrested for allegedly bringing a gun to the meeting.
That led several parents to express concern that no one at the evening's forum had been searched upon arrival.
The response from law enforcement was that it's a constant balancing act between security and practicality of life. Several hundred people were in attendance at the forum, and it would have taken a very long time to search everyone.
Police also don't believe the threats to be credible, but if they believed that there was a viable threat, they'd have searched everyone.
As Asst. Chief Weber said, while there is a faction of parents who want everyone who enters schools searched, there is another faction of parents who have had enough of the searches and invasions of privacy and are ready to get life back to normal.
What Can We Do to Help This Situation?
This was probably my favorite question that was asked during the evening.
Officials told parents that the perpetrator is seeking "15 minutes of fame," and as long as social media and mainstream media continues to talk about it, the perpetrator continues to enjoy that fame.
As previously mentioned, the perpetrator enjoys victimizing people, so the panicked online comments and posts give that person great pleasure.
People who engage the perpetrator online only make law enforcement's job more difficult, which is why they urge people to stop doing it. When someone engages the perpetrator, s/he then goes to that person's Facebook page and mines information about kids' names, where they go to school, places they frequent, etc.
The perpetrator then uses that information to make additional threats that directly involve the person who engaged him/her.
For example, someone boasts online about their ability and willingness to beat the perpetrator up. The perpetrator then looks on the person's page and finds out that their daughter Susie goes to XYZ Preschool. The perpetrator then makes a graphic threat to do harm to Susie and everyone else at XYZ Preschool, and the threat is then quickly spread to all parents of kids at XYZ Preschool and throughout the community. A panic ensues.
You can probably see how this makes law enforcement's job more difficult.
Police are also concerned that the perpetrator's continued "15 minutes of fame" will breed copycats who desire the same sort of limelight.
And, of course, continuing to spread the perpetrator's posts and comments fuels the fear that runs through the community. Not only are we living our lives in fear, we're delighting the perpetrator by doing so.
As the forum went on, someone using the perpetrator's screen name was posting quotes of what was being said and claiming to have two guns on their person. I found it interesting that the person's predictable online postings during the forum simply reinforced what the police were saying about the person's motives and the credibility of the threats.
So what can we do to help end this ordeal?
The overarching and often-repeated message from law enforcement: trust us to do our jobs. Be patient, because it's not as quick and easy as you might think it is to investigate and prosecute online crimes, but the perpetrator will be caught and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
In the meantime, be vigilant, but as Special Agent Abbott said, "Don't let this person win. Live your life."
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