Warrants issued for Facebook accounts

  • Thu Jul 9th, 2020 2:07pm
  • News

By Paul Gottlieb

Olympic Peninsula News Group

Search warrants were issued last week for Facebook accounts of 10 people who were present when five alders were cut down June 3 to intentionally block a tourist family from leaving their campsite, authorities said last week.

The Forks residents have avoided answering questions about the incident or flat out refused to talk at all to investigators, according to the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office.

“Those are the 10 folks we know were there and they know what happened,” Sheriff Bill Benedict said Friday.

“This is not a serious felony, this is a misdemeanor, but the reputation of the county and the city of Forks is hanging in the balance on this.

“It’s something that was very disgusting, and we’d like to get to the bottom of it.”

The family of four had traveled from Spokane to Forks to experience the setting of the Twilight books and to camp in a refurbished white school bus.

They were confronted in a store parking lot and followed to their campsite, where trees were felled to block their path.

A group of high school students cut the trees to free them and deputies escorted them from town.

Most if not all of those stonewalling the investigation are males ranging in age from teenagers to those at least in their 40s, said Benedict and Chief Criminal Deputy Brian King.

“They admitted to being there,” Benedict said.

“They are just not talking about who did what.

“It’s very bizarre. Folks are keeping it pretty tight, and frankly, it surprises me.”

Benedict has spent more than $5,000 on overtime for detectives to travel to Forks to conduct interviews of the many people who have cooperated with the investigation into a crime that entailed $183 in board feet of timber.

As an analogy, he cited violence that occurred during recent nationwide protests for racial justice following the killing of George Floyd while in police custody.

“In a similar fashion, where many other jurisdictions are going after people that looted and rioted as a result of the demonstrations and protests, I am going after the folks that also did these abhorrent things. I’m very committed.”

Benedict said the family was at least harassed.

“I see harassment there, and a possibility of false imprisonment, which is a felony,” he said.

“If the social media accounts somehow point in that direction, then that’s where we’ll take it.”

Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols will make a charging decision.

When the Spokane family arrived in Forks, they were confronted in the Forks Outfitters/Thriftway parking lot, authorities said.

About two dozen residents gathered there, several repeatedly demanding an accounting of their political affiliation, specifically asking over and over if they were part of the Antifa movement.

Antifa was falsely rumored on social media as planning to travel in buses to Forks and other rural areas to incite violence in white neighborhoods.

Benedict said family members, who include an African American man, told Benedict they did not feel the confrontation was racially motivated. A family member told Peninsula Daily News the same thing.

Local residents — at least one carrying a gun, according to a family member — followed them in vehicles to their campsite on the A-Road, where they heard trees being cut down before being confronted by a log barrier that kept them from leaving.

They called 9-1-1, fearful of harm, before several teenagers unblocked their exit with a chain saw, and a sheriff’s deputy and Quileute tribal officer safely escorted them from town.

“I think it was absolutely despicable the behavior of those Forks folks harassing those innocent campers,” Benedict said.

It may take several weeks before information is obtained from Facebook.

“It might be over a month because of all the demonstrations and strife in our country,” Benedict said.

“A lot of law enforcement is going after social media accounts.”

The warrants were not served to the account holders, but directly to Facebook, which has staff dedicated to processing court orders.

King said more warrants are being prepared this week for Twitter accounts, adding that cellphone records are difficult to obtain.

The main cellphone-service provider in Forks is Verizon, which has a “very narrow” retention schedule that often eliminates text messages and phonecall records too fast to build a case for a warrant, he said.

King said “preservation letters” were sent to Facebook. That prevented information relevant to the investigation from being deleted before a June 28 Peninsula Daily News story in which King said the warrants would be issued.

For a judge to approve the court orders, there must be probable cause that evidence exists that points to a crime.

“There’s a lot of evidence we have to have in order to be able to obtain these warrants,” King said.

Forks residents have shared captured information from social media with investigators, he added, but the investigation has still fallen short, failing to identify who felled the trees.

“The fact that nobody wants to tell on one another, even if they didn’t necessarily have a specific role and maybe they witnessed something, [indicates] there’s a level of fear in folks willing to come forward, not necessarily of anything like bodily harm, but fear of being labeled as, you know, a snitch,” King said.

“That’s part of the evidence we are seeking and are digging deeper here to see if we can see communication that would lead us to understand the roles and particularly who did what.”

The incident sparked national media attention and a widely distributed letter to news outlets from 24 outdoors organizations, including The Wilderness Society, the National Parks Conservation Association and Trout Unlimited.

“No one expects, nor should have to consider, being victimized in the outdoors,” it said (https://tinyurl.com/PDN-LetterCondemns).

Apology

The Forks City Council issued an apology to the family, and Mayor Tim Fletcher has urged that residents cooperate with the sheriff’s office in his daily audio messages to residents on the Forks city website.

“Help bring that investigation to a conclusion by sharing what you know,” Fletcher urged last week.

Sara Ironhill and Sandra Kint came up with an idea for doing an ad and Sappho resident Michelle Simpson formed a Facebook group, “Forks area ad addressing violence through education” in response to the family’s ordeal. It has 433 members.

The effort, soon to morph into the group “The Greater Forks Community,” Simpson said, bought advertisements in a Spokane newspaper and the weekly Forks Forum, a Sound Publishing sister newspaper to Peninsula Daily News.

“Our commitment is to kind of make sure this investigation keeps going forward in whatever way we can do that,” Simpson said Friday, pledging to increase racial awareness and tolerance through education.

Members of the group may offer a reward to induce people to step forward with information to bring the investigation to a conclusion, she said.

“There’s no way to know if the race of the family played a part in the further pursuit of them” after they left the parking lot, Simpson said.

“When they approached the bus, one could say, ‘we checked it out and now we are moving on.’

“They didn’t do that. They still chose to pursue them. They passed that line to continue to harass them and to chase them into the woods.”