Social media rumors harming serious situation

Feb. 20, 2013 @ 06:57 PM

Social media has buzzed and Triangle area television stations have rolled into town.

A serious situation of four carjackings, which also included two sexual assaults, has grown into unsubstantiated reports and led Henderson Police Chief Keith Sidwell and Vance County Sheriff Peter White to issue a joint statement late Wednesday afternoon.

“Both the police department and the sheriff’s department have been bombarded with telephone calls, emails, etc., from citizens making outlandish claims that they have read this or that on Facebook, etc., regarding a plethora of incidents,” read the statement from Sidwell and White. “What has been reported by your police and sheriff’s departments is accurate.

“There are those unfortunate people that have chosen unwisely to spread horrid rumors, making up offenses that have not occurred. This has sent people into a panic.”

The statement referenced comparison to an insurance commercial, in which one person believes all she reads on the Internet, proven untrue when her online date arrives.

Police and the sheriff’s office confirmed all incidents have been made available in daily reports. The Dispatch has also reported each.

Police responded to incidents Jan. 24, Feb. 11 and Feb. 14, all carjackings and one involving a sexual assault. Sheriff’s deputies responded to a call on Feb. 14 involving kidnapping, rape and assault with a deadly weapon.

“I implore you to use good common sense judgment here and realize that there are those in the community that thrive on chaos and misdirection,” the statement read. “As always, the law enforcement professionals of Henderson and Vance County will answer questions as long as the answers do not compromise the investigative process.

“Keep in mind that time spent quashing falsehoods and rumors is time taken away from catching the persons committing these crimes.”

Tips to help solve the crimes can be given to police at (252) 438-4141 or Crime Stoppers at (252) 492-1925.

As of early Wednesday evening, no arrests had been made.

“We are in communication with the VCSO and the cases are being evaluated for similarities,” Lt. Alan Hedgepeth wrote in an email response to The Dispatch. “The only suspect description at this time is two black males.”

Concerns from citizens randomly questioned Wednesday ranged from mild determination for continuing their self-defense measures to fears of unreported incidents and connections to new gang initiation rituals.

There was an abundance of advise about buddying up in public, never shopping alone, keeping car doors locked, being aware of surroundings and shopping only during the daytime. The Dispatch published tips provided by police in Tuesday’s print edition, and they are available online at hendersondispatch.com.

The full text of the joint statement by Sidwell and White was made available immediately by The Dispatch to its followers within social media, and is posted online in its entirety.

“We don’t go out by ourselves, and we just stay together if we have to go out at night,” Teresa Boone said while visiting a north Henderson shopping center with a friend. “We also keep our car doors locked while we are riding.”

At Walmart, the West family included a nearly-grown son walking alongside his mother and sister. They all wanted to see more action by police and deputies because their fear was growing.

“They need to show us that they’re doing something, because everybody is thinking that the police are not doing anything,” Bobby West said.

“If people are in that kind of danger, they need to be doing more,” Tammy West said. “Why isn’t there a cop out here right now? When I go out, I am going to have somebody with me all the time.”

A Henderson police cruiser on patrol arrived at Walmart to a front entrance area as the West family exited.

Larry Taborn, at the Food Lion on Raleigh Road, said he isn’t doing anything different as he accompanied three women on a shopping visit. His advise mirrored others.

“Be extra careful and aware of your surroundings,” Taborn said. “We do most of our stuff during the daytime.”

Tammy West was one of several who wondered if at least some of the incidents could have been perpetrated as a part of a gang initiation dare.

Hedgepeth confirmed the only information being withheld is the identity of the sexual assault victim, or information on the police report that would indirectly identify her.

Contact the writer at mfisher@hendersondispatch.com.