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Dave Roepke, Published October 03 2010

Facebook sting sign of cases to come

The 21-year-old expected to meet a young woman to buy some pot, a purported dealer he met on Facebook.

When he arrived at Oak Grove Park in Fargo, “she” indeed was waiting for him. One hitch: Benjamin Kent Felch hadn’t met a woman named Terra on Facebook. He had been chatting with a Fargo police sergeant named Mat.

The allegation is the basis for the felony charge of attempting to possess marijuana with intent to deliver filed Sept. 24 against Felch, a case mostly built on the social-networking website.

While online stings have been used in child luring investigations for years, police in Fargo say the case is the department’s first to expand beyond that realm and is unlikely to be the last.

“It’s something we’ll keep in our toolbox. Maybe I should say we’ll keep it as an app,” said Lt. Pat Claus, investigations commander for Fargo police.

It demonstrates the value Facebook and other social media can carry for law enforcement, whether it’s for gathering intelligence, developing investigations or communicating with the general public.

“In the modern world, if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be very engaged,” said Moorhead Police Lt. Tory Jacobson. “Your success would be challenged because that’s what the world is using.”

Beyond child-sex cases, Jacobson wouldn’t say if Moorhead police have conducted any similar investigations relying primarily on a fake online profile. He did note such a tactic is “well within the scope of our investigations.”

West Fargo Police Detective Sgt. Greg Warren said it’s not something his department has done, but it’s a technique he expects to become more common.

“It’s heads-up investigating,” Warren said. “That’s where the people are.”

Lauri Stevens, a native of Bismarck who has trained police on social-media use, said it’s hard to tell how many police agencies are using social-media sites. But in her experience, it is emerging as the potent “force multiplier” she believes can be for law enforcement.

“What we’re really seeing right now is a mind-shift toward acceptance of it,” said Stevens, founder of the Social Media the Internet and Law Enforcement Conference. “There are a lot of ‘ah-ha’ moments.”

According to court records:

Sgt. Mat Sanders, head of Fargo’s narcotics unit, opened an account on Facebook under the name of Terra Vistad and invited several people in the area to be his friend. He alleges that in chats from Aug. 2 to Sept. 22, Felch agreed to pay up to $1,350 for a quarter-pound of pot, the cash due after he sold the drugs.

The police report claims after he was arrested in the park, Felch told Sanders he had met Vistad at a party before talking with her online. “I informed him that I was Terra Vistad,” Sanders said in the report.

Felch’s attorney, Mark Beauchene, didn’t return phone messages seeking comment.

Sanders didn’t return a message inquiring if other cases might spring from his Vistad profile, which doesn’t appear in a search of Facebook profiles.

Claus, who supervises all Fargo investigators, said Sanders took the idea to him for specific approval, and he signed off on it.

“These types of cases aren’t really any different than real-world cases, except they take place in cyberspace,” he said.

Claus said Facebook has been used by Fargo detectives to collect intelligence. He cited the manhunt for an Illinois murder suspect who left his car in Fargo in May as an example.

“By 9 or 10 o’clock, two intel detectives were online looking through his Facebook,” Claus said.

Police in West Fargo and Fargo also have Facebook pages, where they typically post safety messages, news about the departments and other items that are standard news release topics.

Stevens said she encourages police to be far more engaging online, such as using hash tags to interject messages into developing Twitter conversations.

“Very few of them are approaching it strategically,” she said.

She also thinks departments should have specific social-media policies: one for communications and another for investigations.

Claus said Fargo police have discussed establishing a social-media policy for communications, but not for investigations.

While some might object to undercover online operations, courts have ruled on a consistent basis that they’re legal as long as the officer doesn’t induce illegal activity, said former police officer Mark Friese, now a defense attorney at Vogel Law Firm in Fargo.

“If it’s just that they create a fake identity and begin a dialogue and develop a friendship, I don’t see it as problematic,” he said.

Facebook users worried that detectives have their eyes peeled on their profile feeds should know that just like offline investigations, online police probes aren’t arbitrary, Claus said.

“We target our investigations based on reasonable suspicion. We don’t monitor at random,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535