Internet helps catch criminals
Murder suspect Everette Hewitt's picture appeared on Catawba County's Facebook page on March 15 at 9:17 p.m. Twelve hours later, Hewitt was in jail.
Catawba County posted Hewitt's photo and physical description on its Facebook site as more than 100 sheriff's deputies searched for Hewitt near the Claremont area.
Less than 30 minutes after the picture went online, the Facebook message received a comment posting a reported sighting of Hewitt on Emmanuel Church Road, near where Hewitt allegedly shot three people and injured another.
The Facebook user reported seeing a man matching Hewitt's description wearing "a white T-shirt and light blue shorts." Catawba County's Facebook page administrators then passed the reported sighting to the county's communications center.
This was the first time Catawba County used Facebook to disseminate information to the public about a manhunt. Although only one Facebook user commented on the website's posting, it's impossible to know how many tips Catawba County officials received from people who saw the Facebook posting.
The Facebook posting is one piece of a countywide initiative to encourage sharing online information — in both good times and bad.
"We've put other information out there. We put information about the tornadoes that came through, but that was just information we put out there," said Terry Bledsoe, Catawba County's chief information officer for technology. "This was the first time we put something up seeking a response."
The description posted on the county's Facebook page was the same information released from the sheriff's office shortly after Hewitt was identified as the suspect in the shootings.
"It's really the same thing that went out everywhere on the news," Bledsoe said. "It's an extension of what was already out there."
Any future Facebook postings in the event of an emergency will be done on a case-by-case basis.
"It'll be Sheriff (Coy) Reid's call," Bledsoe said.
Reid said while Facebook is a good way to provide information to the public, it might not be the best way to submit crime tips.
Operators are posted at the county's communications center around the clock and can address a crime tip instantaneously.
A Facebook page, however, might increase the time it takes for officers to investigate a tip, because there's no one to monitor the page.
"We don't have anybody to look at the page when a tip comes in," Reid said.
Traditionally, callers report crime tips to Catawba County Sheriff's Office or 9-1-1. The sheriff's office website also allows residents to report crime tips online — and the form makes tip submission anonymous.
Access the website at www.catawbadetectives.com/giveatip.asp.
The online form contains detailed information, allowing people to report crimes, prior arrests of suspects, vehicle descriptions, incident details, weapons involved and many other important details for police.
Reid knew of about 30 tips that came into the communications center during the manhunt for Hewitt. That doesn't mean, however, that every tip was a verified sighting of the man wanted for murder.
"We got a call about a black male in a row boat near the Oxford Dam (during the manhunt)," Reid said. "Why would (Hewitt) be in a rowboat? But, we checked it out anyway."
Facebook and the Internet aren't only used during a crisis to solicit crime tips from the public. After Hewitt was taken into custody, Catawba County updated its Facebook page to alert the public that the manhunt was finished. More than 40 Facebook users "liked" the posting.
Many Facebook users expressed relief, while others thanked law enforcement for their hard work on the case.