It all started with an idea from Assistant Sheriff John Huber with the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department: If Facebook has more than 500 million active users, why not make use of them?
And so a new Facebook page was born. It wasn’t another opportunity to “like” Justin Bieber, or show your friends how much you enjoy “Jersey Shore.” This page would actually do something good for the community.
The new page features unsolved murders and missing persons information in the hope that someone may provide a tip on these long-inactive cases. It was announced by the department on Oct. 12.
“It’s a way to advertise and try to solve these cases that otherwise may go unnoticed,” Huber said.
As a former homicide investigator, Huber was very familiar with “cold cases” — the name given to murders that remain unsolved because there isn’t much evidence to work with.
Huber said every homicide detective has at least one they always remember. For him, it’s the case of a 30- to 45-year-old Jane Doe from 1995. The woman, who has never been identified, was found inside a refrigerator that was left in an irrigation ditch along Bacon Island Road, outside of Discovery Bay. The 15-year-old case remains so prevalent in Huber’s mind that he can recite the date her body was discovered from memory.
“I still have (the case) here in my office, even though I don’t do investigations anymore,” Huber said.
That case was part of the inspiration for the new Facebook page.
“Every guy or gal that has worked homicide certainly has those type of cases,” Huber said. “If we could get some of these exposed through the Internet media, we may end up getting the break we need to solve some of these cases.”
The Facebook page is part of a broader effort by the Sheriff’s Department to use technology and social media as a way for the community to help thwart crime.
Earlier this year, the Department set up a text message tip line called Text-A-Tip. The service allows citizens to text information to the department anonymously by sending a text to CRIMES (274637).
There is also a Sheriff’s Department Twitter account (@SJSHERIFF), although Department spokesman Les Garcia said there have yet to be any “tweets.” But that hasn’t stopped 354 users from following the feed as of Tuesday.
“By embracing today’s technology, social networking gives our citizens an opportunity to help us with our continuing pursuit of solving cases and bringing justice to the citizens of this county,” Sheriff Steve Moore said in a statement.
Embracing technology is crucial to law enforcement, according to Tod Burke, a former police officer who is now a professor of criminology at Radford University in Radford, Va.
“Police agencies need to make themselves aware of the tools that are available to them,” Burke said. “Many police agencies around the country are using social networking.”
Despite the widespread use of social media, Burke said he hasn’t heard about any agencies using it for cold cases.
“That’s pretty darn creative,” Burke said. “(It’s) a good way of keeping the case alive.”
The Lodi Police Department also has a Facebook page, which has received almost 500 “likes,” and a Twitter account, although there hasn’t been a tweet since late August.
“It’s just another avenue to get information out to the public,” said Detective Mike Manetti, who is currently in charge of updating the page.
Social media can also be used to reach out to people who don’t follow traditional news sources, Burke said. But overall, it’s another way for the community to get involved in fighting crime, which Burke said is vital.
“The police and the community have to work together; the community is the eyes and ears of the police,” he said. “As a former police officer, many cases were solved as a result of citizen involvement.”
The Sheriff’s Facebook page features important information and photos about cases. Currently on the page is a photo of Tracy Melton, a missing 32-year-old Stockton woman who was last seen at a methadone clinic in 1998. There is also a photo of an orange earring that Huber’s Jane Doe had in her pocket when she was found more than a decade ago.
The sheriff’s department is encouraging people to “like” its new Facebook page, and so far, 83 people have. But popularity is not what will make the new page a success. For Huber, it’s all about the cold cases and the woman he calls “the refrigerator lady.”
“I’m very interested in old cases and bringing some type of resolution for these families,” Huber said. “Every homicide case deserves to be solved.”
Contact reporter Fernando Gallo at fernando@lodinews. com.