Instagram becomes treasure trove of evidence for Fla. cops

Recent South Florida cases stemmed from photos or video posted on Instagram, the fast-growing social media site

By David Ovalle
The Miami Herald

MIAMI-DADE, Fla. — One Miami felon nicknamed "Crazy Goat" got cuffed on a weapons rap after posting photos of himself loading guns.

Months later, on-line snapshots helped police pin charges against three teens on allegations of drug-fueled group sex with underage girls.

Then there was a petite teen named Karla Sanchez who saw a naked overweight woman in the shower of a North Miami gym. She whipped out her smartphone, snapped a photo and immediately posted it. Her not-so-smart caption: "The things I see at LA Fitness. WTH!"

Within weeks, cops jailed Sanchez, 18, on a misdemeanor voyeurism charge.

Each of these recent South Florida cases stemmed from photos or video posted on Instagram, the fast-growing social media site that has increasingly become a treasure trove of evidence for police and prosecutors.

Several weeks ago, Miami-Dade detectives sent search warrants to Instagram's corporate office, hoping to snag posts to seal convictions for two defendants awaiting trial, one of them for murder.

"We encourage the criminals to post their photos and videos online," said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. "After all these years, they're still kind enough to do it."

Spilling the beans on social media has become so common that defense attorney David Seltzer, a former Miami-Dade cybercrimes prosecutor, now makes it a point to caution his clients.

"I think technology has made people relaxed and made people let their guard down," Seltzer said. "First thing I tell clients is, 'Turn off your social media. Why make the job of the police easier?'"

There have been a number of notable social-media crime cases, topped by Derick Medina of South Miami. In 2013, he shot his wife, then uploaded a photo of her dead body and a confession to his Facebook page. Awaiting trial, Medina claims self-defense.

Last month, in a case testing the limits of free speech, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about a Pennsylvania man convicted of making threats against his estranged wife and authorities on Facebook. He insists the words were "therapeutic" rap lyrics.

The micro-blog site Twitter has produced several notable local criminal cases. Last year, Miami-Dade firefighter Gabriel Diaz was accused of sharing child porn on Twitter. He's now on probation.

Now, Instagram is quietly fueling or aiding a slew of criminal probes in Miami-Dade.

Founded in 2010, Instagram has boomed, becoming so big that Facebook shelled out $1billion to buy a company that an industry analyst recently valued at $35 billion. Last month, Facebook announced that 300 million people now use Instragram each month, making it more popular than Twitter by at least one measure. The site claims that an average of 55 million images are uploaded daily.

The app, often used on smartphones and tablets, allows users to post photos with a variety of filters. A "selfie" might get a vintage sepia tone or a mundane street scene could pop with dazzling colors that might resemble a paint-by-numbers canvas.

Risks Involved
Alex Jordan, a Dartmouth University psychology professor who researches social media habits, says Instagram helps people "advertise a heavily filtered and more-interesting-than-reality image of themselves and their lives."

"Instagram can feed our narcissism, or at least reflect it," Jordan said. "All it takes is a bit of overconfidence to lose sight of the legal and personal risks of posting potentially incriminating photos or other information online."

That's what happened to Sanchez, who posted the photo of the naked gym patron. Sanchez "thought it would be funny," according to a police report. By chance, a relative of the woman saw the public post.

The woman in the locker room "had an expectation of privacy" and was "publicly humiliated," North Miami police said. Last summer, Sanchez accepted probation and agreed to complete community service.

The yearning to show off, prosecutors say, snagged Bryan Yanes and two other West Kendall teens. They're accused of plying girls — ages 12, 13 and 14 — with drugs and booze at a pool party before having group sex.

Miami-Dade detectives learned that Yanes, 18, had posted salacious photos of the tryst to the Instagram account known as "loverboybryan." Though Yanes' Instagram account was set to "private," detectives got the photos anyway, with a search warrant sent to the company's California office.

The three are awaiting trial for lewd and lascivious battery on children.

Just because an account is set to private, law enforcement can still find incriminating photos, said Bradley Shear, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who specializes in the emerging area of social media law.

"You don't know who is watching you," Shear said. "You don't know who your friends are."

Search Warrants
The site regularly monitors posts and complaints about unsavory photos or video clips. The company also maintains an "Instagram Law Enforcement Response Team" that fields subpoenas, court orders or search warrants signed by a judge.

Prosecutors prefer search warrants — without one, Instagram and other social media companies now notify users if law enforcement requests information on accounts.

"It's important because if a suspect is tipped off, they can start destroying evidence," said Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Tom Haggerty, who heads the office's cybercrimes unit.

An Instagram spokeswoman declined to say how often the company cooperates with law enforcement.

In an era of increased wariness over government digital spying, "it's a positive development that the police are obtaining warrants to obtain access to these accounts," Shear said. "This type of evidence is very strong, and it's only going to increase with use in legal cases."

The visual evidence doesn't always lead directly to arrests but bolsters the strength of existing cases.

Miami's Gaurionex Peña, 37, was arrested in September for an alleged tryst with an underage girl.

Two months later, detectives asked Instagram for Peña's account. He allegedly wrote "I love you" on one of her photos, one of several comments "and numerous emojis" he posted, according to the warrant.

In another case, Kimberly Matthews was arrested in April for fatally shooting a man during a brawl outside The Playhouse Gentlemen's Club strip club in South Miami-Dade. She claimed self-defense.

In November, homicide detectives asked Instagram for photos that showed Matthews, 31, wielding the pistol used in the killing — and to see whether any comments made on the images were incriminating. She is awaiting trial.

'Crazy Goat'
The social media app has also proven to be a useful tool for building intelligence on suspected criminals.

Investigators suspected that Miami's Bernardo Olvera, 28, was dealing cocaine. Their opportunity to enter his house came because of photos and video clips publicly posted by Olvera and his girlfriend under the nicknames chivoloco, Spanish for "crazy goat," and "allGucciBitxch."

They depicted Olvera, a convicted felon who can't legally have guns, loading ammo into weapons. That led detectives to get surveillance video of him at a shooting range.

Armed with a search warrant, cops raided his West Miami-Dade house. They found 267 grams of marijuana and 53 grams of cocaine, according to an arrest report. He's now awaiting trial on cocaine trafficking and weapons charges.

At least one other Miami man is doing serious prison time, thanks to Instagram.

In November 2013, serial shoplifter Leroy Minnis stole $2,238 worth of merchandise from the Hollister store at the Sunset Place mall in South Miami.

To hawk the hot shirts, Minnis posted photos of them on his Instagram account, "WhoisPuti." Another photo, with two busty woman on each arm, also showed him wearing a distinct black T-shirt with gold lettering — the same one seen on store surveillance footage.

He's now doing a 32-month prison sentence.

Copyright 2015 Miami Herald

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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