At this point, it’s no secret that Facebook has the potential to hurt people more than it helps them, and one St. Petersburg crime watch group is an example of that.
The stated mission of the “St. Petersburg & Bay Area Crime Watch” group is to help local police departments by “becoming the eyes and ears of the community” and establishing “a power of presence and thus increasing the visibility of our enforcement services.”
The bootlicking manifesto goes on to say that the group seeks to be proactive in law enforcement and “establish a zone for criminals where the risk of being caught is too high for them to practice their profession. To unite the business community and Chamber of Commerce with the citizens and the local government” all in the name of “empowering people to remain in control of their communities. To lower crime rates and to keep property values high!”
But a lot of the content devolves into racism, calls for violence and homophobia.
A recent post by group admin Mark Rodrigo Grace calls Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot “Beetlejuice” while reiterating Donald Trump talking points about crime in the Windy City. Grace also calls two people breaking into a beauty supply store “hoodrats.” Another by Grace is a “CRACKHEAD ALERT” linked to a Ring video, while yet another calls a one-legged homeless person who trespassed on someone’s yard “Long John Silver.” One post about Tampa Mayor Jane Castor was home to homophobic comments that were removed.
Another comment puts fuel on the conspiracy theories about mail-in ballot voter fraud, and another has a bone to pick with “antifa thugs that have already spoiled the [St. Pete] pier.” It’s important to note that anitifa isn’t an actual group, but more of an anti-facist ideology.
But the most disturbing dispatches from the group, which currently has over 9,000 members, are the ones encouraging violence against protesters who’ve taken to the streets to demand an overhaul of policing policies in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
One post in the group shows protesters blocking traffic—an illegal, but non-violent act that does not warrant a violent response. One response to the post says “if Basement Living Maggots are playing in the streets and get ran over, don't blame the drivers !!!”.
(If you're locked out of the group, you can see some screenshots at the bottom of this post.)
In a July 23 email to Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, St. Petersburg Police Public Information Officer Yolanda Fernandez wrote that neither Mayor Rick Kriseman nor Chief Anthony Holloway condone any suggestion of harming protesters.
“For the safety of everyone involved, they encourage motorists to remain patient and find alternate routes around the protesters,” Fernandez added.
Less than a week later, St. Pete Police actually had to remind everyone that it’s illegal to run over protesters with a car.
Chris Steinocher, President and CEO of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, told CL that the chamber has no familiarity or association with the referenced Facebook page.
“The creators or administrators of the page have no authority to reference or assert any affiliation with our organization,” Steinocher added.
Most people join the St. Petersburg & Bay Area Crime Watch group after getting a vehicle or bike stolen—and many are successful in finding their lost property—but some report getting friend requests from group admins that end up being fake Facebook profiles. Those allegedly fake profiles leave reviews for the crime watch page, and one of the fake profiles—”Serena Sanders”—is particularly active in sending friend requests and banning users from the crime watch page.
@meowdeee did not want to give CL her real name, but her boyfriend—New Smyrna Beach surfer Evan Geiselman—also had his pictures used for a fake profile (Michael Greenwell) which posted in the St. Petersburg & Bay Area Crime Watch group. The fake profile using Geiselman’s pictures was also taken down after CL reached out. In a direct message, @meowdeee told CL, “I find it ethically immoral and frankly scary that someone would do something like that.”
She added that she was reporting the profiles and gets how Geiselman’s image could be used since he and his brother are both prominent figures in the pro surfing world.
“No way am I an ‘influencer,’ so I find it really strange it can literally happen to anybody. I also think it’s sad because social media is somewhat of a highlight reel and some people may look at that and feel bad about their own lives based on what they see everyone else doing online,” @meowdeee wrote. “Granted, this is taking it next level and in no way is it okay, but I think more people need to talk about this and more regulations need to be in place with these online platforms to avoid this in the future.”
However, CL was not been able to verify that @meowdee is a real person and only exchanged Instagram messages with Geiselman’s verified Instagram page; in the messages, Geiselman said that this was the first time he’d been a victim of this kind of identity theft. A press inquiry to the World Surf League has yet to be returned.
“I hope it’s the last [time]. Unfortunately with social media there is a total invasion of privacy people taking your image and posing as you is a scary thing you don’t know who that’s is going to effect or start a problem with,” Geiselman wrote. “Hopefully this problem will stop for everyone.”
One fake profile that remains active, however, is one belonging to “Kellie Brady,” which is actually using photos of Orange County sixth grade teacher Alexis Schmidt for its photos.
Schmidt, who teaches at Bridgewater Middle School, got on the phone with CL to confirm her identity and that her photos are being used on the “Kellie Brady” profile. She said seeing her pictures used made her uncomfortable, especially since some of her friends and family were included in some of them.
“It also bothers me that my pictures are associated with certain posts/beliefs that I don't agree with,” Schmidt told CL. “My heart also hurts for this individual though. To use someone else's pictures instead of your own is a huge sign of insecurity. I hope she/he finds peace and can grow the confidence/self love they need to use their own pictures someday instead.”
The “Kellie Brady” account blocked this reporter’s personal Facebook account when he went to a comment thread to ask about the validity of the pictures the profile was using. After this post went online, Schmidt told CL that she, too, was blocked by the "Kellie Brady" profile, which also removed all pictures of Schmidt—taken from Schmidt's Instagram account—following the publishing of this story.
On July 30, Schmidt told CL that. her own friends reported the "Kellie Brady" profile to Facebook, which reviewed the "Kellie Brady" profile before responding that the social network "found that it isn't pretending to be you and doesn't go against our Community Standards."
The most curious part about a group, however, is how names attached to some of the pages moderators have criminal records.
One moderator, “Pete Eisert”, has been arrested on fraud, trafficking stolen property and possession of marijuana. Eisert’s most troubling arrest, however, is one in 2007 on a domestic battery charge. That arrest report says Eisert, 39, has a tattoo that says "50 crackerz" through an AK-47.
Page moderator “John Hatfield” has been arrested for felony discharging of a firearm from a vehicle, aggravated assault, fleeing law enforcement, retail theft and—most alarming—aggravated assault with a motor vehicle.
CL reached out to page moderator Grace, via Facebook Message, to see if he had any comment or if he could verify any of the identities for the admins and moderators. Grace blocked this reporter’s Facebook account soon afterwards.
On Wednesday night—a few hours after CL readers sent emails and social media comments detailing how some posts and admin profiles in the crime watch group were being deleted—the profile for "Mark Rodrigo Grace" sent this reporter screenshots of photos of his family, his personal residence plus screenshots of the addresses of his family members. The "Grace" profile also said one of the admins left this reporter a voicemail (they did not) and that CL was being sued by a lawyer already contacted by the crime watch group. "Grace" ended his messages with a refusal to comment for the record and the message, "We know where to find you."
But one St. Petersburg protester who asked to stay anonymous is worried that activity will lead to a Black Lives Matter marcher being hurt during demonstrations.
In South Tampa, protesters were struck by drivers on consecutive June weekends. On June 17 a motorcycle drove through a St. Petersburg protest, revved his engine and ended up on the ground; another motorcycle drove through a St. Pete protest on the Fourth of July. In Seattle, a protester was killed when hit by a car in early July.
Local protesters have wondered why demonstrators have been arrested and ticketed while drivers of vehicles that move through protests go free. CL has been talking with witnesses who saw one particular car get away after driving through Fourth of July protests that resulted in multiple protester arrests.
Multiple users have reported profiles and activity related to the St. Petersburg & Bay Area Crime Watch group, but Facebook has yet to take it down.
What can be done?
Dr. Kelli S. Burns—an Associate Professor at the University of South Florida’s Zimmerman School of Advertising & Mass Communications—told CL that it’s not uncommon for Facebook groups to devolve into topic areas that are not useful or beneficial to members; quite often the community can even become offensive to some members. Burns said community rules and active moderators are ideally supposed to manage the content and that members are free to leave the group if they feel uncomfortable.
“The consequence, however, is that the value of the group as a platform for sharing crime-related information is reduced. Burns added that moderators in some groups might wish to be anonymous so that they are not targets of members.
“However Facebook does not allow the use of pseudonyms or other identities. Users who try to conceal who they are may be asked by Facebook to verify their authentic identity,” Burns said, making note of how unfortunate and easy it is for a photo to be stolen and used to create a fake profile. She suggests that anyone being impersonated report the fake profile.
“Users can also report a Facebook group they believe is not following Facebook's Community Standards in the same way,” Burns said.
But as the aforementioned anonymous protester wondered, will activity in the St. Petersburg & Bay Area Crime Watch group eventually lead to real-life violence against a protester? So as long as the group exists, the public will, sadly, just have to wait and see.
If these so-called police helpers were smart—or had a shred of respect for protesters’ civil rights—they’d heed the advice of St. Petersburg’s own police department, which posted on Twitter to say that it does not condone anyone driving into a crowd of protesters or promoting violence against protesters.
“Anyone who intentionally drives into a protester will be charged according,” the post added. Charged, and then turned into one of the very criminals they purport to be fighting against.
UPDATED: 07/30/20 1:50 p.m. Updated after Alexis Schmidt shared a screenshot of her pictures being wiped from the "Kellie Brady" account, July 29 comments from the Mark Rodrigo Grace profile and Facebook's response to requests from Schmidt's friends about a fake profile impersonating her.
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