Social media helped, hurt in hunt

Updated: June 13, 2012, 10:54 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Social media at times was a help, other times a hindrance in the search and eventual arrest of a suspect in the triple fatal shooting at a pool party at an Alabama apartment complex, officials said Wednesday.

Desmonte Leonard, 22, was in the Montgomery County jail on Wednesday night awaiting transfer to Auburn. He was scheduled to appear in court Thursday morning in Opelika for an arraignment on three capital murder charges. The dead included two former Auburn football players, and a current player was among the three injured.

Leonard
Leonard

Montgomery police chief Kevin Murphy says using social media to try and track Leonard brought mixed results.

Investigators believe some people posted false information on Facebook and Twitter to mislead police during the search for Leonard. However, detectives were able to corroborate other posts that contained information about his location. Such information from social media is one tool that helped police stay "three to four hours" behind Leonard, Murphy said.

While some officers searched homes and knocked on doors in areas where investigators believed the man might seek help, others monitored the Internet for information that could lead them to the suspect, Murphy said.

"That one thing about social media is that we're dealing with it now in ways we didn't five, 10 years ago. We're having to follow up on these things," he said.

Checking posts that appeared meant to deceive investigators took valuable time, he said, but it's unlikely charges could ever be filed since such a case would be nearly impossible to prove in court.

"Social media is hurting us as much as helping us," he said.

Montgomery's public safety director Chris Murphy said not all erroneous information fed to authorities was meant to mislead.

Investigators believe some people posted false information on Facebook and Twitter to mislead police during the search for Leonard. However, detectives were able to corroborate other posts that contained information about his location. Such information from social media is one tool that helped police stay "three to four hours" behind Leonard, Murphy said.

"Some of those tips could be legitimate, people think they saw this, that or the other, and we still have to run that down," he said. "They may not be trying to divert us."

Killed were former Auburn players Edward Christian, who had to quit the team because of a lingering back injury; and Ladarious Phillips, who was transferring to Jacksonville State to play football, and 20-year-old Demario Pitts. Of the three wounded, current Auburn football player Eric Mack and Xavier Moss were both treated and released from a hospital. The third, John Robertson, was in the hospital with a gunshot wound to the head.

Auburn police said the shootings did not appear to have anything to do with some of the victims being former or current players but might have been over a woman.

Tamichal Frazier, a former girlfriend of Leonard, filed a complaint seeking monthly child support from the man a day before the mass shooting. Frazier, 20, contends Leonard is the father of her daughter, who turned 1 last month.

Speaking in a brief interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday, Frazier said she wasn't the woman who apparently sparked the argument at the University Heights apartments. She also said she wasn't fearful while Leonard was on the loose, even though the search focused on neighborhoods just a few miles from her apartment.

"I wasn't worried," said Frazier, her daughter in her arms. She declined further comment.

Leonard's surrender at a courthouse on Tuesday was a low-key ending to a manhunt that appeared to be at its most tense Monday, when officers swarmed a Montgomery home. They believed he was inside after getting two solid tips.

Police surrounded the house armed with tear gas, spy gear and assault rifles, but after a nine-hour search, they discovered Leonard had slipped out by the time they arrived.

The probe could grow to include how Leonard got out of the city, Chief Murphy said Wednesday.

"Obviously, they are going to try to conceal that because the person who was responsible for that may face charges," he said.

Police have charged two people with hindering prosecution for allegedly aiding Leonard, but they said they aren't sure how much other assistance he might have received while on the run for three days.

"He was starting to run out of friends. (They) started to give up on him as we made the arrests," said Chief Murphy.

Meanwhile, funeral arrangements were made for the three who were killed. The Opelika-Auburn News reported that services for Phillips, the Tigers' only true fullback last season as a sophomore, were set for Friday afternoon at the Handley High School gymnasium in Roanoke, Ala.; services for Christian will take place Saturday at J.E. Mathis Municipal Auditorium in Valdosta, Ga.; and services for Pitts, a resident of Auburn, were scheduled for Friday at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Loachapoka, Ala. All three victims were 20 years old.

Former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton, speaking at the Carolina Panthers' minicamp, expressed his condolences for the victims on Wednesday.

"I knew every single one of them. My heart goes out to the families that lost their son, their brother, their nephew. It's disheartening just to even think about it. They were freshmen when I was there. Just to hear something like that, that's very uncharacteristic of Auburn. It's a very safe place," he said.

Information from ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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