You may use Facebook to share photos from your summer vacation or goof off at work. But Sitka resident Rick Armstrong has found a different use for the social network — he’s using Facebook to try to catch a thief.
In early June, someone broke into the Baranof Island Brewing Company — which Rick Armstrong owns with his wife — and stole over a thousand dollars from the cash register, and a case of beer. The thief was captured on video by a security camera, but the tape was too low quality to identify him.
Now, Armstrong thinks he has his man. “There is no doubt. I’m 100% sure that this is our guy,” Armstrong said.
In fact, he said, he’s known who the thief is for weeks, and so have the Sitka Police. But thus far, there’s been no arrest. And so, frustrated with the pace of the police, Armstrong took matters into his own hands.
Yesterday morning (WED 7-18), he posted a photo to the Baranof Island Brewing Company’s Facebook page. It shows a young man with long sideburns and a black bar across his eyes to conceal – at least slightly — his identity. Armstrong says it’s the Brewery burglar — but the photo isn’t from the surveillance tape. Armstrong took it from the man’s facebook page. The caption reads, “Yes, Bandit, we know who you are! Please return what you have stolen from us to the SItka Police Department ASAP. More pictures, names and information to follow. Cheers!”
“It may be vigilante justice, I don’t know,” Armstrong said. “I don’t feel its fair to the community, to my family, to the employees, for this guy to do this and everyone knows he’s done it and nothing happens.”
Armstrong didn’t name the man on Facebook. But, he says, if the man doesn’t come forward, and the police don’t make an arrest, he’ll keep releasing information.
“Next will be, clear shots of his face, and his name, and the other folks who were involved,” he said.
This has posed a challenge for the Sitka Police Department.
“Well, I appreciate Mr. Armstrong’s frustration,” said Sitka police Chief Sheldon Schmitt. “We have to operate by certain rules and the public doesn’t always understand those rules, and how we can do things. So what may seem slow to him is just a product of the system that we have to work within to investigate burglaries and do it in such a way that it can be prosecuted.”
Schmitt says he sympathizes with Armstrong. “They were victimized, people broke into their business and took money from them, so I definitely empathize with them,” he said.
But, Schmitt said, the police are pursuing their own investigation, and the public airing of evidence and accusation can complicate that process.
“In general terms, posting things on Facebook to try to investigate a crime could be dangerous for the individual. You could make a target out of yourself. And furthermore you could certainly hamstring the police as they try to investigate. It could put us outside the rules that we have to operate by. It’s one thing to try to dredge up some leads for the police. I just wouldn’t advise it. I think direct communication with the police about what’s going on is the best practice.”
Armstrong says one of the reasons he’s acting is that he hasn’t had that kind of direct communication from the police — he says they haven’t explained what is taking so long.
And in the meantime, the hunt for the brewery bandit has become a social event — both online, and off.
“We get phone calls, it seems like daily, of people who have seen him and know what’s going on, and want to know why nothing has been done,” Armstrong said.
When the burglary first happened, Armstrong posted the surveillance video to Facebook and YouTube, to see if he could crowdsource the thief’s identity. Armstrong described the video to KCAW.
“We see him come in the building, we see him walk through the building, we see him in the till, the register, we see him walk over to the bottle cooler, load his backpack with bottles and then put on his backpack as he goes out the door. We see all of that,” he said.
The Facebook post led to other evidence, which Armstrong said he isn’t yet ready to make public.
“I really don’t think i can share that just yet,” he said with a laugh. “It’s going to come out slowly one way or the other, hopefully the Sitka police arrest him sooner rather than later. But if not, I will post that for everyone to see.”
Either way, he says, he feels the evidence is ironclad. Asked if there was any chance he might be wrong, Armstrong said, “At the beginning i was definitely very concerned about that, and that’s why we vigilantly made sure of the information that we have, that it’s 100% sure that this is our guy.”
And that may be good enough for Facebook. But, says Schmitt, the legal system has a different standard.
“I hope that the public understandsthat we have to do things according to certain rules so we don’t violate people’s rights,” Schmitt said. “People have rights and we take those very seriously.”
Even if they are the Brewery Bandit.