A Facebook post in which Hillsboro police tried to quell rumors of a child abduction backfired Monday, devolving into a bitter exchange that included threats of violence.
The incident began when an officer was dispatched at 11:07 a.m. Saturday to the 300 block of S. Main St. for a report of an African American man in a white Ford Mustang approaching two 9-year-old girls and asking if they wanted a ride to McDonald’s in his vehicle.
“We took the word of the girls seriously, for the safety of the community,” police chief Dan Kinning said. “That’s why we took their side, went and found the man, and investigated.”
The officer found the man at Ampride less than five minutes after the dispatch.
“He told the officer that he merely asked for directions to McDonald’s, that was it, and then the girls ran off,” Kinning said. “Kudos to the girls for doing what they should have done if they felt unsafe, but people need to understand that the man did not break any laws.”
Police ran a background check, searching for any past offenses or potential red flags.
“There would have been further action taken if we had found anything, but we found nothing,” Kinning said. “At that point, it’s the girls’ word against his.”
Investigating officer John Huebert then posted an update on the City of Hillsboro Facebook account an attempt to calm citizens and explain why the man was not arrested.
“Following an investigation, no evidence was found to believe anyone had met the statutory requirements needed to bring forward any charges,” the post read.
The post termed “baseless” other Facebook posts claiming that another child had been abducted and that others had been approached. The post promised “appropriate action” would be taken if the person identified by others posed “a threat to the community.”
The post did not have the intended effect.
A post from an account with the name of Tabor basketball coach Micah Ratzlaff, whom Kinning identified as a parent of one of the 9-year-olds, took issue with the statement.
“Whoever writes for the city of Hillsboro needs to come visit with me at some point because you obviously haven’t done your homework,” the post read. “Come talk to my daughter and then u should post an accurate and honest comment. Your comment is very upsetting and why would you make the comment in the first place.”
The tone of subsequent posts grew increasingly negative, as people disputed events and criticized how the situation was handled. One person posted a picture of a white Mustang parked in front of Ampride, claiming it to be the subject’s car.
Kinning provided a copy of one inflammatory post.
“P--- off, city of Hillsboro,” from an account bearing the name of Hillsboro resident Conan Mader said, “there was Damn close to being blood on your streets. I’d have shot that son of a bitch had I found him when the report came across the scanner.”
After initially accepting an interview request Tuesday, the account holder declined.
“Like I said I don’t have the facts which is why I hadn’t contacted any news agencies yet,” the response read.
Other comments threatened to punish the officer or have him fired, Kinning said.
“Some posts warned people to be careful of a black guy in town,” Kinning said. “One said the man had already abducted several people. Another posted that the man tried to entice young men into a car with ice cream.”
He said some people on Facebook were demanding the man be arrested.
“Posts like that put people in a panic,” he said. “I envision the townspeople chasing a monster with torches. It’s a mob mentality.”
The officer’s original post was removed Monday afternoon.
“I understand why people were upset,” Kinning said. “It’s scary and a creepy thing to think about.”
Kinning said city and county attorneys advised him that the man had done nothing that was a chargeable offense.
“There has to be probable cause,” Kinning said. “We also do not arrest on biases. We have to work within the realm of the law.”
The man, who was an out-of-town temporary worker, left town after police informed his work supervisor of possible threats.
“It is my understanding that the supervisor had the man leave town and relocated him to another job site,” Kinning said.
There are no plans to apprehend anyone who made threatening posts online, Kinning said, although people who posted threats online could be subject to arrest.
Although the city’s post was removed Monday, comments about the incident continued to fly across numerous Facebook timelines. By Tuesday, much of the activity had calmed down.
A post on an account with the name Amanda McClure Ratzlaff, identifying Micah Ratzlaff as her husband, put Hillsboro police efforts in a positive light.
“Even though we do not agree with the rules and laws of why this individual could not have been arrested ... we feel that the officers we have dealt with have done a tremendous job on dealing with us, with questions and phone calls and home visits,” the post said.
After initially agreeing to an interview, she declined, citing lack of time.