Maries County sheriff finds criminals through social media

Growing trend among law enforcement

Maries Co. Sheriff using Facebook to catch criminals

MARIES COUNTY, Mo. - Many of us use Facebook to find old friends and even lost loves, but one Mid-Missouri cop is using it to find people who don't want to be found.

Maries County Sheriff Chris Heitman posts pictures on his Facebook page of people who are wanted on warrants.

Some of these people get 30,000 views and often bring the criminals to justice.

Sheriff Heitman says when he gets a tough case with an unknown suspect, he turns to his over 4,400 Facebook followers.

Often, it takes only minutes to generate new leads that lead to an arrest.

"This lady went in and passed fraudulent checks. They were actually stolen checks out of Phelps County. She wasn't identified yet. We made this post. Within 30 minutes we received a phone call and the person gave us the identity of the person. We knew she was up in Rolla. Within probably two and a half hours, she was later arrested because of it," said Heitman.

Not only has Heitman gone public in his hunt for suspects, but in the five years he's been using Facebook, he's tracked down suspects through the social media site and contacted them directly.

It's when the suspects don't respond that he puts their picture on his page and tags them.

"Arrest records are public records, so I don't feel it's an invasion of privacy at all. You know, they have outstanding warrants. If they don't take care of those warrants, your picture may end up on here," said Heitman.

Heitman says those he is able to find on Facebook and tag usually turn themselves in that day out of embarrassment.

Those who don't, often get reported by one of his followers. To date, he has received about 100 tips that have led to close to 50 arrests.

Missouri Sheriff's Association Past President Steve Cox says the use of Facebook to find suspects is a growing trend nationally and in the state.

He says Maries County is a perfect example of how the tool can be utilized.

"Heitman's one of the leaders in the state on doing that. He does an excellent job, and it's payed dividends for his office. It comes back to supporting his community and the crime victims there, and getting people before the courts," said Cox.

And what's good for the Sheriff's Department is often good for others in Maries County.

Vern Hutchison is a bail bondsman in the county. He says Heitman's Facebook posts has lead to the capture of several of his clients who have skipped court.
"I have a skip, which sometimes they don't come to court, it gets them on there. It helps them find them," said Hutchison.

Heitman says more than half of the cases he puts on his Facebook page led to an arrest.

He says he also uses the social media site to help Maries County residents recover stolen property.

"An owner put up some reward money, so it was seen by several thousand people. A person saw it on Facebook and knew someone that just had one and was trying to sell one. So, they later contacted us. Because of that we actually got it recovered," said Heitman.

Heitman admits the way he utilizes his Facebook is unusual, but he also points out it is effective.

He says he hopes it catches on.

"I hope neighboring sheriffs start to use this." said Heitman.

Heitman says he started the Facebook page at the advice of some local high school students five years ago.

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