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Social media, facial recognition helped ID vandalism suspects during Philly protests

Jeremy Roebuck and Vinny Vella, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

Scouring Cossman's list of Facebook friends, State Police identified two others depicted in the Penn student's photo collection -- Steven Anderson, 20, of Levittown, who investigators say was pictured on top of one of the battered cars and stomping its light bar with his foot, and a 17-year-old minor from Croydon who they allege was also involved in the violence that day.

The photo cache and a tip from New Jersey State Police also led them to Francisco "Franky" Reyes, 23, of Point Breeze -- identified by state police as the shirtless, heavyset man in white sneakers and glasses captured in the images climbing atop the squad car that would later be set on fire. He allegedly stomped out the front windshield while using a hammer to try to pry the light bar off the roof.

Investigators confirmed his identity, in part, through a photo Reyes publicly posted to Instagram depicting him in the heat of that moment.

Now, Rivera, Cossman, Anderson, and Reyes as well as a fifth man, William Besaw, 21, of Souderton, have all been charged with third-degree felony counts including criminal conspiracy, institutional vandalism and criminal mischief. They face up to seven years in prison, if convicted.

Cossman's attorney, Jonathan Sobel, declined to comment on the case, saying only that his client is innocent until proven guilty. Lawyers for the others did not respond to attempts to reach them this week.

Yet, despite the significant role social media played in their arrests, their public profiles show little, if any, evidence that the men are linked to the type of organized and planned violence that President Donald Trump has attributed to "professional anarchists" and antifa.

 

Cossman and Anderson list their employer on their Facebook profiles as a suburban uniform rental company. The minor's profile says he works at a Bucks County tire shop, while Reyes describes himself as a student at a New Jersey university.

The defendant whose social media postings come closest to fitting anything like that profile is Rivera, a photographer who sells his prints on Instagram. Yet, of the six, he is accused of the least involvement in the attack on the squad cars.

His Instagram bio includes a link to a shared public document drafted by a New York activist, with links to legal resources, articles with titles like "In Defense of Looting" and "There's no such thing as Pretty Protests" and admonishments to avoid discouraging looting or violence because "it's counterrevolutionary to use your platform this way."

According to the court filings in Rivera's case, he was seen in the Penn student's photos and videos shared on social media that day taking photographs of his own with a Nikon camera. As the crowd attacked the squad cars, he twice lent a skateboard he was carrying with him to people who used it to smash in the vehicle's windows, his arrest affidavit says.

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