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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

PHILADELPHIA -- As he posted a collection of images he shot during the protests that gripped Philadelphia after the police killing of George Floyd, Sammy Rivera beseeched his Instagram followers to be careful of what they shared online.

"Photos and video footage of the protests were used to pick out protesters who were then identified and tracked down via their online/social media presence," he wrote in the caption to his June 26 post that warned just "how easy it could potentially be for others to be tracked down and arrested or worse."

Five weeks later, Rivera himself was placed in handcuffs, accused in a case built in part on the photos he shared in that post.

The 23-year-old Port Richmond resident was one of six men charged this week with vandalizing two Pennsylvania State Police squad cars May 30, during the first day of unrest that erupted in Center City. Each of them was identified at least in part by postings or associations on their public profiles on platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

Their cases highlight the extent to which the very same social media content that has fueled demonstrations across the country and aided the prosecutions of officers charged with police brutality -- including the viral video that led to charges against the cops accused in Floyd's death -- has become a primary resource for law enforcement seeking to track down those responsible for looting and violence.

In investigating the destruction of the State Police squad cars, investigators had little to go on at first but a cache of still photos the FBI obtained from a University of Pennsylvania student who documented much of the unrest that erupted May 30, according to search warrant and arrest affidavits obtained by The Inquirer.

(A photo collection from an amateur photographer and social media cross-referencing also helped federal agents identify Lore-Elisabeth Blumenthal, a Germantown massage therapist who was federally charged June 15 with setting two Philadelphia police cars ablaze outside City Hall that same day, court filings in her case show.)

The FBI used a Philly protester's Etsy profile, LinkedIn and other internet history to charge her with setting police cars ablaze. The Penn student's photos depicted a crowd surrounding the State Police vehicles, which were parked on the onramp to I-676 near Broad Street to block protesters from marching onto the highway. Demonstrators captured in the images battered the cars with scooters, a hammer, skateboards, a bike lock, crowbars and their hands and fists before breaking into the vehicles and setting one of them on fire with state-issued road flares stolen from inside, the affidavits say.

Several photos showed a masked man in a black T-shirt, gray shorts and backward baseball cap repeatedly kicking the driver's side door of one of the cars. In one of the images, other protesters are seen trying to restrain the man to prevent him from causing further damage.

A distinctive facial tattoo of a cross near the man's right eye and others on his wrists and forearms that allowed state police to ID him as Luke Cossman, 20, of Levittown, using PennDOT facial recognition software -- a match that was later confirmed through photos of himself at the protests that he publicly posted to Facebook.

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.

Investigators later found photos of that skateboard on Rivera's Instagram along with images tagged with captions decrying heavy-handed police response to demonstrations, including the tear gassing of protesters who marched June 1 onto I-676.

"I've witnessed police do such awful things to so many innocent people the last few days," he wrote on June 2. "Attacking innocent people and pepper spraying peaceful protesters, assaulting women ... They don't care. I see it in their eyes. I watched them laugh in protesters faces."

A woman state police identified as Rivera's mother replied in the comments to one of his posts.

"There are bad police," she wrote. "But not all are bad ... But just how I feel disrespected and attacked when people talk (expletive) about teachers, imagine how the good cops must feel now. Those that really want to help people."

She added: "I just don't want to lose so many people to hate. I don't want your heart to be full of hate."

Four weeks later, her son ended up in jail.

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