Social Media Quickly Becoming a Crime-Fighting Tool in Albuquerque, N.M.

Police understaffing and a considerable crime rate have driven some residents to social media to solve crimes, like burglary and auto theft. But officials warn the trend is not only dangerous, but could impact the prosecution of the criminals.

by Maggie Shepard, Albuquerque Journal / November 6, 2017

(TNS) -- Bob Haagensen knew he was in for battle when he found his unlocked public swimming pool locker ransacked and his car missing from the parking lot with his phone and wallet inside.

He figured he’d just get a new driver’s license, cancel a few credit cards and wait for the police to find his car.

About a month later, and with help from people on Facebook pages for cars stolen in Albuquerque, Haagensen can now say he’s recovered his own stolen car — twice — along with his cellphone and stolen mail. He helped arrange for the arrest of the people charged with the thefts. And he survived an armed bank robbery in the process.

His do-it-yourself crime fighting story is just one of many playing out on social media, with at least 12 Albuquerque-based watchdog groups with thousands of members helping residents bypass what some say is an overburdened police force.

The Albuquerque area — including Bernalillo, Sandoval, Torrance and Valencia counties — ranked as the worst in the nation for auto theft, according to 2016 National Crime Information Center data.

“The police are so busy with so many different crimes, sometimes it takes a while for a car to be found by police or a child to be found or a necklace to be returned. It’s street justice, is what it is,” said Gabriel Rosen, of Moriarty, who along with his wife started the Facebook page Albuquerque’s Most Wanted in 2014.

The page is now called New Mexico’s Most Wanted and last month reached 10,000 members.

Other pages include those exclusively for stolen vehicles, a Metro Crime Watch page that draws surveillance camera footage and snapshots of shopliftings, backyard thefts and vandalism, and more.

Nextdoor is an app that connects neighbors on a message board where they can share tips or alerts.

Law enforcement agencies have their own pages and Twitter accounts, which are sometimes used to circulate wanted posters or photos from surveillance cameras.

“Social media, or any type of online site, Craigslist, Reddit, all these clearinghouses of information, are helping, and they take us to a place now that we didn’t have 15 or 20 year ago,” Albuquerque police spokesman officer Tanner Tixier said. “When you get a group collective, they are helping solve crimes.”

But, he warned, that while recovering your own stolen vehicle or item might be faster in some ways, it likely affects the creation and prosecution of a case.

“There is no doubt that we don’t have the staffing we need. And with staffing issues we have to prioritize calls,” he said, noting that a “recovery of a stolen vehicle with no offenders in it is not a priority call for us.”

Still “if a person feels the recovery of the vehicle is more important than the collection of evidence, then go ahead. Just know the dangers of getting involved. Be safe.”

April Rosen, co-founder of Albuquerque’s Most Wanted page, said not everyone wants to interact with police or wait for them to help.

“There’s just too much crime for our police department, so if somebody posts a (stolen) car down on 98th and someone posts a found car, the person can go recover it. It’s up to them if they want to go recover it,” she said. “That can be one less investigation, one less headache, one less court case.”

Brian Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling Inc., which conducts social and political research, says crime-focused social media has influenced not only crime victims, but the broader public perception of how dangerous the city is, even contributing to political rhetoric about fighting crime.

“Many people are now actively involved in social media such as the app Nextdoor. Many people are going to list serves for their neighborhood associations … and becoming a lot more aware of crimes in their respective neighborhoods that they didn’t know about before,” Sanderoff said.

In Haagensen’s case, his daughter Kate Haagensen, 31, relied on that increased awareness to help her find her dad’s car after posting it to several Facebook pages.

“Then you have a whole other set of people looking out there,” Kate Haagensen said.

She soon heard from a member of one of those pages telling her that the car, a 2005 Mazda station wagon, was parked outside an apartment complex.

Haagensen, 74, drove to the complex near Gibson and Girard and found his car. He called police.

“I told them I’ve located my car and if they come they can arrest who stole it. I thought I’d just call 911 and they’ll be here. But forget that idea,” Haagensen said.

He waited for about 20 minutes before a man exited an apartment and drove away in his car. Police never arrived.

The next day, someone sent a social media message to Kate saying he had her father’s stolen phone and was willing to meet up so Haagensen could buy it back.

Together, the Haagensens bought the phone back for about $40 in a parking lot transaction.

Meanwhile, the people who stole his car and wallet had doctored a temporary paper driver’s license, the type given to people waiting for their plastic version to arrive in the mail. They then drove by Haagensen’s home and stole his outgoing mail, including checks.

Since Haagensen had only obtained a replacement license, and not a fully new driver’s license number (which a driver must request), the thieves were able to open credit card and bank accounts online and in person.

Haagensen reported each new account and incident to police, leaving messages for detectives and sending emails.

Within the next month, Haggensen would eventually recover his car, which had been abandoned along with numerous syringes, mail that had been stolen from his home and jail inmate bracelets with the names and pictures of the people police ultimately arrested in his case.

He’d closed down about five fake bank and credit accounts.

And he’d survive an armed robbery at one of those banks during a visit to close down one of the fraudulent accounts.

“You look at that and just go, ‘Holy moly! Where are we?'” Haagensen said of his ordeal.

Police ultimately arrested Emma Chinana and Daniel Centeno on Sept. 12 during a sting at a bank as the two were attempting to open another account in Haagensen’s name, according to a criminal complaint.

The day police say they stole Haagensen’s car, Chinana and Centeno had been out of jail for just five days after being charged in another stolen car case that had also been solved by a Facebook crime page.

In that case, an Albuquerque woman reported that her belongings were stolen from her locked Planet Fitness locker and then her keys used to steal her car, similar to what Haagensen endured.

“Thanks to a very nice gentleman who recognized my car from my Facebook post, my car was recovered on Wednesday! He contacted me the instan(t) he saw it and then I contacted my detective and APD. They were able to trap them within a span of 15 minutes from the time I found out. Thanks for … suggesting me to post about this on Facebook groups!” the victim wrote on her Facebook page.

Police arrested Chinana and Centeno on July 18. The two were released from jail without bond on July 27. Haagensen’s car was stolen Aug. 1.

Centeno has since been released from jail. He said in a phone interview Thursday that he would like to make amends for his role in Haagensen’s ordeal and that he is working on sobriety from his heroin addiction.

“They went through a lot, and he’s an older gentleman, and he didn’t expect any of that, and he didn’t deserve any of it to happen,” Centeno said.

Chinana, who her family and Centeno say holds a master’s degree in architecture from the University of New Mexico, remains in jail for violating her parole from a 2014 case in which she pleaded guilty to shoplifting and stealing credit cards from three different women and using them to buy jewelry.

©2017 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.