In trying to nab the shooter or shooters of 5-year-old Payton Benson, investigators traced the goings-on of four gang members in the same way thousands of users track the musings and meanderings of their friends.
Two critical photos — one from the social media website — launched investigators on the scent of the four, The World-Herald has learned.
The first photo was posted on Facebook by one of the four gang members now charged in connection with Payton's killing. The photo showed the men now charged in the crime posing in front of the stolen Jeep Commander SUV, outside the J-N-J convenience store at 42nd Street and Bedford Avenue.
They apparently posted the photo as a boast — that Bloods were in purported Crip territory.
About 9:45 a.m., minutes after that photo was taken, a stray bullet from a high-powered rifle struck Payton as she ate breakfast in her family's duplex near 45th and Emmet Streets, near Bedford.
Enter the second photo.
A surveillance camera showed the same men spilling out of a Jeep Commander at an apartment complex after the shooting.
The time span between the first and second photos: mere minutes.
Those photos helped detectives trace four men to the stolen Commander that eyewitnesses say was used in the shooting. Two weeks of collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses helped bolster the case to the point that prosecutors on Wednesday charged the four men: one with first-degree murder, one with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and the two others with firing into an occupied building.
In the end, Facebook provided a timeline of the crime — albeit a sketchy one — via the cellphones of the gang members and their friends.
Experts say the social media website has become the virtual version of the brick wall that gangs used to tag with spray paint. In essence, one longtime gang investigator said, the gang members turn to Facebook for the same reason as some other users: to brag about (and post photos of) where they've been; to make declarations about their exploits and to bully and badger their enemies.
Investigators aren't yet sure what “enemy” the four were targeting when shots rang out about a block from Payton's house. Authorities allege that the men in the Jeep Commander were pursuing a man who was running through the neighborhood before he ducked for cover inside a house. Investigators are still working to identify that person.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine declined to discuss details of the investigation beyond answering a few general questions.
According to Kleine, investigators are still working to identify:
• The actual bullet that killed Payton
It traveled about the length of a city block, through an outside wall of the duplex, through Payton and out through another wall of the duplex. Crime scene investigators have scoured the surrounding area but have yet to find it.
That has led investigators to conclude that the bullet that killed Payton was fired from a high-powered assault rifle. Witnesses have put the rifle in the hands of Vincent Hicks, 20, who now stands charged with first-degree murder under a legal theory called transferred intent — that Hicks intended to kill someone else that day when the bullet instead struck Payton.
Co-defendant Adonus Moses, 22, was charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. Jaylen Montgomery, 18, and Jacob J. Brown, 21, are charged with firing into an occupied building.
• The weapons used
Authorities believe that all four men in the Jeep Commander had guns — and that at least three of them spilled out of the Commander and opened fire at 44th Avenue and Emmet Street, just down the block from Payton's house.
• An underlying motive, beyond a general gang beef
The four are purported Blood gang members who were bent on shooting Crips.
Facebook postings — on the pages of the gang members and their friends — provide a glimpse of the grudge and of the rampant speculation over the root of the shooting.
Investigators are looking into whether the shooting that took Payton's life has any relationship to two other shootings:
» The Dec. 27 killing of Tristan Harper, 29, near 48th and Maple Streets. Harper's house was riddled with bullets. He was gunned down as he lay on his couch.
» The Dec. 31 shooting of Christopher Graham, near 42nd Street and Himebaugh Avenue. More than 20 shots were fired. Graham, 35, was not believed to be the target, but he was critically injured.
Other shootings followed, though it's not clear whether anyone was injured.
On Jan. 9, a gang member posted on his Facebook page: “U (expletive expletive) shot 10 times but didn't hit (expletive) ... get ya g-aim up….”
The morning of Jan. 15, gang members' Facebook pages were filled with typical chatter about rappers, women and marijuana. Many of the postings are met with a number of “likes” and responses from other Facebook users, mostly women.
Then Payton is shot. Word spreads. About an hour after the shooting, the tone changes.
A gang member posts on his wall: “Ya come to DA BLOCK WHEN I wasn't around now I'm here MF wanna shoot kids...OK”
His followers — several women — ask what happened.
“Who got shot?”
“A 5-year-old on 45th bedford.”
“I need to vent,” the gang member writes less than three hours after the shooting. “SOMEBODY CALL BEFORE I SIN. I wanna go say something to dat lil gurl mother but what ima say??? feeling like everything my fault should of been here...”
Detectives initially checked to see if the gang member was the intended target. However, he was in Sarpy County Court in Papillion that Wednesday morning on a misdemeanor charge of driving under suspension.
In subsequent days, the gang member writes about how police had blanketed the neighborhood he refers to as H44D — in reference to 44th Avenue.
“POLICE say I gotta locate for HOMICIDE!!!...SO MANY COPS RIDING IN THE HOOD UNDERCOVER CARS AND ALL...Da bloccc is on fire.”
In further posts, he indicates that he believes he knows who the target was.
“I come to DA H44D and here my cousin was ran down and a stray bullet struck a lil gurl,” he writes. “I need to make it out.”
Police have not arrested the gang member in connection with the case.
Within a day of the shooting, Omaha police arrested three men after connecting them to photos of the stolen Jeep Commander. For two weeks, the men were held on stolen vehicle charges. Now they and a fourth man are charged in connection with the shooting. Two men who met up with the gang members after Payton's shooting face unrelated charges.
Facebook users identified the possible shooters before police publicly released the names.
On the page of a girlfriend of one of the defendants, a woman posted a photo of Vincent Hicks and Jaylen Montgomery lounging in a restaurant lobby.
Underneath the photo, she wrote: “Bro keep ya head up&vincent stay strong”
To which a friend responded: “Vincent the accused killer?”
The date of that post: Jan. 17. Twelve days before first-degree murder charges were filed against Hicks.
After charges were announced Wednesday, the Facebook posts piled up. Friends of the accused killers lamented the charges, speculating that witnesses turned on the men because of a $25,000 CrimeStoppers award.
“That's sooooo crazy!!!!” one woman wrote. (Expletives) loyalty ain't 100 (percent) no more.”
“Free all them,” another chimed in. “So (expletive) up. But I hope this a eye opener for the rest who out here thugging.”