Philadelphia police have been on the hunt since November for a man connected to at least three murders and possibly several sexual assaults of women in the Kensington neighborhood.
DNA evidence has linked the deaths of the three women, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported tonight. All were strangled. All had been sexually assaulted. According to the Inquirer, police say the murderer now fits the definition of a serial killer.
The community thought it had gotten a break in the case when a group of people began sending text messages, posting flyers and even writing on Facebook walls that the strangler was 24-year-old resident Triz Jefferies.
Philadelphia police said that they became aware of the misinformation Monday.
"Everybody has to be very leery of photos of a wanted person on Facebook," Lt. Ray Evers said. "Because of social networking and how big this fan page is growing ... if somebody shared it with their friends, the multiplier effect ... it's pretty damning."
More than 8,000 people belong to the Facebook group, "Catch the Kensington Strangler, before he catches someone you love," which showed Jefferies' picture. The posting was removed after Philadelphia police said that he was not a suspect in the case. But for Jefferies, the drama didn't end there.
"He had people milling outside his house. He actually called police to take him to the special victims unit to be interviewed," Evers said.
Afraid of the crowds surrounding his house, the man submitted to a DNA test and was cleared in the case. He told police that he thought somebody was "trying to mess with me."
Police are investigating who was behind the false information.
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey reiterated the man's innocence at a press conference today.
"He is not a suspect, he is not connected with this," Ramsey said.
Curtis Sliwa of the Guardian Angels, a group of volunteers helping police patrol the neighborhood, said his members received more than 200 flyers with Jefferies' picture, name and address.
"On Sunday, two women and two men that were fairly well dressed ... looked like they could be undercover cops, gave us the information with photos of this guy," Sliwa said.
Sliwa said the photo looked official, like a prison release picture or an I.D. photo.
The flyers began to be posted next to the police department's official sketch. After Sliwa saw the flyers, he said something didn't seem right.
"Everybody got all excited. ... I said hold on, there's no official markings on here from the D.A.'s office, police department or county," Sliwa said. "I told our guys and gals, we destroy what we've given and we go around and pull them down."
Philadelphia police said this likely won't be the last time that social networking leads to misinformation in investigations.
"There's really no vetting process, you can put any photo out on Facebook," Evers said. "The only one that should be giving out a photo is the police."
Police Continue Hunt For Kensington Strangler
"We are serious about getting this psycho off the streets of Philadelphia," Mayor Michael Nutter said. "We will not put up with, or tolerate, this type of insanity on our streets."
The mayor also warned against any more vigilante action.
"If you have information, call 911 immediately. Do not try to take any action on your own. That's what law enforcement is about," he said.
Police said today that DNA tests determined that the murder of 27-year-old Casey Mahoney is connected to the strangler. Her body was found in a wooded area on Dec. 15. She was nude from the waist down. Police said that she had been sexually assaulted.
DNA testing had already connected two other murders to the strangler. Elaine Goldberg was found dead on Nov. 3. Nicole Piacentini was found dead Nov. 13. Both had been beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled.
In early October, a 30-year-old woman was choked to the point of unconsciousness in the same spot where Piacentini's body was found. She was the first to help police generate a sketch of the man.
Police said the strangler may have assaulted two other women who survived. Surviving victims have described the suspect as a soft spoken man.
He told one of the victims that his name is Anthony, ABC station WPVI-TV in Philadelphia reported.
Police have taken DNA swabs of 154 people in the neighborhood and so far 45 of them have been cleared.