Digital Vigilantes

Women's e-mail chain helps nab suspect, but at what price?

May 15, 2007 — -- Late last month a naked man appeared at the door of a business in Santa Fe, N.M.

Spooked by a series of unsolved rapes and attempted rapes that have haunted the city since last fall, a woman who worked there slammed the door before the man could enter. She called 911, but when police arrived the man was gone.

So she downloaded still pictures of the man from the business' security camera video and after dubbing the tape for the police, e-mailed the pictures to hundreds of women in the Santa Fe area, warning them to be on the lookout.

The pictures quickly found their way into the hands of the local press -- who temporarily withheld their broadcast at the request of police.

Two weeks after the incident, to the overwhelming relief of city residents, the man on the tape was arrested and charged with breaking and entering and indecent exposure, Santa Fe police told ABC News' Law & Justice unit.

But whether or not prosecutors will be able to convict him of those charges or in relation to other crimes is still undetermined.

Witnesses' Memories 'Easily Tainted'

In spamming the city with images of the man -- identified by police as an out-of-state registered sex offender named David Giba -- the woman may have irrevocably tainted the witness memory of other victims and dashed prosecutors' best hopes for a solid conviction.

Photo lineup expert Gary Wells said other victims' and witnesses' memories were contaminated by seeing the e-mailed pictures. The fact that the images were so widely distributed, published and broadcast makes it virtually impossible for witness identifications to be used in court to convict the man, he said.

"It hasn't made our job any easier, that's for sure,'' Santa Fe Police Capt. Gary Johnson told ABC News.

The situation has raised painful questions in Santa Fe about the ever-shifting line between law-enforcement needs and the rights of crime victims in the digital age.

Giba was arraigned in a New Mexico court yesterday, but because the breaking and entering charge is a felony, the magistrate judge reportedly did not allow him to enter a plea, according to news station KRQE. The judge said he could do that in district court.

A Vexing Question

"It's a problematic thing,'' said Wells, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University. "The beauty of a photo lineup is, when it's done properly, the only reason for the suspect to stand out from the [other photographs] would be if that's the perpetrator."

"Now there's a second reason for that person to stand out. If I received that e-mail and that attachment and looked at it, now I can pick him too… The defense will have a heyday with this."

Both sides of this vexing issue seem to have valid arguments.

"We understand that the woman's motivation was to protect the women in the city," said Johnson, the police captain. "And that's our motivation as well, but we have to conduct an investigation and do it throughout and… the goal is to keep the guy in jail.''

Johnson said that because the photo was so widely disseminated -- his own wife got a copy -- police were no longer able to use Giba's image in a photo lineup with other victims.

"We're going to have to rely on other evidence,'' he said.

But Kristen Eisenbraun, one of the women who received the e-mailed pictures and sent them on to others, said local women were scared and frustrated with the lack of progress in the investigation and felt like they had to take matters into their own hands.

"I think that just the idea of a having someone out there just terrorized the women in the area, especially walking to and from work,'' she said. "And one of the [modus operandis] was that a guy was casing women's homes, finding out they were living alone, and during the day breaking in and leaving a window open or something.

"I mean, just recently there was a cross-dressing bank robber and his picture was all over the papers. And here was a rapist. It seemed like there was nobody doing anything."

The Attacks

The rapes, which stretch back to September, have been the talk of town for months, Eisenbraun said.

Last fall, two women woke up on the same morning in nearby, separate homes to find a man performing a sex act beside their beds, police told ABC News.

Then, in March, a woman reported waking up in bed with a man on top of her, again performing a sex act. The man cupped his hand over the woman's mouth to stop her from screaming and eventually fled, police said. On April 17 another woman reported being attacked in bed in much the same fashion.

Another attack came one April 29. A woman was raped early Sunday morning in her bedroom, police said, when an intruder forced himself on a woman in bed and made her perform a sex act on him.

A week later, another woman reported an attempted sexual assault in her bedroom. She told police the assailant unscrewed a light bulb outside her door and threw a pillow over Christmas lights in her room, police said. There were also reports at the time of prowlers and others of a man exposing himself to local women, police said.

Five Day Delay?

It was in the midst of these attacks when the man police now identify as Giba was caught on camera allegedly attempting to enter the business in Santa Fe.

The woman who originally sent the pictures told the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper that she "wanted women to know this guy was out there and to be careful.''

She asked the newspaper not to identify her by name.

She said it took five days after she reported the incident before the police contacted her to get a copy of the tape.

Johnson acknowledged this fact to ABC News.

"The reason it took so was because we were in the middle of major, breaking investigations,'' Johnson said. "We had a homicide where a gentleman had his throat cut, a park shooting where two kids were shot in the park, a bomb incident at the middle school… I only have a small group of detectives, and by the time the patrol division made us aware of this video, we jumped right on it.''

But the bind that residents and law enforcement in Santa Fe find themselves is far from resolved.

Police announced last Friday that due to varying descriptions of the perpetrator in the series of attacks -- anywhere from 6 feet to 6 feet 5 inches tall, for instance -- they are now focused on looking for another man. Johnson said police believe Giba was the man caught on the video, but they are investigating the possibility another attacker is still on the loose.