In early February, screenshots of messages started spreading across Twitter, group chats and other forms of social media. The messages warned girls in Bowling Green of a man who attempted to abduct two girls in a restaurant, with a photo included for reference.
Once the photo and messages reached the Bowling Green Police Department, BGPD public information officer Ronnie Ward said the department launched an investigation of the man and the incident.
Ward said it found the man was not linked to trafficking, and the post had been fabricated.
Despite the man’s innocence, the messages caught students’ attention and reminded people of the very real threats of human trafficking and danger on campus.
“I guess people are overly protective because things like this happen all the time,” sophomore Shelby Phelps said regarding the messages.
Phelps said she saw the messages on Twitter, and while she had always felt relatively safe on campus, the incident made her more hesitant to walk alone. In the message, people were encouraged to share the fabricated story with other people.
“Social media is a good platform to get things out there, but at the same time, stuff gets started so easily that’s not always true,” Phelps said. “You can’t always believe what you read.”
Descriptions of several incidents have been shared on Facebook and other platforms in the past week. Currently circulating on social media are stories of incidents at Aldi, O’Charley’s and WKU’s campus.
Ward said in an email the BGPD was told of the incident by people who were reading these social media posts. Once BGPD saw them, Ward said a detective was assigned to investigate the claims.
“The conclusion of the investigation revealed the person responsible for the post admitted to fabricating the story,” Ward said.
Ward said the man in the photo was having dinner at O’Charley’s, and the BGPD does not believe he was engaged in trafficking. He also said there was no connection between the made-up incident at O’Charley’s and the incidents at Aldi.
“Since we determined the restaurant incident was fabricated and the grocery store incident did not show the same man on video, we can say factually they are not related,” Ward said.
In future situations, Ward said students should contact the police before posting to social media when they feel in danger. He also encouraged students to not believe everything they hear and to ask questions before sharing.
WKU Police Department public information officer Tim Gray confirmed that reports of abductions off campus were not associated with criminal activity and also said the WKUPD has not received any reports of attempted abductions on campus despite circulating social media posts claiming otherwise.
Gray said he believes many of the social media reports stemmed from the O’Charley’s incident, which “rightfully” raised some alarm. He said many people tend to post videos or stories before they report it to the police, so sometimes people know about a danger before the police do.
While the reports are false, Gray said it’s still important for people, especially young girls, to be aware of the dangers. He said human trafficking is a national issue that is being addressed by the FBI, local and state resources.
“We want to be educated but have due diligence to be accurate,” Gray said. On a college campus, Gray said there may be an increase in reports or safety concerns when classes are in session. He said parents often become involved or worried when reports are shared over the internet. “It’s just people looking out for one another,” Gray said. Students heard about similar incidents from a variety of sources. Emra Mehmedovic heard similar stories through social media and from her friends.
“A lot of what I heard was basically people on social media talking about it,” Mehmedovic said. “What I’ve heard is people making up stuff to lure someone away.”
A WKU safety protocol page on the university’s website provides a list of helpful tips for safer campus living and phone numbers to call for a number of situations. These tips include walking with friends or groups at night, providing a number for the WKUPD Student Explorer Escort Service and suggesting students take a self-defense class.
While the messages students saw were unconfirmed, human trafficking has been a concern within the state. Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear discussed the issue in a meeting with Herald staff and said it was one of the fastest growing crimes in the country.
Due to its location by interstates, Bowling Green and other parts of Kentucky are more susceptible to human trafficking, according to the Kentucky Department of Education. Since 2008, Bakita Empowerment Initiative, a program within Catholic Charities of Louisville, reported 332 trafficking victims have been identified.
Freshman and Bowling Green native Ellie Skean said she saw the posts on Twitter and believes people need to be aware of the dangers within the community.
“We want to live in a world where that’s not reality, and of course, sometimes it is, and we just turn a blind eye to it,” Skean said. “I think we should be made more aware of those things.”
In the future, Skean said she hopes women specifically learn to be more self-conscious about where they go and can stick together in potentially unsafe situations.
“As bad as it sounds, that’s a reality,” Skean said.
News reporter Abbigail Nutter can be reached at 270-745-6011 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @abbeynutter.
News Editor Rebekah Alvey can be reached at 270-745-6011 and email@example.com. Follow Rebekah Alvey on Twitter at @bekah_alvey.