After Facebook posts, Pa. hostage-taker surrenders

Associated Press Modified: September 21, 2012 at 8:03 pm •  Published: September 21, 2012
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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Klein Michael Thaxton hadn't been much of a Facebook devotee. He posted no status updates in two years on the social network. On Friday, though, he surfaced with a jarring post: "i cant take it no more im done bro."

The 22-year-old Army veteran was on the 16th floor of a downtown Pittsburgh office building at the time, armed with a hammer and kitchen knife and holding a businessman hostage, police said.

He surrendered after more than five hours. Neither he nor the hostage, business owner Charles Breitsman, 58, was injured. But Thaxton's real-time Facebook updates — coupled with online pleas by his friends to surrender — vividly illustrated the evolving challenges that confront police when social media plays an active role in a crime-in-progress.

In all, Thaxton sent seven messages, many of them despairing and written in disjointed style.

"this life im livin rite now i dnt want anymore," said one post. "ive lost everything and I aint gettin it back."

Thaxton's friends responded by urging him to end the situation peacefully, including one who asked him to think of his mother.

"dude, you gotta purpose here in life, and this ain't it yo, people do care man, they do," another wrote.

Thaxton's mother, Ronda Thaxton, was at the scene working with negotiators. She said she last saw her son several weeks ago and had a feeling he was troubled.

Initially, police wanted his Facebook page kept open, hoping to gain useful information, but they later asked Facebook to take it down so that he could focus on communicating with authorities.

The Facebook exchanges had the potential to help and to harm those efforts, police Chief Nathan Harper said. It was helpful that Thaxton could see "that people are concerned about his well-being," the chief said, but "it is a distraction for negotiating."

Hours into the standoff, Pittsburgh's public safety director, Michael Huss, asked the media to refrain from reporting about the Facebook page, though many outlets had already done so.

Thaxton served as a private in the U.S. Army from December 2008 to June 2010. The Army said he trained at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri before being assigned to Fort Riley in Kansas.

He also has a criminal record, including a guilty plea to robbery earlier this year in a special county court for military veterans with mental health or addiction problems.

The hostage-taking was the latest striking example of how Facebook and other social media can inject the public into crime dramas in ways that were inconceivable in the pre-Internet age.

In the old days, police would call the telephone company and ask that the hostage-taker's phone number be changed immediately so no one else could call it, said Gary Noesner, a former chief of the FBI's crisis negotiation unit.

In this case, countless people had the ability to communicate with Thaxton, sending him comments and potentially provoking him, "for better or for worse," said Steve Jones, a professor who studies online culture at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"We don't really know what the perpetrators pay attention to," Jones said. "Is he reading every post? How does he interpret those posts? What might set him off or what might get him to calm down?"

A former criminal profiling expert with the FBI, Mary Ellen O'Toole, said the decision by police to ultimately shut down Thaxton's Facebook page made sense, just as there was reason to leave it up in the beginning.

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