Jordan: Today’s story is about a question that doesn’t have a reliable answer, and it is becoming very clear that we’re going to need a good one, and fast.
News Clip: A community is an utter disbelief after four people were found murdered inside this house yesterday. A source tells City News they are the suspect’s father, mother, grandmother and sister.
Jordan: When you’re on the Internet and you see something that looks really, really wrong, when it looks like something awful either has happened or is just about to happen, what do you do? What if all you have is a user name and a disturbing message and a picture you can’t quite be sure is real? Do you call the police? Which police? Your own? The police in another country if you’re ever lucky enough to know which country to call? Do you call the administrator of whatever website you happen to see it on? You can’t call them. You could maybe send an email. You can just post it on social media in the hopes that somebody else will help, and you’ve just amplified it. This is the problem. In a world where mass shootings are live streamed, and all of a sudden when you get a horrific message from someone you only know vaguely from an online video game, and he tells you he’s just killed his whole family. What do you do next? See there is no reliable answer. We do not have a protocol for this, but a couple of weeks ago, we got one of the first examples of what that protocol might look like.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings and this is The Big Story. Wendy Gillis is a crime reporter at The Star in Toronto where this happened. Hi, Wendy.
Jordan: Can you start by telling me about the family at the center of this story? Who were they?
Wendy: Well, what we know is that four people were murdered inside a home in Markham on a Sunday a couple of weeks ago and although the police have not confirmed the relationship with the accused and the victims, multiple family and friend connections have confirmed that this is the accused mother, father, sister and grandmother.
Jordan: What do we know about what happened inside the house?
Wendy: Well, we know very little officially about what happened. What has been confirmed is that four people were killed inside. Police have said that they know how they were killed, but they have not yet released that publicly.
Jordan: So the reason we’re talking to you about this case in particular is because in this case, the police or relatives weren’t the first to know what was going on in the house allegedly. So tell us who became aware of these murders first.
Wendy: Yeah I mean, what I can tell you is that an online community has really come forward and been really transparent and open about their side of this story, which is quite disturbing and I think part of sort of an emerging trend when we look at crimes that are committed and evidence that appears to arise first online. So the account that we got from this online community is that they began receiving this content from this user named Men Hawes and that content was quite graphic in nature, and they started to believe that there may have been members of a family that were killed.
Jordan: What is this online community? Like where does it exist on the Internet?
Wendy: Yeah. So this is part of a really popular chat app called discord and that is basically an online community where people can talk to each other, and it’s very popular amongst gamers, video gamers, or people who play games.
Jordan: Is that how these people knew each other?
Wendy: Yes. So this was a community that was on discord, it was in a forum about a game called Perfect World Void. And this forum was basically all of these people who are very interested in this game, they play with each other as I understand it, and they communicate with each other about the games and as a result, they actually have gotten to know one another fairly well within that context which is that game play…
Jordan: Right, their chatting when they’re playing etc.
Wendy: Absolutely. Yeah, you’re chatting and you don’t necessarily know, you know, the real name of the person you’re talking to, probably not the specifics of where they live or even the country they live unnecessarily. It’s very, very centered around the game.
Jordan: But they started getting messages that have nothing to do with the game.
Wendy: They started getting must just have nothing to do with the game for sure. And so they were receiving these pictures and messages that were really quite alarming to them, and my understanding is, and this is something that again we’re seeing I think a bit more writ large in these examples of these kinds of cases is that people are receiving them and not understanding whether they’re real or not. That’s a big part of this is, is this something I need to be concerned about? Is this real? And if so, I need to do something about it. And so from the interactions that myself and my colleagues had with some of these users, that was kind of part of the initial reaction. I’m trying to figure out whether this is real and if so, how do I do anything about it?
Jordan: Well how did they know the user named men has in the game like what did they know him to be? Was this kind of his usual behaviour, etc?
Wendy: Yeah. A few people described him as maybe being a bit like a troll. You know, someone who jokes around, um, someone who maybe they wouldn’t take seriously. One user told us, actually, that sometimes he would purposely kind of use like bad English, and that’s how they knew that he was sort of joking around and in this case, when the user was sending some messages and they were receiving these messages that contained really alarming messages, they could tell the user was serious because he was using kind of more clear, straightforward English and that kind of language. So these messages start coming in, and a couple of people who are receiving them are trying to discern whether they’re real and what to do about it.
Jordan: How do you go about determining that?
Wendy: That was definitely a challenge. I know that one of the administrators of this forum, who was I just have to say, really open and transparent, I think he felt very strongly that it was important for the world to understand what had happened here and this community’s role in communication. He indicated to us that another user had attempted to pull an IP address, realizing that okay, we need to be taking these images and communications seriously, and we need to figure out where this guy lives because they knew that he was somewhere in Canada I believe that had been on his profile or that was common knowledge I think amongst them, and you have to appreciate that the people who are in this forum are, of course, all across the world Israel, Tunisia and then I think in Canada as well. They don’t necessarily know, even what authorities to contact.
Jordan: What is an IP address? And how easy or difficult is it to actually physically track someone once you have one?
Wendy: Yeah. I mean, IP address can be information that is identifying. Usually it’s particular to; It can be a device, but sometimes, you know, it’s not as easy as getting an IP address and saying, OK, this is Wendy Gillis’ computer, it may just tell you who someone’s internet provider is, and for police, that just means that okay, they go about trying to get someone’s IP address, and it actually just brings them to their service provider and so then they have to go to Rogers or Bell, whoever that is, and and resubmit their requests to get more information about someone.
Jordan: So what did the group need to do before they could actually contact police?
Wendy: From what I understand, what the group had to do was ascertain that this was a real threat and I don’t think we’ve minimized that because there’s so much online that is fake or that’s a meme, or, you know that it’s hard to discern whether it’s real or not and I know if it were me in that position, I’d be reluctant to reach out to the police with something that wasn’t a real threat. So I think to me they had to kind of come together, um, and just sort of figure out okay, this is real or, you know, it’s potentially real, and it’s risky to not tell anyone about it. So what we were able to determine was at least one user in the U.S. just contacted local authorities there. We weren’t able to determine which ones they were, but that just sort of shows you kind of the element of okay, I need to do something, I’m just gonna call the cops that I know.
Jordan: The local cops, ya.
Wendy: Yeah. The people who were receiving these messages, they made their own little group and they were kind of communicating back and forth about how do we alert the authorities here?
Jordan: Were they communicating with Menhaz at that time too?
Wendy: I know that at least one of them was.
Jordan: What kind of discussions were they having?
Wendy: Um, I know that this user had been sending messages about, you know, extremely self deprecating, like I’m sub human, you know, the messages painted a portrait of a man who was really struggling, who had perceived himself as having failed at life and hadn’t been truthful with his family about the reality of how he was spending his time. He was indicating that he lied about going to university and hadn’t been going to university and his parents thought he was about to graduate, and I know that one of the users believing he started to seriously that this was actually happening and that a family may have been killed somewhere. She started messaging with him and; Just sort of trying to keep him busy, I know that there was an element of concern that others may go on to be harmed. At one point what we’ve been told is that he was starting to sort of offer payments via PayPal. I don’t entirely understand why that is, I think it was because maybe he was trying to do something nice for his friends, that’s what one of the users told me. But another user who was speaking to him said she would accept a Paypal transfer from him and that was apparently because she had put together that there was going to be an address that would be part of that Paypal exchange. I have seen that, actually receipt and it did show that he sent her some money and I could see that that address was on that exchange, it was the same Markham address where they ended up finding those bodies. I don’t know exactly if that was how the police ended up locating that house. They unfortunately haven’t been able to confirm a lot of this accounting, this comes a lot from the online community that we’ve been speaking with. But at some point, we know that what happened online translated into the police going to that house.
Jordan: How did they end up contacting the police from that address?
Wendy: I have been told that that address was communicated to the police. I wasn’t able to confirm that from the police side. I know, also that you know, one of my colleagues was able to get from a source that a separate police service received and was able to obtain the IP address and that was perhaps how they identified the house. That’s still pretty unclear. What I know is that generally, in these kinds of cases, police suddenly are thrust into this situation where they know that something’s happening, they may know that a perpetrator, you know has posted things online, and that starts a whole important attempt to figure out where this person might be and that often means reaching out to kind of third parties, you know, service providers, that kind of thing to say, hey, we’re paying attention to something that’s going on online, and we need you to provide some information about where this person might be.
Jordan: How comfortable are police doing that? Cause the sense that I get from this story and a couple of the other ones that we’ve seen recently is that this is a new form of policing that they have to figure out how to; This is not, you know, knocking on doors and conducting searches in the way that police are trained to do.
Wendy: I think that there are definitely police officers who are very adept to doing this. I think that more and more, more police officers are gonna have to become adept at doing it because this, you know, I don’t want to overstate that this is a huge problem. Thankfully, it’s not but we have seen I mean, even just in doing some research for this story, I came across a case in New York where there’s a man who is alleged to have killed a 17 year old girl and posted images you know, that appeared to show a dead body and they were online, I believe it was Instagram and discarded as well. So you know, we need to be paying attention to this kind of new form of crime and how that evidence is disseminated. And so for sure, I think this is something that police services need to be paying close attention to because it’s starting to be part of their job description to know how to do.
Jordan: What have police said, because I know they haven’t said much about how this all came together and how they discovered the bodies.
Wendy: York Regional Police have said to me that they’re now quite focused on maintaining the integrity of this investigation, and as a result, very few details have come out officially about how they were alerted to this but what we know is that they were called to that address in Markham at about 3 p.m on a Sunday and they were there, I believe, by about 3:15 or 3:17 approximately. What they have said is that when they got there they found the four bodies and that there was a young man who was waiting at the front door. His name is Menhaz Zaman.
Jordan: I see. So we don’t know if they were called by Menhaz himself, or by a neighbor, or they got a call from one of the folks from the chat group.
Wendy: That’s correct. So York hasn’t said the specifics of how they were contacted about this and who contacted them.
Jordan: Do companies like discord have policies in that situation about how they notify police, or what happens when they realize that something bad might have happened and been posted on their servers?
Wendy: So in this case, Discord has said very little about the actual case; How they’ve handled it, they’ve expressed concern and sympathy for the family and said that they are working with law enforcement. What I know in general is that companies like this will likely have their own policies about when they provide personal information and then that’s obviously a good thing but it doesn’t always align with what police consider to be kind of an emergency situation and again, that’s probably a good thing too.
Jordan: It’s all good in general until we need it in a specific case.
Wendy: Yeah, so I know that you know, police have what they call exigent circumstances, and that means that, um, you know, someone’s life is on the line and so typically they would need to get a warrant to be able to get identifying information but when someone’s about to die, they don’t necessarily have time for that and so that does allow them to get access to information a little quicker but on the other side of that is companies who may have their own definition of quote on quote exigent circumstances and an example that was given to me is, you know, in this case we’re talking about death, but what if you know there’s someone who’s missing and they have to take their medicine and they don’t know where that person is and that person without their medicine, you know, may be a threat to themselves, they may be gravely ill, or they may be a threat to other people, and so they desperately need to find that person. You know, that’s kind of a bit in the grey zone, right? So is that something where a company is going to say yes, that meets our standards for releasing this information? Maybe not.
Jordan: This is something that we end up talking about a lot, is just how do we adapt to the new normal of this being the easiest way to find someone when you’re worried that a crime may have occurred or that somebody’s life may be in danger? And how are; how quickly are law enforcement agencies adapting their definition of exigent circumstances or what they’re allowed to do or who they’re going to reach out to try to keep pace with this?
Wendy: Yeah. I mean, I definitely think that this is something that we need to be paying very close attention to, because, you know, we can be tracked so easily now, and that is such a helpful thing sometimes but we need to be very careful about when we allow authorities like the police to use that right? So I don’t know that there has been sufficient enough public conversation about what we’re comfortable with, and it certainly you know it’s happening but I don’t think it’s keeping pace with the changing nature of crime.
Jordan: So almost two weeks later now, how are the people who were in that chat room who tried to find Menhaz, how are they dealing with this?
Wendy: Yeah, I mean, I think that it’s been really difficult for a few of them. I know some of them saw some images that you know, no one should see, and I don’t think any of them were prepared to be thrust into this position but I do think it’s extremely laudable that they opened themselves up and sort of showed what they know and what they did. And who would have thought that that would be the venue but, you know, that is alleged to have been what occurred here and it seems to me like several of them rose to the occasion.
Jordan: Thanks, Wendy.
Wendy: Thank you for having me.
Jordan: Wendy Gillis, crime reporter at The Toronto Star. That was The Big Story. For more big stories, we’re at thebigstorypodcast.ca, you can find us on Twitter, and we hope you do talk to us @thebigstoryfpn, and of course you can find us, you can find all the other shows in the Frequency Podcast Network at frequencypodcastnetwork.com, or wherever you get your podcasts, be it Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify or a more obscure one that you prefer. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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