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The Criminal Network: Auburn detective uses social media in drug ring bust

DEA says 'It's incredible how he tied all those people together'
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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Other ways police use social media

Auburn Police Det. Adam Cline’s recent investigation aided by social media into a prescription drug ring is an example of how police can use the services on a large scale, it can benefit them in smaller matters as well.

The Auburn Police Department has a Facebook page with about 300 “Likes” that it uses to connect with the community. Det. Dustin McLaughlin said using social media to disseminate information is where the most potential lies.

“I think it’s better for police departments to use it to hand out information rather than get information,” he said.

Smart criminals won’t divulge their activities on the Web, he said, but it has been helpful in addressing cyberbullying, While McLaughlin hasn’t used it much for tracking criminals, he once found a missing person through Facebook.

Auburn Police Chief John Ruffcorn said he hasn’t joined the Facebook and Twitter craze – he’s already gets grief from family and friends about neglecting his personal email account, and he doesn’t think he would have the time to maintain a personal social media presence.

“I’ve never sent a tweet,” he said. “There’s no Chief Ruffcorn Twitter. I’m not going to say that in the future I won’t utilize that. But right now? No.”

~ Jon Schultz

Social media prides itself on connecting people – friends, family, co-workers.

Criminals and police detectives?

Det. Adam Cline, of the Auburn Police Department, spent years at the heart of an investigation into a prescription drug ring, and as its web expanded, he said he took to the Web.

What started with a follow-up to a report of fraud at an Auburn pharmacy in 2009 went from a pill to a snowball to an avalanche. It spiraled into 26 people charged for their involvement in a prescription drug ring encompassing more than 50 pharmacies in the Auburn, Roseville and Sacramento area, Cline said.

He said he knew a lot of the local suspects from records or his knowledge of the area, but as the ring grew to 21 cities in five counties, he used social media to help tie it all together. About 100,000 pills worth about $250,000 in street value illegally changed hands, he said.

For a case that took years to crack, Cline summed it up in about one minute during a speech he gave in Auburn’s City Council chambers early in December after receiving commendations from the Drug Enforcement Administration and Mayor Kevin Hanley.

“The first time I talked to the DEA, I said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a big case and we’re going to start arresting a lot of people,” Cline recalled. “And after we started arresting a lot of people, they called and said, ‘Can you stop arresting so many people?’ That’s the first time I’ve been told not to arrest so many people.

“They said they were going to have to rent out the ARCO (Arena) to have court.”

Brian Glaudel, the DEA agent working with Cline on the case, then presented him with a plaque from the DEA and U.S. Department of Justice. Glaudel said Cline did 75 percent of the work on the case.

“It was all local knowledge and Facebook and MySpace,” Glaudel said. “And it was incredible how he tied all these people together and found out that all these random names were actually relatives and friends from many, many years ago.”

The ringleader, Raymond Reyes of Lincoln, got sentenced to nearly five years in prison in March. Reyes pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to distribute hydrocodone, an opiate prescribed for pain, and aggravated identity theft.

Brandon Savaloja, who Cline has called Reyes’ “right-hand man,” was sentenced to 21 months in prison in October. Savaloja pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribution and possession with intent to distribute hydrocodone.

It’s indicative of both a national trend in police work and also the innovative group of investigators at the Auburn Police Department, Cline being a leader among them, said John Ruffcorn, Auburn police chief.

“This might be one of the largest cases we’ve used social media to help solve,” Ruffcorn said.

It’s a sign of the new era in which they operate, one where phone taps on landlines have given way, at least in part, to social media searches, he said.

“In all of our investigations now, social media, it’s out there, we have to utilize it otherwise we’re falling behind as a law enforcement profession,” Ruffcorn said. “So it is being utilized more and more often.”

As the criminals evolve, the police have to as well, he said.

 

Untangling the Web

The biggest challenge Cline said he faced in cracking the prescription drug ring came with the sheer amount of people involved and linking them together.

“There were a lot of them that we didn’t know how they were connected, and using social media, we were able to connect more of them tighter – that they were cousins or a friend-of-a-friend kind of thing,” he said.

According to authorities and court documents, Reyes began working as a licensed medical assistant for a Sacramento cardiologist in 2006 and was fired in 2008 after the doctor caught him ordering a prescription. He would call pharmacies using the doctor’s DEA registration number without his knowledge or consent.

Later, he or a conspirator would pick up the prescription, according to court documents.

In 2009, Auburn patrol officers got a call about suspicious activity at an Auburn pharmacy, people picking up prescriptions under the names of others, the frequency it happened and the amount involved, Cline said.

The patrol officers arrested one of the people involved, and afterward Cline followed up to verify if the doctor had actually prescribed the pills. Cline suspected three people were writing the false prescriptions and then was told to check all Auburn pharmacies.

“Each pharmacy I went to, I found a couple more people using that same doctor, writing the fraudulent prescriptions,” he said.

From there, his investigation ballooned into Placer County, where he found four or five suspects, and in a matter of a couple days, he had 12 to 16 people thought to be involved in the ring, he said.

“At that point, with all the prescriptions and it had been going on for six or eight months already, I just knew looking at it that it was a big case,” Cline said. “I just thought if I go to other pharmacies, then we’ll find more.”

Then he said he contacted the DEA and agent Glaudel joined in the hunt. Since hydrocodone is a Schedule III controlled substance, pharmacies must report all prescriptions of it to an electronic database. The DEA ran a search of prescriptions made by the doctor’s registration number, and it turned up 508 prescriptions and 97,000 pills distributed by about 89 pharmacies.

“After that came out, we had 74 victims,” Cline said. “They were using people’s names, stealing people’s identities to pick up prescriptions. Then, we had probably around 40 suspects picking up in their own name and about five people that were actually running, organizing the whole thing.”

The network broke off into “different little cells,” and Cline said he also worked with police agencies in Rocklin and Lincoln to connect the dots.

Piecing it all together certainly would have been possible without social media, Cline said, but using it expedited the process.

“I think it saves a lot of time – instead of going out and interviewing 100 people involved in the case, victims and suspects,” he said. “If we didn’t have that to tie it all together or make it easier, the convenience, then it would have took us a lot more time, because you would have had to go out and talk to each person, try to find them that way, or how they were connected.”

Suspects in some cases might talk about a crime in an online message, or a social media service might just show they’re connected to another person, Cline said.

He doesn’t see it ever replacing “old fashioned police work,” but it works well as a supplement, he said.

 

Undefined boundaries

Auburn police said they face the same regulations as the public in using social media, and anything beyond that would require a search warrant.

“We do have state and federal law we have to abide by,” Ruffcorn said, adding that the courts have not defined much by way of how police specifically can use social media.

“It’s still kind of undefined in a lot of instances as far as what we can and cannot do,” he said.

For their internal polices and procedures, the department uses the California-based Lexipol service that is employed by police departments nationwide, Ruffcorn said.

Cline declined to elaborate on methods and specific services he used during the prescription drug ring bust.

When asked whether he would use a false identity for a Facebook account to elicit information, he said, “No, I would just do a search on somebody. I don’t think I would befriend them or do something like that. … I would just search a person just like anyone else could do.”

However, Ruffcorn said that is within the realm of possibility.

When police use the Internet to contact someone, they are not required to reveal their identity as law enforcement officers, he said.

“Why should we be held to any other standard? Because you could get on the Internet and create a false persona, why shouldn’t we be able to?” he said. “If it’s generally OK, in general society, it’s generally going to be OK in law enforcement.

“… I don’t use dating websites, but the joke is no one on the dating website is really who they appear to be.”

More than Facebook, Internet police work extends to Craigslist, eBay, email, Twitter and more, he said. The criminals are ahead, and police are “still trying to catch up,” Ruffcorn said.

Could he see a time when the department becomes more proactive and plants different accounts within certain friendship networks to monitor?

“We are proactive, we are proactive. Not a time, we are there,” he responded. “We are being proactive when it comes to social media and when it comes to accounts. We have been proactive for several years.”

Is that example of planting accounts something the department is doing or would do?

“I will say we are being proactive when it comes to social media accounts and when it comes to investigations,” Ruffcorn responded. “I am a firm believer in my staff and my investigators that if we can prevent a crime from happening, it’s better than trying to react to a crime when it has happened.”

Ruffcorn praised his current group of investigators – Cline, Ian Ackard, Dustin McLaughlin and Dave Neher, as well as School Resource Officer Carlos Castaner – as being young and energetic, and they’re at a point “where their trajectory is only up.”

“Adam is truly a leader among that group,” he said.

Although the department’s solve rate has stayed about the same, “The manner in which they solve them, the expediency in which they solve them, I think that is going up,” he said.

“They’re bringing ideas and mechanisms to the profession I would never have thought about,” Ruffcorn said. “I don’t necessarily think about Facebook when I start thinking, ‘Hey, let’s do a homicide investigation, I need evidence, I need to collect this.’ And they’re going to say, ‘We need to find out if this guy has a Facebook page, who he’s communicating with.’”

 

Jon Schultz can be reached at jons@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews