GPD releases citizens’ personal Facebook records

SHEILA A. MATHEWS :::

The Griffin Police Department has released personal messages from the Facebook account of Will Holloway Sanders and three other individuals. This followed a public statement directed solely to Sanders that was allegedly made by GPD Chief Mike Yates.

“Mr. Sanders, The police department and myself have been the subject of numerous unfounded and defamatory accusations by you and others which are without merit nor supporting evidence. I have received permission to release your personal Facebook material related to the Mathew Boynton case from the District Attorney prior to the adjudication of the Boynton criminal matter,” read the July 6 statement. “Given this fact, as of this coming Monday morning ALL of this material, much of which is related to your relationship with Mathews Boyntons mother will be available under the Georgia Open Records Act. Any persons interested in the entire scope of your actions, activities, motives and history will be available upon request. This material will be released in the interest of transparency and context and I am sure that you agree that this is what is important (sic all).”

Sanders’ private Facebook messages were obtained by GPD Lt. Karen Yancy, who served a search warrant on Facebook, but that warrant, along with those Yancy used to obtain the Facebook records of three other individuals, has raised questions about the information provided to establish probable cause.

The Background

Sanders originally met with Yancy May 11, 2017, when he turned in personal belongings including articles of clothing and an orthodontic retainer later determined to have belonged to Jessica Lester, the ex-wife of GPD Officer Matthew Boynton.

Lester, in December 2016, had filed a theft report with the GPD alleging Boynton had kept certain belongings of hers when she was hospitalized with a head injury earlier that year. Boynton, who was questioned regarding the theft allegation, wrote a statement saying he was not in possession of Lester’s property.

Several months later, Sanders reported he was contacted by Shelby Brianna Willey, then Boynton’s girlfriend, who claimed she had located Lester’s belongings at Boynton’s residence.

Willey sent Sanders a Facebook message requesting he call her, which he did.

According to Yancy’s affidavit, “Will Sanders said that Shelby Willey was ending her relationship with Officer Matthew Boynton and that she felt like Jessica Boynton (Lester) needed her items back. Will Sanders said that Shelby Willey told him that Officer Boynton told her that he was going to take the bag to his grandfather’s house to burn it.”

Through their phone conversation, Willey arranged to meet Sanders’ girlfriend, Michelle Gregory, to turn over Lester’s belongings. In return, Sanders paid Willey $100.
Sanders then turned in that property to the Griffin Police Department.

The Process

That was the basis under which Yancy sought and obtained search warrants from Spalding County Magistrate Court not only for Sanders’ Facebook records, but also those of Willey, Gregory and Boynton.

Despite there being only a single Facebook message from Willey to Sanders, Yancy’s warrants were sweeping, as she sought “all incoming, outgoing, draft, and trash private messages” from the four Facebook accounts for a period of more than five months – from Dec. 19, 2016, the date Lester filed the theft report, through May 25, 2017, the day the Facebook search warrant was obtained.

She also sought the UID/Vanity identification for all Facebook users with whom Sanders, Willey, Gregory and Boynton had communicated during that period of time and all photograph and video attachments associated with all four individuals’ private messages.

In her affidavit, Yancy stated there was probable cause to believe the crime of false statements and writings/concealment of facts had been committed.

However, the probable cause in the sworn statement presented to Magistrate Judge Brennan McDowell was unrelated to Sanders, Willey, Gregory, Boynton or the crime of false statements and writings/concealment of facts.

Instead, Yancy cited two commercial burglaries and named two unrelated people – Erykah Vinson and Roderick Vinson – as the probable cause for the search warrant to be granted.

Specifically, Yancy cited federal law – 18 U.S.C. § 2705(a) – which prevented Facebook from notifying the four subjects of her search warrants that their personal Facebook information had been obtained by law enforcement – and stated, “… you are ORDERED to DELAY notification to the account holder as required under 18 U.S.C. § 2703(b). This Court has determined that there is reason to believe that notification of the existence of the search warrant will cause the account holder to destroy or tamper with the evidence located on the Facebook account,” Yancy wrote. “This investigation involved the private communications between Erykah Vinson and Roderick Vinson in reference to two commercial burglaries.”

Yancy concluded her warrant by stating, “Which is in violation of (specify offense and code section): False Statements and Writings O.C.G.A 16-10-20.”

Answers sought

Upon receiving copies of Yancy’s search warrants, The GRIP on July 16 submitted an Open Records request to the city of Griffin seeking to obtain “all investigative materials including, but not limited to, reports, statements, recordings, interviews, emails, memos, documents, warrants and photographs pertaining to the two commercial burglaries cited in the search warrant used to obtain the personal Facebook information of Will Holloway Sanders.”

The city of Griffin has refused to respond to that Open Records request from The GRIP.

However, Sanders provided The GRIP with information he has since received from Griffin Assistant Open Records Officer Teresa Watson.

Pursuant to an Open Records request Sanders submitted July 30, Watson on Aug. 13 produced emails originally generated nearly a month prior.

Less than three and a half hours after The GRIP’s July 16 request was submitted, Yancy emailed Chief Yates and said, “Chief Yates, This is in reference to an error made on my part involving the Search Warrant that I had signed by Judge McDowell for the Face Book Page of Will Holloway Sanders. On May 24, 2017, Sgt McKinney emailed me a copy of a Search Warrant that was issued to Investigator Stan Phillips. That Search Warrant was for the Face Book Pages of Erikah Vinson and Roderick Vinson related to commercial burglaries. While using that as a template for my Search Warrant, I failed to remove the information involving the Vinsons. It was a mistake on my part and should not have been used as a part of my probable cause for the Search Warrant on Will Holloway Sanders Facebook page. It was a clerical mistake that should have been caught by me or the Judge. I sincerely apologize for any confusion this has caused (sic all).”

That email, along with McKinney’s email to Yancy – with a copy of Phillips’ search warrant attached – were forwarded to Watson the same day The GRIP requested information pertaining to the case involving two commercial burglaries, Erykah Vinson and Roderick Vinson.

Two days later, Griffin Chief of Staff Jessica Whatley-O’Connor announced the city’s refusal to respond to this as well as subsequent Open Records requests. (Please see City of Griffin refusing to release public records to The GRIP on this website.)

Additional warrants obtained

Yancy also sought and was granted search warrants for the cell phones belonging to Sanders and Willey.

In separate affidavits, Yancy alleged the same criminal violation – false statements and writings/concealment of facts – and stated in part, “Will Sanders and Shelby Brianna Willey have been communicating on their cell phones to set up a meeting place and payment for Brianna Willey delivering the bag. Based on the above information Affiant request that a Search Warrant be issued for their person to retrieve the cell phones that contain evidence in this case.”

Despite being granted search warrants for the two personal cell phones she alleged contained evidence in a criminal case, Yancy later reported the warrants were never executed.

These search warrants were obtained prior to Lester identifying the property turned in by Sanders. Only after investigators had obtained hundreds of pages of personal Facebook records did they seek to confirm the clothing and retainer belonged to Lester.

Once that independent confirmation was made, Boynton was interviewed by GPD investigators. According to Yates, Boynton acknowledged he had maintained possession of his ex-wife’s belongings after their separation, and that he had provided false information when previously questioned about the matter.

Soon after, Boynton resigned his position as a patrol officer with the Griffin Police Department, and he was arrested on two felony charges – false statements and writings and violation of his oath of office. A grand jury in July 2018 no billed the case against Boynton.

Griffin Police Department Chief Mike Yates declined a request to be interviewed for this article, stating that questions could instead be submitted “for consideration.”

Publisher’s note: Additional articles related to this matter – including details of the Facebook records released by the Griffin Police Department – in its Aug. 24 print edition of The GRIP.

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