Social media accused him of ambushing two deputies. It was fake news, but he’s paid a steep price
Falsely accused on social media of being the gunman who ambushed deputies, Darnell Hicks says he fears for his family.
Less than a day after two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies were shot and wounded as they sat in their police cruiser outside a transit station in Compton, Darnell Hicks’ cellphone began to light up with messages from friends: He was identified as the alleged gunman in an alert circulated on social media.
Hicks, 33, a father of two and youth football coach from Compton who lives with his 93-year-old grandmother, then saw screenshots of something that seemed to be an official “be on the lookout” alert. It included his driver’s license photograph, name and address and associated him with a Los Angeles gang.
A Twitter post characterized Hicks as “wanted for attempted murder” in connection with the shooting Saturday evening. “The suspect has vowed to shoot more law enforcement officers,” the fake alert added.
At first, Hicks said, he thought it was a prank. But then threats starting coming in as the post spread on social media.
“It was terrible,” he said. “I feared for my family’s safety.”
He said he was dirt-biking in Compton all day Saturday, but that didn’t stop people from questioning him.
“I got so worried, I called in to the sheriff’s station,” he said.
Hicks said he didn’t know who was behind the accusation and had no connection whatsoever to the shooting.
The post was retweeted and shared by bloggers. One Malaysia-based, conservative, self-styled independent journalist with more than 250,000 followers claimed he learned from sources that Hicks was the prime suspect.
The wounded 31-year-old female deputy and 24-year-old male deputy were on patrol Saturday evening, sitting in their SUV, when a man walked up to the vehicle, pointed a gun at the passenger window and fired multiple times. The deputies were hit in the face, head and arms. The suspect fled on foot and remains at large.
Hicks’ attorney, Brian Dunn, said the false accusation couldn’t get much worse.
“It is a sign of the times. We have drifted far away from rational thought,” Dunn said.
He said that people were willing to make such accusations without a thought to the consequences and that he was still investigating the origins of the false report. The original poster removed it from Twitter. But others also claimed to have heard the information.
The Sheriff’s Department took to Twitter on Sunday, calling the report erroneous and saying, “There are no named or wanted suspects at this time.”
Sheriff Alex Villaneuva said that his department never issued an alert and that the one on social media was “fake news.”
“There was some bad information floating around yesterday about a suspect,” he added in a briefing Monday. “All that information is false.”
Dunn said that it was impossible to undo the damage and that “nobody has taken responsibility for it.”
Hicks said he wanted to “send my prayers to the two deputies.” But he also worried about other young Black men, with such a generic description of the perpetrator floating around.
Community activist Jasmyne Cannick said the department’s initial description of the suspect as dark-skinned and, then, as a Black male, age 28 to 30, opened the door to profiling.
Cannick, who works as a political strategist, became involved after she received calls from a friend of Hicks asking for her help.
“What if he would have been killed? What if anybody would have thought he was the wanted suspect?” she said. “His kids, his 93-year-old grandmother could have got hurt.”
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