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Pittsburgh hostage drama plays out on Facebook

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Around 8:15 AM, a twenty-something individual walked into CW Breitsman Associates, a benefits administration firm in downtown Pittsburgh. He asked to speak to the owner, Charles Breitsman. As they entered a private office and the door closed behind them, Breitsman told his daughter to call 911. The office soon cleared of everyone but the two men, and for almost six hours the city had a full-blown hostage situation on its hands.

The suspect, Klein Michael Thaxton, is 22 years old. He is described as having a troubled history that includes a criminal record, some sort of military service, and attendance at a handful of high schools.

As the news began to spread, the details were murky: various media sources speculated that he might have a gun, or a bomb, or both. All we do know is that, up until about 11:30 AM, he was not just holding a hostage — he was also checking into Facebook.

As of this morning, the only status updates available to the public were seemingly related to the hostage situation. The latest read "fake mafukaz, thats the shyt i dnt like!" and was from around 11:00 AM, about 2 1/2 hours after the stand-off began. Most of the comments were supportive, and most implored him to end the situation peacefully. There was really only one troll ("The lady on the news says hello") and one request that the suspect read the bible. Another user with the same surname as Klein Thaxton left this one: "Grown men do grown men things #teamKLEIN."

Klein-michael-thaxton_inline1

Watching something like a hostage situation unfold on TV, in real time, has become sadly commonplace. On the other hand, watching a suspect update his Facebook status and accept friend requests during a hostage situation (as SWAT teams surround the building) is more than a tiny bit surreal. You can excuse the public if it doesn't know how to react in this situation.

Watching a suspect update his Facebook status during a hostage situation is more than a tiny bit surreal

It was with little visible frustration that Police Chief Nate Harper called a news conference and pleaded with people to stop replying to Thaxton's status. "It is a distraction for negotiating," he told press on the scene.

By noon, the US attorney contacted Facebook on behalf of the police department, and the social networking site took down Thaxton's page. We reached out to Facebook for a statement, but it declined to comment on an "active law enforcement matter." The rep however did send us this link.

"We work with law enforcement where appropriate and to the extent required by law to ensure the safety of the people who use Facebook. We may disclose information pursuant to subpoenas, court orders, or other requests (including criminal and civil matters) if we have a good faith belief that the response is required by law."

Once the local news media started reporting that the suspect's Facebook page had been "shut down," the new question posed to the chief of police was clear: has this upset the suspect in any way?

"His demeanor has not changed," according to Harper. "Facebook was shut down, because we want to have his full attention."

"Facebook was shut down, because we want to have his full attention."

While killing the Facebook page has prevented trolls from piling on, we do still have the contents of his status updates. This is fortunate, as the media loves nothing more than using Facebook to divine a person’s motivations — and Thaxton did post a few choice morsels that are subject to interpretation. These include:

9:00 AM: "welln pops youll never have to woryy about me again you'll nevr need to by me anything no need to ever waste ur hard earned money on me. i'll live n jail you dnt want me around anymore thats kool bye...i love u assata sis"

"how this ends is up to yall bro real shyt"

10:00 AM: "this life im livn rite now i dnt want anymore ive lost everything and i aint gettn it back instead of walkn around all broke n shyt while niggas stunt on me n shyt"

News media have also been speculating about possible mental health problems, an idea that seems to be supported by his mother, who was quoted on the scene as saying: "I just want to make sure that he gets the help he needs. I want my son to get the help he needs." Fortunately, we’ll have a chance to find out more about who Klein Thaxton is and why he took such desperate measures.

At 1:50 PM, Chief Harper was back in front of the cameras: the situation, he said, "is over, it has been a success. Negotiators have been able to successfully talk [Thaxton] into surrendering. The hostage has not been harmed, the suspect has not been harmed."

F_

Update: Carmen Gentile and Christine Hauser of The New York Times report that Thaxton has been charged with kidnapping, terroristic threats, and aggravated assault. It appears that Thaxton might have selected Breitsman because the floor where he was located could be accessed without a key card. "Police," the report states, "said Mr. Thaxton had wanted to send Facebook posts and watch television as the situation played out."

The Verge
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