RICHMOND, VA (InvestigateTV) - One-and-a-half billion users are on Facebook every day. Among those profiles InvestigateTV found people who are not allowed to be on the platform, based on Facebook’s policies.
Those are people like 56-year-old Robert Gale Wojda, of Richmond’s Northside. Wojda was convicted of child exploitation offenses in Florida, Ohio and Virginia, according to the Virginia Attorney General’s Office.
“Part of his probation was that he was not supposed to be on social media of any kinds, whatsoever," said Richmond Police Detective Mary Gary Ford.
Despite those restrictions, he was in fact using Facebook to engage in sexually explicit conversations with minors, Ford said.
“Thankfully his probation officer just checked, and she found a Facebook profile for him with his photo and you could tell he was actively liking posts," Ford said.
According to Ford, court filings and the Virginia Attorney General’s office, Wojda admitted to sending explicit photographs through Facebook. Ford spoke with Wojda and got his consent to search his phone. On it, she found sexual conversations with a 14-year-old girl in Georgia.
“It was a very traumatic experience for her, and she was isolated and alone and kind of containing all this inside herself for a long time,” Ford said.
Wodja ultimately pleaded no contest to electronic solicitation of a minor and is now serving 20 years in a Virginia prison.
While his capture is a victory for investigators like Ford, she said Wodja is far from the only predator using social media.
“The frightening part is the number of people doing what they’re doing, and that’s just what’s being reported,” Ford said.
Facebook has a specific policy that bans convicted sex offenders. But in just three and a half hours, InvestigateTV easily tracked down more than a dozen registered sex offenders in seven different states - from Florida to Ohio - all of whom had what appeared to be active Facebook profiles.
InvestigateTV found offenders of all races and of varying ages, all with profiles active within the last year. Some of their criminal records included labels like “sexually violent offender.”
Some of those offenders included an Ohio man labeled as a sexual predator, a 35-year-old woman in Kentucky convicted of raping a 13-year-old, a Virginia man who “enticed a minor to perform in pornography" and an offender convicted of raping a 15-year-old in Alabama.
The initial round of checks began with InvestigateTV affiliate WWBT in Richmond, Virginia, focused on looking for offenders in that state. Just getting halfway through last names beginning with C, the investigation revealed 16 offenders on Facebook.
WWBT reported those findings to Facebook. The social media company immediately launched an investigation and disabled the accounts.
A spokesperson said, “Facebook’s Terms of Service explain that we prohibit convicted sex offenders from using Facebook and disable accounts that violate this policy as soon as we’re aware. We respond to reports from our community but also take action and disable these accounts when we identify them ourselves. We disabled the accounts you shared as soon as we confirmed they were in violation of our terms of service.”
Once the investigation expanded to a national level and found more offenders around the country, Facebook was again alerted. The company again investigated and suspended those newly-discovered accounts.
“You never know who you’re talking to on the other side of the computer,” said Briana Valentino, a forensic interviewer with Greater Richmond SCAN (Stop Child Abuse Now). “Kids are very accessible to people who mean to do them harm.”
She often interviews children abused by predators, and more often than ever before, she said she finds the abuse started online.
“What we tend to see for kids who’ve experienced trauma online, it’s a lot of internalized behavior. Feelings of guilt, feelings of shame. That they are the ones that have done something wrong,” Valentino said.
Even if children are not on Facebook in particular, they still need to be careful on all social media sites.
“They also don’t realize that if they’re on multiple sites then they’re accessible through those multiple sites," Valentino said. "Somebody who’s knowledgeable about those things can tie all that information together. So, something that you tell a person on Snapchat, they may then use that information and come back to you maybe on Twitter or your YouTube account.”
Ford said she needs parents to help and have age-appropriate, non-judgmental conversations with their children and teens.
She suggested using this type of language: “This is something that could happen. If it does, just stop what you’re doing, come to me. Talk to me. We’ll work it out together. You’re not in trouble."
Ford said there are additional steps you can take to be proactive. First, don’t let children have their phones in their bedrooms at night. Second, consider this rule: tablets and computers should only be used in open areas of the house.
If you would like to report a sex offender to Facebook, you can use this page on the company’s site.