HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. (WCIA) — Mass shooters ever more often leave a trail of breadcrumbs in the form of online threats or violent content preceding an attack.
This happened before the shootings at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and Tops Supermarket in Buffalo, New York in May, and the 21-year-old accused of opening fire from a rooftop in the quiet suburb of Highland Park on July 4th left clues online for months.
Robert “Bobby” Crimo III was likely best known to his online followers as “Awake the Rapper,” an artist and alias who posted violent content. In one music video, he appeared to act out a school shooting. He was also apparently a regular poster on a site called “Documenting Reality,” a platform where users share violent images and videos of people dying. A user by the name of “Awake47” — who has been linked to Crimo III by fellow users — shared disturbing animations, one depicted a shooter who is ultimately shot by police.
In the weeks since seven people were killed and another two dozen were sent to the hospital in Highland Park, reporters have been asking the state’s top prosecutor, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, to discuss why these hints weren’t caught before the carnage. And, if police had seen these posts ahead of time, what could they legally do to step in and potentially prevent mass violence?
The alleged shooter was known to law enforcement but Raoul couldn’t speak to whether police were aware of the violent videos visible online for months.
“As I understand the information posted, it would have been alarming to the reasonable person, and I’m assuming some reasonable person saw that,” he added urging the public to communicate to law enforcement any concerns they see online.
Cooper: “I’m wondering, with our technology, why we’re missing these warning signs. What resources would be needed to have been able to do that?”
Raoul: “Well, you know, it all depends on, and I’m not fully knowledgeable of where exactly these things were posted. You have all sorts of social media platforms, and you have all sorts of privacy settings and various audiences to whom you communicate.”
“I can tell you law enforcement is not following every individual in the United States or in the world, for that matter, on every social media platform that there is. You know, it’s, you know, their privacy concerns and so forth, that you balance, as well as capacity concerns.”
Cooper: “And I’m not talking about private messages. I’m talking about these public sites, like this Documenting Reality site or these music videos that are getting — or at least the music is getting millions of listens. Is there anything more we could dedicate as a state or as a country, depending on how you look at it, to equip law enforcement to be able to catch these sorts of things?”
Raoul: “I can tell you that we are certainly trying to do it. And you know, beginning in November 2019, we started partnering with the National Threat Assessment Center of [the U.S.] Secret Service to try to train teachers, administrators, community leaders, faith leaders. It was on, you know, how to prevent targeted violence.”
“We’ve had about five or six trainings thus far to train as many people to look for the signs that you’re talking about that have appeared on social media or might be communication that happens. Indirectly, how to look for those things, and how to report those things. With regards to this particular shooter, certainly the family, you know, we have a Red Flag Law in the state, and however, it’s only as good as family members.”
Crimo III’s father sponsored his application for a FOID card not long after multiple run-ins with law enforcement in 2019.
“Therefore, at the time of FOID application review in January of 2020, there was insufficient basis to establish a clear and present danger and deny the FOID application,” Illinois State Police said the day after Crimo III was arrested on July 4th.
“I can’t say that I’m intimately familiar with everything that was communicated to State Police back at that time, but certainly, from what I do know of the communications on social media, and online, and so on, there was a clear sign to me that this person it was, could be a dangerous person,” Raoul said.
As the Chief of the National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC), Dr. Lina Alathari sits at the helm of mass shooting research conducted by the U.S. Secret Service. The latest data showed the most consistent commonality among attackers is “threatening or concerning communication” ahead of a mass shooting, accounting for 93% of attacks studied in the 2019 “Mass Attacks in Public Spaces” report.
“We have to intervene,” Alathari began before diving into the patterns coming out of the most recent body of work to be published toward the end of the year.
The young generation of student attackers showed a particular fascination with the attack at Columbine High School and other previous mass shootings, according to Alathari. A quarter of attackers held ideological beliefs, including hateful rhetoric like white supremacy.
Law enforcement hasn’t established a motive for the Highland Park parade attack and the suspect’s online footprint doesn’t appear to point to specific ideological rhetoric.
“I think a lot of it stems also from their motivation. So if you look at the number one motive of those who engage in mass attacks is some sort of grievance. And that’s typically related to a grievance of a personal nature. They feel wronged,” Alathari explained.
“And so when they are online, they are looking for connection with others, they’re looking for those who will give them praise.”
Some become so immersed, according to the NTAC Chief, that they almost believe they live in these violent depths of the online world.
“And eventually, they start to have a grievance with the physical space, and almost want to punish the physical space. And that sort of feeds into why they carry out a mass attack,” she said.
Both Raoul and Alathari say reports from the public are the best bet at thwarting mass violence.
Cooper: “The lines of reality are often blurred for those digesting the content [online]. So is it realistic to expect people who are on these sites to report those red flags?”
Alathari: “What can tell you, Renée from the data is that the majority of these mass attackers when they are using these sites, they’re usually, typically mainstream sites. We’re talking about YouTube, we’re talking about, you know, a little bit older in terms of some of the data, but MySpace, Snapchat. In fact, in looking at sort of the successfully thwarted attacks, so we released a report looking at avoiding targeted school violence by examining 67 plots that were quite serious in nature, targeting schools by a current or recently, former student.”
While the data doesn’t provide a comparison of the number of shootings executed versus those thwarted, that 2021 study — Averting Targeted School Violence — showed intervention happened in a number of cases where imminent threats were posted online in a manner visible to classmates, teachers and administrators.
“Some of them were stopped as they were on their way to school with a weapon. And in those 67 cases, if you look at their planning behaviors, they were quite extensive,” Alathari said.
Based on what he knows now, the Illinois Attorney General said that if law enforcement had been made aware of Crimo III’s online activity, the state’s red flag laws could have removed his gun rights at least temporarily.
Although some private companies have created data scraping services for hire, there isn’t a governmental regulatory body overseeing the online world, and internet data and privacy laws haven’t been penned since the 1990s.
When asked, Raoul said the sites themselves hold some responsibility in continuing to feed young people more of the content they’re being negatively influenced by. Conversations are ongoing between Attorneys General nationwide about the obligation of online platforms to self-police, he said.
Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch announced three gun-violence related working groups Tuesday leading up to the November veto session, including the Social Media and Online Extremism Working Group, led by Rep. Jaime Andrade, (D) Chicago.
NTAC expects to publish its next report, including five years’ worth of mass shooting data, by the end of the year, Alathari said.