Macabre Bucks murder case fueled rumors, 'fake news'

Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub holds up two fingers as he addresses media during a press conference announcing they have recovered and identified the bodies of four missing men as well as charging Cosmo DiNardo and Sean Kratz with the crimes. WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN / For The Philadelphia Inquirer

The story of the disappearance of four young men in Bucks County, and the subsequent discovery that they had been lured to their violent deaths by someone they knew, was bad enough on its own, but the case inspired rumors, speculation, and outright falsehoods that gained traction as they were spread on social media.

This is just the latest example what can happen in a high-profile murder case in the age of crowdsourcing and “fake news.”

Cousins Cosmo DiNardo and Sean Kratz, both 20, have been charged with the murders of Jimi Taro Patrick, 19, of Newtown Township; Mark P. Sturgis, 22, of Pennsburg; Thomas C. Meo, 21, of Plumstead; and Dean A. Finocchiaro, 19, of Middletown Township, and burying them on 90-acre property owned by DiNardo’s family in Solebury.

The rumor mill started to crank up shortly after the victims’ disappearance was reported on July 9. Word began to circulate on social media that the men and their disappearances were connected to William Riddle, a Bensalem man who was arrested last month for beating up another young Bensalem men near Temple University. Riddle was a Facebook friend of Finocchiaro; the story claimed that the four men were supposed to be witnesses against Riddle. Law enforcement officials, however said that was not true. That it was fake news.

One sign of the rumor’s reach is that a July 6 story about the attack by Inquirer and Daily New’s columnist Helen Ubiñas received 234,000 page views between July 9 and July 15, the day after DiNardo and Kratz were charged. More than half the traffic came from links shared on Facebook.

A post on the website everipedia claimed the disappearance of Timothy Ceaser, 22, of Northeast Philadelphia, who was last seen June 1 in Croydon, Bucks County, was “believed to be connected to the Sean Kratz​ and Cosmo DiNardo​ murders.” Sources for the rumor were users who shared what they claimed were were direct messages DiNardo had supposedly sent Ceaser’s girlfriend sometime before he went missing.

Both the Philadelphia Police and Bucks County District Attorney Matthew D. Weintraub have said there is no connection between Ceaser’s disappearance and DiNardo or Kratz.

Another article falsely alleged a link between the father of DiNardo to a human trafficking investigation, LevittownNow reported.  The story that was circulating on Facebook was traced back to BreakingNews247.net, a site that was created to “Prank your friends” by creating a fake news article. The fake story had received 25,682 likes, shares and comments by Sunday morning, LevittownNow said. The fake story was topped by an image of a screen grab of a legitimate TV news site.

This is not the first time Philadelphia area residents have seen what happens when armchair sleuths have tried crowdsourcing to solve a crime, but fail, causing pain to families caught up in tragedy.

In 2013, Sunil Tripathi, a missing Brown University student from Radnor Township, was linked to the Boston bombings after a tweet misidentified him as one of the suspects. The body of Tripathi, who suffered from depression, was found about a week later in a river near Providence, R.I., where Brown is located. He had apparently committed suicide weeks before the bombing.