On Facebook, man tells of despair and taking hostage

Klein Michael Thaxton is led into Pittsburgh police headquarters after being apprehended at Three Gateway Center. Thaxton held a businessman hostage.
Klein Michael Thaxton is led into Pittsburgh police headquarters after being apprehended at Three Gateway Center. Thaxton held a businessman hostage. (JC SCHISLER / Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)

He surrendered after five hours and sending messages to friends. No one was hurt.

Posted: September 23, 2012

PITTSBURGH - Klein Michael Thaxton hadn't been much of a Facebook devotee. He posted no status updates in two years on the social network. On Friday, though, he surfaced with a jarring post: "i cant take it no more im done bro."

The 22-year-old Army veteran was on the 16th floor of a downtown Pittsburgh office building at the time, armed with a hammer and a kitchen knife, and holding a businessman hostage, police said.

He surrendered after five hours. Neither he nor the hostage, business owner Charles Breitsman, was injured. But Thaxton's real-time Facebook updates - coupled with online pleas by his friends to surrender - vividly illustrated the evolving challenges that confront police when social media play an active role in a crime in progress.

In all, Thaxton sent seven messages, many despairing and written in disjointed style.

"This life im livin rite now i dnt want anymore," said one post. "Ive lost everything and I aint gettin it back."

Thaxton's friends responded by urging him to end the situation peacefully, including one who asked him to think of his mother.

Initially, police wanted the Facebook page kept open, hoping to gain useful information, but they later asked Facebook to take it down so Thaxton could focus on communicating with authorities.

The Facebook exchanges had the potential to both help and harm those efforts, said Police Chief Nathan Harper. It was helpful that Thaxton could see "that people are concerned about his well-being," the chief said, but "it is a distraction for negotiating."

Thaxton served as a private in the Army from December 2008 to June 2010. The Army said he trained at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., before being assigned to Fort Riley, Kan. He has a criminal record, including a guilty plea to robbery this year.

Breitsman is owner of CW Breitsman Associates, which runs employee-benefits programs for other businesses.

The hostage-taking was the latest example of how social media can inject the public into crime dramas in ways that were inconceivable in the pre-Internet age.

In the old days, police would call the telephone company and ask that the hostage-taker's phone number be changed immediately so no one else could call it, said Gary Noesner, a former chief of the FBI's crisis negotiation unit.

In this case, countless people had the ability to communicate with Thaxton, sending him comments and potentially provoking him, "for better or for worse," said Steve Jones, a professor who studies online culture at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"We don't really know what the perpetrators pay attention to," Jones said. "Is he reading every post? How does he interpret those posts? What might set him off or what might get him to calm down?"

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