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Murderer Targets Pregnant Moms In Facebook Private Group, Moderators Claim Ignorance
An alleged killer joined a Facebook group for passing on kids’ items to find pregnant mothers and possibly kidnap them, according to a search warrant. Some moms in the group say neither the FBI nor Meta informed them that their data was caught up in a murder investigation.
In late October 2022, Kelly, a first-time mom from Siloam Springs, Arkansas, posted in a private Facebook group for parents in the locale. “I’m looking for a small baby swing and maternity clothes,” she said. She got a response from a member called Lucy Barrow, whose account was only created that month, claiming her old profile had been blocked. “I might have some tops in that size,” Barrow wrote, her profile picture a dog playing with a chew toy. “I’m in Bella Vista but could meet somewhere on Friday.”
It was just another innocent, quotidian conversation in the group— one of many entirely altruistic local handout markets for children’s items on Facebook—between its 6,500 members, all from the northwest of the state. But, while her online activity appeared entirely benign, there was something not right about Barrow. Unbeknownst to members of the group, its admins and moderators, Lucy Barrow was not a real person, according to the FBI, which detailed her interaction with Kelly in a search warrant obtained by Forbes. The agency believes Barrow’s real name was Amber Waterman, an alleged murderer, who had joined the group to find pregnant women she could kidnap, kill and, possibly, steal their unborn children.
She eventually found her victim, 33-year-old mother-to-be Ashley Bush, most likely through the Facebook group, according to the FBI. Waterman has been accused of kidnapping Bush, shooting her, removing the child from her womb and presenting the deceased infant to emergency responders, before burning and hiding the victim’s body near her home. Waterman pleaded not guilty in December and awaits trial in June.
It was a high-profile killing, garnering local and national press, though Waterman’s alleged use of the moms’ group has not been previously reported. Yet it does not appear that users like Kelly (not her real name) or two of the moms running the group were ever told about the allegations around Waterman and her “Lucy Barrow” persona. Nor were they aware that the FBI had searched their private Facebook forum.
In December, the FBI told Facebook to provide posts from within the group (which Forbes was unable to view because of its privacy settings), as well as names and addresses of the person who created the forum, and any videos and photos shared by members, according to a search warrant reviewed by Forbes. The government also asked for “all activity logs” for the group, “and all other documents showing the group’s posts and other Facebook activities from October 24 2022 to November 3 2022.”
It was Facebook’s “responsibility to notify us that there’s something like that going on so we can protect our information.”
A moderator of the Facebook group
While the government’s filings with the Arkansas court don’t detail what precise information was provided by Facebook, they make it clear group information was sent to the FBI within a day of the warrant being signed. A federal agent, writing in the search warrant, said that “by obtaining information from this Facebook group, I believe that additional witnesses can be identified and interviewed.”
When Forbes made one of two group administrators aware of the FBI’s claims around Waterman’s Facebook activities and the government search of their group’s data, she said she had no knowledge of the case or the warrant, telling Forbes, “There’s nothing to search . . . This has nothing to do with me.” She later closed the group’s landing page so members of the public couldn’t see any identifying details on admins, moderators or metadata on group activity. The group was already set to private, users having to apply for entry and assure admins they lived in northwest Arkansas.
One group moderator responsible for upholding the group’s rules felt that the search unnecessarily infringed on its members’ privacy, adding that she was “shocked and concerned” by the government’s action. “I mean, none of that stuff is any of their business. If they’ve already caught the person, then why investigate the group?” She said it was Facebook’s “responsibility to notify us that there’s something like that going on so we can protect our information.”
Meta doesn’t have a public policy on how it discloses searches to a group. But Meta spokesperson Dani Lever said that while the company couldn’t comment on an ongoing investigations, the company will inform a group’s creator of any government searches via email. It will not notify other administrators, moderators or members. The only time Meta wouldn’t disclose to a group creator would be because of a gag order, or if there were “exceptional circumstances, such as where a child is at risk of harm, emergencies or when notice would be counterproductive.” “We provide notifications in a manner that protects user privacy and public safety,” Lever added.
In the Waterman case, Meta said the creator admin of the group was notified. The administrator Forbes first contacted didn’t respond to further requests for comment on whether or not she created the group, or if she had checked her email for any Facebook disclosure. The second administrator didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“The fact that you’re collecting information about this group, and frankly, if there’s a potential murderer in this forum, it’s probably a good thing for these people to know.”
Alan Butler, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center
Like all technology companies, Facebook often has to find a balance between providing data to the government to assist investigations and protecting user privacy. But in the Waterman murder case, it’s unclear why the government asked for data from the group in the first place. According to the warrant, it had already searched the Barrow Facebook account and claimed to have substantial evidence of Waterman’s guilt, including blood in her car and an interview with her husband, in which he said his wife had admitted to killing Bush—saying “Lucy” had done it—and he had helped her burn and hide the body, which was found near their property. (The husband, Jamie Waterman, has also pleaded not guilty). The Department of Justice said it could not comment on why it needed to search the group having already inspected the Barrow profile, as well as Waterman’s Google account.
The case also raises questions about Facebook’s disclosure policy when it comes to private groups, and whether it should disclose that a group is being searched to all its members. Alan Butler, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), said that by the government’s own admission, it was searching the group for potential witnesses, who should have been told they were being roped into a murder investigation.
“The fact that you’re collecting information about this group, and frankly, if there’s a potential murderer in this forum, it’s probably a good thing for these people to know,” Butler said. Given how much sensitive information Facebook users share in what are perceived to be private settings, it is “incumbent on Facebook to have clear policies, especially about notification,” he added.
Despite investigators’ claims that Waterman used the Lucy Barrow account to stalk pregnant women, and Facebook’s prohibition on fake users and harassment, the profile remained online until Friday when Forbes made Meta aware. Up top was a recipe for a hot cocoa recipe and a meme with a woman holding a human-size coffee cup with the tagline, “Monday morning ready!” Further down was another post, “I have a bunch of baby items if any moms-to-be need them.” Just below, a photo of a moon, half-eclipsed.