Shelby Allen Hill had a rotten morning.[quote_box_right]She said it should be a lesson for everyone on the danger of words and how easy it is to damage an innocent person.[/quote_box_right]
The Tortosa resident took his wife to the hospital early Tuesday for an appendectomy. When he returned home and was talking to a neighbor in front of his house, a woman drove by and took his photo.
“I’m looking at this person like, ‘Why are you taking pictures of ME?’” Hill said.
That seemed to be a random moment of weirdness until the social media posts accusing him of being a rapist and molester.
“It’s not just disrespectful; it’s very hurtful and harmful, especially in the times that’s going on,” Hill said. “I’m not even that type of person… It doesn’t even seem real. It makes me want to cry.”
It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity.
Hill, 28, was fortunate enough to have an alibi for the time of the accusation being made against him, but the damage was done as the posts were shared around town on various platforms.
Specifically, another Tortosa resident named Heidi Navarro announced on the Facebook group “Maricopa Crime, Traffic and Safety Alerts” that her teenage daughter had been approached by a stranger at a park at 5:55 a.m. He tried to “lure her” and “kept trying to approach,” saying his friends were stranded at the casino and he wanted her help. Navarro said the man kept pressuring the 16 year old and “was clearly not going to stop” until two residents came into sight. The girl phoned her mother and told her she was calling 911.
Navarro, who said she drove the neighborhood for 20 minutes looking for the man, posted a description for the Facebook group: a 5-foot-5 to 5-foot-6 African American male, late 20s to early 30s, skinny to medium built with a slight beer belly, shoulder length dreadlocks and a Nigerian accent. She also claimed a police officer told a neighbor the description matched a sex offender who had been in jail for raping a 13-year-old girl and had gotten out on a technicality.
And then she included a photo – the snapshot of Hill in front of his house.
Navarro said someone else took the photo of Hill because he fit the description and was even wearing the same style of shorts. Navarro showed the photo to those who could recognize the suspect from the park, and each said it was the guy.
“I was confident it was him or I wouldn’t have posted it,” Navarro said.
Then it began to be shared on other Facebook groups and pages, as well as NextDoor.
“I woke up to a million notifications from Facebook where people saw my husband’s picture posted,” said Hill’s wife, Nesha Callahan.
Most concerning were the threatening replies to the posts: “Where does he live? I’ll go over with a machete.”
Callahan said she responded to Navarro and told her Shelby was not the man and they had just returned from the hospital. Hill even gave her his vitals and told her to check out his background, which, while a bit checkered, does not include sex offenses.
“I don’t look anything like that. It’s crazy,” he said. “You say, ‘slight beer belly’? I clearly have an eight-pack; I’m sorry. And I definitely do not talk with a Nigerian accent. I was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. I sound like a New Englander.”
Navarro posted again, apologizing to the Hill family but saying Shelby could have been the culprit’s twin and the rest of the information was accurate. Then she posted his photo again, saying she wanted to let people know who the suspect wasn’t.
“I deeply and sincerely apologize for causing grief to your family and hope you will forgive me,” she wrote to the Hills in one post.
But Callahan said she felt she was still inferring her husband looked like a rapist and the posts and shares were still out there and the Hill family was still being virtually attacked.
Navarro, hurt that her lengthy apology was dismissed as insincere, said too many play the victim on social media when the real community concern should be the possibility of a child molester living nearby and endangering their kids.
The Hills have many friends who came to Shelby’s defense. The blowback on Navarro was swift and became as dark, threatening and nasty as the attacks on Hill.
“To try to completely destroy a family that did nothing but try to protect the kids in the neighborhood is outrageous to me,” Navarro said. “They accused me of lying, of making things up, of being racist and saying all Black people look the same. I saw several indirect threats toward me.”
She denied emphatically that she is a racist, saying she has family and friends who are Black and beloved by her.
“I’m really truly not what is being portrayed,” Navarro said. “Everybody is so out of control, and it has turned this into something else and made it out like I’m lying about everything. I don’t have time to sit around doing things like that.”
She rejects claims that she said all Black people look alike. She said Hill had striking similarities to the suspect, from the dreadlocks to the shorts. That suspect had a larger forehead, darker skin and the foreign accent. Navarro said those were the only things that distinguished the two.
“I would NEVER cause destruction of any kind toward someone or their family purposefully and I’m truly sorry I cause[d] such a mess,” Navarro wrote in her apology. “To be clear, this is not racial or me profiling in any way and if you knew me personally, that would be quite clear. People are people and made by God in his image. We are fearfully, wonderfully and beautifully made. This includes your family and mine. I see no difference.”
Hill said it definitely came across as racial profiling and cyberbullying. He said it’s been years since he was falsely accused of anything: “As a child, yeah, like taking cookies.”
Callahan said her husband is the “friendliest guy I know,” and their friends quickly tried to find all posts and get them taken down. With Callahan recovering from her medical procedure and Hill in shock, neighbors came by with flowers, cards and commiseration.
Family friend Jill Davis was among those working to get the erroneous posts taken down and “repair his reputation.” She said it should be a lesson for everyone on the danger of words and how easy it is to damage an innocent person.
Alzira Lopes, who is acquainted with the Hills through a local cheer gym, said the situation was very personal for her.
“It’s something serious to put that on Facebook without having facts,” she said. “Basically, she just took a picture and put it up and said this happened, with no proof, no anything. That can happen to anyone, that’s the scary part. I find it very appalling. To think that someone can, with one keystroke, ruin your life. I’m afraid that this young man now has a bull’s eye on his back.”
Navarro said the way her apology was “thrown back in my face” and she was disparaged made her family a target, too. She said she was disappointed in Maricopa.
“This community makes such a big freaking deal about, ‘Oh, we’re so helpful to each other. Oh, this is a great community. We’re so supportive. Oh, we’re not racist.’ Everybody that posted that crap was racist,” Navarro said. “That’s what they’re doing. They’re praising themselves, thinking they’re such great people. And look at what they did to the victim.”
Around the corner, some friends told Callahan she should stay quiet and let the misidentification of her husband blow over, but she instinctively felt “molesters don’t blow over, especially a guy with dreadlocks and tattoos.”
Hill said he’s worried their daughters will catch the backlash for Navarro’s mistake.
Navarro said her daughter is afraid and has been victimized twice, by the suspect in the park and by the social media community in town.
“She’s a wreck,” Navarro said of her daughter. “She said, ‘This happened to me, not to them. I can’t believe these adults are making it about them.’ I cried the entire day yesterday.”
But Hill remains frustrated.
“Why would you even post a photo of a random person? That’s not fair,” he said. “I’m really mind-boggled that somebody would want to do this to anybody. I’m in fear for my life. I can’t even leave the house to go to the store.”
Meanwhile, the man who allegedly harassed the teenager that morning in the park remains unknown.