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Twitter is rape victim's lifeline

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 02:37 PM
TAMPA -

The victim's first cry for help was to police. Her second was to another lifeline, on Twitter.

Less than an hour after a 24-year-old Tampa woman reported she was raped at 7:30 a.m. Friday, 600 followers on her Twitter account learned that a suspect broke in to her home in Ybor City, a converted school bus she calls Wayne.

Just an hour after the assault, she posted this message: "Ybor — 6'2 black man with scruffy beard blue shirt tan shorts driving commercial truck call me. broke into wayne & raped me. Glad im alive."

Her decision to post the trauma online is an increasingly common — and dangerous — response for teens and young adults living in a transparent social media-crazed environment, said Leslie Kille, director of trauma recovery services for the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.

"They're not thinking about the impact of the information," Kille said. "She's leaving herself open to be re-victimized."

The woman spent more than two hours corresponding with others on Twitter, sharing details about the suspect and her reaction. Many of her friends responded by sharing the suspect's description on Twitter, and offering the victim their support.

The woman's tweets stopped at about 11:30 a.m., after a request by Tampa police investigators still looking for the suspect.

"I know it seems like I'm taking this lightly. I'm not," the woman wrote. "I'm just trying to get through this."

Police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said the victim's safety and the integrity of the criminal investigation were behind their request that she stop tweeting.

"There are things that clearly only the suspect knows, and we don't want it getting out there," Davis said.

The suspect, whom police described as a black male between 6 feet and 6 feet 2 inches with a dark complexion and short beard, remained the subject of an extensive police search, Davis said.

"There's certainly a different sense of urgency if the suspect is that brazen to do this in daylight hours — it's definitely something we're concerned about," she said.

Besides trying to catch a suspect, detectives are trying to build a court case. Information such as comments posted on social media sites can hurt. Davis said the victim in this case understood their request.

"There are things a defense attorney could look at in court," she said.

Social media has become an immediate emotional outlet for people experiencing a wide variety of trauma, whether it's a sexual assault or the killer tornados ravaging Midwestern towns, said Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics at the St. Petersburg-based Poynter Institute, a school for journalists.

"A victim's instinct is to reach toward social media. It's how they communicate to the world, and it gets their needs met," McBride said.

However, comments made immediately after a trauma can vary greatly to those made days and weeks later, she said.

"In the end, (victims are) shouldering all the pain," she said.

It's normal to want to be comforted following a trauma, but professional counselors are more equipped to help than online friends, Kille said. The Crisis Center is available 24 hours a day to speak with sexual assault victims.

She just wanted to reach out to friends, Kille said. It just happened that in this case, there were 600 of them.

That number increased by more than 100 within just a few hours after the report went public. Many of her new followers were members of the media. And just before 2:30 p.m., they saw her final post for the day:

"Thank you for everyone's support. I'm going to take the rest of today to start to recover," she wrote. "I will return msgs and everything when I can."

People in the Tampa Bay area can contact Crisis Center counselors by calling 211.

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