By the time the police chief stepped in front of the city council Monday night in Twin Falls, the whispers swirling around the quiet Idaho farming town of 44,000 had turned into an angry roar.
One thing seemed clear: a 5-year-old girl had been sexually assaulted.
But a judge had sealed details of the alleged incident from public view, and half-truths, wild speculation and rumors now filled the information void.
These stories floated around town and bubbled up on blogs and social media, a toxic stew that was hardening into fact.
Before she was sexually assaulted, the child had been dragged into a laundry room and stripped naked and had a knife pressed against her neck. That was one version of the story being shared around Twin Falls and beyond.
Some said that one of the perpetrators was “coaching” the others during the attack and that the young victim had been filmed and urinated on before her assailants celebrated the crime with their families.
While the sordid and shocking details differed, one element to this already horrific story kept spreading: The June 2 assault was said to have been carried out by a violent gang of young Syrian refugees who had taken over a low-income housing complex on the northern edge of town.
And despite an abundance of evidence, some locals and blogs said, police were now refusing to arrest the perpetrators because, of all things, a simple language barrier that had stalled the investigation.
City officials were accused of manufacturing a cover-up that was designed to downplay a new crime wave that followed an influx of lawless Muslim refugees who had arrived via a federal resettlement program.
The terrible incident, critics said, was the latest example of officials sacrificing public safety for political correctness.
Dispelling the rumors
The problem, as Twin Falls Police Chief Craig Kingsbury explained at Monday’s council meeting, was that large portions of the prevailing narrative were false.
The misinformation was so potent, the chief would later tell The Washington Post, that it threatened to compromise this sexual assault investigation as well as others in the future.
Now it was up to the chief, in only his sixth month on the job, to set the record straight.
“The No. 1 priority is the victim,” Kingsbury said. “We can’t forget this. We have a young girl who has been victimized.”
But, he added: “There’s a lot of disinformation on social media. I don’t know if they made it up or what, but it’s just not true.”
To begin with, the chief said, the victim had not been raped but was believed to have been sexually assaulted.
Two individuals alleged to have been involved with the assault were arrested and taken to a juvenile detention center.
The suspects were not from Syria, but from Sudan and Iraq.
Reports that a knife was used in the incident were also false, the chief said.
“There’s some stuff on social media that the suspect or subjects’ fathers were high-fiving and congratulating the boys on this incident,” he said. “We have no evidence at all that that occurred. We’ve been asked if the Twin Falls City Council covered up this incident and the answer to that adamantly is no.”
An investigation was not only pursued, the chief said, but it had been completed and turned over to Twin Falls County Prosecuting Attorney Grant P. Loebs.
“There was no gang rape, there was no Syrian involvement, there were no Syrian refugees involved, there was no knife used, there was no inactivity by the police,” Loebs said, according to the Spokesman-Review. “I’m looking at the Drudge Report headline: ‘Syrian Refugees Rape Little Girl at Knifepoint in Idaho’ – all false.”
‘ISIS is here, the Muslim Brotherhood is here’
In recent months, rhetoric over Muslims and refugees has become especially heated.
In December, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump called on the federal government to enact a “total and complete ban” of Muslims from entering the United States.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted weeks earlier, after the Paris terrorist attacks, found that 54 percent of respondents opposed taking in refugees from conflicts in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries after screening them for security. Forty percent opposed this “strongly.” Opposition to accepting refugees was even higher (68 percent) among respondents in rural areas.
At a city council meeting in Twin Falls earlier this month, some community members confronted local officials about Muslims and refugees in the area.
“I feel like Twin Falls should be — I’m not a racist or a white supremacist — but they should be profiling,” said one man. “It works. I mean, if the last two mass shootings have been committed by Muslims, why aren’t we profiling Muslims? It makes sense, doesn’t it?”
Said another: “I’m just alerting you to the facts that if you don’t get your head wired to your posterior, you folks are going to be with a mic in front of your face trying to answer questions about Islam, the Koran, the Hadith, the Sunnah, and you’re going to act like a bunch of morons because you don’t have a clue as to what’s going on in this community, and other communities that are receiving refugees.
“ISIS is here; the Muslim Brotherhood is here,” the man continued. “There’s been violations already occurred by Muslims here and it needs to be addressed, and if you don’t address it, there’s going to be heck to pay.”
“I am infuriated by this act of horrific brutality,” Seth Willard Robert wrote on a Facebook community devoted to the victim that quickly evolved into a forum on politics and religion. “It is the way of Sharia-Law. It cannot, will not, nor should ever be tolerated. This young girl is only the first victim of this terror. It is not race that bothers me, it is culture and way of life.”
Some conservative media outlets reported that Muslim refugees had been involved in hit-and-run incidents and were witnessed spitting on non-Muslims in the area.
“Residents in Twin Falls have been worried about the impact of an increasing influx of refugees, many from jihad-coddling countries, over the past several years,” conservative commentator Michelle Malkin wrote this week. “Their concerns about crime, welfare, health care, and schools echo those of communities across the country that are bearing the coercive brunt of Beltway bleeding hearts’ refugee-resettlement policies enacted in a shroud of secrecy.”
‘We don’t know where this Syrian piece has come from.’
Since the beginning of the 2011 fiscal year, 57 Syrian refugees have been resettled to Idaho, yet some websites claim that hundreds of Syrian refugees have resettled in the state.
No Syrian refugees have been resettled in Twin Falls.
City manager Travis Rothweiler told The Washington Post that he wasn’t sure how the rumors connecting the incident to Syrian refugees began.
“We don’t know where this Syrian piece has come from,” he said. “Because the individuals who have presented before the city council have always talked about refugees with an Islamic faith or background. So the piece about Syria and its connection is one that I just, I can’t answer.”
A headline on Infowars read: “Report: Three Syrian ‘Refugees’ Rape Little Girl at Knifepoint in Idaho.” The report was from the Creeping Sharia blog, which cited a post on Behind My Back under the headline: “Fear of Terrorism in Idaho?”
The suspects taken into custody were from Sudan and Iraq. Little else is known about their backgrounds.
Since 2011, 842 Iraqi refugees have been resettled in Idaho, with 216 of them resettling in Twin Falls, according to figures from the federal government’s Refugee Processing Center. Another 213 Sudanese refugees have been resettled in Idaho, including 161 in Twin Falls.
Islam is the dominant religion in both countries.
“This story reveals how Muslim refugees never can be totally vetted and there is no way of assessing the violence they will commit due to their ideology and culture,” a post on the Dr. Rich Swier blog said. “Yet, the Twin Falls local government continues to disregard the local citizens well-founded questions about the refugee program and the federal government continues to accelerate it, damn the consequences.”
The blog Refugee Resettlement Watch posted on the case, writing: “There are stories swirling on the internet that a gang of refugee juveniles raped a 4-year old girl and that the police are mum because everyone knows this would be a bombshell in a community already on edge about refugees being poured into the area.”
Loebs, the prosecutor, told the Idaho Statesman that the disinformation campaign wasn’t limited to the blogosphere; it also stemmed from “a small group” in the county whose goal, he said, is to eliminate refugees.
Zeze Rwasama, director of the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Programs, said in a phone interview that “the whole story was wrong,” at least as it was spreading on social media.
“I know that that wasn’t the truth,” he said. “But also I thought that some other people that have a different agenda are just pushing wrong information to members of this community, which is unfair.”
‘Rumors can present real problems’
With so much false information out there, the police chief Kingsbury said, “it’s hard to unring a bell.”
But in sexual assault cases, he said, inaccurate rumors can present real problems for investigators: When false rumors spread, witnesses or victims may become less likely to talk, in current and future cases.
The evidence collection process is a methodical one, Kingsbury noted, and anything that threatens to speed it up can be compromising. There is also the very real possibility of re-victimizing the victim, he said.
But Kingsbury said he is cognizant of “the fears that are out there.”
“As a chief of police, I certainly understand the fears across this country,” he said. “And whenever we have a scary incident in this country — like in San Bernardino or more recently in Orlando — we, as Americans, get apprehensive, and as a chief law enforcement officer I try to remain sensitive to that.”
Despite his attempts to set the record straight Monday night, some locals made statements to the council that suggested they weren’t convinced officials were taking a potential threat seriously.
“The Nation of Islam has declared global jihad on us,” one woman said. “And Obama, this administration, is bringing them in, as fast as he possibly can. Now why do you think he’s doing that? Do you think it’s out of the goodness of his heart? It isn’t.
“There is a war on the American people and you people are allowing the importation of these people — these people who have declared war on us — you’re bringing them in. And this little girl who was attacked, she’s just one episode.”
“This is my country, dammit,” another added. “And bringing in these people from other countries — if they don’t abide by our rules, they need to get the hell back to their country.”
Said Rothweiler, the city manager: “I want to believe that the community of Twin Falls is open; I want to believe that the community of Twin Falls is welcoming. That we love our neighbors — regardless of individual backgrounds or circumstances. And that we have the ability to find ways of tolerance and extend that through grace.”
He noted that “a lot of the conversation” happening now “is probably some of the similar conversations that you’re hearing and seeing presented across the country.”
But, he added: “That doesn’t diminish the fact that a 5-year-old little girl is the victim of a crime.”