Permanent Record: Tracking a Murder Suspect Through Social Media

by Dax-Devlon Ross

Part 1 in a series

In the early morning hours of July 28th Garland, Texas police received a 911 call regarding a possible domestic dispute at the Country Creek Apartments. Upon arriving just short of 1:30 a.m. they discovered the body of a 45-year-old resident named Zulema McColgan. She’d been beaten to death. Her vehicle, a Black Dodge Durango, was missing. The primary suspect in the murder was the dead woman’s boyfriend, 39 year-old Sisro Johnson. He was no where to be found. An interstate manhunt began. Less than a day later Zulema’s Durango sped past a Nebraska State Trooper. By then, the vehicle had traveled close to 600 miles from its point of origin, clearing two states – Oklahoma and Kansas – in the process. The vehicle’s most likely path North had led up the President George Bush Turnpike and onto one interstate highway after another until finally landing on I-75 North just outside of Richardson County.

Where was he going?

“He was just running,” Greg Newsome said in a phone interview from Plano. Until Greg’s mother informally adopted him at age 18, Sisro had spent most of his adolescence bouncing between fosters homes. “He was just driving ‘til he couldn’t drive no more.” Greg has known Sisro since the latter’s days at Plano East High. Back then, according to Newsome, Sisro was the state’s top linebacker prospect. His combination of size, strength and speed had major college football programs drooling. But then he caught a theft charge that delayed his graduation a year and effectively ended his football dreams. Though Sisro would go on to graduate, the theft signaled the start of a string of arrests the most recent of which culminated in a chasm between Sisro and the Newsome family. Greg wasn’t even aware that his younger brother had been released from prison until after he received a call from a former neighbor informing him that his mother’s old house had been ransacked by the police. Once he heard Sisro was on the run, he prayed. “He wasn’t going to go down just easy.” That wasn’t Sisro. Greg just hoped his brother didn’t give the police a reason to shoot.

Sisro initially pulled the vehicle over to side of the road when he saw the troopers swirling lights. Perhaps he thought he’d just get a ticket and be on his way. But then something happened. Maybe he thought better of it. Maybe he realized the trooper was running the plates and figured he may as well make a run for it. Maybe he didn’t think at all. The Durango sped off, leading the trooper on a high-speed chase the likes of which most of us have only seen on shows like Cops. The driver proved such a formidable absconder reinforcements had to be called in. The Durango reached 110 mph, traveling nearly a half hour and thirty miles before spike strips laid down by the Otoe County Sheriff derailed the getaway. Still, the chase lasted three more miles. Only then did the Durango come to a halt.

Again, Greg wasn’t surprised. One of Sisro’s previous convictions was for Failure to Stop and Render Aid. “He gave them a car chase then,” recalls Greg, quickly noting in brotherly fashion, “once they caught him he wasn’t physical or anything.”

Since learning about the murder of Zulema McColgan I’ve interviewed one of Sisro’s former employers, a romantic interest that preceded the victim, a foster brother, an adopted brother, and a family member of the victim. I’ve been on the phone with court clerks in three different counties, and even spoken to his parole officer, who quickly clammed up as soon as I mentioned I was a writer. But, so far, I’ve spent most of my time in the most unlikely of places: Facebook. In fact, the wall post below from my source in Dallas was the first I’d ever heard of Sisro Johnson or the murder:

The Toronto referred to was the subject of Make Me Believe, my recently published book about the execution of a Dallas native in the mid ‘90s. Through years researching and writing the book I became fairly knowledgeable about Dallas’s criminal justice legacy, Texas’s death penalty, the intersection between race and imprisonment, and the movement to exonerate the wrongfully convicted. Anyone who’s read my book, blogs, tweets or FB comments knows I’m an outspoken critic of the justicial practices that routinely derail innocent people’s lives. Everything I’ve learned about sloppy police work, slippery prosecutors, shoddy forensic experts, sucker juries, stupid defense attorneys, and shady witnesses has convinced me that the criminal justice system is either a complete success or an abject failure.

That said, my heart didn’t bleed at the sight of Sisro Johnson in prison attire and handcuffs. According to the FBI’s annual homicide data, males committed 90% of the 13,636 reported murders in 2009. More than 50% of those murders were committed by black men.  Of the 2009 female murder victims for whom their relationships to the offenders were known, 34.6% were murdered by their husbands or boyfriends. I don’t know for sure that Zulema’s death was precipitated by a domestic dispute, but I do know that 41.2% of known victims were murdered during arguments. In fact, the only two distinguishing characteristics of this murder were that the victim was Latina (97% of the reported murder victims in 2009 were white or black) and that Sisro’s weapon of choice was his bare hands (72% of 2009 murders involved the use of firearms). Otherwise, as far as I was concerned,  this was a mere garden variety homicide committed by a garden variety menace.

But then my Dallas source e-mailed Sisro’s criminal history:

1990-misdemeanor theft: received 1 year probation and a condition that he must graduate high school
1990-burglary of a vehicle: received 5yrs probation
1992-felony failure to render aid (lowered to misdemeanor): received 3
yrs TDCJ (probation revoked); time served + good time = 103 days
confinement; paroled until 1995
1992-misdemeanor evading arrest (in conjunction with above)
1993-DWI
1998-2nd degree felony aggravated assault causing serious bodily
injuries: received 25yrs TDCJ
Paroled in June 2010 (on paper until 2023)

Suddenly, I was interested. On one hand, Sisro’s criminal history struck me as scattered. He’d done a little of everything. On the other, his criminality was clearly intensifying with age. In the span of a year he’d matriculated from misdemeanor to felony. Over the next eight he’d graduated from property crimes to reckless endangerment crimes to intentionally violent crimes. That he’d received 25 years for the ‘98 assault was especially telling. The judge must’ve felt that the crime he committed was so egregious that it warranted the maximum sentence under the law. By this point I’d heard rumors about the exact nature of the crime. I didn’t know the facts, but according to people I began speaking with, it had either involved a girlfriend, a balcony and his arms pushing her off  or the same girlfriend and an argument that led to a violent exchange between his foot and her body. Either way, I was interested. The exact details of the assault conviction would have to wait, however. A new piece of information had entered my inbox:

I spent over an hour just looking at this screen shot of Sisro’s Twitter page, thinking about the man who’d posted these messages. He’d spent the previous dozen years in prison, meaning he’d entered the system when AOL was the internet giant and dial-up was cutting-edge technology. Now we chuckle at people with AOL e-mail addresses and get pissy when we can’t connect to the internet through a wireless network.

Sisro was an active tweeter for a grand total of a week before abandoning the web site. And as well he should’ve. Take a closer look at his first tweet. He had no idea what he was doing or how Twitter worked, let alone the sheer number of people in the Twittersphere. It was as if he mistook Twitter for a ’90s era chat room. The second tweet is more of the same: a lonely guy looking for friendship in the wrong place. By tweet three he was coming off as a full-fledged creep. Tweet four was little more than a desperate s.o.s sent into cyberspace. Given that he wasn’t following anyone and had no followers (plus the fact that there are God knows how many Kimberly Williams’s in the world), tweet five was about as effective as throwing a boomerang in outerspace.

The Twitter screenshot got me thinking. In an earlier exchange my source had informed me that Sisro was reconnecting with old friends through Facebook. I typed Sisro’s name into the search bar and voila:

Two weeks had passed since the murder and his Facebook page remained right where he’d left it, there for anyone to see, scroll through, click on. I was fascinated by what I saw. This Sisro wasn’t an ex-offender or recent parolee; he was a business owner and recent college graduate. Knowing what I knew, I couldn’t deny the sense that I was looking at a fabrication the contents of which illustrated everything wrong with social media and our preoccupation with it.

As luck would have it, the friend at the top of Sisro’s list when I visited his page was the former girlfriend he’s being accused of killing, Zulema Sue McColgan. If you were to scroll down to the bottom of his page you’d discover this:

This woman he was referring to was Zulema:

My best guess is that Sisro changed his “About Me” page at about the same time he posted the status update above, which would mean seven weeks before allegedly murdering Zulema, he’d expressed his intention to spend the rest of his life with her. And yet even then there is a shade of self-doubt, an almost desperate cry that suggested he knew he had a new lease on life, one he couldn’t afford to mismanage but knew he could.

As the days and weeks pass Sisro continued to express his love for Zulema on Facebook: 

This was the last update Sisro posted about Zulema. For the next five days he didn’t post any updates at all. Then late on the night of June 21st, six days before the murder, these appeared:

A day later he posted this on a friend’s page:

An hour later this showed up on the same friend’s wall:

Two more days pass before this exchange appeared on his wall:

Forty-eight hours later the police were looking for Sisro in connection with Zulema’s murder.

In the midst of my search I found a  resume he’d posted online:

Sisro had listed Zulema’s Garland, Texas address as his residence. But if he was living with her, why was he suddenly homeless and in need of a shelter? Had something happened between them? Had she put him out? I returned to his wall looking for clues. One post in particular caught my attention:

Why had this Samantha called him a “Loser” and what did “jkjk” mean? I looked it up on Urban Dictionary:

If this meant Samantha thought Sisro was, in fact, a “Loser” then I wanted to who she was and why she thought this. Obviously, my next step was sending Samantha a message. It was a shot in the dark, but I told her who I was and why I was contacting her. A few minutes later I got this response:

I wrote back explaining that I thought her mother’s story was important. She responded a second time, asking me what I wanted to know. I told her. Again, she responded:

I wrote back to Samantha asking more questions about her mother, but this time she didn’t respond. Days passed without a response.  I was left to ponder the single paragraph she sent me. I read it several times, gleaning it for information. Based on an interview with a former employer, I knew Sisro had found God in prison. I’d also come across  a few Facebook messages in which he shared his spiritual views.  But Sisro had clearly lied about his past, which meant Zulema had no idea the extent of his criminal history. This got me wondering. Did any of his Facebook friends know his criminal history? And if any did, what responsibility did they have to Zulema? Sisro was clearly very open about his relationship and it appeared as though he’d turned over a new, positive, spiritual leaf, but did that alone relieve his friends who’d heard the same rumors I’d heard about his domestic disputes of any responsibility to Zulema? I was personally torn. On one hand, Sisro deserved a fresh start. On the other, Zulema deserved the truth.

I returned to his Facebook wall and re-read his posts. This time around  I noticed how quickly he’d professed his love for a woman he’d just met and his compulsive need to declare and display this love publicly. Had Sisro smothered Zulema too quickly? Had she needed space? Had she asked him to leave for good on the 23rd? Was that why he was asking about an emergency shelter that day?

At yet another impasse, I decided to visit the site where their relationship had originated.

Flirt.com is a dating site designed to appeal to the younger set. It’s got a Facebook App (for women only), is mobile ready, and allows for instant chatting, poking, and virtual gift giving. Flirt is also part of a network of dating sites owned by Cupid.com, which, a simple Google search, reveals is linked to numerous false advertising and credit card scams. In effect, Flirt is a new name for shitty product.

In just minutes and without having to reveal any meaningful information other than an e-mail address I don’t use, I had my own account. From there I was able to start the selection process. Though I couldn’t search for people based on actual names, I could narrow my search by age, race, and locality. I suspected this was exactly how Zulema and Sisro had met. They’d both uploaded sparkling profiles, indicated their preferences and ultimately found one another. It was just that easy. But this is also what’s so troubling. There are zero safeguards beneath the friendly veneer of pretty, smiling, happy people. Flirt, like other tawdry dating sites, puts all of its energy into creating a world that appears innocuous. It even feigns a certain protectiveness by reducing all members to screen names and posting a privacy statement that purportedly limits the access other users have to your profile while reserving the company right to collect and sell data about its users. But what’s really telling are Flirt’s “Terms & Conditions” under which you’ll find the following:

Subsequent to reading this disclaimer it occurred to me that, though she probably didn’t know it, Zulema was on her own the moment she signed up for Flirt. Like many cut-rate online dating services, Flirt doesn’t prescreen or meaningfully protect users. Although we’re all perfectly aware of this, it’s easy to take for granted the extent to which prescreening permeates our social interactions. Consider the people in your life. Chances are you met them through someone or something you trust. Match.com’s claim that 1 in 5 relationships start online (highly debatable) notwithstanding, we tend to meet our friends and lovers in environments like school, church and work. And while these may not be failsafe, they provide a vital quality control function in so far as they have formal and informal entry requirements as well as clearly articulated consequences for transgressors. Flirt may as well call itself free-for-all.

Based on the timeframe Samantha provided, Zulema fell for the Sisro she met online so hard and fast that, after a certain point, it was too  late to look any deeper into his past. Moreover, if you’re Zulema, when and how do you ask someone you’ve met online and have fallen for  if they’ve been to prison for assaulting a previous girlfriend?

In recent years we’ve become accustomed to institutions, employers and would-be suitors using Google to prescreen for everything from college entrance to a job offer to a date. But how many of us think to conduct a criminal background search on someone we just met online? The other day I visited the Dallas County Online Record Search. I clicked on the Criminal Background link and typed in Sisro’s first and last name. A few seconds later I had the following information:

As backward as Dallas has historically been when it comes to its criminal justice legacy, I’m big enough to give the county props when it gets something right.  This service is right. Along with the current Murder charge, the free and public background search revealed a previous Aggravated Sexual Assault with a Deadly Weapon charge that was “no billed” (not enough evidence to prosecute). Furthermore, for a relatively nominal fee, Zulema could have run a criminal background search on the Texas Department of Public Safety web site that would have revealed the Cherokee County assault conviction for which he’d served a dozen years.

Although going through this kind of effort to uncover who we’re inviting into our lives may seem odd and onerous, it may no longer be avoidable. The survival instincts we’re accustomed to relying on to form judgments in face-to-face interactions are simply no match for the seductive architecture of social networking. Designers of sites like Facebook and Flirt are versed in the art of human interaction. They’ve built sites that are at once pacifying, inviting and gratifying, sites that encourage our trust through an insincere transparency that falsely offers us all the sheen of a clean slate on which to make ourselves anew. They even make a hullabalo about how important our privacy is to them when, really, it’s just business and we’re just customers.

Like thousands of everyday people, Zulema fell for the trap. Emoticons. Pokes. Likes. Virtual teddy bear gifts. Public declarations of love. If in fact Sisro is her murderer, he used every heart-warming tool in the social networking click-and-trick bag to win her over. And for a while it worked. Then, somewhere along the way, the novelty wore off.

Notwithstanding what happens in the courtroom when Sisro Johnson stands trial for murder, an unsettling record of his brief love affair with Zulema McColgan will remain etched on Facebook’s virtual walls for all to see, a record that reminds us that nothing is as it was or appears to be.

Next, “Could It Have Been Me?” A Woman Wonders if She Was Next

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