Facebook Wars Erupt Over Colorado Teen's Killing

08/22/2013 03:47 pm ET | Updated Oct 22, 2013

Dylan Redwine, 13, is one of the most popular kids on Facebook. Tragically, he reached that status after his death. Some of his bones were found this summer on a woodsy hill a mile from his divorced dad's Colorado home. Dylan vanished during a court-ordered Thanksgiving visit last year with pop Mark Redwine, whose house near Vallecito Lake was searched by police for the third time last week.

Dylan last texted friends the night before he was reported missing. "I do believe Mark had something to do with Dylan's disappearance," the teen's anguished mom, Elaine Redwine, said on a grueling Dr. Phil episode featuring the warring couple before Dylan's remains were found. Mark Redwine told police he noticed Dylan was gone when he returned from errands the day after the teen arrived. He speculated on TV that his ex-wife, who lives six hours away near Colorado Springs, was linked to Dylan's disappearance -- a theory Dr. Phil didn't seem to buy.

Police have launched a criminal investigation into Dylan's death. But at least one forensics expert worries there may not be enough of Dylan's remains to determine a cause of death, making a case against a killer problematical. Investigators haven't named a suspect. The possibility of Dylan's killer getting away with murder has sparked a particularly vicious Facebook battle, marking the first time a crime has been widely, often poisonously, debated on the site before anyone has been arrested, or even named. Facebook isn't up to the challenge. The vilest comments and pages remain, while many positive posts, such as those merely offering prayers for Dylan, are removed because of canny Terms of Service violation reports. The battle is so vicious that many are now too intimidated to post anything.

Some 55 different Facebook pages have remarked on the case or been established specifically to attack various critics -- or supporters -- of Mark Redwine. Some posters have joined the fight simply to stir the pot, like "stone throwers who join a riot for fun," noted one poster. Attacks on either side often take on a sexist bent, calling women "fugly," and whores, sluts and bitches. Photos of women and their kids snatched from pages are attached to vaguely threatening comments.

A more sophisticated battle involves roping an often clueless Facebook into gratuitous censorship, which is hitting hard at several pages, including the most popular, Find Missing Dylan Redwine, which boasts close to 30,000 followers. The page was launched by a friend at the request of Dylan's mom as a plea for help and tips when the teen first went missing, and has now drawn posters from around the world and is beginning to become a spot for updates about other missing children. (A series of short videos by Mark Redwine exploring the vicinity where his son's bones were found have been posted on another page.) Even innocuous comments on Find Missing Dylan Redwine have been removed by Facebook, page administrators suspect, because certain posters have been targeted by a coordinated group of people who pepper Facebook with complaints. One poster on another page recently boasted that fake copyright complaints were a quick, easy way to get posts bounced. A heartfelt message from Dylan's mom "telling the world how much she loves her son and how his death has devastated her" was also removed, because "someone, somewhere reported her love as offensive," a friend told me. Posters on many pages have been given "timeouts" by Facebook for up to 30 days, and some have been threatened with lifetime bans for Terms of Service violations. My own post to the Find Missing Dylan Redwine page, simply seeking contact with one of the posters, was removed by Facebook. I was given a stern warning that my message violated Facebook's rules. A message to me from a poster on a "rival page" was similarly removed.

Facebook is aware of the controversy, but refuses to discuss specifics on the record. "We maintain a robust reporting infrastructure to keep an eye out for offensive or potentially dangerous content," said a statement in response to questions. A "trained team of reviewers" respond to complaints and determine if posts violate Facebook rules concerning issues such as hate speech and harassment, according to the statement.

Facebook was beneficial initially because it got the word out nationally that Dylan was missing, Mark Redwine told me, but it has since deeply divided the community and heightened conflict between him and his ex-wife at a time he believes they should be sharing information. "I don't know how you enact justice when you don't know the facts," said Redwine. "Those who know me know I would never hurt my son. People want to put a noose around my neck and hang me. You can hang me all you want, but it's not going to bring Dylan back."

Facebook interactions can be reminiscent of the "Wild West," warns University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Dominique Brossard, who researches Internet communication and the media. "We don't quite know what the norm should be," she said. Unlike in conversations in a local coffee shop, where Dylan's killing would have been discussed pre-Facebook, Internet posters avoid face-to-face consequences, and don't have a group surrounding them who would deter most people from screaming "bitch" at a woman during a disagreement. Some posters try to police themselves, says Brossard, but she also believes Facebook should be more "proactive" about civilizing dialogue.

Investigators, meanwhile, aren't tipping their hand in the hunt for a killer. Sections of carpeting and wood flooring, a fireplace poker and a cell phone were removed from Redwine's home in last week's search, Redwine told KUSA-TV in Denver. They also dug a hole in his back yard, he said. "I welcome the search," Redwine told me.

Those who loved Dylan Redwine continue to battle it out on Facebook as they wait. The hunt for justice, noted one, is "bigger than Internet trolls."