- File: Luke Awtry
- Jan Wright
This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2020.
I wrote a couple of stories last year about police using fake social media accounts to engage citizens — anonymously. After the practice brought down two top law enforcement officials in Burlington, I got an email from Kati Hime of Laramie, Wyo.
"I have a strong suspicion that we are in a similar situation ... regarding an officer here," Hime wrote to me on March 8. "I'm trying to learn what my options are."
When I spoke to Hime the following day, she told me the cop in question was her estranged brother, a deputy in Wyoming named Derek Colling. She suspected that Colling was using a Facebook profile under the name "Michael Seward" to defend his fatal shooting of Robbie Ramirez during a November 2018 traffic stop.
Colling had a checkered past in law enforcement. In 2009, he shot and killed a 15-year-old boy who was brandishing a knife; two years later, he beat and arrested a videographer who was filming police from his own property. After a recording of that encounter went viral, Colling lost his job. He went to work for his present employer in 2012.
In his posts, "Seward" seemed oddly familiar with Colling's past and used a similar writing style as Hime's brother, she said. Others agreed and reported the profile to Facebook, which prohibits fake accounts.
Hime wanted to know how I had been able to reveal that former Burlington police chief Brandon del Pozo was behind his online alias and how she might do the same to Colling. I told her del Pozo had lied when I first asked him about the account and that the truth only emerged months later when I confronted the mayor about it.
I suggested that Hime reach out to Andrew Graham, a Vermont native on staff at the nonprofit news organization Wyofile; Seven Days reporter Derek Brouwer had worked with him in Montana. I encouraged Hime to make public records requests and see what she could find.
Months later, I got an email from Graham, who had published Hime's story. He wasn't able to prove Colling was behind the account — the deputy denied it — but his inquiries convinced Facebook to shut down the Seward profile and two other suspected fakes. The story even gave a shout-out to Seven Days' coverage.
Graham's public records requests also turned up emails from Colling's boss, the county sheriff. In a message to another official, the sheriff described Hime as "difficult to listen to" and suggested that she needed "professional help," Wyofile reported.
The email wasn't the smoking gun that Hime had been seeking, but it confirmed her suspicions: Local cops often have a lot to say when they think no one is listening.