While the Denison Police Department said Breana Harmon-Talbott’s abduction and sexual assault claims were fabricated and she was arrested for making a false report, the repercussions of such a hoax can linger and bring up a complicated local history.
After 18-year-old Harmon-Talbott told police on March 8 that three black men kidnapped her and took her to a wooded area where they raped her, the story spread on social media. Shortly after Harmon-Talbott was found at a Denison church that evening, her mother posted about the incident on Facebook.
“This is going to be a brutally honest post. Today my daughter, Breana Harmon Talbott was taken by force by 3 black men. 2 raped her and she is cut head to toe by a knife. They took her engagement ring, her class ring, her earrings, her baby T necklace, everything she had on. She was able to run and ran into a church, bleeding from head to toe with no pants on. Someone had to have saw something!!! This town is small, if anyone, anyone hears ANYTHING, please call the denison police department.”
The post was shared on social media thousands of times and garnered hundreds of comments. Several white supremacist and Alt-Right groups picked up the story to promote the supposed prevalence of black-on-white crime and alleged a lack of reporting on the topic by the mainstream media.
While Denison Police Chief Jay Burch released a statement last week saying the report was a hoax and outlining what police found, he also noted the effect of social media on the investigation. He said that at times the comments and opinions were initially detrimental and even slowed the investigation as they created fires for the department to put out.
The harm caused
In last week’s statement, Burch noted the harm that such a hoax can have on the community and the city’s reputation.
“Breana Harmon-Talbott’s hoax was also insulting to our community and especially offensive to the African-American community due to her description of the so-called suspects in her hoax,” Burch said. “The anger and hurt caused from such a hoax are difficult and all so unnecessary.”
Police Lt. Mike Eppler said on Monday that the worst part of the whole ordeal was that it made residents fearful. He said the hoax damages the community because people may remember the initial allegations but not the outcome.
“When people say a certain group of people, a certain race of people, did something — and of course at this point we don’t know what her motive for the whole thing was — but it inflames relations,” Eppler said. “It inflames feelings and emotions whenever somebody blames a certain race of people for something that is just not true.”
Denison City Council member Bill Malvern Sr. said the hoax could have had many negative effects for the community. He said the city has its problems but on the surface those problems have never really been that bad. He said groups that dislike African Americans and the like were looking for something like this hoax in order to stir up trouble.
“It could have caused someone to get hurt,” Malvern said. “Thank God people here didn’t react that way — the majority of them didn’t.”
Bishop Charles Brown Sr. of New Birth Cathedral of Praise also said this hoax could have cost somebody a life. He noted that some groups, like white supremacists, were waiting for a story like this so they could promote their agenda. He said the first thing people must understand from this incident is that racism is alive and well.
“The history of it is a long history; I’m 75 years old and this happened when I was kid when I was growing up — as a teenager,” Brown said. “There were a lot of blacks accused of a lot of things. The repercussion is that it could ruin anyone of our lives as a minority or as black people — it could really ruin our lives.”
Reminiscent of a dark history
When Malvern was a child, he remembers his grandparents not wanting him to go Sherman as memories of the courthouse burning still lingered and other problems persisted.
An article on the Texas State Historical Association website outlines the event known as the Sherman Riot of 1930. On May 3 of that year, George Hughes, a black farm hand, was accused of raping a white woman. Hughes was taken into custody and later a grand jury indicted him for criminal assault.
According to the article, in the days leading up to the trial, rumors circulated that Hughes had mutilated the woman, and officers took Hughes to an undisclosed location in order prevent mob violence.
On May 9, Hughes was taken to the courthouse for the trial proceedings. A crowd formed around and inside the courthouse and eventually burst into the courtroom. The jury was sent away and Hughes was secured in the district court vault.
Officials attempted to keep the mob at bay, but in the afternoon a fire was started and it spread. Hughes remained in the vault and after the fire consumed the structure leaving only the vault and building walls, the mob eventually made entry into the vault shortly before midnight. According to the article, Hughes’ body was dragged behind a car and then hung from a tree in the black business section of town.
By morning, most of the black businesses were burned down. Later that day the Texas National Guard took control of the city and the state governor declared martial law. Suspects were arrested and by October of that year, two men were convicted for the related crimes. The article notes that one conviction was for rioting and the other for arson, and both were two-year sentences.
Malvern said he’s glad the reactions to the allegations from the hoax didn’t reach that level but he noted that many in the community knew that a story like Harmon-Talbott’s could have caused major problems. He said relations between races in Denison have generally been positive over the years.
“Even growing up we didn’t think much about it — things were what they were and that’s when we accepted them,” Malvern said. “Racial-wise I’ve never seen a big problem. I know she could have caused a major problem had there been a lot more negative people around. Thank God most people get along.”
Lisa M. Brown, a professor of psychology at Austin College, said she wasn’t surprised by the type of comments and opinions displayed on social media as they fed into common racial stereotypes. For those who may have held stereotypes that black men are hostile, aggressive and sexual predators, she said the initial allegations confirmed those ideas for them.
“In the business, we call that a confirmation bias,” Brown said. “That people don’t attend to disconfirming instances and only attend to confirming instances of whatever their preconceived ideas are.”
So by taking parts of the alleged incident to confirm preconceived ideas, Brown said they then used that to promote a particular agenda, which in this case turned out to be far from the truth.
“It would have been bad enough if it actually was true, but the fact that it wasn’t is all the worse,” Brown said.
Bishop Charles Brown Sr. of New Birth Cathedral of Praise said people need to take a good look at these situations before blame is placed. He said they also need to let law enforcement do their job before they get involved as it was the police who confirmed that it was a hoax.
“But before they found out it was a hoax there was a lot that was said, a lot of accusations,” Charles Brown said. “I think we need to let law enforcement do their job before we come up with any of our reasons why these things happened.”
In a news conference last week, Burch said race doesn’t play a role in the investigative process. For police, a race description of potential suspects just helps eliminate other options for suspects.
“Despite what people say and think, race didn’t play any part of this and it’s almost amusing to me when you look at other hoax cases that get attention that somehow a victim, or an alleged victim, describes a certain race as suspects — that that’s going to motivate the police department in one direction or another,” Burch said. “It doesn’t.”
Where people get information
Burch noted that some people tend to believe what they read on social media as true and form judgments without knowing all the facts.
“The main thing is just let us do our job, give us time, let us try to figure out what happened in a particular crime,” Burch said.
For instances like this hoax, Brown said a lot of it depends on where people get their news. She noted that local news outlets, in her opinion, did not feed into the inflammatory racial nature of the allegations.
“People on social media, they are not trained in journalism — to wait until you really have all the facts,” Brown said. “No, people just spreading their opinions before they have facts and that’s where it sort of took off and ran. To me, I think it just reiterates this point that if you’re really trying to get news, get it from an actual news outlet. Social media is not a news outlet, it’s an opinion outlet.”
She also noted that news outlets are self-correcting and they’ll admit and fix when facts are not reported properly.
“If you really want news, you really need to get it from some outlet where people actually care about the facts and actually have gotten some training about how to collect facts,” Brown said. “Social media is not that place. Because too often people will hear something and because they personally see it as some major injustice and they’ll go off and running before all the facts are in.”
Eppler said a lot of people on social media said they had information about the incident, so if people have genuine information about a crime, he said they need to tell police.
Bishop Charles Brown Sr. of New Birth Cathedral of Praise said the way the allegations were framed in this instance, there was something off about it.
“I’m not a guy that’s on social media that much, but when it first came out, I was cautioned of the accusation that it was three black guys and what had happened and how she was found,” Charles Brown said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see real quick that something was wrong with the picture.”
Lisa M. Brown said the misreporting of rape is low, however, rape is far more under reported because of the nature of the crime and the stigmas often attached. She said when a false rape allegation like this becomes prominent, it becomes a salient example that naysayers latch onto.
Eppler said they want to encourage people to always report crimes, and noted that sexual assault is often hard for people to report. He said a hoax like this just makes it that much harder for people to report.
From this incident, Lisa M. Brown said there are lessons people should take away, such as waiting for the facts and not jumping to conclusions.
“Be quick to listen but be slow to judge and even slower to act because you want to make sure when you act you have all the relevant facts and not just part of the relevant facts,” Lisa M. Brown said. “We particularly need that if we have any preconceptions that would lead us potentially down the wrong path.”
Police have not said what Harmon-Talbott’s motive was for the hoax, and attempts to reach her were unsuccessful Tuesday as her phone number was disconnected, changed or no longer in service.
“I know that could have blossomed into something real bad,” Malvern said. “I’m just glad it didn’t.”