Police have a new recruit: Facebook

DEIDRE MUSSEN
Last updated 07:26 22/09/2012

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One of Sharny Abbott's final photographs shows him grinning with a group of young trampers in the Richmond Ranges.

When he failed to return from the tramp, Nelson police turned to social network website Facebook to find the young group, which gave searchers vital information about Abbott's route.

The Richmond man drowned after he slipped while crossing a flooded river, but his body was swiftly found, thanks to the group's information.

Christchurch police plan to become the latest policing area to embrace social media to help its work in protecting communities.

Over the past 16 months, Tasman district police communications manager Barbara Dunn has started Facebook pages for police in Nelson, Marlborough, Picton and the West Coast.

It was proving successful, with Abbott's discovery a prime example, she said.

"That's the beauty of it. Prior to [the group coming forward], the search and rescue team had thousands of hectares to search," she said.

Last week, Picton police had a warrant to arrest someone and less than an hour after they put the man's photograph on Facebook he turned himself in after realising his "game was up".

Abbott's mother, Maxine Abbott, was unaware until The Press contacted her that the social network had been crucial in finding her son.

"That is amazing. It might have its downfalls, Facebook, but when it comes to serious things, it has an upside really."

She supported police using social networks and believed her son would be happy his story might promote its use.

Abbott, 23, ex-army and experienced in the outdoors, headed into the Richmond Ranges on December 2 for a six-day tramp.

It was to be his last adventure before starting a job as an aircraft engineer in Woodbourne, near Blenheim, eight weeks later.

On his first night, the Friday, he texted his mother, who phoned him to talk about his trip.

He texted again the following afternoon to say the weather was turning bad, so he would head out the next day. "He said he would see me on Sunday," she said.

On the Saturday, he met a group of young trampers at Starveall Hut and they persuaded him to sleep inside rather than out in his bivvy bag.

The next day, December 4, they encouraged him to join them on the walk out via the Serpentine Track but he was determined to stick to his planned route via the Hackett Hut, which involved many river crossings.

When he failed to return home that night, his mother became anxious. She contacted police the following day to report him missing, and a search was launched.

Abbott had failed to write in any hut books, so police had no idea where to look and efforts to locate him using his cellphone failed, though he had left a detailed map of his trip.

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They found the first names of a party of 12 people written in the Starveall Hut book, so Nelson police posted the group's names on its Facebook page, asking them to make contact.

Within an hour, they called police to say Abbott had been at that hut and detailed his planned route. That evening, his body was found 7 kilometres downstream from the Hackett Stream, his first crossing after leaving the hut.

"His footsteps led into the river but not out the other side," his mother said.

His backpack was washed down the river and found on the coast near Rabbit Island.

Photographs from his camera were retrieved, including ones with the young trampers.

The group members, who turned out to be junior search and rescue staff, visited Maxine Abbott afterwards and spoke at her son's funeral, sharing his final stories.

"They are really neat kids. I'm thankful that he had a good last night," she said.

- The Press

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