Lake County Government Center stock

The entrance to the Lake County Government Center in Crown Point.

Doug Ross, The Times

CROWN POINT — Lake County officials are calling on state police to investigate whether political attacks launched through an alleged fake Facebook account are a felony violation of state law.

Now Indiana State Police investigators are weighing whether they'll jump into the fray of alleged dirty politics that documents in the case link to one county sheriff's candidate and former police chief, a political operative and convicted felon, a coroner's investigator and a computer ID assigned to a local school district.

Lake County Sheriff Oscar Martinez Jr. and Lake County Prosecutor Bernard A. Carter said they want an outside agency to expose a group of people suspected of conducting a smear campaign against Martinez and others running for election this year through a bogus Facebook profile.

The Times has learned an initial probe by county police turned up telecommunications records linking the attacks to the home of Schererville Police Chief David Dowling, a Democratic candidate for sheriff; the home of political activist and federally convicted felon Robert Cantrell; a computer ID associated with the Crown Point School Corp.; and the home of Gilbert Gutierrez, an investigator for the county coroner's office.

Subpoenaed documents in the case show computer signatures linked to those individuals also fed into the fake Facebook account, sources close to the investigation confirmed.

On Tuesday, Dowling denied any involvement in a social media campaign and accused Martinez of playing politics.

"I think this is a political scam by the sheriff," Dowling said. "If it was a real investigation, he would be contacting people, not the media. It is very disappointing."

Cantrell said, "I don't do Facebook, and I don't read Facebook."

Gutierrez did not return calls seeking comment.

Crown Point Community School Corp. released the following statement:

“Crown Point Community School Corporation has policies regarding the use of school equipment for private matters. We also provide an open guest network. If policies are actually violated, appropriate resolution will follow.”

'Jackie Sutton'

The subpoenaed documents, provided to The Times, are from an internet service provider and directly name Dowling and Gutierrez and show the address of Cantrell and a Crown Point schools computer ID.

In the case of two computer IDs linked to Cantrell's home address, his son John Cantrell, a Region attorney, is listed as the subscriber. But county records indicate Robert Cantrell owns the address from which the computer IDs originated.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., who was one of the Facebook targets, said this week, "The people involved should be exposed."

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said, "To the extent that this is America, we are governed by the First Amendment. I really don't worry about what people say. I just have to worry about what I do."

State Police Detective Joe White, of the Organized Crime and Corruption Section, said he is relaying the request for help in the Facebook case to the Indiana State Police superintendent's office, which must approve any such investigation.

The focus would involve a Facebook page in the name of Jackie Sutton. It features a photo of four middle-aged women, a profile with only a birth date of Dec. 7, 1976, and links to about 200 friends.

Martinez said he received and accepted a friend request from the Sutton page last year as a routine part of his election campaign.

"After a couple of months, I started noticing this Jackie Sutton started posting some very harmful and harsh statements against other individuals and elected officials," Martinez said. "The next thing I know, I started becoming part of her slanderous statements, not backed up by any facts."

'Intent to harm'

The Facebook page, which remains active, still features a score of postings that include statements like, "It's time to clean house," and "It's time to drain the swamp."

It also contains direct remarks against Martinez; U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky; the Gary, Hammond and East Chicago mayors; Lake County Auditor Peggy Katona; the Lake County Board of Commissioners and North Township Trustee Frank Mrvan, among others.

Martinez said, "One false statement was that I was part of the KKK and hated black people. That was (later) deleted," Martinez said.

The sheriff said he unfriended and blocked the Facebook page and advised others complaining about it to do the same — but still was called on to do more.

"They were still concerned how someone can do this and get away without any accountability," he said. "I pretty much told them I would have my investigators look at it and see if there are any laws that may be violated."

Martinez said state law does make it a Level 6 felony to use "synthetic identifying information with intent to harm or defraud another person."

He said they gathered evidence from Facebook and Comcast that Jackie Sutton was a pseudonym for an account used by several people posting from a number of different IP (internet protocol) addresses.

"It's a made-up person, a made-up date of birth," Martinez said. "They did get further evidence to show it's a group of people acting with intent to harm other people. These individuals are people involved in politics and professionals. They know what they are doing is wrong (because) some of the posts are starting to be deleted and taken down."

He said he quickly decided to consult with the prosecutor and state police to avoid any appearance of a conflict.

High-tech smear sheet

"To me this is a bunch of political nonsense," Dowling said. "Why aren't we talking about the issues? We aren't talking about the fact that after public corruption that tarnished our county, Oscar Martinez finds it appropriate to have $500 and $1,000 ticket fundraisers with donations listed from county vendors."

Treasurer Katona, who is running for re-election, said of the Facebook page, "It's dirty politics, and an anonymous way to lie."

She said she was heartened by others who posted support for her on the Facebook page.

Others said the Facebook attacks appear to be a higher tech version of photocopied smear sheets that political operatives place on car windshields.

"The only way to inoculate yourself from that is to be transparent and try to do everything you can right all the time," Mrvan said.

"This country lives off of Facebook," Robert Cantrell said. "People seem to get on there and think its freedom of speech, and they say what they want to say. Is that criminal?"

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Lake County reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.