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Did Viral 'White Van Hoax' Cause An Innocent Man's Murder?
Nazario Garcia was shot to death in an act that may have been inspired by a sinister viral social media hoax about an epidemic of people being abducted by criminals in white vans.
In late November, Gjuandell Effinger logged onto Facebook and shared a chilling post alleging she had nearly been abducted by a man driving a white van.
The Tennessee woman claimed the man who tried to snatch her was a sex trafficker.
“These sex-trafficking bastards got these vans rigged where they lock from the outside and once inside, you can’t get out!” Effinger wrote. “When you come into the mall parking lot, and you see a van like this parked next to your car, DO NOT GO TO YOUR CAR.”
She warned her social network to steer clear of any white vans, travel in groups and avoid being out after dark.
“Stuff just got real,” she added.
The threat was so “real” to Effinger, police said, that hours afterwards, the alleged driver of that van, Nazario Garcia, was allegedly shot to death by the woman’s two sons in a Walmart parking lot in Memphis, according to WMC-TV.
Favian L. Effinger and Miguel Lemuel Effinger approached the 60-year-old in his white work van and opened fire “without provocation,” according to police. The two men were arrested on first-degree murder charges, along with their mother, in Garcia’s killing.
Police said they found no evidence that Garcia had tried to kidnap Effinger, WMC-TV also reported.
The woman’s post appears to have since been deleted but is still circulating online.
Garcia’s shooting may have been connected to a viral rumor involving white vans sweeping social media.
The day after Garcia’s death, another woman in Marietta, Georgia took to Twitter also claiming she “almost got kidnapped” by the driver or drivers of a white van, which supposedly had tailed her, and intentionally rammed her vehicle from behind.
“DO NOT PULL OVER,” the woman posted, who also shared pictures of the van in question. “I REPEAT DO NOT PULL OVER. CALL THE POLICE AND MAKE SURE YOU ARE IN AN AREA PEOPLE CAN SEE YOU. People are popping up missing left and right! Do not be one of them! TRUST YOUR INSTINCT.”
One of the posts on the thread was retweeted nearly 11,000 times.
The woman claimed she reported the incident to police. She didn’t immediately respond to Oxygen.com’s request for comment.
City officials in Baltimore have been forced to respond to the rumors.
“We have to really be careful, because there's so much evil going on, not just in the city of Baltimore, but around the country,” Mayor Jack Young said earlier this week, according to WBAL-TV.
A spokesman for the mayor’s office told Oxygen.com that Young had received calls from frightened residents about the posts, and passed the concern along to police, but didn't intend to alarm the public.
“He believes that when people make reports of crimes even if they seem unlikely, they should report those to the police, that’s what he did when he was made aware of these claims,” James E. Bentley II said.
A spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department declined to comment beyond confirming that police are aware of the posts.
However, a cabal of white van conspiracists has supposedly existed in Baltimore on the fringes of social media for years.
White van stories have circulated in Baltimore at least since 2016, when a woman claimed “a guy in a white van kidnapping kids” and that there was a van sitting outside her home, CNN reported. In late November, another Baltimore woman alleged on Instagram that two men inappropriately stared at her at a gas station. The woman told CNN she didn’t alert authorities because she “didn't have much information to report.”
Adam Scott Wandt, an assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, has kept an eye on the rumors on social media, and remains convinced the stories are largely fabricated.
“As soon as I saw it, I thought it was a hoax — it’s not common to have people driving around in white vans abducting people,” he told Oxygen.com.
Wandt explained that the image of vans kidnapping children is practically an urban legend that’s entrenched in the American psyche, and could account for the viral spread of the conspiracy.
“We were always told to not accept candy from strangers and we were always told that people will drive around in vans and kidnap us from our parents,” he added. “When I was younger growing up, it was common knowledge not to approach a van. Part of what makes this believable is that they play off of a fear that we already have. It does play off the fear.”
He said that for generations, fearful parents have used the image of a van-driving abductor to both scare and protect their children, and social media has just amplified the fears.
Wandt pointed to another trending online rumor — involving zip-tied windshield wipers and human traffickers — which has also recently been spreading like wildfire on Facebook.
“My windshield wipers were zip-tied together while I was shopping,” Facebook user Katie Everett supposedly posted.
Everett claimed she had been the target of an attempted abduction because her windshield wipers had been zip-tied at a mall parking lot. She claimed law enforcement had told her it was a technique abductors use to momentarily distract drivers, effectively drawing them outside the vehicle where a kidnapper can snatch them.
“Law enforcement let me know that this is a trick human traffickers use and when women struggle trying to remove the ties they are abducted,” she wrote.
The post was reportedly shared thousands of times.
“Any sort of internet hoax that has a believable thread where people could think that it’s a possibility, people’s fear kick in, and they share it, because they think that if they don’t share it, somebody that they love or care about might fall victim to it,” Wandt said.