PRINCETON — Gibson County Prosecutor Michael Cochren filed false informing charges against Hannah Potts, 23, rural Princeton, and two others accused of planning and executing an abduction hoax Sunday.
Potts was located by the Gibson County Sheriff’s Office Sunday morning, unharmed. Volunteers combed the area Saturday following a social media appeal from her family for information about her whereabouts.
Cochren said in a news release Wednesday afternoon that Potts, with the assistance of Joshua M. Thomas, 45, and Maria S. Hopper, 34, both of rural Princeton, “urged that law enforcement be notified after posting onto social media that she had been abducted.”
He said Thomas and Hopper assisted in hiding her, and were untruthful when confronted by law enforcement concerning her whereabouts.
He confirmed that Potts was found at the home of Thomas and Hopper on Top Hat Road near Princeton Sunday.
“Ms. Potts’s actions are criminal in nature. She had many people in her family and community worried sick over her personal health and safety,” said Cochren. “Further, she risked involving innocent individuals by giving a false description of the alleged abductor. Finally, the number of hours spent by multiple law enforcement agencies in this time of limited resources is simply not recoverable. This callous disregard for others simply will not be tolerated.”
He asked for arrest warrants for the class A misdemeanor charges of false informing filed against Potts, Hopper and Thomas.
In the prosecutor’s affidavit of probable cause for seeking the charges, Gibson County Sheriff’s Deputy Sgt. Roger Ballard reported that the department received the report Friday and was informed that Potts posted a video file to her Facebook account at 6 a.m. that day which contained audio believed to be Potts describing her abduction.
Ballard’s statement says Potts described being abducted near her home by a Black male, allegedly pushing her into the trunk of a maroon vehicle, while she was taking photos of animals. The audio also described being held in a room. “During the video, Hannah Potts explicitly states, ‘You got to tell the cops everything...You got to show them this video so that maybe they can find me.’ ”
Phone, Facebook data
Ballard reported the sheriff’s office was able to establish that Potts’s Facebook account was logged into at 6:06 a.m. Friday from a Verizon wireless IP address, consistent with the cellular connection the family indicated that Potts had. Family members provided her cell phone number and the sheriff’s office “pinged” the cellular handset throughout the day, “and the last known location was within approximately 1.54 miles of Hannah Potts’s residence at approximately 7 a.m. Another ‘ping’ at approximately 7 p.m. also indicated the same location, he wrote.
Ballard said deputies learned that Hopper, who lived about a mile away, was a recent friend of Potts, and contacted her. Ballard said that Hopper told police Friday that she had not seen Potts, and told them Saturday that she was trying to contact her by cell phone.
Ballard reported that on Saturday, a search party of about 50 volunteers, law enforcement and Indiana Department of Homeland Security searched the Potts property and a relative’s adjacent property, also using an aerial drone to search the surrounding area.
In the affidavit, Ballard reported that FBI agents reviewed Potts’ cell phone records obtained by a search warrant and the report shows her phone stayed connected to the same cell phone tower sector as her family’s home throughout the time that the alleged abduction took place.
In reviewing text messages, Ballard reported that he saw messages from Potts’ phone number to Hopper’s number at 2:40 a.m. Friday, which appeared to be arranging a pickup for Potts, including a description of a vehicle. the messages also described plans for Potts to turn the location off on her phone.
Police search Hopper home
Sunday, according to the affidavit, Ballard and deputies went to Hopper’s home on Top Hat Road to speak with Hopper, who again told authorities she hadn’t spoken to or seen Potts and didn’t know her whereabouts. Ballard said he also spoke to Thomas, who told police he had not seen or heard from Potts.
Ballard reported that he asked permission to search Hopper’s home and Hopper said Potts was not in the home, but agreed to the search and let Ballard through the house. While in the kitchen, Ballard reported he noted a stairway leading to a basement and asked Hopper about it. According to the affidavit, Hopper said it was a partial basement and there wasn’t anything down there, but led the to the basement.
Ballard reported finding a piece of plywood blocking a small enclosed space in the basement, containing a lock on it. He said he asked about it and Hopper told him that it was “an area that was just full of spiders.”
According to the affidavit, after unlatching the hasp on the plywood, Hopper admitted that Potts was hiding there.
Ballard described the place Potts was hiding was a 4x5x5 coal cellar-type spot covered in foam padding on the roof and inside of the door. “After being ordered to show herself, Hannah Potts then uncovered herself from the back corner of the area. Hannah Potts was wearing a fully functioning handcuff on her right wrist, and also had fully functioning shackles binding her ankles,” he reported.
Research for manuscript
Ballard said Potts told then she was not being held against her will and wanted to remain where she was, but after some conversation, she removed herself and was interviewed at the Gibson County Sheriff’s Office.
In the interview, Ballard reports that Potts told police she had been planning a kidnapping event with Hopper for at least a week. He said Potts told police “she wanted to have this experience for research purposes in a manuscript that she was writing,” and told police Hopper and Thomas were characters in her story.
Ballard’s affidavit says Potts told police that she rehearsed the post she made to Facebook for a week, and that Hopper and and Thomas set up the room she would be staying in. She told police she rode in the passenger seat of Hopper’s vehicle and posted the video from Hopper’s home, then gave the phone to Hopper for her to break it, and she (Potts) cut up the phone SIM card. Ballard reported that Potts told police she placed the handcuffs and shackles on herself, and was provided food, snacks and drinks by Hopper.
In an interview with police, Ballard reports Hopper admitted that she picked Potts up and lied to police during the investigation, and Thomas told police he had knowledge of the “kidnapping” idea and knew Hopper went to pick Potts up, and that Potts was in the house.
Email Andrea Howe at firstname.lastname@example.org