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SANDY — The Christmas Eve message on Facebook was startling.
"Hello," it said. "Is anyone out there? I am having a serious problem and me and (my son) will be dead by morning."
That message, like a flare sent up by someone in trouble, brought a group of Facebook "friends" together in a frantic effort to save a life. After long minutes in an online scramble for information, they were able to alert Sandy police. They rescued a woman who was allegedly being sexually abused and held against her will.
In a fascinating illustration of the power of social networks, one of the woman's Facebook friends who swung into action didn't actually know the victim. Nevertheless, Erica Carver played a key role in rescuing her.
"With Facebook you usually get on and gossip, and (see) stupid little cartoons and this and that," Carver said Monday. "But this was something serious that saved someone's life."
The victim, whose name has not been released by Sandy police, was allegedly held inside her home for four or five days by her live-in boyfriend, Troy Reed Critchfield, 33. Investigators say he physically assaulted her every time she tried to leave.
"He took her phone so she didn't have access," said Sandy Police Sgt. Jon Arnold. "But she was able to sneak a computer into a closet. That was where she ended up posting a message on Facebook."
Fifteen miles away in South Salt Lake, Erica Carver went to her computer on Christmas Eve and found the disturbing Facebook message from her so-called "friend."
"I've never met her," Carver said. "I don't know her. I mean, in person or anything like that." She had added the woman to her list of Facebook "friends" because Carver's firefighter husband knew her and worked with her.
"I always 'friend' his friends," Carver explained.
When she read the victim's cry for help, Carver immediately dismissed the idea that it was a hoax. "Her posts were never jokes," Carver said. "And I thought, 'This is Christmas and this has to be real!' I mean, even if it's not, you gotta follow through on it."
Carver immediately grabbed her cell phone. "I called my husband and asked if he knew her phone number or address or anything like that," she recalled. But neither of them had that vital information.
Over the next hour or so, various "friends" frantically posted dozens of messages on Facebook. "It was just frustrating that nobody had a phone number and address to start with," Carver said.
The messages were posted as "comments" to the original message of distress. "Nobody was answering back," Carver said, "and so everybody was typing, 'Are you there?' and typing their phone numbers in."
Eventually a Facebook friend in South Carolina offered up the victim's address. A Utah firefighter on vacation in Denver called Sandy police and gave them the crucial information.
When police went to the house, they found an uncooperative Troy Critchfield who initially refused to allow them to see his girlfriend. A Salt Lake County Jail report says the woman shook her head to indicate "No," when officers asked if she was OK.
After police separated the couple, the woman told officers she and her child had not been allowed to leave the home and that she repeatedly had been hit, choked and sexually abused over a period of nearly five days. Jail records show the woman also claimed Critchfield had taken her cell phone and the phone of a disabled child also in the home.
"She had multiple bruises on her face in different stages of coloring," said Arnold. "So they immediately took the boyfriend into custody."
A year ago, Critchfield was arrested by a Salt Lake City SWAT team in a similar kidnapping incident involving the same victim. He pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and obstruction of justice charges. A judge sentenced Critchfield to a prison term of five years, but suspended the punishment for a 120-day jail term and three years of probation.
In the latest incident,Critchfield was booked into the Salt Lake County Jail Saturday for investigation of aggravated kidnapping, forcible sodomy, aggravated assault, domestic violence, child abuse, animal cruelty and other charges.
The potential animal cruelty charge is because police say he would not allow the victim to feed her dog during the four- or five-day ordeal.
Utah court records show that in December 2010, Critchfield pleaded guilty to felony aggravated assault and obstruction of justice charges in connection with a domestic violence incident. A judge sentenced Critchfield to a prison term of five years, but suspended the punishment for a 120-day jail term and three years of probation.
For those who played a role in the internet rescue, the grim holiday story had a happy ending.
"I'm a grinch," Carver said. "A big grinch. I hate Christmas. But it was Christmas Eve and she was safe and it made me feel really good."
Written by firstname.lastname@example.org with contributions from Associated Press.