Facebook helped ID robber, officer says

February 11, 2010 

A robber who held up people at automated teller machines in northeast Fresno was captured last summer after his disguise came off in front of a bank surveillance camera, a police detective testified Thursday.

Officer Steve Craig said in Fresno County Superior Court that he later showed the surveillance photo to a young woman who identified the robber as Benjamin Milam -- someone she knew from her high school days at Clovis West. The woman then showed Craig photographs of Milam on her Facebook page.

Craig testified that the photos of Milam on the woman's Facebook page matched the person in the surveillance photograph. The identification led to the arrest of Milam, who was the subject of an intensive police manhunt in July.

Craig was one of several police officers who testified in Milam's preliminary hearing. The hearing will determine whether there is enough evidence for Judge Gary Orozco to order Milam to stand trial on armed robbery and drug charges.

Milam, 21, who has no criminal record, is the son of KFSN (Channel 30) news anchor Liz Harrison. He has pleaded not guilty.

Outside court, defense attorney Charles Magill said Milam's troubles stem from his addiction to pain killers, which he used to deal with soccer injuries as a student at Clovis West High.

"He had so much going for him, so much potential," Magill said. "But drugs ruined him." Magill said his client is sorry for his actions.

Prosecutor Jarrett Cline contends Milam robbed three people at gunpoint and attempted to rob another person. Milam also is charged with unlawful possession of methadone, Oxycodone and a hypodermic needle, and with resisting arrest. He could face nearly 50 years in prison if convicted.

The prosecution has offered Milam 16 years in prison if he pleads guilty, Orozco said. Milam rejected the plea offer.

A key issue, Orozco said, is whether Milam held a real gun, which increases his sentence if he's convicted. The weapon the robber used was never found, and some of the witnesses were unsure if the weapon was real.

Harrison showed up for her son's preliminary hearing, but she could not listen to the testimony because she is a potential prosecution witness. In general, all witnesses, including police officers, are barred from the courtroom until they testify.

Police were on alert because of a rash of ATM robberies at Champlain Drive and Perrin Avenue, and at Cedar and Nees avenues, Sgt. Chris Desmond testified.

On July 11, several other undercover officers had the Cedar and Nees site under surveillance when a gunman approached a victim at the ATM about 11 p.m.

Craig testified the robber held a gun and wore dark clothing, a hat, a handkerchief over his face and gloves. The robber was pointing a gun at Mark Ruby's head.

"Give me the money, give me the money," the robber demanded, according to Craig. But Ruby testified he told the robber the ATM wasn't working.

Ruby said the robber became agitated, and pulled down the handkerchief covering his face to get a closer look at the bank machine. At that point, the ATM captured a color photograph of the robber's face. The robber then ran as police closed in on him.

The manhunt included a helicopter, several patrol cars and a police dog. Craig said police ended the search when the dog lost the scent near Portland and Millbrook avenues -- a neighborhood near Clovis West High.

The next day, Craig found the woman who knew Milam and had photos on her Facebook page.

The hearing continues Feb. 22.

The reporter can be reached at plopez@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6434.

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