Thanks to the internet, everyone can be a detective now. There are countless online forums (like Reddit) that are solely dedicated to those who spend their free time investigating unsolved crimes using only the internet. In 2009, there was a group of clever “web sleuths” or “armchair detectives” who were actually able to help solve an unsolved mystery.
That is, it was unsolved until this group showed up. These sleuths solved the 2009 murder of Abraham Shakespeare, a Florida worker who had won millions in the lottery. There was also a lone sleuth named Michelle McNamara who wrote a book (I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer) which was widely credited with bringing the attention needed to help solve the GSK case. McNamara became obsessed with the then-unsolved case when she went down a rabbit hole of message board posts on the subject. That rabbit hole, though, brought her to the truth.
Who Was the First Internet Sleuth?
Todd Matthews was web sleuthing before the term even existed. Thanks to his original efforts, he brought closure to Barbara Ann Hackman Taylor’s family, which was also known as the “Tent Girl” Case. Matthews is thought to be one of the first internet sleuths – if not THE first. He successfully connected unidentified remains to an unsolved missing woman case from the late 1990s.
“I didn’t hear the word sleuth at the time,” Matthews told Oxygen.com. “There were no cyber sleuths.” Being a pioneer for such armchair detective work, though, wasn’t on Matthews’ radar – he never wanted to become a sleuth. It just happened, organically, after the Tent Girl mystery was passed down to him. His father-in-law found the body 30 years ago.
The “Tent Girl” Case
“I don’t think he ever thought I’d be the person who solved it,” Matthews admitted. He recalled first hearing about the case on Halloween night in 1987, when he was 17 years old. His then-girlfriend and future wife told him that her father had found an unidentified body, referred to as Jane Doe, in Scott County, Kentucky in 1968.
The unidentified body was found in a tent bag, which is why she was (rather unflatteringly) nicknamed “Tent Girl.” Matthews grew infatuated with the mysterious Jane Doe, who was, at the time, thought to have been only a teenager when she died. Before long, the curious, 17-year-old boy felt a need to try and solve the mystery.
He Had to Sleuth the Old School Way
So, he began sleuthing, which is really just another term for investigating. But, since it was the 1980s, Matthews didn’t have the convenience and resources of the internet. He had to do it “old school,” by visiting the local libraries and making tons of long-distance calls, which obviously took time and money.
He was only 17, so it’s not like he was making much money at the time. He was getting paid minimum wage as a factory worker at an auto parts manufacturing plant. His nights, however, were spent trying to find some way to identify the human remains and whereabouts of “Tent Girl.”
The Age of Dial-Up Internet
Once the ‘90s rolled around, and the internet was introduced, it made his armchair investigating a heck of a lot easier. By 1997, Matthews created a website: TentGirl.com. Still, navigating online wasn’t remotely as sophisticated and user-friendly as it is now. Remember the age of dial-up?
Matthews remembers dial-up internet: “Someone calls and knocks you offline.” Time spent on the internet, he noted, was “really precious.” And so, he conducted his research on the case on a desktop computer, with the patience of a saint, scrolling through webpage after webpage that took forever to load with their poor-quality graphics.
Answering an Online Ad From 1998
Regardless, dial-up was an upgrade from his previous research methods. And in the end, his patience and hard work paid off. After scrolling through an online classifieds site, Matthews found a post from 1998, written by an Arkansas woman who was looking for her missing sister, Barbara Ann Hackman Taylor.
Taylor went missing at the age of 24. Based on the place and time of her disappearance, Matthews thought her sibling might actually be the “Tent Girl.” So, he reached out to the woman who placed the ad. And thank goodness he did…
Some Much-Needed Closure
Matthews’ work resulted in the positive identification of Barbara Ann Hackman Taylor in 1998. Although her murder remains unsolved, it was Matthew’s sleuthing that resulted in Taylor’s family finally getting to bury her and get some much-needed closure.
“Todd Matthews and the work he put into solving the identity of Tent Girl was probably the single most important moment in citizen detecting,” said Lance Reenstierna. Reenstierna and Tim Pilleri are a pair of web sleuths who have been investigating the 2004 disappearance of Maura Murray, who vanished in New Hampshire. Reenstierna and Pilleri have their own podcast called Missing Maura Murray, where they delve into the unsolved case.
Matthews Was a “Trailblazer”
According to Reenstierna, Matthews was a “trailblazer.” He added that “Aside from solving the case, as non-law enforcement, in a time when the internet was not commonly used by the masses, he recognized his obsession and focused that energy in a positive direction.”
The Tent Girl case really influenced the direction Matthews went in life. In fact, Matthews now works as the director of Case Management and Communications with the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. He also founded Project EDAN, a non-profit that works to match missing persons with human remains by using forensic artwork.
Mistake Were Made
Of course, Matthews helped solve part of the missing girl case, but he did admit that he made some mistakes while sleuthing. One of the mistakes he made was that he responded to a family. “I am not law enforcement. You can’t just cold call a family. They could be part of the crime.”
Reenstierna noted that not all armchair detective work is good, of course, but he still believes it’s a necessity. It’s what these web sleuths do with the information, after uncovering it, that’s key. Egos need to be turned down and critical thinking turned up.
Sometimes Web Sleuthing Can Cause Harm
In 2013, Boston police arrested 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was connected to the Boston Marathon bombings. Three days later, Reddit general manager Erik Martin issued an apology. As it turns out, it wasn’t a good month for his online community.
Law enforcement officials explained that their motive for releasing surveillance footage of the Tsarnaev brothers was to stop the wild speculation online, on sites like Reddit, where any man with a backpack was being targeted as a possible suspect. Redditors never even came close to identifying the Tsarnaevs. What they did was spark an online witch hunt. But not all online forums are so hasty…
An Online Haven for Armchair Detectives
The best example of what Reddit could be is a site called websleuths.com. It was found in 1999 and has been a haven for armchair detectives who spend their free time cracking cold cases. One user, an assistant professor named Susan Bray, developed a rapport with another user, Cathy Rhodes, who is a car dealer.
The two realized they have a knack for connecting unclaimed bodies to their families. Their track record has even led police departments to reach out to them directly when they need a fresh set of eyes. Websleuths has made headlines in more than one way…
The Abraham Shakespeare Case
The most high-profile example of Websleuth’s worth was in relation to the 2009 murder of Abraham Shakespeare. He was a worker from Florida who won $32 million in the lottery and then suddenly went missing. Police speculated that the man’s financial adviser, Dee Dee Moore, might know something about Shakespeare’s disappearance.
Websleuths began digging, which prompted Moore to register on the site under a pseudonym to defend her actions. “She came back to me in an email and said I don’t know who is posting it, that wasn’t me,” site owner Tricia Griffith said.
Relentless, but With Limits
Griffith responded to Moore, saying “That’s funny, the IP address in this email matches the number of your computer.” A detective called Griffith up and said, “this is just great.” Moore was eventually convicted. Then there was the high-profile case of Casey Anthony.
When police were investigating the alleged murder of Anthony’s daughter, a Websleuther used Florida’s open-records laws to retrieve cellphone records for Anthony and used the ping-data (the signal to the cell tower) to create a map of where she hadtraveled. Websleuths can be relentless, but they set limits, which differentiates themselves from Reddit. Reddit’s rules note that “Witch-hunts and the posting of personal information are forbidden,” but it wasn’t exactly followed after the Boston attacks.
So, How Did Web Sleuthing Become a Thing?
Let’s start with the story of 11-year-old Tricia Griffith (future Websleuths owner) who, during the 1969 Manson family trial, just couldn’t stop hearing about the frightening case. It sent chills through her body while it also unleashed a real sense of curiosity in her.
When she turned 15, she went to the mall by herself for the first time to buy school clothes. An attractive man approached her and asked her to come outside to show him which direction another mall was. He walked shoulder to shoulder with her. A few years later, Griffith saw his photo on the front page of a newspaper with the headline: “The Many Faces of Ted Bundy.”
New Mom Stumbles Upon News Story
Fast forward to 1996: Griffith is bored out of her mind, but that doesn’t mean she’s not busy. She’s now a mom with a newborn baby who’s “eating, crying, pooping and sleeping” in her Park City, Utah home. It’s a major change since for the first time in her life, the former radio host is stuck at home.
Griffith feels lost and doesn’t know what the heck she’s supposed to do with her life. Then, one day, she picks up the newspaper and this “teeny story” caught her eye. The headline read: “Six-year-old beauty queen found dead in her basement.”
The Case of the Six-Year-Old Beauty Queen
When Griffith saw that story, her first thought was there’s no such thing as a six-year-old beauty queen. So, she went over to her clunky desktop computer and waited for the screen to light up. She found a discussion forum and the young beauty queen’s name: JonBenet Ramsey.
But they didn’t know how she died. Griffith turned out to be just one of millions who just needed to know what happened and who took her life. The discussion forum she found online was open to any and all questions related to the case.
Questions News Anchors Couldn’t Ask
The forum was filled with the kinds of questions that news anchors weren’t allowed to address. Sure, the forum was all speculation, but the passion and thought that the users put into their posts slowly created a sense of authority around them.
Griffith decided to make her first post: “When did John turn on the light and see JonBenet’s body?” It’s important to remember that 1996 wasn’t just a different age of the internet – it was also a different time for discussing crime. You wouldn’t just go to your neighbor to ask about their thoughts on unsolved murders.
The Pre-Podcast/Internet Era
The ‘90s were also before the podcast era (before true-crime podcast Serial, for example) when people didn’t know that the future would involve spending hours listening to podcasts to learn all the gory details of a case.
In those days, crime was covered by news reports at dinner time and that was where it was meant to end. People would discuss the case over their meals and eventually go to bed. And then the internet showed up, and many curious people started pulling all-nighters sleuthing.
People Craved Details, Discussion, and the Real Deal
While Griffith was spending her days and nights at home with a newborn, the internet was just starting to come into its own. The details of a cold case were there on the internet, waiting to be found by anyone willing to look for them.
All of a sudden, the facts being broadcasted on the news seemed limited. The news’ details were simply not enough. People craved details, discussion, and the real deal. “Then you had the internet, and it was the Wild West,” Griffith recalled. “You could talk about anything.”
Forums for Justice
The details provided on the news only created more and more questions in the minds of their viewers – questions that needed answers. Griffith created her own discussion forum revolving around the Ramsey case called ForumsForJustice.org, and it’s still up and running to this day. The forum’s members were/are responsible for helping expose and debunk the case’s popular suspects.
Even though Ramsey’s killer remains unknown today, the members of ForumsForJustice.org pride themselves in being able to clear the names of innocent people whose reputations were tainted by heinous accusations. The forum is also a reminder of those suspects who were never thoroughly investigated (like JonBenet’s brother, Burke).
The Overlooked and Profile-less
Griffith has been the owner of the site Websleuths.com since 2004, which brings attention to cases with no profile, such as missing sex workers or other overlooked people who have no powerful resources to back them. The site has over 152,000 members on their website, but that’s nothing compared to the site’s visitors.
“A lot of people in society felt like they had been forgotten, totally left out of the world,” Griffith began. “I want those people to know that they matter to Websleuths.” It’s come to a point where we can’t just leave it to the authorities.
We Can’t Just Leave It to the Authorities
There is no shortage of unsolved crimes to go around. Since 1980, there have been over 211,000 unsolved murders in America. The clearance rate — the number of people actually arrested and charged with a crime — is at an all-time low.
In Chicago, for instance, there were over 5,534 reported homicides in the past 12 years, and 74 percent of them didn’t result in an arrest. According to The Washington Post, out of 54,868 homicides in 55 cities over the last decade, 50 percent resulted in NO arrest. In other words, over 27,000 lives were lost with countless family members never getting the closure a family desperately needs.
A New Era of True Crime
True crime is everywhere — murder cases are getting covered in TV series, podcasts, movies and more. Unsolved cases are appropriate dinner conversations, and the stigma surrounding the topic has done a complete 180. Remember when the podcast Serial or the Netflix series Making a Murderer came out?
Both premiered in 2015 and have exploded from there, spawning a whole new era of true crime. Someone like crime journalist Billy Jensen immerses himself in unsolved cases. As a five-year-old, Jensen recalls sitting between his father and the TV set – he with his toys and his father with his newspaper.
Toy Cars, Newspapers, and the Son of Sam
The TV would play a never-ending loop of news broadcasts, and his father would read aloud from the newspaper headlines as Jensen rolled his toy cars across the floor. His father read that the “.44 Caliber Killer,” aka “The Son of Sam,” had finally been caught. Little Jensen was too young to understand it, but he suddenly felt the weight of an unsolved case lifted off his shoulders.
As he explained, Jensen later spent many years of his life searching for that same feeling again. “I got fed up with writing. I would always have stories that didn’t have an ending,” Jensen said. “They’d be good stories, but they would just not have a f***ing ending.”
The Poster Child of Web Sleuths
Jensen figured why not try to catch a murderer if the details are already all over the internet anyways? Jensen became a kind of poster child for web sleuths trying to crack all these unsolved cases with the help of social media.
What motivates Jensen? That “there’s somebody out there that’s breathing a free breath.” At the same time, there are too many people out there suffering because they don’t know who killed their loved one. For Jensen, those 27,000 unsolved cases will haunt him until the end of his days.
A Quirky but Effective Method
Jensen has a sleuthing technique that is quite quirky, but it works. He gathers tips from social media platforms (Facebook and Twitter), creates ads from those videos, and then targets them toward people living in the area of the crime.
He will then wait for a spark, then he goes door-to-door in those neighborhoods, all the while being careful not to step on the toes of law enforcement. And while his method sounds time-consuming, his process works. In 2016, a man named Marques Gaines was punched and left unconscious on a crosswalk in Chicago. Surveillance cameras showed that he was left alone by all passersby.
Scrambling in the Dark
He was then run over by a taxi and died. Not only was Jensen appalled; he was also baffled. He thought to himself, ‘How can they not find this guy?’ So, he went out, and was “kind of scrambling in the dark.” He started by posting the surveillance video as ads on social media.
He ended up getting a reply with an even better photo of the alleged puncher than the one in the surveillance footage. Jensen scoured Mugshots.com for anyone who matched the photo. Eventually, a match popped up, right there on Jensen’s computer screen.
He’s After Justice, Not Recognition
A man named Marcus Moore was charged with the crime of aggravated battery in a public place, despite Gaines’ death having been ruled as a homicide. While Jensen’s name is nowhere to be found in any article detailing the lead of that arrest, it hasn’t deterred him from sleuthing.
After all, it’s that feeling of relief and justice that he’s after – not recognition. Up to this point, Jensen has helped solve six homicides, and thus six forms of closure for six families who were wringing their hands for too long.
Like a Needle in a Haystack
Each discussion thread on Websleuths is dedicated to a separate unsolved case, and every bit of information is tucked neatly into each thread. It gives amateur sleuths the ability to read for hours until something sparks and they can move a case along.
“You have to spend so many hours looking for the equivalent of a needle in a haystack,” says Deborah Halber, the author of The Skeleton Crew. The good news is that web sleuthing is becoming more and more credible. It’s valuable to have a fresh pair of eyes available at your fingertips when it comes to standstill evidence. And law enforcement is starting to understand that.
Leave It to the Sleuths
In 2015, a verified detective visited Websleuths and reached out in a thread for an unidentified white male who went missing in March of 1992. The detective wanted assistance in identifying a t-shirt with a hawk on it – something they hadn’t been able to figure out for over 20 years.
Websleuths found out everything they needed within two weeks. The detective was stunned by how quick and efficient they were. And all it really took was simple research that someone with free time and patience can accomplish (which, I guess, is something detectives have less of).
The Websleuths scoured the web for similar images of a hawk. Two weeks later, Websleuths user “Equestrianista” posted a link to an Etsy shop that sold a backpack with the same hawk on it. From there, the Websleuths community made out the artist’s name from the small signature underneath the hawk.
And that specific 95-page thread is only one of countless threads that demonstrates the power of people who genuinely put their free time toward something important. “Putting the pieces of the puzzle or mystery together, supporting the victim’s family or friends, hoping for and seeing justice occur — that is what I enjoy most about Websleuths,” says member “Cubby.”
Regular Folks, Like You and Me
Websleuths is made up of regular people who work nine to five jobs and, after a long day, open their computers to help break a case in whatever way possible. “Strangers come to Websleuths to help other strangers,” Griffith stated. “And I think it’s just wonderful.”
But it’s worth noting that true crime stories on Websleuths and other similar sites are read differently than a Netflix series or podcast. The drama is stripped out and you’re left with cold, hard facts. It’s what separates the true crime fans who are just hopping on the bandwagon from those who are actually serious about helping people.
When a Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
Europol, for one, happens to get thousands of tips when they appeal to the public to identify crime scene images. What may look like a normal bathroom tile to a cop or even a detective can become something entirely different when it gets in the hands of internet sleuths.
Web sleuths found the missing piece in one particular international child abuse investigation. It was a clue that led to the arrest of a suspect and then to the identification of nine victims. While there’s nothing new about police asking for tips (think missing person posters), the internet takes it to a whole new level.
From Cheese to Duvet Covers
The Trace an Object crowdsourcing effort was launched by Europol in 2017. It asks people to find clues for unsolved child abuse cases by identifying parts of digital images. It could be anything from a slice of cheese that someone recognizes as Belgian to a crumpled-up shopping bag to a child’s duvet cover.
All they need is that moment of recognition to fill in the very important gaps, as small as they may seem, to lead police to a suspect or a victim. The images Europol posts online are taken from a simply awful stash of 30 or so million images of child exploitation, which are usually found circulating on the dark web.
“A Final Throw of the Dice”
Steven Wilson, the head of Europol’s cybercrime center, said that some images are linked to current crimes while others document abuse from previous decades. Wilson said that, “In the cases we deal with here, we have done as much as we can with law enforcement, and this is a final throw of the dice.”
Wilson explained that in most cases, they try to identify a location: “If we can narrow it down to one country or an area, that’s a massive starting point.” Investigators were stunned by the response. They posted 283 images which led to 22,000 emails.
A Eureka Moment
For one unidentified Europol officer, who spent months analyzing unedited images of child abuse to get leads, it’s a eureka moment when a tip leads to an arrest. “It feels awesome,” he said. “It’s an extremely motivating element for doing the job.”
In the Netherlands someone named Bo moderates the amateur investigative group Serendip. Bo guides a team of 15 people who just helped identify a rooftop in China that Europol needed. Bo also mentioned that Europol doesn’t really reply to their efforts. Sometimes they add a “like” on Twitter.
Looking for Clues
It’s a “shame,” Bo said. “We mostly find the things they ask for quickly, but we often don’t know what happens next.” Web sleuths like Bo use oddly basic, open-source techniques to “reverse-search” images on public archives.
They look for clues that relate to lighting conditions or a season that can identify a location. Sometimes it’s just a matter of recognizing a brand of a shopping bag. But sometimes, it’s blurrier (literally and figuratively). There was a photo taken of a hotel, for example, which showed an entire room with two figures blurred out.
Web Sleuthing Has Its Risks
Very quickly, someone mentioned that they had been there – in Mauritius. The hotel’s website had a photo with the exact same angle, of a nearly identical room. But getting amateurs involved in police work has its risks…
Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius, a law professor, explained that criminal law has rules that limit police power, and the police force is trained on those rules. Borgesius believes that people don’t always know those rules and can get overly enthusiastic “in their own online echo chamber.” In an extreme case, he gave as an example, there’s the risk of a lynch mob.
How to Become a Web Sleuth
So, do you want to become a web sleuth yourself? There are a few good-to-know practices to make sure you have a handle on it. Time Magazine featured true crime author Deborah Halber who recommended taking these five steps when using the internet to solve crimes:
1. Search every digital corner: Focusing on a mystery’s location by using a geographic approach, for example, by checking sources for local reports and potential witnesses.
2. Upgrade to paid search tools: Google News is a good start, but digital sleuthing services (like Spokeo) can provide access to tens of thousands of public records and data sources.
You Need Thick Skin
3. Develop thick skin: Web sleuths may be well-intentioned, but they can also get a bad rap for their involvement. Use a pseudonym as a username to protect your identity should things go awry.
4. Don’t be squeamish: Solving true crime can involve images that are distressing. Be prepared to see graphic visuals when diving into certain crimes.
5. Visualize it: Don’t just consider photographs; think about how images translate to the actual person in question. Taking notes on distinctive features, like tattoos or scars, can help web sleuths bridge the gap between the web and the mystery itself.