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In Depth

The amateur detectives tackling murders and kidnaps

About the author

Chris Baraniuk is a science and technology journalist based in London. He writes for New Scientist, Wired and The Economist among others and has a website at chrisbaraniuk.com. His Twitter handle is @machinestarts.

(Thinkstock)

(Thinkstock)

Internet sleuths are attempting to solve real violent crimes, and some claim success, reports Chris Baraniuk. Is it time for the police to take them seriously?

Carl Koppelman’s hobby as an ‘internet detective’ began with some bad luck. Once an accountant for Disney, he found himself suddenly unemployed in the aftermath of the credit crisis. He realised he had an uncommon amount of spare time.

While reading the news in August 2009, he found a story about Jaycee Lee Dugard, a child abducted in California 18 years earlier. The man who had held her captive had only just been arrested. Shocked by the case, Koppelman began browsing the internet for more information, and stumbled on Websleuths.com, a dedicated forum for internet detectives. Many of the site’s visitors had been discussing the disappearance of Dugard for years. Although Websleuths played no role in her reappearance, Koppelman believed the forum had the potential to solve other cases.

“I read through the stories on Websleuths and thought it was just fascinating,” he says. “You had average, everyday, normal people going on websites and solving crimes that the police have never been able to.”

Over the last five years, Koppelman’s interest turned into an obsession. Now a moderator of “The Unidentified” sub forum, he’s devoted to matching unidentified individuals in coroners’ reports with missing person profiles. He claims responsibility for three confirmed matches so far, including the case of Lynda Jane Hart, whose skeleton was discovered in 1988 and only matched to a missing persons profile in 2011. “The families stay in limbo for decades, literally decades, and they can never really move on with their lives until they get resolution,” he explains. “So yeah, I get emotional satisfaction if I can solve one of these cases.”

Koppelman is not alone. A small but dedicated group of people worldwide now spend their spare time trying to assist the police and solve other mysteries by trawling through social media profiles, scouring online high school yearbooks, sifting through coroners’ photographs – and more. Some law enforcers say they are thankful for their efforts, yet in a few cases, self-appointed sleuths have veered close to vigilantism. Are these internet detectives benevolent volunteers, or are they meddling where they don’t belong?

Mystery minded

Websleuths is far from the only example of a community of internet detectives. There’s also the amateur-run Doe Network, which as well as the US, lists cases from Mexico, Canada and the UK, for example.

Sites like these helped pave the way for the launch in 2008 of NamUs.gov, a missing and unidentified persons system which is overseen by the US National Institute of Justice. It allows anyone to search for and contribute to open cases. NamUs claims that so far there have been 309 unidentified persons cases and 708 missing persons cases which have been “NamUs Aided”.

Look in other corners of the web and you’ll find many other examples of groups dedicated to problem and mystery solving in general. Forums such as Reddit’s Bureau of Investigations (RBI) and Unsolved Mysteries are just two more examples of places where internet detectives gather daily.

One Reddit user, Wesside, who did not wish to be identified by his real name, frequently contributes to the RBI page. He describes himself as a “regular IT guy” and says his father is a retired police officer. “I like helping people,” he comments, “but I also like seeing if the skills that I do currently have are enough to get real results for someone.”

When a truck driver was forced off the road by another truck in Ontario, Canada, during winter conditions, Wesside was able to quickly identify the trailer number of the offending truck by enhancing and analysing video footage of the incident posted to RBI. He notes that the police happened to use the same technique to track down the driver of the vehicle, but he obviously can’t be sure he influenced their methods.
 
Some mysteries are perfect for internet investigators to take on. Codebreaking mysteries, for example, have drawn in amateurs ever since the Zodiac killer left codes for police in California in 1960s. More recently, in2011 the FBI called on the public to help decipher notes found in the pockets of a man called Ricky McCormick, who had been murdered and left in a field in Missouri.

Both are unsolved. Yet other codebreaking efforts suggest that the effort is not in vain. Take the curious case of the ‘OFWAIHHBTN’ note, which although did not involve a crime, demonstrates how a diverse array of contributors can solve a mystery.

Code crackers

On her deathbed, Dorothy Holm left behind strange notes written in code. After the baffled family posted them online, they were cracked by Abbey Kos of the online community Metafilter. Kos, a writer and editor who grew up in a Christian household, wondered if the codes represented the first letters of words that formed a prayer. When she took a second look at a line beginning ‘OFWAIHHBTN’, she knew she had cracked it: “Our Father Who Art In Heaven, Hallowed Be Thy Name”, the first line the Lord’s Prayer.

“Because I or anybody else on the internet looking at it didn’t know Dorothy,” says Kos, “we didn’t have any preconceived notions about what she might have written about. It was strictly a puzzle.”

For Deborah Halber, author of a forthcoming book on internet detectives called The Skeleton Crew, it’s this mixture of intuition and careful data analysis that enables amateurs to solve long-dormant missing persons cases too.

She gives the example of one internet detective whose method of identifying bodies involves systematically searching for information in the area surrounding the location where the corpse was discovered.

“She’ll just keep going out in bigger and bigger concentric circles looking for any kind of mention of someone going missing in that same geographic spot,” she explains. “Essentially, it’s about taking bits and pieces of information and constantly going through them in your head.”

Halber says she’s tried to solve cases herself, and admits that the level of work involved is sometimes overwhelming. When asked what she thinks motivates internet detectives, she suggests that solving mysteries could simply be a way for people to engage abilities they can’t use in their day jobs.

“Many of these people don’t have an outlet in their everyday lives that’s intellectually challenging to them,” she says. “Some of them have not necessarily gone to college but they’re extremely bright. They could be working in jobs for chains of stores, such as cashiers for example, or they may be behind the scenes – one of them is a police dispatcher.”

Vigilante justice

There are dangers to online sleuthing, however. A desire to pool resources over serious cases can sometimes lead to vigilantism. The UK group Letzgo Hunting, which tries to expose and identify paedophiles has been criticised by police. And last year, following the bombing of the Boston Marathon, a notorious Reddit witch-hunt contributed to the false accusation of Brown University student Sunil Tripathi, who had been reported missing and whose body was found two days after the attack.

Prof David Wall of Durham University, one of the UK’s leading criminologists, believes online communities can be hugely beneficial in some cases, but the temptation to get involved in more serious crimes is a recipe for disaster.

“The problem comes when it ceases to become a matter of fact and becomes instead a matter of opinion,” he explains. “With the Boston Bomber case, the wrong person got fingered for the wrong reasons. One has to be very, very careful how you manage this sort of community.”

Wesside agrees, saying that in his opinion incidents such as terrorism should be left to the professionals.

However, for Tricia Griffith, co-owner of Websleuths.com, stopping short of investigating serious cases would be a lost opportunity. Griffith has supervised the site for 10 years and believes that, with appropriate rules and regulations in place, there is no reason why ordinary people can’t contribute to serious investigations, including murder cases.

“We don’t allow interference with any case. If a member calls, talks to a detective and then reports back on Websleuths we immediately remove it,” she comments. “Because if we let one member do that then everybody’s going to be calling the detectives on their favourite cases and driving them nuts.”

In other words, the information gathered by Websleuths’ members has to be legally available to the public and they must operate separately from professional detectives who are already on the case. Griffith also says that whenever a forum member claims to have particular insight because they are a scientist or lawyer for example, she deletes their post unless they can verify that they are telling the truth.

Tip-offs

But what happens when someone has a breakthrough that could really aid investigators? Griffith explains that she usually passes it on privately, by email, to the relevant precinct. She says that on occasion she’s received feedback from thankful officers but that often there is no reply.

That many tip-offs get ignored is hardly news to Joe Giacalone, a law enforcement trainer and retired NYPD Detective Sergeant who at one time was in charge of over 4,000 cold cases relating to homicides, rape and missing persons reports spanning the Bronx in New York City.

Giacalone explains that many police officers are reluctant to act on information which might get them bogged down in old cases that have a poor chance of actually being solved. What’s more, there’s institutional concern over the potential for members of the public to get in the way of police work.

“As an investigator, where you’re dealing with evidentiary issues and things, you don’t want to have people poking into the case,” he says, adding, “You gotta remember, you have anonymous people sitting behind keyboards, you don’t know exactly – you could have somebody with an axe to grind.”

Giacalone says he has never witnessed a missing persons case being solved because of the investigative work of online communities.

Griffiths is keen to overturn such scepticism, and show what internet detectives are capable of. “One day I want to have the police call us and say, ‘Here’s what we have – what do you think?’ and then just have our members go crazy on it,” she explains. “They’ve got access to all these minds from all over the world who can look at it with fresh eyes.”

In fact, some policing organisations now recognise the potential for members of the public to contribute to investigations. For example, a spokesperson for the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) in the UK explains the organisation’s official position is to treat all information as potentially useful. “With regard to members of the public conducting their own research into cold cases, providing that their actions are lawful and conducted appropriately, their findings will always be considered by the officers and staff who have ownership of the relevant case.”

Welcome help

One professional who welcomes the help of amateur detectives is Hal Brown, the deputy director of the Delaware Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Currently, he says he has 27 unidentified skeletal remains – and very little time or resources to identify who they belonged to. Brown receives several tip-off emails every week.

“They often include hyperlinks to whatever they’ve found,” he says, such as website pages displaying missing people with possible connections to a case. Sometimes they even send spreadsheets of data comparing the body’s physical traits with a missing person, he adds. “It’s really quite remarkable what people will do on a volunteer basis. I just can’t speak highly enough about their efforts.”

The simple fact of having an extra pair of eyes looking at the evidence can make the difference between a solved case and an unsolved one. “Some of your very best investigative work is not involved in the forensic science,” says Brown, “but rather sitting down and looking at the minutiae.

“Once in a while, one golden nugget of information that somebody finds may prove instrumental as the missing piece of the puzzle.”

For sleuths like Koppelman, the promise of breaking open a case in this way is what keeps him going. He’s been working on a major missing person investigation for some years now which involves a woman searching for the daughter she gave up for adoption 39 years ago. There’s even a professional private investigator on board and Koppelman thinks that together they’re close to unravelling the mystery.

“We’re feeling pretty confident that we may eventually find out what happened to her,” he says. “Maybe she’s still alive out there.”

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