Crowdsourcing Criminal Investigations In The Digital Age

Do-it-yourself detectives.  A new army of freelance amateurs is using the Internet to solve cold cases  –long-unsolved homicides—across the country.

In this photo by Sidney Hisel, the so-called 'Tent Girl' is buried in a county-owned section of Georgetown, KY's cemetery in 1968. She was not identified for more than 30 years. (Courtesy Deborah Halber)

In this photo by Sidney Hisel, the so-called ‘Tent Girl’ is buried in a county-owned section of Georgetown, KY’s cemetery in 1968. She was not identified for more than 30 years. (Courtesy Deborah Halber)

On TV, cold cases get solved with a magical high tech ease.  Here’s the body.  Here are the teeth.  Here’s the DNA swab.  Done.  In real life, lots and lots of deaths, murders, bodies just remain mysterious.  Unidentified.  Unsolved.  Frozen.  Buried.  Forgotten.  Police and detectives eventually have other things to do.  But some people don’t.  They’re obsessed.  They’re online.  And they’re endlessly playing with the puzzle pieces.  Sleuthing after hours.  Connecting the dots of unsolved deaths and crimes.  This hour On Point:  Cold cases, crowdsourced and cracked, by freelancers online.

— Tom Ashbrook


Deborah Halber, author of “The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases.” (@DeborahHalber)

Todd Matthews, former amateur cybersleuth. Director of communications for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

Jan Smolinski, mother of Billy Smolinski, who disappeared in 2004.

From Tom’s Reading List

Salon: “The Skeleton Crew”: How a motley band of amateurs solves cold cases online — “Halber, a science writer, recounts how a motley band of committed hobbyists have devoted countless unpaid hours to linking unidentified human remains with missing-person reports. The case that serves as her framing device — ‘Tent Girl,’ a young woman whose body was discovered wrapped in a striped tarpaulin off Route 25 in Scott County, Kentucky — was 30 years cold when a factory worker named Todd Matthews matched her to a listing posted by a woman in search of her long-lost sister.”

Al-Jazeera America: Who done it? Citizen investigators mine social media for crime clues — “Evidence trails now available online can lead to criminals being caught, but there are major concerns that some Internet free-for-all sleuthing yields little more than confusion, false accusations and misinformation. Frustration can arise for police faced with well-meaning tipsters who don’t understand official procedures. Savvy digital sleuths, on the other hand, sometimes find that law enforcement isn’t computer-literate enough to understand the help it’s being given.”

National Institute of Justice: Missing Persons And Unidentified Remains: The Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster — “The facts are sobering. On any given day,  there are as many as 100,000 active missing persons cases in the United States. Every year, tens of thousands of people vanish under suspicious circumstances. Viewed over a 20-year period, the number of missing persons can be estimated in the hundreds of thousands.”

Read An Excerpt Of “The Skelteon Crew” By Deborah Halber

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Nov 24, 2015
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