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

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
Oct 9, 2015
A manhole begins to spill over with floodwaters as high tide approaches at Dorchester Road at Sawmill Branch Canal in Summerville, S.C., Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015.  (AP)

Russia goes big in Syria. The US hits a hospital in Kunduz. Hillary flips on the TPP. An epic flood in South Carolina. Our weekly news roundtable goes behind the headlines.

Oct 9, 2015
In this Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2015, photo, Devlin D'Zmura, a tending news manager at DraftKings, a daily fantasy sports company, works on his laptop at the company's offices in Boston. (AP)

Fantasy football scandal, and the wild, booming betting world of fantasy sports.

Oct 8, 2015
US singer Patti Smith performs during the Way Out West music festival in Gothenburg, Sweden, Saturday, Aug.15, 2015.  (AP)

Iconic rocker, poet of punk, and National Book Award-winning author Patti Smith joins us to talk about her new memoir, “M Train”.

Oct 8, 2015
In this Aug. 2, 2012 file photo, local newspapers show stories about the controversial strategy to bail the government out of a financial hole, at a restaurant along Seven Mile Beach on the outskirts of George Town on the Cayman Islands. The Cayman Islands have lost some of their allure by abruptly proposing what amounts to an income tax on expatriate workers who have helped build the territory into one of the most famous or, for some people, notorious offshore banking centers that have tax advantages for foreign investment operations. (AP)

Trillions of dollars are now stashed in protected tax havens around the world, leaving societies’ bills to those at home. We’ll dig in.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Rep. Daniel Webster: ‘I’m Gonna Sell This Message’
Tuesday, Oct 6, 2015

When House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) announced his retirement and resignation from his position last month, it surprised both his Party and the Washington political establishment.

More »
Our Week In The Web: October 2, 2015
Friday, Oct 2, 2015

We say hello again to our email address (since so many of you did this week) and goodbye to the Log Lady.

More »
Interview With Sen. Bernie Sanders: ‘Count Me As A Radical’
Thursday, Oct 1, 2015

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is making waves in the 2016 Presidential race, and he joined us today from the US Capitol to explain how his campaign message is connecting with voters around the country.

More »