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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

Guests

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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  • Guest

    This is great! Maybe now we can finally learn what happened to Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi since both Obama and Hillary seem to be suffering from selective amnesia for the night of September 11th, 2012.

    • hennorama

      “Guest” AKA [X Y & Z}, FKA [Jay], FKA [(Un)InformedAmerican] — the lengths to which you go with your anti-Obama screeds is boundless.

      Drone alone, robodrone.

      • Guest

        Don’t blame me for the fact that your failed and incompetent President is a war criminal.

  • Matt MC

    Maybe we could crowd source all the trolls out of On Point comments. Really ruining the experience for me…

    • Godzilla the Intellectual

      Matt, since anyone can call anyone else a troll for any reason, your comment is pointless.

  • hennorama

    Since 1960, there have been more than 200,000 unsolved homicides in the US, a figure that increases by about 6,000 each year.

    Scripps Howard News Service did a Special Report about this, titled “Murder Mysteries.” It’s a great read.

    See:
    http://projects.scrippsnews.com/magazine/murder-mysteries/

  • hennorama

    Another great read on the topic of cold murder cases is The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World’s Most Perplexing Cold Cases, by Michael Capuzzo.

    From the dust cover:

    “The greatest detectives ever assembled meet in a private club in Philadelphia to hunt down cold-case killers who thought they got away with it.”

    See:
    http://www.amazon.com/The-Murder-Room-Sherlock-Perplexing/dp/B005MWKS4Y

  • malkneil

    I apologize if this was already mentioned, but a recent cogent example of how crowd-sourcing can work for crime solving is when pictures of the two Boston bombers were quickly produced via crowd-sourcing and identifications were made. A powerful tool in spite of some of its somewhat vapid applications like Facebook.

  • johnhaskell

    The police cannot ask a private citizen do what the police cannot legally do.

    • Godzilla the Intellectual

      I don’t think they are asking.

  • hennorama

    The Vidocq Society’s exploits are detailed in the excellent book, The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World’s Most Perplexing Cold Cases, by Michael Capuzzo.

    See my post below for more info.

  • Godzilla the Intellectual

    Page not secure!

  • Savage Watch

    We have plenty of cold cases that need solving.
    http://www.savagewatch.com

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