When Sarah Koenig of This American Life created Serial, she made the word podcast a household name. But she did more than that. She shared her obsession over a murder case with millions of people. For most, this was passive entertainment. Some went farther. Fans started a thread on the popular website Reddit devoted to helping Koenig solve the crime. They searched databases for clues and connected with people involved in the crime. A few went even farther. At least one Serial listener started casing the home of key witness and alternative suspect Jay Wilds. Wilds filed a restraining order.
“They had found a skull in a bucket of cement at a truck stop in Kearney, Missouri. That’s all they had was the skull.”
Serial fans aren’t the only ones using the internet to try to solve crimes. There is an army of amateur sleuths all over the country trying to crack cold cases. They’re usually armed with nothing more than laptops, public information and apparently a lot of spare time. Welcome to the future, complete with crowdsourced law enforcement. This week we focus on the effect it’s had on the real world.
It looked like Douglas DeBruin would get away with murder. In 2001, police arrested him for killing Gregory May. But they didn’t have a body. Without a body it was impossible to know if May had actually been murdered. Lucky for police Ellen Leach was on the case. She remembers what she first heard about the case, “They had found a skull in a bucket of cement at a truck stop in Kearney, Missouri. That’s all they had was the skull.”
This actually happens. All the time — body parts just turn up. Usually, no one know who they are or what happened. A facial reconstruction artist made a reconstruction of what the unidentified man’s face might have looked like and put it on the internet. Leach began to search, “I went from site to site to site. I found Gregory May’s picture and it looked so much like the skull. The facial features, the way the eye sockets were on him.”
She has a home setup with two computer monitors. One shows human remains and the other, pictures of missing persons. Leach made the match by carefully sifting through the information on both. Though the police didn’t immediately respond to her attempts to get in touch, it was the evidence police needed to get a conviction. They didn’t take her seriously.
Leach works at Hobby Lobby running the seasonal department. Sleuthing is how she spends her spare time. That’s right — Ellen Leach is an amateur and she’s very good at her hobby. She’s made eight matches and is a superstar among the community of online sleuths.
“A woman had posted a notice saying, ‘Looking for my long-lost sister. Last seen in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1968.’ And he suddenly just knew that that must be Tent Girl.”
Amateur sleuthing has changed over the years. Deborah Halber wrote a book on this phenomenon called The Skeleton Crew. She follows one early sleuther trying to crack a cold case commonly known as ‘Tent Girl.’ When the sleuther first became obsessed with the case, all he could was drive to newspaper archives and call the medical examiner. Halber remembers how things suddenly changed in the Tent Girl investigation: “With the advent of the Internet, there were these early bulletin boards. A woman had posted a notice saying, ‘Looking for my long-lost sister. Last seen in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1968.’ And he suddenly just knew that that must be Tent Girl.”
Now, there are thousands of online sleuths. They gather on sites like the DOE Network and NamUs which was created by the US Department of Justice. NamUS is a database open to the public. It’s the first of its kind to allow family members to update case files with information like DNA samples and dental records.
But online sleuthing is still new and some law enforcement keep amateurs at arms length. Halber notes that these groups are sometimes disparaged by cops, “They actually have been called the ‘Doe-Nuts’ as in, you know, Jane and John Doe.”
Ellen Leach knows this well. After she figured out that the skull likely belonged to Gregory May, she tried contacting law enforcement. It took almost a month, but the police finally listened to her tip — and just in time. Four days before the trial, Gregory May’s dentals were matched to the skull.
So, how did Leach go from stocking shelves to forensic investigator?
“I had cousins that went missing back in the 90s,” remembers Leach. Her cousin is a woman named Susan Smith. In 1994 Smith’s children disappeared. She publicly pleaded with their kidnapper. It was all over the TV. Leach watched in horror. She was a 1,000 miles away and felt helpless.
Leach got online. This time, she came up short. The kids were found dead, killed by their own mother.
“It made me feel good, that I could actually help somebody. The family appreciated it. They called me. They mailed me. I still get Christmas cards from them.”
Leach never stopped searching for the missing. Some families could get closure (if they knew what had happened to them) and she wanted to help. She worked cases for four years before making her first match. Because of her work, Gregory May’s murderer went to prison and it still sticks with her, “It made me feel good, that I could actually help somebody. The family appreciated it. They called me. They mailed me. I still get Christmas cards from them.”
Ellen Leach is a certain kind of amateur sleuth. She works alone on cold cases, but there’s another type too. They tend to work as a crowd, solving crimes in real time. Sometimes they even deal their own kind of internet justice. This is a totally different animal.
Take the online crowd that gathered on Reddit after the Boston Marathon Bombing. While the bombers used the anonymity of the crowd to commit murder, redditors used it to find them. Longtime Reddit user, Cale Ogelsby, walked us through the online investigation. Along with thousands of others, he was on Reddit as soon as he heard about the bombing.
As Olgesby watched it all unfold, Redditors started naming names — drawing conclusions based on hours of listening to police scanners and searching pixelated images. The bombers were still at large and there was a palpable sense they could strike again.
One woman named Judy Tripathi was experiencing two tragedies that day. Her twenty-two-year-old son, Sunil, had recently gone missing and she was in the midst of running an online campaign to find him. Her two other children were watching the marathon.
“We were 30 some days into that when Sangeeta and Ravi took an afternoon off to go to the Boston Marathon,” recalls Tripathi. “They were there near the finish line when the bombing happened. It was a really horrible, horrible day for everyone.”
The two oldest kids were safe, though at the time, Judy had no idea where her youngest was. Sunil had been suffering from depression. A month earlier, on the night of March 16, 2013, he disappeared. Tripathi remembers her son as, “a very special, very sensitive, very quiet, very gentle, very philosophical” young man.
The crowd put any and all information online — for everyone to see. That night the internet exploded with accusations that Sunil Tripathi was Suspect #2.
By April 18, the FBI released images of the bombers and asked the public to call in tips. But that’s not how it went down on Reddit. The crowd put any and all information online — for everyone to see. That night the internet exploded with accusations that Sunil Tripathi was Suspect #2.
User Bax711 wrote, “Boston PD confirms on scanner Tripathi is bomber #2”.
Starfoxer wrote, “to all the idiots who said they should stop bringing up this poor kid blah blah. reddit was right!”
People also found the Facebook page where Sunil’s family was organizing their own crowdsourcing campaign. The Tripathi family was thrust into a nightmare.
“Within the next couple of hours posts became so numerous and so nasty that we had probably five or six computers in the room trying to delete the posts. The volume just started to increase,” recalls Tripathi.
“We did not sleep that night but our phones were vibrating all night long. Print journalists, TV journalists, and radio journalists asking to talk about Sunil.” – Judy Tripathi
And, it wasn’t just Facebook and Reddit users. Members of the media began trying to reach the Tripathis at three in the morning — all wanting to talk about Sunil.
Judy Tripathi’s worries weren’t about sleep that night, “My biggest worry all night long was where was Sunil? And how could this impact him? To this day that haunts me.”
The family finally got reprieve the next morning when the FBI released the names of the true suspects. Sunil wasn’t one of them. Accused of murder, he became a victim of the worst kind of internet trolling.
Four and half days later, Sunil’s body was found. He died by suicide the very same day he disappeared.
Tripathi felt wronged — it was as if a newspaper had printed a headline naming her son a terrorist. But, libel laws are aimed at traditional media — newspapers, radio, television. Because the claims about Sunil were made online, there was no legal recourse. There are very few laws that directly address online defamation. The most recent act was established back in 1996, but mostly to address pornography — not what happened to Sunil.
“And then two days later, the night of the 18th was when the whole internet thing exploded where they identified or misidentified Sunil as Suspect Number Two.” – Judy Tripathi
It’s up to online communities to police themselves. And, the DOE Network has figured it out. Members must submit their names, addresses, even criminal history. Everyone commits to strict protocols: no contacting family members or interfering with police. Break the rules and you get kicked out. Reddit is another story.
Reddit General Manager Eric Martin personally apologized to Judy Tripathi and said they’d work to prevent something like this from happening again. Reddit now has stricter guidelines on respect, privacy and safety. But the site has over a million and a half users and is moderated by volunteers. Even with a clear code of conduct, staying on top of user behavior is nearly impossible.
“I don’t know who or what I can point a finger at except that we as a society need to really look at what happened and learn a lesson right now. So that we don’t put another family through anything like that,” says Tripathi.
“I don’t know who or what I can point a finger at except that we as a society need to really look at what happened and learn a lesson right now.”
There are real advantages to encouraging online sleuths. There’s more people looking at cold cases than ever before. Criminals are caught. Families get closure. But, law enforcement follows strict protocols for a reason. There are rules of evidence. Probable cause. Juries.
The internet has none of that.
As the case of Sunil Tripathi proves, there’s a fine line between a crowdsourced detective unit and a lynch mob.
This story was reported by Brit Hanson and edited by Life of the Law’s Managing Editor, Michael May. Jonathan Hirsch designed the sound and produced the story with production assistance from Life of the Law’s Senior Producer, Kaitlin Prest. Simone Seiver and Kirsten Jusewicz-Haidle handled our post-production.
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