Citizen sleuths are tracking killers and cracking cold cases.
tam Bui is looking for leads. The Toronto-based homicide detective has released a series of clues over Twitter, hoping to crowdsource a lucky tip that will help him solve the 2012 murder of Mike Pimentel, who was stabbed on New Year’s Eve in Liberty Village. “We had a lot of good information,” he says. “We had clothing descriptions, stills from a seized video, items that were dropped.” But, three years later, the trail had run cold. It wasn’t until Bui started listening to Serial, the behemoth podcast about the 1999 murder of high-school student Hae Min Lee and the man who was convicted of killing her, Adnan Syed, that inspiration struck: He would use its mega-success to solicit engagement from the public and track down Pimentel’s murderer.
Appealing to social media might seem like an unusual method to solve a crime, but, in fact, it’s part of a growing trend where citizen sleuths are cracking cases over the Internet. In 2012, when Luka Magnotta released a video depicting the brutal murder and dismemberment of student Lin Jun, he was found by a group of animal-rights activists. Magnotta had been on their radar for months, after they discovered a video he’d posted online of himself killing kittens. This past March, HBO’s documentary miniseries The Jinx, about real-estate magnate Robert Durst’s alleged connection to three deaths (including that of his wife in 1982), led to an arrest after Durst, unbeknownst to him, was recorded saying “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
Current arrests aside, this isn’t a new movement at all; civilians have been attempting to solve famous mysteries for decades, from who kidnapped the Lindbergh baby to the identity of Jack the Ripper. However, the ability to compile and disseminate information and evidence from central hubs online has been a game changer for both citizens and law enforcement alike.
Civilian detectives congregate on sites like Reddit, Canada’s Missing, the Doe Network and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. They pore over missing-person reports, forensic exams and facial reconstructions. “There was nothing distinguishing about the people I talked to,” says Deborah Halber, author of The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases. “Some were old, some young. They came from all over the country. I spoke to a few people who had solved six or more cold cases.” Halber says most aspiring gumshoes have altruistic motives—they want to help families figure out what happened to their loved ones—while others simply enjoy solving puzzles. “For the most part, people seemed to stumble onto cases,” she adds. “The more you h
research, the more you feel like you know the person. And you do whatever you can.”
It seems as if citizen sleuths emerge out of civic duty when they feel justice hasn’t been served. That was certainly a motivating factor for Alexandria Goddard, a blogger who found incriminating tweets and videos that pictured teen boys sexually assaulting an underage girl in Steubenville, Ohio. Goddard made screen shots before the tweets were deleted, forcing officials to eventually press charges.
It was law enforcement’s inaction that motivated Wayne Leng. When his friend, 29-yearold Sarah de Vries, disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in 1998, Leng, a mechanic by trade, feared the worst. “Women had been going missing, but there wasn’t much in the news about it,” he says. His repeated calls to the police fell on deaf ears. “The women were sex workers and drug addicted, and the standard line was ‘They’re transient; they have moved on to other locations.’” Leng started missingpeople.net, launched a 1- 800 number to solicit tips and was eventually contacted by a man with information about his employer, a pig farmer named Robert “Willie” Pickton. “I turned it over to the police, but I didn’t think much of it,” says Leng. That is, until Pickton was arrested—four years later— and charged with the murders of 26 women.
It’s not a surprise that police would brush off this type of information from well-meaning tipsters. “In some cases, when law enforcement were starting to get all these calls, they were understandably asking ‘What’s going on here?’” says Halber. “Then the mysteries started getting solved.” That’s when she noticed a shift in attitudes. “I spoke with detectives who were grateful for the help. One in Phoenix said that there were cases he never would have been able to solve without the Doe Network.” Back in Toronto, Detective Bui says that using Twitter (@DetBuiHomicide) to solve his homicide case is the ultimate act of transparency. “It’s a work account,” he says. “It’s being monitored by my command structure and anyone else who wants to see it. Defence attorneys, people on other cases—there’s no hiding; it’s Twitter.” With the NYE murder still under investigation, Bui remains mum on the case’s progress.
But not all Internet investigations pan out— this was proven (with disastrous consequences) by the manhunt that occurred after bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013. The FBI released pictures of suspects online, and the community on Reddit wrongfully accused 22-year-old Sunil Tripathi of involvement. Within hours, news vans were camped outside his house and outlets like Buzzfeed and Gawker had posted his picture on their home pages. He took his own life soon after. Once Tripathi was found dead, a dozen or so editorials popped up that debated the ethics of crime fighting via laptop and decried online mob mentality.
While the initial pull may be that all-toohuman need to help at any cost, sometimes the thrill of solving a mystery blinds many to the reallife consequences of digging through someone’s past and making accusations. As Serial played out each week, becoming a genuine pop-culture phenomenon, a few took to the Internet to question our fascination with murder on a spectator level. Jay, a star witness in the case, told The Intercept in an exclusive interview: “We have young kids, and we used to let them walk to school. Now we don’t, because we don’t know if someone from the Internet is going to harass them.”
With online investigations, there’s no formal system in place to protect people’s rights from damaging speculation. And attaching accusations to someone’s name, so that it’s picked up on a routine Google search, can impact his or her life profoundly. But, for those whose loved ones have disappeared without a trace, finding some sense of resolve is important.
For all the backlash that Serial received, it sparked an international debate about a case no one was talking about and generated enough interest to launch a formal appeals process for Syed. As for Leng, finding the truth has finally given him a sense of peace. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Sarah,” says Leng. “But it does give some measure of closure.”