Cit­i­zen sleuths are track­ing killers and crack­ing cold cases.

ELLE (Canada) - - Society - BY ALAN­NAH O’NEILL

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 miss­ing­peo­, 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.”

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