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Social Media Has Changed Amateur Sleuthing Forever, But At What Cost?

by : Julia Banim on : 08 May 2021 17:09
Social Media Has Changed Amateur Sleuthing Forever, But At What Cost?Netflix/CBS

One of the biggest talking points of the 2021 documentary The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel was the reckless behaviour shown by individuals who’d become deeply, obsessively invested in the case.

Centred around the tragic 2013 death of Elisa Lam at the notorious Los Angeles hotel, the documentary featured various overzealous online detectives, unrestrained by ethical considerations.

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With a frenzied intensity that must have been terrifying, the sleuths focused their suspicions on Morbid Blackstar (real name Pablo Vergara), a death metal musician who hadn’t even been staying at the hotel at the time of Lam’s disappearance.

During the doc, Morbid spoke with visible emotion about the harassment he’d been subjected to, a relentless targeting that drove him to attempt suicide.

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Among those watching with frustration was Tricia Griffith, owner of Websleuths, an internet community focused on crime and missing people that is governed by strict rules and regulations.

When Morbid’s name was brought up on Websleuths, a quick search by members found he’d been in Mexico during Lam’s disappearance. He was therefore never mentioned again, and any posts about him were removed due to him not being a suspect.

‘The problem with that Netflix show’, Tricia told UNILAD, ‘is that they used the term ‘web sleuths’ as a generic term for trolls. And everybody typed in web sleuths, and guess what came up? Our forum.’

Cecil HotelNetflix
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Tricia takes great pride in the standards upheld by her forum, and when members started receiving unwarranted abuse following the doc, she contacted Netflix herself, asking them to add a disclaimer at the end.

Tricia is passionate about ensuring that no innocent person is targeted, with such concerns having been exacerbated in recent years. Facebook crime groups have increased in size, all while the process of tracking people down has become easier than ever before.

She told UNILAD:

The sad thing is there are some really good Facebook groups out there that do good work, but most of them are just like Websleuths was when I took it over. All drama, bringing up innocent people’s names, putting up their addresses.

So I don’t blame the police for being very wary of social media.

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Still from the documentary The Vanishing At The Cecil HotelNetflix

Tricia is now working alongside John Lordan, a YouTuber sleuth who featured in The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel, to establish a ‘gold standard’ for crime discussion forums, comparable to the ‘Good Housekeeping seal’.

It’s hoped this seal will help differentiate trusted forums from those less credible, so that police don’t simply paint Websleuths ‘with the same brush that they paint some lunatics on Facebook’.

Indeed, Tricia hopes that one day Websleuths will become a great asset to the police, believing that the forum needs ‘a few more big cases that we could really help with and have the police believe in us’.

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Tricia told UNILAD that she has previously had conversations with police officers in Australia, the UK, and Canada, many of whom use Websleuths, despite not necessarily acknowledging this in public.

person browsing a sear engine on laptopPA Images

Cyber security Jonny Pelter, founder of digital health service Just Ask Max, told UNILAD that amateur sleuths can indeed have a ‘significant’ impact on open investigations, ‘both positively and negatively’.

Pelter said:

It is obvious that many cases have been re-opened and successfully brought to conviction as a direct result of new evidence brought forward by members of the sleuthing community. They bring assets to the table that are often limited to law enforcement.

According to Pelter, these assets include global connectivity, with a worldwide network having the ability to re-review cases in ‘different cultural contexts’.

Amateur sleuths can also pour more time and resources into analysing aspects of cases that professional law enforcement officers simply do not have the capacity to look into.

detective police officers in the USPxHere

Although Pelter notes there have been ‘numerous cases’ where sleuthing communities have misinterpreted clues and hindered cases, with terrible consequences, there ‘are considerable upsides to amateur detective work’.

Pelter said:

There have been numerous cases where law enforcement have closed a case or been analysing a specific piece of evidence for years and then it being cracked by an amateur community or group within hours.

These occur and result in convictions for significant crimes but the key question is on balance, is it beneficial?

What should the community engagement model be between law enforcement and amateur sleuths? Should there be more of a formal engagement framework to involve amateur detectives in live investigations or would this be detrimental to holding fair trials?

As per Pelter, a ‘handful of police forces’ worldwide are now beginning to recognise the positive contribution of sleuthing community, with the UK’s Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) treating all information from such sources as potentially valuable.

Meanwhile, Europol has previously made appeals to the public in a bid to identify crime scene images, appeals that have helped move investigations along.

Public interest in true crime has boomed in recent years, with industry figures obtained by Time magazine showing that more than 1.6 million true-crime books were sold in 2018, showing a massive leap from the 976,000 copies sold in 2016.

It’s perhaps inevitable that booming legions of true crime fans would want an outlet to discuss various theories. But this is far from a passing trend, with amateur sleuths having been around since long before the internet.

Speaking with UNILAD, Pelter explained that the ‘notion of private investigators stems back centuries’, with the fictional character of Sherlock Holmes being ‘in many respects an amateur sleuth’.

Pelter continued:

The internet in the early to late 90’s really amplified private investigators work as now they could collaborate online. Online communities like Websleuths, Doe Network and latterly Reddit have been instrumental in solving many unsolved mysteries and been around since the late 1990’s.

Very recently this notion of amateur sleuthing has been brought to the general public’s attention via a number of TV documentaries, in particular Netflix’s Don’t F**k With Cats where a group of cat lovers successfully identified that masked Canadian murderer Luka Magnotta.

As a result, I expect we’re going to see another step-change in armchair detective work as more people are exposed to it and engage with existing and expanding communities around the world, as after all, all you need to get involved is an internet connection and passion for solving mysteries.

As ‘the first online repository for unidentified persons’, the Doe Network focuses on cold cases and unidentified persons, with volunteers working to match records with missing persons. And there have been many notable successes.

Todd Matthews, program director at the Doe Network, first became captivated by true crime when he was 17, after his wife’s father came across the remains of a Jane Doe known only as ‘Tent Girl’. The find ‘absolutely fascinated and yet also distressed’ Todd, who desperately wanted ‘to send her home’.

Thirty years after the discovery, Todd found that the remains matched the description of 24-year-old mother Barbara Ann ‘Bobbie’ Taylor. This identification was later confirmed by the police, as have numerous Doe Network matches in the years since.

Todd told UNILAD:

When we first emerged on the scene we were unique and adapted online social media for a new purpose. We were the effort in which cyber unit evolved. Awareness is our biggest asset at this point.

Tricia started getting curious about true crime at around the time of the Manson Family murders, when she was about 10. This interest developed further just a few years later, when she was targeted by Ted Bundy.

Recalling her brush with one the most notorious serial killers in US history, Tricia told UNILAD she’d been shopping for school clothes at Fashion Place Mall in Murrary, Utah, when she was stopped by a man with a ‘megawatt smile’.

Tricia, then 15, had no idea then that she was speaking with a monster, but something inside her ‘went totally cold’ when the man asked her to accompany him to another mall. Fortunately, Tricia spotted her older cousin and rushed over. When she turned around, the man was gone.

Ted Bundy Netflix 3Netflix

It wasn’t until years later, when Bundy’s many faces were plastered across every newspaper, that Tricia realised who that smile had belonged to and what could have happened if she’d got into his car.

As an adult, Tricia retained her fascination with crime and justice, lapping up the books of iconic true crime author Ann Rule. Her initial entry into true crime discussion forums was as a new mother in the mid ’90s, looking for something to do other than housework while her baby slept.

Speaking with UNILAD, Tricia explained that she had begun looking on these forums after wanting to know more about the JonBenet Ramsey case, startled by the idea that there could be such a thing as a six-year-old beauty queen. It was at this point that everything changed.

Tricia told UNILAD:

And to me, it was like the clouds opened up and the angels started singing ‘Hallelujah’, because then I couldn’t get enough, you know, and these smart people that were figuring things out and they could talk to each other.

Parents of JonBenet Ramsey at a pressPA Images

Tricia ended up taking ownership over the Forums for Justice League, a forum that mainly focuses on the as–yet-unsolved JonBenet case.

During these early years, Tricia helped expose journalism professor Michael Tracey for fraudulently claiming to have to found the killer, a man who hadn’t even been in Colorado on the night of JonBenet’s death.

One day, Tricia got a call from the owner of Websleuths, asking if she wanted to take over what was then still a small forum. She decided she’d go for it, buying the domain so that no one else could take ownership.

‘Websleuths back then was a snake pit’, Tricia recalled. ‘It was, you know, every every other post was, I hate you, you’re an idiot. I’m going to sue you. I know where you live. Just just trolling and bullying. And it was disgusting.’

So in 2004, Tricia set about banning ‘a bunch of people’ from the forum, a decision that led to her receiving death threats. In 2008, she took things a step further, tightening up the rules so that members could no longer discuss rumours and had to stick to the facts.

This angered some members, and at first Tricia feared she’d made a huge mistake. However, it turned out to have the exact opposite effect, with the forum having since gone from strength to strength.

Tricia said:

We started getting people coming out and saying ‘thank you, I was afraid to post and tell my opinion because I didn’t want to be attacked’. And the forum exploded, just exploded.

The rules began to be tightened at around the same time as the murder trial of Casey Anthony, the case that Tricia says shot the site ‘into the stratosphere’. The rules have been continually modified ever since, accounting for the differences between cases, and the forum has seen some notable successes.

Casey Anthony appears before the courtPA Images

Tricia recalled the case of Abraham Shakespeare, a homeless man from Florida who, in 2006, won $32 million dollars on the Lottery.

A little while after Shakespeare’s win, a woman named Dee Dee Moore gave a press conference, stating that he would be going away for a while and she would be handling his affairs. Shakespeare’s family had no idea who she was, and alarm bells began to ring on Websleuths.

‘So we suspended our big rule that you can’t discuss anybody as a suspect unless the police have said they’re a suspect,’ said Tricia, ‘and we went in and said, look, this is so creepy. We know this woman killed him. So everybody go for it.’

Their incredible work impressed officers, with one detectives on the case calling Tricia to tell her, ‘you know, we have to get a subpoena for, like the bank records and things that your members have gotten’. This same detective joined the forum, thanking members for their efforts.

Moore also joined the forum at this point, raging against the members and threatening to sue. This, Tricia said, was akin to ‘throwing blood into the water with the sharks’, and the police were ‘loving it’.

Tricia told UNILAD:

Well, I guess she realised she said too much because she wrote me and she said, ‘my name’s Dee Dee Moore and somebody is impersonating me on your forum and I want those posts removed’.

And I said, ‘well, Dee Dee, that’s really strange, because the IP address on this e-mail happens to be the exact same IP address that is posting on Websleuths. So did somebody break in your house and make those posts?’

Shortly afterwards, Shakespeare’s body was found under a concrete slab in Moore’s boyfriend’s garage. Moore was arrested for first-degree murder and is now serving a life sentence.

Once again, the same officer contacted Tricia asking her to thank the members. However, a few years later, while participating in an article for Rolling Stone, she discovered the police department had denied Websleuths had contributed to the investigation.

Tricia told UNILAD:

John Ramsey called us ‘beer can-collecting housewives’, which I find very complimentary, because beer can collecting is a hard job, and I’m a crappy housewife.

I admire anybody that can keep a house clean and balance a chequebook, you know? So to me, that’s not an insult. But that’s what they think of us, like little old biddies just gossiping.

And they don’t realise we have professionals on the board. We have verified members. Verified law enforcement and scientists and and all of that. And that’s the problem, is they don’t understand that Websleuths is an amazing tool because we’re highly moderated.

It’s unclear whether the bad rep that haunts serious sleuthing communities will be lifted anytime soon, but perceptions are certainly changing, and Tricia is confident that she will see a shift in her lifetime.

Offering advice to anyone who wants to delve into sleuthing themselves, Tricia emphasised:

What you need to do is you need to ask yourself, do you really have a passion for this? Because most of the true crime are not the big cases.

Most of our cases involve missing people that nobody cares about. And that’s the other goal I want is to get those cases out there. Those families deserve to have media attention, just like Elizabeth Smart and all the others, you know.

So you have to ask yourself, are you doing this for the right reason? You can’t do it for fame, you can’t do it for money, and you’ve got to do it because you want to help. And always remember you don’t want to harm. You want to help.

If you’ve been affected by any of these issues and want to speak to someone in confidence, please don’t suffer alone. Call Samaritans for free on their anonymous 24-hour phone line on 116 123.

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Julia Banim

Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.

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