Ingram Blog

Crime Junkie: Citizen Sleuth Reads

By Becky Walton, MLIS, Collection Development Librarian, Ingram Library Services 
After reading (and loving!) Chase Darkness with Me by Billy Jensen, I became interested in citizen detectives and “crowdsolving.”

Jensen, who helped finish Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, is a journalist who has become dedicated to solving crimes, especially murders. One of the first crimes he solved was the death of Marques Gaines in Chicago in 2016. He posted surveillance video as an ad on social media and urged people who knew the suspect to come forward with information. They did, and the perpetrator was charged with the crime. In his book, he devotes a chapter telling readers what to do and not do in their quest to find criminals

Jensen and retired investigator Paul Holes cohost the podcast Murder Squad in which they relate unsolved crimes and enlist the help of listeners. On January 13 of this year, the podcast announced that one of their listeners was instrumental in solving a four-decade-old cold case.

The prevalence of social media and the widespread trend of DNA testing has made it easier for concerned citizens to help law enforcement solve crimes. People pore over photos posted on Facebook or videos uploaded to YouTube for any recognizable elements, such as clothing logos or background posters and signs. A crime getting recent attention is that of Luke Magnotta. As told in the Netflix documentary Don’t F**k with Cats, members of a Facebook group, especially Deanna Thompson and John Green, joined forces to identify the young man who posted online videos of himself killing first cats and then a human.

But the concept of citizen sleuths isn’t a new one. Websleuths is an online forum that has been around since at least 2004. Each case has its own forum, with some having pages and pages of posts with information, theories, possible clues, and questions. Some of the members are credited with solving the murder of Abraham Shakespeare in Florida. 

Long-time true crime fans may remember Todd Matthews. In the 1980s, he became very interested in the identity of a young woman dubbed “Tent Girl,” whose body was found by his father-in-law in 1968. In 1998, he finally matched her with a missing woman and identified her as Barbara Ann Hackman Taylor. Matthews went on to help start The Doe Network one year later.

NamUs was formed in 2007 and brings together law enforcement, medical examiners, family members, and more to resolve missing, unidentified, and unclaimed people across the United States.

In 2015, Deborah Halber wrote about digital detectives in The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America's Coldest Cases, which inspired the Netflix series Ultraviolet. James Renner is a journalist who has spent years looking into the disappearance of Maura Murray and told about his obsession inTrue Crime Addict.

Online resources are becoming available all the time as technology advances. DNA Doe Project and Crimewatchers.net are just two examples of sites that anyone with online access can view. Jensen and Holes recommend that people who have their DNA analyzed by sites such as 23 and Me also register their DNA with open source sites to which law enforcement has access, such as GEDMatch.

Grab a cup of coffee and your laptop and perhaps you, too, can solve a crime!

Can’t get enough true crime? Read this previous blog post

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