True Crime Goes Online: The Emergence of Web Sleut...

True Crime Goes Online: The Emergence of Web Sleuths

Eleven-year-old Tricia Griffith cannot stop hearing about the Manson Family trial. The brutal killings in 1969 sent fright through her body but also left an impending sense of curiosity. Later, at 15 years old, she will go to the mall on her own for the first time to buy school clothes. An attractive man will approach her, asking her to come outside to point him in the right direction to the other mall. He will walk shoulder to shoulder with her. Just a couple years later, Griffith will see his photo on the front page of a newspaper under the headline “The Many Faces of Ted Bundy.”

Eight-year-old Catlyn Walker spends her evenings in Ohio sitting on the couch with her older sister watching Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. On the days that her sister doesn’t win over the control of the television remote, her mom switches the channel to watch Dateline. The horrible crimes being described on these shows become the background noise of the house. They stick to Walker’s mind and fill her with a sense of strange fascination. She is not quite sure what draws her young mind toward the crimes on the TV. It will take her years to zero in on the puzzling personalities of serial killers.

Five-year-old Billy Jensen sits between his father and the television. Jensen has his toy cars and his father has his newspaper. The TV plays a seemingly never-ending loop of news broadcasts, a deliberate choice of Jensen’s father. He reads aloud from the newspaper as Jensen rolls his cars across the floor. His father announces that the .44 Caliber Killer, also known as The Son of Sam, has finally been caught. Though too young to understand the logistics, Jensen suddenly feels the weight of this previously-unsolved case lifted off his shoulders. He will later spend years of his life searching for that feeling once again.

Four-year-old Jamie Grisko watches the O.J. Simpson white Bronco chase on the television at home. Her mother turns to her and explains, “That man in the white car hurt his wife and the police are going to catch him.” As a single mother, she has made it a point to instill caution within her daughter. Grisko knew from day one that the only people she should get into the car with from daycare are people who know their code word. Later in life, Grisko will spend hours binging documentaries with her sister to try and arm herself with every bit of knowledge to keep her loved ones safe.

“Cubby” searches the internet for information on sons with absent fathers. As a single, unmarried mother who prefers to go by their username after online harassment she is not sure if her son’s father will ever be a part of his life. Looking for guidance, she stumbles upon a website dedicated to solving cold cases. There, she finds a community willing to offer their unwavering support, no matter the situation. Suddenly, a passion for putting together the pieces of a puzzle sparks inside of her. She will continue to spend years seeking for justice, no matter how large or small.

Illustration by Jordana Dean, 14 East.

The year is 1996 and Griffith is bored out of her mind. Not that she doesn’t have anything to do — she has a newborn baby “eating, crying, pooping and sleeping” in her Park City, Utah home. For the first time in her life, the former radio host is stuck at home. Gone are the days of putting on music events and going to concerts. Bone-tired from the heaviness of new motherhood, Griffith doesn’t know what the hell she is supposed to do with her life.

Thinking she might as well have some connection to the outside world, she picks up the newspaper. A “teeny story” stops her eyes from scanning the rest of the page. The headline reads, “Six-year-old beauty queen found dead in her basement.” Griffith’s first thought is that there’s no such thing as a six-year-old beauty queen. She sits in front of her clunky computer and the screen lights up her face. She finds a discussion forum and the beauty queen is given a name: JonBenet Ramsey. They don’t know who killed her.

But there are so many who want to find out who did, and Griffith is one of them. The discussion forum opens itself up to any and all questions related to the case — the questions that news anchors are not allowed to dive too deep in. At the end of the day, it is all speculation. But the passion and thought that these users put into their posts create an aura of authority around them. Intimidated by that intelligence, Griffith ends up making a bold move: her first post.

“When did John turn on the light and see JonBenet’s body?”

1996 was a different time for discussing crime. You did not typically go to your neighbor to ask them about their unsolved murder theories. You did not have the option to spend hours listening to podcasts that relay the gory details of a case, or see people count down to the day a new docuseries about a serial killer comes out. Crime was covered by the news each night during dinner and that was where it was intended to end. That is, until the internet came around.

At the time that Griffith was holed up in her house with her new baby, the internet had just started coming into its own. The ghastly details of any cold case were waiting to be found on the internet, as long as there was someone looking for them. Suddenly, the facts being broadcasted to every house each night on the news seemed limited. People craved conversation.

“Then you had the internet and it was the wild west,” says Griffith. “You could talk about anything.” It was not enough to let the details of each newscast sink in. Those details created questions in the minds of their viewers and those questions needed answers — or at least something close to it.

Griffith ended up owning her own discussion forum mainly revolving around the Ramsey case called, which is still up and running to this day. The forum’s members are responsible for helping debunk a lot of popular suspects of the case. Though Ramsey’s killer remains unknown to this day, the forum members pride themselves in clearing the names of innocent individuals whose reputations were tainted by those monstrous accusations. They also work hard to not let the public forget about those who were never thoroughly investigated (Griffith would point you to JonBenet’s brother, Burke).

Today, Griffith has owned since 2004, a forum striving to bring attention to cases with no profile — cases of missing sex workers or other people overlooked because they have no powerful, rich resources to back them. There are over 152,000 members on the website, though the number of visitors at any given time is almost double the amount of active users.

“A lot of people in society felt like they had been forgotten, totally left out of the world,” says Griffith. “I want those people to know that they matter to Websleuths.”

There are certainly plenty of those unsolved crimes to go around. There have been over 211,000 unsolved murders in America since 1980. The clearance rate — where people are actually arrested and charged with the crime—is at an all-time low. In Chicago alone, there have been 5,534 reported homicides in the past 11 years and 74 percent of those homicides did not result in an arrest. But it is not just a major-city issue. The Washington Post reports that out of 54,868 homicides in 55 cities over the past decade, 50 percent did not result in an arrest. That is over 27,000 innocent lives lost with countless other family members never able to get closure from their grief.

Despite the shocking statistics, we still can’t seem to shake these stories out from the current mainstream media cycle. Suddenly, true crime is everywhere — not just as stories, but as an entire genre. Long gone are the days of hushed chatter surrounding the nightly news. Murder cases are getting TV shows, podcasts, feature films and more. Unsolved cases are becoming appropriate dinner conversations. The stigma surrounding the topic of true crime has officially turned a complete 180 degrees.

If you are a regular consumer of media, odds are that you have at least heard of the podcast Serial or the Netflix original show Making a Murderer. Both programs follow individuals sitting behind bars for crimes they claim they did not commit. They both tell a story, but one that brings us a little too close for comfort with these people who are being treated as villains. Both of these titles premiered in 2015 and have only exploded from there, spurring a huge growth in the true crime genre as a whole. For many, this new true crime media is a startlingly pleasant addition to their media lineup. For others, this new boom of true crime is a relief because, now, true crime fans are finally able to talk about their love of true crime out in the open.

One way true crime fans have found themselves capable of talking about murder is through comedy. At the surface level, that probably does not make much sense, but the ever-so-popular podcast My Favorite Murder has found a way to make it work. The show is the accidental brainchild of comedian Karen Kilgariff and TV-foodie Georgia Hardstark. A typical episode of the show has a unique rhythm, one that slows when it is time to spotlight a name of a nearly forgotten victim but then tramples on with anecdotes from the lives of the hosts. Sometimes a silly mispronunciation of a word is enough to help subside the sting of hearing about how people were senselessly killed.

“At first, My Favorite Murder gave us little inside jokes to put on buttons and shirts, a kind of quiet beacon so we could spot each other in the wild,” says Grisko. “And then there was a shift. It felt like right around the time I got vocal on my social media about my interest in true crime, everyone around me was doing the same thing.”

Like all aspects of pop culture, these podcasts and shows are followed by dedicated fans. But this true crime genre has created more than just discussion about the charming personalities of their hosts. Instead, true crime has brought together a community of like-minded people genuinely interested in looking out for each other.

Walker no longer has to rely on her sister’s fascination with forensics to be able to discuss her latest theory with someone. “I had zero friends to even talk about it with until the podcast [My Favorite Murder] and now all of my friends are just as into talking about true crime as me,” says Walker. “Most of my family was and is conservative and it just wasn’t something we talked about.” True crime has certainly bridged the divide between die-hard sleuths and the regular people consuming whatever Netflix throws at them.

Before the explosion of these shows, closet true crime fans were mainly able to find relief for their fascination within Ann Rule’s true crime books. Rule, best known for The Stranger Beside Me in which she details her friendship with Ted Bundy, was a sort of true crime goddess for fans before the mainstream true crime craze began.

“It took a lot of us closet Ann Rule readers and showed us that we’re certainly not alone in wanting to understand more about how to protect ourselves from monsters we might encounter,” says Grisko. These audiences may now have something to bond over, but what individual viewers do with that information after they walk away from their screens is much more telling.

The true crime stories we are currently seeing blow up in the media are ones that stray away from the basic news specials we have seen throughout the years. “Classic true crime celebrated the bad guy getting caught and being brought to justice,” says Deborah Halber, author of The Skeleton Crew. “Serial and Making a Murderer depart from that genre because they re-try individuals in the media.” These stories are making us think harder about how we picture justice, and those conversations are happening on a global scale.

But these newer true crime media still tread a fine line between sensationalism and telling a story. We need to be careful not to romanticize the monsters that we are seeing take over the big screens. It can be a difficult thing to do, especially when the monster is being portrayed by a big name like Zac Efron in a feature-length film on serial killer Ted Bundy aptly named Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile. What people will remember from this movie and end up doing with that knowledge can demonstrate what these audiences are taking away from these true crime stories at large.

The romanticizing of Ted Bundy began well before Zac Efron was cast to play him. In fact, women wrote him love letters until the day he died as if he was just another famous heartthrob. His manipulation was mistaken for charm, and he will be characterized that way for as long as his name remains relevant. For now, there is no end in sight for that relevancy. But maybe the more the gruesome details of his double-digit victims’ stories are told, the more we can open our eyes to the monster he was, and maybe even understand why.

Illustration by Jordana Dean, 14 East.

“The big thing — it’s not about the murderers. I think that’s a common misconception, that we [true crime fans] are obsessed with Ted Bundy or Charles Manson,” says Grisko. “They’re terrible monsters. The interest comes in studying the mind of these terrible criminals so we can learn what went wrong to make someone so dangerous.”

For people like Jensen, true crime has always been an interest.  But as a crime journalist, he was constantly drowning himself in a pool of unsolved cases. “I got fed up with writing and I would always have stories that didn’t have an ending,” says Jensen, “They’d be good stories, but they would just not have a fking ending.”

Jensen pursued those endings. No more closed books on names long forgotten. Why not try to catch a killer if the details are all over the internet for anyone to see anyways?

Since then, Jensen has become a sort of poster child for citizen sleuths trying to crack unsolved cases with the help of social media. “What motivates me is there’s somebody out there that’s breathing a free breath,” says Jensen. “At the same time, there are a lot of people out there that have suffered because we don’t know who killed them.” Those 27,000 unsolved cases will haunt Jensen until the day he dies.

Jensen’s sleuthing technique is quirky, but it works. He gathers tips from social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, creates advertisements from those videos, and targets them toward people living in the area of the crime who might know something. He waits for something to spark, and then he goes door-to-door, careful not to step on the toes of law enforcement along the way.

His process remains tried and true. In 2016, Marques Gaines was punched and knocked unconscious onto a crosswalk in Chicago, surveillance showing that he was left alone by all passersby. He was later run over by a taxi, which ultimately killed him.

“I thought, ‘How can they not find this guy?’ It’s actually a pretty good video,” says Jensen. “So I went out, kind of scrambling in the dark.”

Jensen began posting the surveillance video as advertisements on social media and ended up getting a reply with a better photo of the alleged puncher. With the help of some friends, Jensen scoured for someone who would match the photo. It took some grit and some long hours, but the match showed up, right on Jensen’s computer screen.

Marcus Moore would go on to be charged with aggravated battery in a public place, despite Gaines’ death being ruled a homicide. Jensen’s name is nowhere to be found within any of the articles detailing the lead of that arrest. That lack of recognition is bittersweet, but not enough to make him stop sleuthing, to not pursue those endings. He’s helped solve six homicides — created six endings — so far, and is only trying to add more to the list.

Jensen is not alone in his pursuit of putting together the missing pieces and tying up loose ends. On the one end, people are chatting around the water cooler the morning after they watch a show about an unsolved case, swapping theories and bringing the victim’s name to the forefront, often after many years of it being unspoken. On the other end, people are using social media like Jensen — to gather tips, talk through the logistics and offer support to the family of those victims.

Illustration by Jordana Dean, 14 East.

Websleuths may look a bit daunting to a new visitor, but that is appropriate given the scope of the issues that they tackle on the website. Griffith has helped run forums for over a decade now, and she has seen the sort of mess that can be made if these topics do not have any structure. “We shouldn’t allow people to talk about other topics on a thread and we shouldn’t allow people to call each other names,” says Griffith.

For that reason, Websleuths dedicates each discussion thread to a separate unsolved case, meaning that there are a lot of different threads to choose from. Every bit of known information is tucked away neatly into each thread. From there, amateur sleuths can read for hours on end until something sparks and they are able to move a case along. “You have to spend so many hours looking for the equivalent of a needle in a haystack,” says Halber.

For Websleuths, that needle is not necessarily the absolute solve of a case. Instead, members of Websleuths are pushing for that big step forward by strengthening evidence or giving exposure to cases that do not typically have a large spotlight shined upon them. There is nothing more critical than a fresh pair of eyes and a beacon of information available at your fingertips to make sense of standstill evidence. Law enforcement is starting to realize that.

In April 2015, a verified detective reached out to Websleuths in a thread for an unidentified white male who went missing in March 1992. They wanted help in identifying a t-shirt with a hawk on it that they had not been able to figure out for over 20 years. Websleuths was able to find everything out about it within two short weeks.

How were they able to do that? It was simple research that anyone with some free time and strong patience can accomplish. The Websleuths users were scouring the internet for similar images of a hawk. About two weeks later, Websleuths user “Equestrianista” posted a link for an Etsy shop that was selling a backpack with the same hawk on it. From there, they worked as a community to help make out the artist’s name from the small signature beneath it. The detective was stunned. That 95-page thread is just one of many that demonstrates the power that comes from people genuinely willing to put their free time toward something that can help people get some closure.

“Putting the pieces of the puzzle or mystery together, supporting the victim’s family or friends, hoping for and seeing justice occur — that is what I enjoy most about Websleuths,” says Cubby.

The members of Websleuths are not a specially cultivated group of people. Members are not picked or chosen. Sure, there are some lawyers, law enforcement officers and doctors who can offer a professional perspective of each case. But, for the most part, Websleuths is made up of a group of people who work their nine to five day jobs and, even after a long day, hop onto their computers to try to find that break in the case. “Strangers come to Websleuths to help other strangers,” says Griffith. “And I think it’s just wonderful.”

The true crime stories on Websleuths read a bit differently than they do on TV shows or movies. The drama and the flair is all gone. On Websleuths, you get cold, hard facts. It is what separates the true crime fans that have hopped onto the bandwagon to discuss what is popular from the true crime fans that have been waiting a good part of their life to be able to do something with their fascination. Now they have the chance.

“My story here is mostly one of someone who likes to help. I have always had a passion for the truth and justice,” says Cubby. “Many of the other members share those same values.”

Cubby is humble. Most of the Websleuths users are. They categorize themselves as people just trying to help find the right puzzle piece that fits into this larger-scale problem. They understand the scope of these stories — the unnamed bodies and the unresolved homicide cases.

“Here in Illinois, there seems to be an average of five years from arrest to trial for murder cases,” explains Cubby. Those years can be agonizing for families waiting to see some justice occur. Websleuths is there to make sure that the case is seen through and never forgotten.

“I can’t tell you how good it feels to get an email from somebody who says something like, ‘I was Googling my sister’s name because I thought nobody cared about her murder anymore, and then I came upon Websleuths and you’re talking about it,’” says Griffith. “This is what [the users] do and I love them for it.”

“It’s actually easier to get away with murder today than it was in the 1960s,” says Jensen. He attributes this ease to a more transient lifestyle, more guns, a lot of drugs, and a distrust in the police. Put them all together and you have the perfect world for crimes to occur left and right—for those 27,000 cases to be swept under the rug.

“I find it fascinating that, if there are as many [serial killers] as statistics show, why don’t we catch them as easily?” asks Walker. “Is it because the victims are underrepresented?” We know the names—Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy. The names of the monsters. Why don’t we remember the names of the victims? The word murder used to shock people to their cores, but most often in a way that was removed from the reality of it all. Now, media is exposing these killers for the treacherous beings that they are and giving those victims their names back.

What changed to make this happen? Perhaps we have grown to be able to stomach the horrid details of those cases. For many true crime fans, they do not read over these cases for nothing. They push down the pit in their stomach to try to make sense of what happened and search for answers so that it cannot happen again.

“It feels like some part of my brain that gets kind of weirdly excited for extreme weather,” explains Grisko. “There’s something about standing on the lawn watching a tornado start overhead. It’s scary, sure, but it’s also exciting.”

It is easy to be a passive watcher of true crime media, and it is okay to be one too. But maybe the details of those cases pull at your heartstrings every once in a while, making you itch to do something more with them. The topic will never cease to be morbid, but that does not mean that it should not be touched.

“We have moved cases forward and seen some bittersweet resolution,” says Cubby. Bittersweet, because the family finally has closure but the victims’ lives remain cut short. It is still a victory. Every case that gets closed does not simply alter crime statistics. Every case closed means a world’s worth to the victims’ loved ones. So why not give it a try?

“21st century ‘America’s Most Wanted.’ That’s us. We want to work with the cops, we want to work with the media, with social media,” says Griffith. “I feel like I’m on top of a mountain screaming into the wind. We’re here! Just let us help!”


Header illustration by Jenni Holtz, 14 East.