Facebook of the Dead

For true-crime aficionados or Investigation Discovery TV network fans, many believe that when Michelle McNamara’s posthumous book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, was released in late February 2018 McNamara’s reporting had something to do with the arrest of the alleged Golden State Killer, 72-year-old Joseph James D’Angelo. The Ventura County Sheriff’s Department contends that McNamara’s book did not help them crack the four-decades-old case, but rather an online genealogy database, which purportedly contained a familial DNA match to D’Angelo. McNamara’s husband, comic Patton Oswalt, disagreed with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department assessment.

But beyond the tension of whether the late McNamara helped law enforcement catch one of California’s most notorious serial rapists and killers, who has been charged with eight murders in three California counties, is another darkly fascinating concept–that amateur sleuths and internet forums sometimes do help law enforcement with leads on cold cases.

The American public’s fascination with whodunnits and cracking unsolved mysteries has, in many ways, become a national pastime since Truman Capote published In Cold Blood in 1966. Turn on any television or Netflix queue, and one will find well-reported cinéma vérité style docuseries, such as Netflix’s The Keepers and Making a Murderer, and also corny, low-budget dramatic reenactments with silhouetted killers and greedy, disaffected spouses lurking in the shadows.

As Deborah Halber wrote in her 2014 book, The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, “An unidentified corpse is the Blanche DuBois of the forensic world: completely dependent on the kindness of strangers.” The Internet’s crime-solving hivemind has and does sometimes pick up on cases where law enforcement has had to move resources and time to more pressing cases, often those with more witnesses, leads, evidence, and a probability of slam-dunk prosecution.

Ellen Leach solved the 2001 discovery of who left tattoo artist and antiques dealer Gregory May’s head in a bucket of cement at a Kearney, Missouri truck stop. Iowan Douglas DeBruin received life in prison for murdering and dismembering his supposed best friend and roommate over Civil War memorabilia. How did Leach solve the case? By comparing facial and physical features from May’s photograph to a clay reconstruction produced by Frank Bender on The Doe Network, what others have called the “Facebook of the Dead.” Other sites exist to connect websleuths to unsolved murders and missing people: Accountability Project, NamUs, The Charley Project, reddit subforums such as UnresolvedMysteries, Websleuths, and “armchair detective” podcasts, among others.

Perhaps part of our collective fascination with unsolved mysteries stems from our train-wreck fascination with the macabre. Yet, others might argue our morbid curiosity is part of our humanity—we seek to illuminate what terrifies us and, in some lucky and skillful instances, bring AWOL perpetrators to justice. Labeling those who volunteer their time to solve cold cases as simply hobbyists is an insult, both to those attempting to piece together what happened to dead and missing people and to those who lost loved ones and have no idea what has become of their child, spouse, or friend. While the efficacy of crowdsourcing cold cases online remains to be seen, the pressure and attention DIY investigators place on finding out what happened can provide the necessary heat to help law enforcement find a new perspective, lead, or evidence.