“The Skeleton Crew”: How a motley band of amateurs solves cold cases online


Laura Miller in Salon:

The idealistic notion of an army of smart volunteers taking to the Internet to help solve crimes suffered a serious knock last year. That’s when cocky amateur detectives at Reddit.com took it upon themselves to scrutinize photos snapped just before the Boston Marathon bombing in search of likely “suspects.” Crowd shots were posted to the Web, complete with incriminating circles and arrows pointing to innocent spectators, many of whom just happened to have brown skin. When the FBI released closed-circuit camera images of the actual perpetrators (neither of whom had been fingered by the Redditors), some site members then went on to argue that one of the suspects was Sunil Tripathi, a missing college student later found drowned in Rhode Island. It was a clueless, hurtful and potentially dangerous performance that did not bode well for the future of crowdsourced law enforcement.

Let Deborah Halber’s “The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases” stand as a partial corrective to the hubris of the Redditors. Halber, a science writer, recounts how a motley band of committed hobbyists have devoted countless unpaid hours to linking unidentified human remains with missing-person reports. The case that serves as her framing device — “Tent Girl,” a young woman whose body was discovered wrapped in a striped tarpaulin off Route 25 in Scott County, Kentucky — was 30 years cold when a factory worker named Todd Matthews matched her to a listing posted by a woman in search of her long-lost sister.

Matthews solved that one all the way back in 1998, when the Web was young. As Halber reveals, listings of missing persons and unidentified bodies were among the first things average citizens wanted to put on the Internet. It turns out there are a lot of unidentified bodies out there. No one can say for sure how many because real-life law enforcement organizations are much less proficient at collecting and sharing information than the ones on TV.

More here.