Case Studies

3 Times Citizen Detectives Helped Solve a Crime

6 min read

It’s no secret that the true crime genre dominates the podcast landscape. But this murder minded audience is more than just a ravenous audio demographic. They are also a useful resource to law enforcement and families seeking justice.

There are 250,000 unsolved murders in the United States with another 6000 each year. 

Overworked detectives are forced to focus on the active case in front of them, and when no new leads or tips come in, a case is rendered cold. Filed away until someone makes the time to care again.

By nature, true crime podcast listeners are a curious and thoughtful bunch. I mean, not everyone can spend hours listening to podcasts that cover the intricacies of complex cases, or devote their free time to studying the last known whereabouts of a missing person on Reddit. Sometimes called “web sleuths,” or “citizen detectives,” these folks do more than sit back and consume content. The research, they analyze, they obsess, and they sometimes crack the case.

Rebekah Heath is a prime example. A research librarian by day, an obsessive genealogy forum lurker by night, Rebekah spent every free moment she had trying to give anonymous victims their names back. One night while reviewing posts on a missing persons site, she read one about a woman and her missing daughter.

Some of the details sparked Rebekah’s memory about unidentified female bodies discovered inside barrels at a state park in New Hampshire. She messaged the author of the post but didn’t hear anything back.

A year later, Rebekah was listening to a podcast by NHPR, called Bear Brook about the murders of those same unidentified women and girls in the barrels. The suspect was known, but nobody could identify the victims.

She reached out once again to the original poster. This time she was put in touch with a relative which led to law enforcement’s re-involvement in the case, and after a flurry of movement and investigation, it was determined that the missing woman and two girls were in fact related to the original poster, and this conclusion was all due to a citizen detective connecting the dots and following her instincts.

Heath’s discovery helped accelerate the case against the man they believed was responsible for killing them, but more importantly, it gave three Jane Does their names back. One victim remains unidentified but you can be sure, there are websleuths including Rebekah, who won’t rest until this Jane Doe has her name back.

Consider Sarah Turney, whose sister Alissa Turney, went missing in 2001. Sarah was only 12 years old at the time Alissa went missing, and though her father was a person of interest in Alissa’s disappearance, Sarah could not entertain the thought.

However, upon entering adulthood, she investigated the case herself and relentlessly pursued leads, even working outside of law enforcement at times. Sarah believed her biological father, Alissa’s step-dad, was at least partially responsible, and she was first made aware of his criminal behavior by law enforcement themselves.

Now, years later, as she continued to bring leads, information and concerns to the police, they said there was nothing they could do. There was no body, and not enough evidence. It was not, as yet, a homicide.

Officers told her the best thing she could do was raise awareness in the media to bring some attention back to her sister’s story. What Sarah did next is nothing short of incredible — unless you’re a millennial citizen detective, then it makes perfect sense. 

Sarah got the public’s attention by appearing on podcasts and utilizing social media platforms like facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Then she discovered a new, short video sharing platform, and began posting videos on tiktok. She shared Alissa’s story with the hope that people might watch. People watched.

A million people, to be exact.

Suddenly Sarah and her sister’s story was everywhere. Law enforcement could no longer ignore her, and in October of 2020, after several years of campaigning for justice on social media, Sarah’s father was charged with second degree murder. Sarah is awaiting the outcome of her sister’s case as it plays out inside the courtroom, but she is not resting while she waits.

She now has her own podcast, Voices for Justice, where she applies the same relentless quest for justice on behalf of other victims whose families need visibility to keep their case moving.

Nobody can take the power of advocacy and sleuthing away from Sarah Turney, and the proof is in the prosecution of her own father.

But if there were to be an OG citizen detective or web sleuth, many in the true crime community would agree it would be Todd Matthews.

If you have ever heard of the still unsolved murder of “Tent Girl”, then perhaps you’ve heard of Matthews. The case of an unidentified female victim was in some ways, a family affair. 

It was Todd’s future father in law who discovered the body of a young female wrapped in a tent bag in 1968. Todd learned of this story when he was just 17 years old, and it stayed with him. Todd couldn’t rest knowing this young woman’s family didn’t know where she was, so he decided to look for her relatives. In the 1980’s this meant doing so without the assistance of google, reddit, or high speed internet for that matter. It involved lengthy, long distance phone calls, library research, and good old fashioned gumption. He kept at it for years.

Then in 1998, now aided by the internet, albeit dial up, Todd saw a post on a classifieds site written by a woman looking for a sister. The time and place gave him the feeling “Tent Girl” could be who she was looking for.

His instinct was right and this connection led to the positive identification of Tent Girl. While her murder remains unsolved, she was given back her name and her family was able to lay her to rest.

Todd didn’t stop there. The gratification he experienced in bringing closure to a family fueled him to do more. Along the way, Todd also refined his process.

Matthews’ career now revolves around missing and unidentified individuals; first through his work at NAMUS – the National Missing and Unidentified Missing and Unidentified Persons System, and then through an organization he founded called Project EDAN, which utilizes forensic artwork to help match missing persons with human remains. If that weren’t enough, he currently oversees an online database that matches missing persons with unidentified decedents called The Doe Network.

Todd is quick to share that the value of web sleuths is real, but can also be dangerous.

With the technology available to us now, including the advent of social media, people wield more power than they used to. There have been instances when overzealous sleuths have “doxxed” (publicly identify or post private information prematurely) a possible person of interest prematurely, and that can damage a person’s reputation, not to mention, unintentionally thwart the case.

Todd urges citizen detectives to forward all leads and tips to authorities and to avoid cold calling families, even though that tactic is the one that led to his first cracked case. If the family was involved in the crime, this can complicate the legal proceedings that might follow to say nothing of the actual risk that could be present. 

Ideally, citizen detectives should work with law enforcement to ensure the case isn’t jeopardized, and always prioritize the integrity of the victim and their families.

Respect must also be given to people of interest who are not yet charged, in order to uphold the foundation of our criminal justice system, which purports that they are innocent until proven guilty.

So who’s ready to take their podcast listening to the next level and start sleuthing? Doing so could very well be the reason a family gets justice or a Doe gets their name back.

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Craig Hewitt
Craig is the founder of Castos. When he's not busy podcasting, talking about podcasting, or helping others get started in this awesome medium he's hanging out with his wife, two children, and likely planning their next travel adventure.

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