True crime is many things to many people. Chief among them, to a lot of us, is that it’s grimly fascinating. However, to a small but dedicated faction of true crime fans, it’s something much more - it’s a challenge.
While most of us that follow real-life crime simply enjoy consuming books, podcasts and documentaries on the subject, there’s a higher - more involved - level. They call themselves ‘web sleuths’. They are, effectively, armchair detectives. These amateur Columbos and Miss Marples don’t see unsolved murders and the like as something to learn about, they see them as puzzles to solve.
Scattered across the world, there is a disparate but tight-knit community of folk that spend their free time researching the ins and the outs of high-profile criminal acts and investigations. They work individually and collectively with a single purpose… to crack cases. It may seem silly to some, but for those immersed in the culture, it’s a fun hobby that can have very real and very beneficial results.
Most web sleuthing results in little more than extra data for servers to store, just generic summaries of murders, half-thought-through postulations and accusations. But sometimes, just sometimes, this rag-tag group of web-based investigators can hit gold and prove vital to police investigations.
Starting with the very strange and high profile disappearance and death of Canadian tourist Elisa Lam at the notorious LA hotel The Cecil, let’s do some digging of our own, shall we?
Here are some of the most fascinating inquiries carried out by web sleuths and how they may or may not have changed the very nature of the case itself...
Elisa Lam’s bizarre death at The Cecil Hotel
A vacation to Los Angeles ended in tragedy for 21-year-old Elisa Lam when she died in extremely mysterious circumstances in the city’s infamous Cecil Hotel. It was January 2013 and Lam was staying at the Skid Row hotel when she went missing. The case was fairly run of the mill until LA Police released a CCTV clip of her acting extremely strangely in an elevator in the lead-up to her going missing.
Her odd behaviour soon got the attention of the website Websleuths, a forum for true crime discussion and amateur detective work. Multiple theories were worked on and explored, but it was only when her body was found in the rooftop water tank did things begin to hot up online.
Hundreds of YouTube videos analysing the footage and Lam’s death were created and watched while digital digits were pointed in various directions. There was to be no great ‘solving’ of the case by police or those that had taken an interest on the internet, though. In June 2013 the LA County Coroner declared Lam’s death to be an accidental drowning. Whether it was or wasn’t remains a hotly debated subject on forums to this day.
‘Don’t F**k With Cats’
The story of Luka Magnotta is the ultimate example of how beneficial and yet dark the internet can be.
It started, as it so often does online, with cats. In 2010, disturbing videos began to crop up on video-hosting sites showing a man killing kittens. The clips were shocking to say the very least. While most viewers simply closed their laptops in disgust, two animal rights activists knew they had to do something.
Deanna Thompson and John Green teamed up and recruited other web detectives via Facebook. They analysed the videos in forensic detail and came up with some unusual results. So close did they come to tracking the cat killer down, in fact, that they drew the attention of the man himself. Magnotta began harassing Thompson online, sending her veiled threats.
The community grew and clues were being deciphered as something quite unbelievably grotesque happened. Another video came online. This time it wasn’t a kitten being tortured and killed. It was a young man.
Not only was Chinese student Jun Lin cruelly killed and mutilated by Magnotta, but he also suffered the ignominy of having the act filmed and distributed online. With supporting evidence from those that had been investigating the sick Canadian for years, police arrested Magnotta less than a month later. He was found guilty of first-degree murder and received an automatic life sentence with no possibility of parole for 25 years.
The Infamous Murder of JonBenét Ramsey
Six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey’s 1996 murder was - and remains - one of the highest-profile, most shocking and endlessly discussed crimes of modern times.
It had everything that makes a tabloid crime. A pretty young blond white girl victim, a middle-class family, accusations of child abuse, tales of sex offenders in Santa Claus costumes… The newspapers and magazines went seriously marathon; the story ran and ran and ran. The internet soon started to follow.
In the mid-1990s the web was still in its infancy, but forums and chat rooms were very much a thing. In ‘96, a fair few of each starting lighting up with talk of the young Ramsey girl’s horrific murder. It was, perhaps, the very first example of the phenomenon we’re discussing here.
In the early days, opinion on the young girl’s brutal murder was split - commenters were either ‘IDI’ (the ‘Intruder Did It’) or BORG (‘Bent on Ramsey Guilt’). Soon, talk of child sex abuse rings began to circulate.
While they spent years arguing over theories, their sleuthing never led to an arrest. That’s not to say that none of the part-time Kojaks cracked the case, maybe some did. All it means is Colorado Police never came to the same conclusion. Or at least if they did, there wasn’t enough evidence to make it stick.
Florida lottery winner Abraham Shakespeare’s murder
Here’s where web sleuthing goes meta. In 2006, Floridian labourer Abraham Lee Shakespeare struck it lucky and won $17m on the state lottery. His luck didn’t last, however. Three years later he went missing.
Initially, the hope was that Shakespeare had simply upped sticks and retired to the Caribbean as he’d always said he might. That hope was dashed in January 2010 when his body was discovered. Police soon had a suspect - the victim’s financial adviser, Dorice 'Dee Dee' Moore. They just needed proof.
The case soon came to the attention of users of WebSleuths.com. They discussed the case in-depth and came to the same conclusion as the Florida Police Department. It had to be Dee Dee Moore.
Incensed by the accusations, or at least keen to throw the site’s contributors (and police) off the scent, Moore decided to set up a Websleuths account and defend herself. Under a pseudonym, Moore anonymously began trying to muddy the case and defend herself. What she said was in direct contradiction to her statements to the police.
The website’s owner soon smelled a rat and with some sleuthing of her own, worked out through IP addresses that it was Moore leaving the messages and turned the evidence over to police. Moore was soon charged. In 2012 she was found guilty of murder, and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
So while these stay-at-home gumshoes might not have a case solve-rate to rival Sherlock Holmes et al, they can sometimes turn a case on its head.