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Amateur Hour: Social Justice

Tricia Griffith’s Community of Internet Detectives


ISSUE:  Fall 2016

Photograph by Adam Watkins

On August 5, 2016, Tricia Griffith joined Jack Hitt onstage at the Institute Library in New Haven, Connecticut, as part of the ongoing series “Amateur Hour,” in which various tinkerers, zealots, and collectors discuss their obsessions. Griffith operates the online forum Websleuths, which is dedicated to crowdsourcing solutions to baffling crimes, including in-depth examinations of cold cases and the uncovering of key evidence in ongoing investigations. The conversation that follows has been edited for brevity and meaning.


Jack Hitt: When most of us think about crowdsourcing solutions to crime, we think of some kind of tip line, but what you and your online members do more closely resembles actual detective work, right? You might all work on one part of a cold case or group-crash a single piece of evidence to learn something new. Give me a sense of the daily action on your website.

Tricia Griffith: Imagine a room full of people from all over the world, thousands of people spitballing ideas about crime. Occasionally you’ll have someone pop up and say, “I’m an expert in cell-phone things or mapmaking or forensic artistry,” and then they’ll come in and join us and help out. As far as what cases are chosen, people just join the website and they can start a thread, and that thread just follows the case. If someone was murdered and you want to have a discussion about it, you come on to Websleuths and you type, “Murder of John Smith, happened May 2, 1999”—boom. And then everyone comes on and just starts talking. Occasionally people take action, and that’s amazing—it’s few and far between, but when it happens it really is something fascinating to watch.

What kinds of things do you do on a case? 

Take the eagle T-shirt case. In that one, a forward-thinking detective in a small town in Nevada called me and basically said, “Look, I love what you guys do. I have this cold case from 1992—a man was murdered. We don’t know who the victim is and we don’t know nothing about anything he had on him.” He had a scrap of a T-shirt that had an eagle emblem on it. He said, “We’ve been trying to track down this darn eagle emblem on this T-shirt for over twenty-three years. How about if we release this information to you, and you sleuths see if you can do it.” He told me he’d been chided by his fellow detectives for turning to us. “But,” he said, “I believe it can be done.”

So we took this picture, and the emblem wasn’t very clear at all. You could tell what it was, but it was ragged and had a lot of wear and tear on it. We put it up on Websleuths and said: “Figure this out.” It was up there for about two weeks when this one member on vacation came home, looked at it, and within thirty-six hours had figured it out—where it was made, when it was made, where it could be purchased, and everything they needed to know about, things the police had not been able to do. And you know how she did it? She went to Etsy and was able to find someone who knew the designer. So we gave the police that bit of evidence. 

For the screenplay, that’s the linchpin piece of evidence.

Yes! That’s the one that solved everything, and the killer was taken off the streets. In reality, they never tell us if it helped solve or move a case forward. We never get that information. Still, that was a turning point in being taken seriously.

Do you all get involved in famous cases that we’re reading about in the papers? 

We did with Casey Anthony. She was tried for the murder of her daughter, Caylee, but they couldn’t prove she did it. She’d gone on a partying spree and never told anyone that her daughter was missing, never said a word. And when Casey’s mother said, “Hey, where’s my grandkid?” she made up this story that she’d left her baby with the nanny and didn’t know where they were. So the cops knew there was something wrong with this case. Who leaves their daughter with an unknown nanny and then goes out and parties and doesn’t report your daughter missing for a month? 

This was one of those cases where everyone in the world pretty much knew she did it but there were other problems with the case.

They found Caylee’s remains not very far from the grandparents’ home, and both of Casey’s parents claimed that their daughter’s car smelled like a dead body had been inside it. It was just obvious she did it—her entire defense was that Caylee had accidentally drowned in the pool, Casey had panicked, and her father had helped her hide the body. And then the prosecution tried to argue that Casey had given her daughter chloroform, suffocated her with duct tape, and then dumped her body. But they couldn’t prove that Caylee had died this way, because her body was too decomposed. Since it was such a high-profile case, the prosecutor went for first-degree murder, but Casey was acquitted—there was not enough evidence, they didn’t know how she was killed.

Here’s where Websleuths comes in. This was after Anthony got off; folks would not let this case go. Everyone was just disgusted with the prosecution. Well, in Florida, where this case took place, they have something called the Sunshine Law, and they have to release every bit of evidence that comes in during a trial. One of our sleuths, AZlawyer, wrote and requested the browser searches that the technicians extracted from Casey’s computer. Now, it’s just computer language. To me, it looks like gibberish. But she received pages and pages and pages of the searches that officers did on the computer. And so she calls up another member and asks for help in figuring it out. They went through the files and found that someone on Casey Anthony’s computer had googled “foolproof suffocation” shortly before her daughter was killed. And whoever searched that phrase had also just logged into one of Casey Anthony’s password-protected accounts, which suggests that Casey was probably the one on the computer.

Well, that made national news. The sleuths were on Nancy Grace; they were everywhere, and the prosecution wasn’t too happy with us. But I was so proud of these people. I would have no idea how to do something like this. And they took it upon themselves to ask for these documents, and they were experts at knowing how to read it, and they were able to show how the prosecution dropped the ball. 

What inspired you to get involved in this in the first place?

I was a rock DJ for most of my adult life, in Salt Lake City, and it was a blast. Always thought it would go on forever, never did any planning for my future. Well, one day our station’s owner got into a fight with his best friend, who was the owner of the country station in town. Our boss came in and turned our radio station into a country station just to get back at his friend, and so everybody lost their jobs. I was stunned. I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do. Then I got pregnant—after seventeen years of marriage. It was the first time in my life that I stayed home. I’d never stayed home. I was going crazy, and the internet was new, and I saw this article about this six-year-old beauty queen who had been killed in her basement. A six-year-old beauty queen—that doesn’t make any sense. So I went on the internet to look into the JonBenét Ramsey case, and that’s how I got started. I actually helped form a very small forum called Forums for Justice, which basically deals with that case.

And it was because of my work on Forums for Justice that the owner of Websleuths reached out to me. She said she liked how I ran the forum. She said she wanted to give me Websleuths because she was tired of it. So I bought it from her in 2004, and that’s how I got started—just out of pure boredom.

Why are the cops sort of hostile to your work?

Well, in all fairness, I’m sure they get a lot of calls from people who think they’re helping but really aren’t. And it drives them crazy. So they think we’re more of those people; they paint us with the same brush as a crazy person talking to themselves that walks into a police station. And I guarantee you it’s an ego thing. How can we help with a crime? We’re not the police, we’re just old biddies!

That’s your bumper sticker.

But we’re slowly changing that view. Slowly but surely the cops are realizing this crowdsourcing—this crowdsleuthing—it can work.

How often do the police approach you for crowdsourcing?

There was one case—Abraham Shakespeare. He was illiterate and only occasionally employed and then he won the Florida lottery—$30 million, and he took a $17 million payoff—and he became very popular, to say the least. Well, one day this woman, DeeDee Moore, comes forward and starts trying to collect money that Abraham had loaned out to other people. She claimed to have power of attorney and said Abraham had taken off to parts unknown and that she was taking care of his money now. 

Nothing suspicious about that, of course.

Naturally, we were all over it. One of our members was able to uncover several things about Moore, including this incredibly little teeny detail in a bankruptcy statement that the cops couldn’t find without a subpoena. Somehow she found it, and it helped complete the picture of who Moore was—a scam artist, someone who would take people’s money in bizarre real-estate deals, and we said that on the forum.

And that solved the crime?

It gets better. Guess who joins the forum to discuss? DeeDee Moore. Then the cops join. Then one of the police officers on the case calls me and says, “I’m going to talk to DeeDee on your forum.” I said, “Go for it.” And so we relaxed the rules; we had really tight rules on Websleuths, but we let her say whatever she wanted. She couldn’t help herself. It would be like if Donald Trump committed a murder—he couldn’t shut up. He’d have to jump in and say he was innocent and talk himself into a conviction. It’s the same thing. In the end, Moore tried to pay a police informant to take the blame for Abraham’s death; she gave him the gun she used and even showed him where to dig up the body. She was arrested and Abraham’s body was found under her boyfriend’s garage with a new layer of cement over it. She’s now serving life for murder.

So that was fascinating, and the police officer was so gracious and grateful. There’ve been a few cops who’ve come forward to say thank-you. But more often than not they roll their eyes like, “Oh, my God, here we go again.”

So give me a better sense of how I could participate in Websleuths.

All we need is a proper e-mail. Then you come in and pick your username and start joining the discussion. There are thousands of cases. If you have an expertise, there is probably a chance that at some point that expertise will be needed to continue a discussion. But we have very strict rules: no name-calling, no threatening. You can’t threaten to kill someone because they disagree with you. It’s a very civil discussion.

You mean, at one point those weren’t the rules? 

When I took over, it was a cesspool. So we clamped down, and the death threats went through the roof when we did that.

Against you?

I’m the one who owns it, even though I have a great group of moderators. But when we clamped down years ago and banned a bunch of troublemakers—boy, you would’ve thought the end of the world had hit.

What do you rule out? And how do you keep it focused on the crime stuff?

We don’t allow people to name innocent people—this happens all the time. Just because information is on the internet doesn’t mean we allow it to be posted. Can you imagine waking up in the morning and your information and whole life is on a forum just because your neighbor is a lunatic? No, we keep it absolutely right on target, and we don’t allow people to attack each other. Just don’t be a jerk, and you’ll be fine. Just discuss the case. 

But active criminal cases are not what most people online are researching, right? 

Our most active areas are cold cases and missing people. There are tens of thousands of these cases that get no media attention and that no one cares about. We use the big cases to attract the people, and then I try and gently steer them to the cold cases and the missing persons.

So if people in New Haven want to start a Websleuths page—we actually have a very famous unsolved murder in this town, Suzanne Jovin, who was killed in 1998—if we were to start that page, give us a sense of what we’d try to do. You’re familiar with the details of this crime; what would Websleuths be able to bring to the most famous cold case in New Haven?

Well, if you came to WebSleuths you would see that we have a thread, a discussion of Susan’s case ready to go. I think the last time it’s been posted on was December 2015, when Randy Beach, the New Haven Register reporter, wrote an article. If you wanted to discuss this, you join the forum, find the thread, and then post something along the lines of “What can we do to get this discussion going again?”

And, from your knowledge of the story, is there any particular avenue of the story you think we locals might want to explore?

I’d start with all of Mr. Beach’s articles. Then I’d drive to the scene, if you could. I would go and try to find her route and get a feel of what was going on at the time. We love it when locals come back and post about a crime scene—never an active crime scene, of course. Then you can upload some pictures, say “Here’s where she started. And here’s where she ended up; here’s the time frame. How did that happen? She didn’t have a car. She must’ve been moved. Well, was there blood on the scene? No? Well, where was she killed?” I mean, there are so many ways you can go about it. It’s wide open; it just takes your imagination to put it all together. 

Have you or the site ever been co-opted to do something nefarious?

We’ll be asked to look up some papers on a divorce and talk about a child-custody issue. We’ve been asked but we would never do it. We won’t do things to harm innocent people, and we try our best to do the best thing by the perpetrator by keeping to the facts only. 

What is the ideal relationship between Websleuths and the police?

Let’s say they have a tough case. They have one piece of evidence and they know they could figure it out if they had the time. Give it to us, we don’t care how mundane it is. Can you imagine having a room full of people from all over the world that have all different types of specialties and not going to them for help? So that’s kind of my ideal relationship: “Hey, Websleuths, we have this T-shirt with this emblem. Can you please figure it out?”

Just give us a little something and we’ll run with it.

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