Unsolved Mysteries – True Crime and Internet Vigilantism

unsolved mysteries

I pin up pictures and articles on my wall, attach strings to pins to connect the dots, and try to solve some unsolved mysteries. Solving unsolved mysteries as a hobby. When did it start, does it work, and what’s the best way to become an amateur detective to solve some #truecrime

True Crime Entertainment

I don’t know if there is a genre of TV and Podcasts more popular than true crime – who dun’it. There have always been fictional detective shows but the last decade, solving real crimes as a form of entertainment has been booming.

There were non-fiction documentaries, like The Thin Blue Line, and the famous non-fiction shows like Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted. I have vivid memories of being terrified watching Unsolved Mysteries and to this day, the intro gives me goosebumps. America’s Most Wanted was a regular on our TVs every Saturday night after Cops.

True Crime seems to have lost some popularity in the early 2000s and then exploded in mid-2010s with 2015’s Making a Murder on Netflix , 2014’s Serial podcast, and the 2015 HBO series, The Jinx. The Jinx was especially important because Robert Durst, the prime suspect, was being interviewed, forgot that he was miked, went to the bathroom, and confessed his crimes.

People couldn’t get enough and soon communities on the Internet do what they do and tried to affect the real world by trying to solve unsolved mysteries and murders.

There’s no shortage of mysteries: there are approximately 250,000 unsolved murders in the US alone.

And to give Unsolved Mysteries credit, it’s lead to the solving of more than 260 unsolved crimes.

True Crime Effects

Also being what the Internet is, true crime and conspiracies tend to go hand-in-hand. Since Unsolved Mysteries aired in 80s, people’s perception has been that crime, especially violent crime, is always around the corner and a lot of it goes unsolved.

A 2011 study from Nebraka showed a correlation between those who consumed true crime entertainment and an increased fear of being victimized. Worse yet is that it lead to an increase in support for the death penalty and less support for the justice system. I read this as a decrease in empathy.

Besides the effects it has those who consume it, true crime also affects victims and their families by sensationalizing their experiences and forcing them to relive it sinc true crime does not depend on their approval.

Writers choose how closely they follow journalistic, fact-based styles or sensationalized styles that leave out details in order to tell whatever story the writes want to tell. This leads to books, podcasts, and shows about the same crimes contradicting each other.

Amateur detectives can also slow down investigations by creating a lot of noise and distractions, especially when they claim to be psychics and self-proclaimed forensic experts, leading to countless dead-end tips and calls.

Then there is the obvious wrong suspect problem of Internet vigilantism, the most recent, notable case of the Boston Marathon Bombing where the Internet went crazy circling suspicious people in need footage going as far as harassing the family of a missing person.

Effective Amateur Detectives

So you’ve watched CSI, you’re good at googling things, and you want to solve some cold cases. Where do you start?

Retired U.S. Marshal Art Roderick, the host for CrowdSolve, who took the stage first. “You’re going to be doing a lot of reading, I can tell you that.”

There’s etiquette you should follow as you read and learn about active investigations – limit how much you share with friends and on social media out of respect for the families and the police who are also investigating.

That last part has become a problem in general with social media and police investigations. I remember with the Boston Marathon bombings people posting about police searches in real time giving away their position to would-be suspects.

Keep in mind that working on unsolved murders is not like sprinting. It’s like running a marathon.

Set your expectations – if you have any chance of providing value or winning the detective lottery of solving a case, expect to spend days or weeks poring over hundreds of pages of documents and going down hundreds of dead ends.

Where should you put your time? There are a few common areas, dependent on how much data is available:

  1. Studying crime scene photos could uncover a new perspective or detail
  2. Profiling the people of interest – their motive, means, and opportunity
  3. Profiling the victim – relationships between victims and offenders, the interactions between victims and the criminal justice system—that is, the police and courts, and corrections officials—and the connections between victims and other social groups and institutions, such as the media, businesses, and social movements.
  4. Study the victim’s genealogy – the study of families, family history, and the tracing of their lineages. This one is reported to have a high success rate since most victims know their perpetrator.


This can happen online and offline and overlaps the other methods:

The volunteers had traced the origins of the young woman they believed to be Lavender Doe back more than a century, all the way to Europe. They had traced the outlines of her life, too, by digging through public records and MySpace profiles. They had done all that from living rooms and cafés—and now they were going to Longview to retrace the final steps of this woman

Again, see your expectations realistically – while some people may be ok to speak to you, don’t be surprised when families block you out don’t reply

Some were happy to hear from a stranger who cared, others less so. One mother abruptly blocked him on Facebook.

The scientific break through of genealogy came along a few years ago with 23andMe and ancestry.com – volunteers convinced law enforcement to submit DNA from undefined bodies to those sites to uncover new familial connections.

My wife, my mom, and I submitted our DNA to 23andMe out of curiosity and didn’t find anything interesting – neither unknown family branches or ancestors but it’s still cool to get emails every few months letting me know of new 3rd or 4th cousins.

Unlike professional labs that test for dozens of genetic markers to find immediate family, these services test for hundreds of markers finding more extended families. It’s the same system used by organizations who try to connect adopted children with their biological parents and families.

Those findings can be connected to public records and social media profiles shining a light into corners of cold cases. One example involves a 21 year old Jane Doe whose DNA lead to a first cousin once removed to her biological mother who had died the same year, which explained, why a missing person report was never filed, to a MySpace page on archive.org to a high school friend to an identity.

That case took years to solve and involves somewhat obsessed amateur detectives on reddit. While it could be tough for victim’s families, amateur detectives keep cases alive—-I mean active. I say “obsessed” because besides spending hundreds of volunteer hours solving mysteries, actually solving one leads to mixed emotions:

“You want to have a party, jumping up and down,” Missy told me. “And, oh wait, wait, we can’t have that kind of attitude.” She struggled to suddenly let go of the case that had consumed her every waking hour for weeks.

Other mysteries

It’s not all missing people and murders – some mysteries involve stolen property, something some of us are familiar with. Now that there are apps like Find My whatever, we can easily find stollen phones, tablets, and computers. I’ve had to use Find My Phone to Find My phone after it slipped out of my pocket in a field when I biked to work one morning.

Similar stories include laptops with software that activated the webcam to take pics of thieves and upload them. There’sa famous story from 2011 of a stolen laptop and 12,000 people on Twitter solving a case without the police.

There are those mysteries that take expertises police may not hand, like a hit and run where the only clue is a small, blue body panel from the car. Internet car enthusiasts got together to link it to a 2000 Ford F-150 leading to the apprehension off two suspects.

Speaking of getting together, through gaming and social networks, like minded strangers Android the county and world become friends and support each other. There are many stories of these support systems saving lives, like one where a young girl going through a bit of depression posted she was going to take her own life and her followers using the minimal information they had to figure out which high school she attended to alert the local authorities in time to make it to her in time right after she swallowed a bottle of pills.

I love mysteries. It’s my favourite genre of books, going back to the 90s with the Hardy Boys and Goosebumps. Then there were shows I mentioned, and Batman the Animated Series, and X-Files. In the 2000s, there was Prison Break, The Shield, The Wire, and the First 48.

There has never been a shortage of mystery and detective books, shows, and movies. The only difference now is the Internet and its communities have been added to the mix. It’s no a surprise though, is it?

The Internet, since the early days, has been a place to ask questions and crowd source answers. I talked about how I use Reddit to help me troubleshoot things and get recommendations. It’s not much of an extension to solve unsolved mysteries.

I like solving mysteries too, like why my cars both decided not to start on the same day or why my Internet didn’t work but my ISP said there was no issue on their end or how to deal with a four year old’s temper tantrums without scarring her or myself.

But, I can’t see myself dedicating hundreds of hours to meticulously study details for the tenth time and work on something for weeks, months, or years without a guaranteed resolution. I already can’t deal with watching TV shows anymore because they might get cancelled. Solving unsolved mysteries is not a hobby for me.