Should police allow amateur sleuths to aid in criminal investigations? Tricia Griffith thinks so.
She was only 11 years old when the shocking crimes committed by Charles Manson and his followers started playing out on front pages and news broadcasts, captivating the young girl and the world. And while she went on to work as a disc jockey for a rock-music radio station, Griffith, 59, who lives outside Park City, Utah, never lost that fascination with the goings-on in true crime cases. After leaving the station, she took over operation of the Websleuths web forum, an online discussion site for crime buffs, in 2004. She added a podcast in 2011.
A&E Real Crime spoke with Griffith about how Websleuths dug into the Casey Anthony case, her close encounter with Ted Bundy and why she believes police should let amateur sleuths help in investigations of crimes and missing people.
What’s the Websleuths site like?
It’s a community that comes together and brings their knowledge and tries to do some good and solve a crime. We have over 137,000 people registered and 2,000 to 5,000 members a day are active. We get four times as many visitors coming to read [than post]. [There] have [been] over 12 million posts and 120,000 threads since I took over.
Law enforcement reads us. We have helped with several cases that have helped the police.
After the Casey Anthony trial they released all these documents—computer search information. A couple members realized that police only searched one search engine on Casey’s computer. They were able to do a search of her computer using other search engines and found a Google search about chloroform and how long it takes for someone to die. They were able to prove that it was Casey Anthony, who was home at that time, who made that computer search.
But she was acquitted.
All it did was show what the police missed and how they can be more aware in the future.
What current cases is the community trying to help solve?
Websleuths really does not solve cases. We only have the information that’s in the mainstream media. We take the information, pick it apart, come up with theories, investigate it on the internet and discuss it.
Have you had any impact?
We have had family members who have thanked us for being supportive in their time of need. The impact we have is with the media. This is the go-to place when you want to see what people are saying about crime cases.
How did Websleuths contribute to The Killing Season, the A&E documentary series about the murders of sex workers found in New York believed to have been perpetrated by the still-unidentified ‘Gilgo Beach Killer.’
We had a very active thread on it. The producers looked at some of the clues members came up with, interviewed the members and then went out and investigated [the clues] themselves. Websleuths members were able to identify a piece of body belonging to a woman; the other half of her was found about two miles away.
How can regular citizens not trained in police work be helpful?
Fresh eyes and knowledge. They bring a different set of skills that maybe the police don’t have, especially research skills—especially if the case is in a small town with a small PD. Many departments do not have the time, the staff and maybe some smaller departments don’t know how to do these deep searches.
What has been the reaction from the police?
Most of them are not thrilled with Websleuths. I would think they would welcome people looking at stuff and trying to help, [but] I think they feel we’re interfering.
Do you think they will collaborate more with amateurs in the future?
Yes. There is this huge resource that’s out there that they’re not using, and that’s us. You give us something—a little piece of evidence that’s driving you crazy—and we’ll investigate it and give it back to you. You can take the credit. They’re going to see eventually how crowd-sleuthing can help them.
What’s your background?
I was a rock jock for most of my life on the radio. While out on (maternity) leave, for the first time in my adult life I wasn’t working every day. I got so bored, I was like, what do I do with myself?
In 1996, I saw a story in the local paper with a headline ‘Beauty Queen Found Dead in Basement,’ and it was a 6-year-old beauty queen. I got online and started reading about JonBenet Ramsey and I found a forum that was discussing the case called Justice Watch. It was people just like me who wanted to know about this case.
But it was the Manson case that first sparked your interest in true crime?
It was fascinating. This guy had all these people he was able to control, and for some reason they killed all these people. It was like, that’s unbelievable. Nothing like this had ever captured the nation before. It was so awful. It was worse than O.J.
You said you encountered Ted Bundy at the Fashion Place Mall in Murray, Utah, the same place where two months later he abducted 18-year-old Carol DaRonch.
It was September 1974; I would have been 15. I was 5 foot 2 inches, long light-brown hair parted down the middle and 110 pounds. I was his type. A guy walks up to me, he was really cute. He says, ‘I’m new in town and I’m lost. Can you tell me where (department store) ZCMI is?’
And I said, ‘Oh, you’re in the wrong mall. You need to go to Cottonwood Mall.’ And he said, ‘Would you mind coming with me? I’m so lost.’ Right then, I had that gut feeling. He said, ‘Come out to the parking lot with me and point me in the right direction.’ I said, ‘No, I can’t.’ Right then I look up and saw my cousin and ran to her. And he just went away.
Were you almost his next victim?
If I had gone out in the parking lot with him, absolutely… It increased my interest in true crime even more.