Some armchair detectives find there’s an addictive quality to investigating unsolved crimes from the comfort of home. A few clues, a tragic backstory, an innocent victim—and you, an unknown amateur sleuth with a computer and some free time. Is it possible you’d be the one to put a crime’s pieces together in a way a trained detective hasn’t been able to?
Internet sleuths have been credited with helping find additional clues in the Gabby Petito case, pointing out inconsistences in her Instagram posting (the last several she posted before her body was found have the location turned off, suggesting it wasn’t her who posted them), and for tracking down what may have been the last video evidence of the van she and her suspected killer, boyfriend Brian Laundrie, were driving in. (Laundrie’s remains were found on October 20, 2021 in a Florida nature reserve.)
And law enforcement often turns to social media to help solve crimes by connecting with the public.
It’s human nature to want to help, to possibly bring good news in a dire situation. However, experts say aspiring Nancy Drews should also know what their limitations are before they jump feet-first into a true crime Reddit board or Websleuths.com.
For over a decade, Khadija Monk, PhD, professor of criminal justice at California State University, Los Angeles, has used unsolved crimes as teachable moments in her classes and has been called by law enforcement to weigh in on others. But she’s able to rein in her curiosity before it becomes an obsession. “I know what my limitations are,” she says.
“There are victims of these crimes who may not want someone else to become involved in their case,” says Monk. “We have to realize there are victims and victim’s families who are trying to rebuild their lives.”
Brittney Knapp, senior investigator for the Wisconsin State Public Defender in Oshkosh, says internet sleuths could be beneficial as long as they’re working with local authorities and not striking out on their own.
“They should never take the initiative to interview who they believe are possible suspects or attempt to collect anything they believe could be evidence. This can seriously hurt an ongoing investigation due to evidence tampering and [lead to] the inability to use it.”
Monk agrees. “There are reasons, when you’re looking at an unsolved case, why some information may not be made public.
A&E True Crime looks at 17 unsolved murder cases that aspiring internet investigators might want to take a closer look at.
Victims: Jocelyn Watt and Rudy Perez
Location: Wind River Reservation near Riverton, Wyoming
Year of Murder: 2019
Background: Watt, 30, and her boyfriend, Perez, 30, were shot and killed in their home on January 5, 2019. Watt’s younger sister, Jade Wagon, 23, was outspoken about finding the person who murdered her sister and Perez, but then Wagon herself went missing in January of 2020. Her body was found on the reservation several weeks later and the FBI ruled her death accidental, though Wagon’s mother believes she was murdered as well.
Victim: Kelley Gaffield
Location: Webster, New York
Year of Murder: 1995
Background: Gaffield was only 16 years old when she disappeared on August 8, 1995, after she was last seen with a group of friends. Her body was found partially clothed and with broken ribs in a wooded area three months later. It’s the only cold case in Webster history. Police have investigated more than 600 leads, but Gaffield’s killer has yet to be found. Her mother, Chris, who holds a memorial walk for her daughter every year, is desperate to know what happened.
Victims: Liberty ‘Libby’ German and Abigail ‘Abby’ Williams
Location: Delphi, Indiana
Year of Murder: 2017
Background: The horrific murders of two young girls in the small town of Delphi on February 13, 2017 made news around the country. Soon, chilling audio that Libby, 14, recorded on her cellphone surfaced, of a man’s voice saying “down the hill” near Monon High Bridge where the friends were walking, and where their bodies would be found the next day. Libby captured a blurry photo of the suspect, a white man wearing jeans and a blue jacket, which police used to create a composite sketch. Police have not released any additional details on the murders. There have been some 30,000 leads so far and while various persons of interest have been identified, no one has been charged with the murders.
Victim: Alonzo Brooks
Location: La Cygne, Kansas
Year of Murder: 2004
Background: Officials say Brooks died “under very suspicious circumstances” after the 23-year-old attended a farmhouse party in April 2004. His body was found a month later in a nearby creek bed. Brooks was one of only three Black men at the party, and the FBI has investigated his death as a “potentially racially motivated crime.” The Bureau is offering a $100,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest.
Victims: Eight women, known as ‘The Jennings 8’: Loretta Lewis, Ernestine Marie Daniels Patterson, Kristen Gary Lopez, Whitnei Dubois, Laconia Brown, Crystal Shay Benoit Zeno, Brittney Gary and Necole Guillory.
Location: Jefferson Davis Parish, Louisiana
Years of Murders: 2005-2009
Background: The eight women , who ranged in age 17 to 30, all served as police informants about the local drug trade. Many of them knew each other. Their bodies, most of which were so decomposed the cause of death was indeterminable, were found in swamps and canals in the same vicinity between 2005 and 2009.
Victim: Henryk Siwiak
Location: Brooklyn, New York
Year of Murder: 2001
Background: Known as “the last man murdered on 9/11,” the 46-year-old Polish immigrant was shot and killed just before midnight on September 11, 2001. He was the only recorded homicide victim in New York City that day aside from the victims of the terrorist attacks. It’s thought that his killer was able to get away undetected because so many of the city’s law enforcement officers were redirected that day to Ground Zero and other key sites around New York City. Since Siwiak was wearing a camouflage jacket, carrying a backpack and spoke with an accent, his sister believes someone may have mistakenly connected him to the terrorist attacks. A retired detective who worked the case says he believes Siwiak was the victim of a botched robbery.
Victim: Molly Bish
Location: Worcester County, Massachusetts
Year of Murder: 2000
Background: On June 27, 2000, Bish’s mom dropped her 16-year-old daughter off at her lifeguarding job at the Comins Pond beach in Warren. Her mom got a call later that day that Bish was missing from her post. Her disappearance launched the largest search in Massachusetts history, though it wasn’t until June 2003 that her body was found. Soon after, investigators determined she had been murdered. Police suspect her case may be related to the murder of another local girl, Holly Piirainen, whose case is also unsolved.
Victim: Krystal Mitchell
Location: San Diego, California
Year of Murder: 2016
Background: On June 10, 2016, Raymond McLeod and his girlfriend were visiting San Diego from Phoenix, Arizona when Mitchell was strangled and murdered overnight in the bedroom where the couple were staying. A warrant was issued for McLeod’s arrest, but he fled the country, possibly to Belize or Guatemala. In April 2021, McLeod was added to the U.S. Marshals Service’s 15 Most Wanted list. Mitchell’s mother has set up a website, Angels of Justice, for tips on McLeod’s whereabouts so this case might finally be solved.