Citizen detectives, better known as web sleuths, make up an internet community of non-law enforcement individuals who investigate unsolved murders, missing person cases, and other infractions with hopes of solving the crimes.
Most sleuths are novices with a strong passion for the true crime community, releasing podcasts on the dedicated cases, blogging about their theories and findings, and even joining crime forums to discuss the cases at large with people from all over the world who share the same zest for bringing justice and closure to the families of these victims.
Most would believe that amateur work of this magnitude would lead to little movement in a cold case, but the phenomenon of web sleuthing has become more and more popular, and in turn, more and more successful.
How One Daring Armchair Detective Solved a Cold Case
The story of Tara Grinstead is an excellent example of web sleuthing done right. Payne Lindsay, a documentary filmmaker, decided to focus his efforts on Grinstead’s murder by starting a podcast, chronicling her disappearance by interviewing locals, visiting the town in which she lived and worked, and closely examining the details of the case starting with the night she mysteriously vanished from her home and met her untimely fate.
At the time of his investigation, Grinstead’s murder had been a cold case for over a decade with no suspects or persons of interest and little evidence. Lindsay’s investigation into her disappearance jolted the small town of Ocilla, Georgia, and with news outlets, local media, and the community at large all gathering to revive the cold case, it made waves. Up and Vanished was an instant success, and as more people listened to the story of Tara Grinstead, more leads were fed to the police, with one in particular that stuck out to law enforcement.
In 2017, Ryan Duke was arrested for burglary, aggravated assault, murder, and concealment of a body in the Grinstead case, as was Bo Dukes who was taken in for concealing a death and tampering with evidence. In 2019, Bo Dukes was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Ryan Duke is still currently on trial.
A Pair of Cat-Lovers Teamed Up To Catch a Killer
Netflix’s Don’t F**k with Cats covers the story of one of Canada’s most prolific killers, Luka Magnotta, but also analyzes how investigators were able to catch the crazed maniac, and it all rests on a team of armchair detectives. Baudi Moovan and John Green stumbled upon a disturbing set of videos uploaded by an anonymous user, showing the unidentified man killing kittens. The pair formed a Facebook group dedicated to finding the kitten killer, but what they didn’t realize is that their efforts were going to help law enforcement catch a homicidal murderer instead. If it weren’t for Moovan and Green’s work, Magnotta would not have been captured so quickly, leaving the road wide open for more slayings.
Up and Vanished and Don’t F**k with Cats are two examples of sleuthing gone right, but what happens when web sleuths settle on a theory and are wrong? For some, it has nearly ruined lives.
Taking Amateur Web Sleuthing Too Far
In 2018, Missy Bevers, a fitness instructor from Red Oak, Texas was murdered in the early morning hours at Creekside Church in Midlothian, Texas. Bevers arrived at the church around 4:20 a.m. to set up for the Camp Gladiator class she was excited to teach that morning, but instead met a harrowing demise. Bevers was found dead when class attendees arrived at the church around 5 a.m. Investigators initially thought Bevers accidentally interrupted a robbery, but when they obtained the church’s surveillance video, they quickly theorized that Bevers was most likely targeted.
Video footage released by police shows the suspect calmly walking through the church approximately 30 minutes before Bevers’s arrival. Covered from head to toe in what appears to be police tactical gear, the perpetrator is seen smashing windows, opening and closing doors, and brandishing what seems to be a hammer in their hand. Although the killer was captured on camera, as was a suspicious vehicle that is seen moving slowly through the church’s parking lot only hours prior to the murder, law enforcement has little evidence in the case and to date, does not have any leads or suspects.
The case drew national attention and caught the interest of web sleuths, who noticed an unusual gait of the suspect in the video as well as a potential make and model of the strange car circling the lot. For April Sandoval, a gas station attendant who worked down the street from Creekside Church, her world was turned upside down when she was pegged by such web sleuths for being the potential killer.
Sandoval had taken a few Camp Gladiator classes, taught by Missy herself, with photographic evidence easily accessible to find on Facebook. Noting a minor wound to her left foot as well as her vehicle potentially matching the one in the video, armchair detectives quickly named her as suspect number one, harassed her on social media, followed her as she drove her kids to school, and slandered her name as the brutal murderer who took Missy Bevers’s life.
Sandoval sought the help of the Midlothian Police Department, formally being cleared of the crime and asking their assistance to ward off online bullies. The nature of the harassment took a toll on Sandoval as well as her family and the family of Missy Bevers. There is no evidence of her involvement with the crime and Midlothian detectives have questioned her and cleared her of any wrongdoing.
The internet can be a powerful tool armed with the means to aid law enforcement, but it can also muddy the waters. Although there have been countless times such sleuth detective work has produced positive results, there have also been times of cruel defamation, ending in harassment, anxiety, and the loss of time that true investigators must spend mediating unwanted online banter. However, as Payne Lindsay, Baudi Moovan, and John Green have taught us, the balance is there. Tread lightly, and you too could be the next online sleuth to solve a cold case.