Websleuths's Tricia Griffith Has Some Advice for Amateur Detectives

When it comes to amateur investigators, some of the world's most dedicated ones can often be found on Websleuths. Websleuths is an organized and tightly moderated forum where true crime enthusiasts flex their investigative muscles and lend their insights to move the needle on unsolved crimes, cold cases, and missing persons cases. As a semi-active participant on Websleuths, I was thrilled to get some time with forum owner Tricia Griffith to find out how we can use those skills to make a difference in these cases. 

CC Informant: How did Websleuths grow into this kind of living organism we've seen it become today?

Tricia: It was as big a surprise to me as it was to anyone else. When I purchased the forum in 2004, it was a very small forum and it was a snake pit. It was very hostile. But it had two good forums: JonBenet Ramsey and Laci Peterson. So I knew it had potential. The second day I owned it, I banned over 100 people who weren’t positively contributing to the conversation. People weren’t happy. But it helped a bit.

Then we decided in 2008 that we were going to change the rules. We no longer tolerated name-calling, directly insulting each other, or anything that wasn’t a productive contribution. They had to stick to the topic. It was a big change and at that time I banned another 28 people. There was another uproar and many people thought we were going to fail, that all the good participants would leave. Instead, what started to happen was that many people began to come out of the woodwork to say “Thank you, I haven’t felt comfortable participating and I really wanted to post,” and that’s when Websleuths exploded.

At the same time, the Casey Anthony case was unfolding. The timing couldn’t have been better, because people needed a place to pour their ideas and their emotions about the case. They came to Websleuths, I believe, because of how closely we had begun monitoring everything and trying to keep everything on a very civil level.

CC Informant: We’ve seen a lot of value come from crowdsourcing these cases, as we've seen with Jason Callahan and Tammy Jo Alexander. We’ve also seen incidents like the misguided Reddit witch hunt for the wrong suspect after the Boston Marathon bombing. What advice would you give to amateur investigators to make sure things like that don’t happen again?

Tricia: It still happens to this day. We’re discussing the Abigail Williams and Liberty German case right now. People wanted to discuss a person that many people were discussing on Facebook, but who hadn’t been named as a suspect. We had to remove a lot of posts and time out a few people.

My advice is this: remember that you don’t have all the information that law enforcement officers have. We have the info that the media has. If you’re going to do this, work with the information you have, and do NOT point fingers at any specific person. If you’ve discovered something you think is big enough to warrant investigation, we encourage you to send it to the police.

However, I beg you, do not keep sending stuff over and over again. Not only does it overload them, but it makes Websleuths a nuisance instead of an asset. They don’t want to deal with us because we’re overloading them and possibly taking up resources they could use to pursue other viable tips. Use common sense, and don’t buy into rumors. Only use the facts at hand. And there are plenty of facts out there. In the Abby and Libby case, people have been posting maps and measurements, all kinds of details. The stuff they’ve done with just what they have is amazing. But people can get overly enthusiastic because they’re trying to do something good. They’re emotionally invested.

CC Informant: If someone finds something that’s very significant, do you have a process for handling that?

Tricia: We encourage members to send a message to moderators or to me directly if they find something they think is pretty significant. We do have that happen fairly often. Usually, it’s something that they’ve come up with based on information that we don’t allow to be posted on Websleuths. We won’t allow it to be posted, but we’ll advise them to cut it down and make it concise, and send it to the police. Then don’t bug ‘em. It can be difficult to resist following up because we don’t know if what our members send ever turns up leads because the police either can’t or won’t tell us. It’s a very slippery slope that we’re on, and crowdsleuthing in general, is still working out some of the bugs.

CC Informant: What is your relationship with law enforcement?

Tricia: Depends on which law enforcement agency you ask at what time. Most of them don’t like us, I admit. I battle it every day. They don't know who we really are or what we’re doing. They think we’re Reddit leading a witch hunt for the wrong suspect and letting rumors run wild. It’s just the opposite. We do have good relationships with some LEAs who have used information from us. I feel for the police investigating the Abby and Libby case because I can’t imagine how hard they’re getting slammed. The Facebook pages about this case are out of control with wild speculation and vitriol. My goal is to get law enforcement to understand that Websleuths is a huge resource that is absolutely free and we’re just sitting here waiting to help. They’ll pay to bring in psychics before they’ll ask amateurs for free help.

We do have some positive relationships out there. We had a detective call from a small office in Nebraska. He had a 20-year cold case he wanted help with. It was a body found on a trail, a male who had been murdered. That’s all he knew. The only physical evidence he had was an old t-shirt that the victim was wearing with an unfamiliar emblem on it. He’d been trying to find information about where the shirt was made, where the emblem was from, or anything that may result in a lead. He turned it over to us and our members solved it.

One of our members was on vacation when we posted it. She came home, saw the post, and went to Etsy. She found the vintage t-shirt on Etsy, and within 24 hours had found out everything about it. She found out when and where it was made, where you could buy it, who owned the factory-- everything. It worked exactly how it’s supposed to work.

That’s the thing we’re good at; if there’s evidence that you’re stumped on, let us look at it and help you. If they work with us, we can help them. Not in all areas; we can’t track people or look at evidence under a forensic microscope or even necessarily solve anything in its entirety. But when you have thousands of people looking at something, you have thousands of different backgrounds - from professionals to military to homebound men and women, even - from all over the world. That’s a massive collective of knowledge that the LEOs may not have access to with the resources at their disposal.

CC Informant: Have you made any inroads to improving those relationships?

Tricia: When a big case comes up on the forum, I contact the investigating agencies for two reasons: to let them know the case is hot on our radar and to offer any assistance we can. It’s hard to get a response. I’ve been trying to get in touch with Abby’s and Libby’s investigators because I know they’re having a hard time with people sending in thousands of tips that may not have a legitimate basis. I’d like to talk to them about what they would tell us NOT to do on that case, and maybe we could get the message out there, at least. The one thing I never want to do is bug law enforcement or detract from their investigations.

CC Informant: What do you hope Websleuths will become or lead to in the future?

Tricia: I would love for Websleuths to be the go-to place for law enforcement when they need extra eyes. I’m not talking about looking for a suspect. We don’t have that capability. But what we have is the capability to find out where a t-shirt is made or to find information about pieces of evidence that they’ve hit a dead end with. We just want to step in and help where we can. We’re not leading the investigation, but we’re here to help if and when they’re stumped.

CC Informant: What can we expect from you at CrimeCon?

Tricia: I hope to demonstrate exactly how Websleuths can make a difference. Since a large part of what our members do involves missing persons, I also want to draw some attention to that. Many of them are lost and forgotten. They matter. People still love them. Whether they’re a three-star General, or transient, regardless of their position in life, they still matter. I often get emails from people who say “I was googling my missing loved one’s case and found a thread on Websleuths about them. Thank you, because I didn’t think anyone cared anymore.”

And the same is true on Websleuths, too. Every opinion and every piece of knowledge is equally important because any one of them can crack a case in an instant. I want everyone to understand that they can be a part of this and that their knowledge has value.

I’d also like to take an opportunity to recognize all of our volunteers and moderators. We couldn’t do any of the work that we do without those dedicated people to help keep conversations focused and information moving. They’re the backbone of Websleuths and we welcome anyone interested at CrimeCon to join or become a moderator. We want to make Websleuths the best in the world, and we’d love for dedicated true crime fans to be a part of that.

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Don't miss Tricia at CrimeCon! Register now to learn more about how to take your websleuthing game to the next level. 

Generation Why Podcast's Aaron Gets a Little Worked Up

If I asked you to list your favorite true crime or unsolved mysteries podcasts, I’d bet even money that Generation Why would rank in your top five. Co-hosts Aaron and Justin began the podcast in 2012 by sharing their own insights into cold cases and other mysteries. Five years and 223 episodes later, they have emerged as a fan favorite in the true crime genre, with thousands of downloads each week.

I was lucky enough to speak with Aaron of Aaron-and-Justin fame and talk theories, how to build a podcast, and what really bothers him about many of the cases we're all familiar with.

CC Informant: Let’s start with an easy one. What’s your process for selecting topics?
Aaron: We have a lot of topics just top of mind, from our own interest in these cases. We also take on listener suggestions. But when we decide to cover one, we need to make sure that there’s enough information about the case to cover. Sometimes we get suggestions and it’s a story of someone who went missing, but there are only a few known details. It’s hard to fill an episode when there’s so little confirmed. We steer more towards the cases that have tons of evidence but still remain a bit of a mystery.

CCI: Which cases have captured your attention the most?
Aaron: There are a couple that I have spent a lot of time investigating: the Ira Yarmolenko case, Darlie Routier, and JonBenet Ramsey. They captured my attention because each has its own twist, in a way. Ira Yarmolenko, I almost believe, committed suicide yet two men were charged with her murder. She gave away many of her things the day of her death, and she had three different ligatures around her neck. She didn’t show any evidence of violence on her body.

In the case of Darlie Routier, two of her children had been murdered brutally while she was sleeping in the room with them. Routier claimed that an intruder broke into the home and attacked both her and her children. 

What bothers me is that it’s very straightforward that she murdered her kids, but there’s still an enormous amount of support and sympathy for her.  We hear it all the time: “Oh, a mother couldn’t do that to her child.” The fact is, there have been many, many mothers who have, indeed, murdered their children.

There’s a similar sentiment in the JonBenet Ramsey case. We don’t know who killed JonBenet, but there’s a huge group of people who insist that it couldn’t have been her parents or her sibling just because “they wouldn’t do something like that.” I’m not saying JonBenet was killed by her parents or sibling, but we know that some parents and some siblings absolutely do kill. 

It bothers me because so many people insist that obvious and convicted murderers are innocent while there are actually innocent people in prison who are met with skepticism and rebuttal at every turn. 

CCI: Are there any cases that you won’t do?
Aaron: A few for various reasons. I came very close to covering the West Memphis 3 again. I really wanted to tackle it again. My co-host doesn’t want to cover it and I ultimately decided against it because I’ve come to the middle in that case. I don’t necessarily believe the suspects are innocent, but I’m not believing they’re guilty. I’ve begun to see them as “possible” suspects. It can be a polarizing case, and I think covering it again would just ignite some controversy I’d rather avoid. Also, this case has been covered so much, and there are many cases that haven’t received nearly as much exposure and we hope to have an impact on that. 

Also, cases like the Somerton Man in Australia, for example. So many people have covered it, I’m not sure what we could say that everybody doesn’t already know.

CCI: You responded to some feedback in a Reddit post stating that you could improve the consistency and structure of your episodes, to which you agreed. What have you seen change since then?
Aaron: The structure kind of keeps cycling back and forth. We started with just a discussion show, then we needed to add in some storytelling. Then we were able to work out a consistent structure. Now, I think, we’re finding a balance between the three. The episodes now have a certain format: summarize at the beginning, make sure we’re giving the relevant details like important dates and locations, and then we follow a loose outline to guide the discussion along. 

CCI: What can we expect from GenWhy at CrimeCon?
Aaron: We’re looking forward to a lot of interaction with fans and guests. We thrive on that interaction. We’ve been trying to get some funds together to do some more meetups with fans. This gives us a great meetup location that’s not far from Chicago, where we get a large number of requests from listeners. We’re hoping to see many of those listeners there, and we just want to hang out with like-minded people and talk about these cases that fascinate us. 

CCI: Where do you think that fascination comes from?
Aaron: True crime has almost become a new genre. I can say I’m a true crime fan in the same way I say I’m a horror fan, and in a way they’re similar. I think there’s just something about the concept of knowing how to get out alive. It’s kind of like we’re using this platform to figure out how to survive. People who are into this genre think about their surroundings while walking to the car at night, or they take note when they see some suspicious activity outside their house. Being exposed to this material is possibly one more way of trying to figure out how to survive in this world.

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Aaron and Justin will be looking for people to hang out with at CrimeCon to talk theories and mysteries. Go ahead and register so they won't get lonely! 


 

REPORT: The 5 Coolest Things I've Learned about CrimeCon (So Far)

CrimeCon is already one of the most exciting events of the year. As the nation’s first convention for true crime fans, it’s sure to be an unforgettable experience for all who attend. After lurking in the shadows of CrimeCon Headquarters for several weeks now, I've learned at least five things that I just can’t wait any longer to share with you. Total true crime geek meltdown in 3. . .  2. . . 1 . . .

The Puzzling 3-Day Mystery Game

If you’re staying at the JW Marriott Indianapolis hotel during CrimeCon, you’re in for a treat! Not only is the hotel itself amazing, but CrimeCon attendees staying there will be able to participate in a fun mystery-solving adventure. I’m still sniffing around CCHQ for more details about this, but I can report that the game will span the entire duration of CrimeCon and is being developed in conjunction with Red Herring Games, purveyor of murder mystery dinners and themed interactive events across the country. Clues may show up anywhere, but only those staying at the JW Marriott will be invited to help solve the mystery, and space is limited.

Informant’s Note: Our group rate with the JW Marriott will expire in the weeks ahead. Don’t miss your chance to get in on the fun: click here to book your room for the lowest rate.

Wine & Crime

I recently pressed CSI Sheryl McCollum to spill some details about the VIP-only experience that includes all of my favorite things: cold cases, wine, good people, and the pursuit of justice. *Cue inspiring orchestral crescendo here*

Of everything I’ve learned while sneaking around headquarters, Wine & Crime may be the event that I’m most looking forward to at CrimeCon. It’s exciting because we -- just normal, regular ol’ armchair detectives like you and me -- will get our hands on the evidence of a real cold case. And we’ll have a chance to help solve it. Check out my conversation with Sheryl McCollum here for all the juicy details (ha! Wine pun!).

Be the Jury

There are a couple of reasons why I accepted the mission of the CrimeCon Informant. One was because, well, obviously, I’m a borderline-obsessed true crime enthusiast. The other was because I’ve been impressed time and again with the producers’ dedication to showing different sides of many stories. That dedication has manifested in several ways. Not only are the producers giving airtime to decidedly controversial figures whose stories (good or bad) have been drowned out by public opinion, they’re giving us an opportunity to experience the legal process from some perspectives that we may not have considered.

In The Jury Experience session, you’ll become a member of a jury and hear an abbreviated presentation based on a real case. After deliberations, you’ll hand down your verdict and learn whether you reached the same conclusion as the real-life jury who heard the case. How cool is that?! I’ve never been called for jury duty, but until that day comes, I’m just going to assume it’ll be as fun as this session.

The Lead Investigator Experience

Don’t think you’d fare well as a juror? Try on another hat! In the Lead Investigator Experience, you’ll make your way through a meticulously-staged crime scene. You’ll sort through a scene where anything may be a clue that will lead you to the perpetrator. From the information I’ve gathered, you’ll need to bring your investigating A-game to this one. It won’t be easy!

Payne Lindsey

Okay, confession time: I’m a podcast junkie. Thinking Sideways, Generation Why, Missing Maura Murray, True Crime Garage, the whole gang; if I’m in my car, that’s what’s coming out of my speakers. Sometimes I create errands to run just so I can get in a few minutes of podcast time. And while I’m delightfully giddy at the idea of hanging out with Team Sideways, the one bringing the really good stuff is Payne Lindsey of Up and Vanished.

If you haven’t obsessively analyzed every minute of his podcast like I have, allow me to explain. Payne Lindsey created Up and Vanished with the intent to investigate one cold case per season. He began with the disappearance of beauty queen & history teacher Tara Grinstead, who vanished from her Ocilla, Georgia home in 2005. Her case went cold almost immediately and remained so for twelve years. Until Payne Lindsey came along.

Payne hit the streets of Ocilla to see what he could dig up. He produced twelve episodes of Up and Vanished before the pressure of his investigation helped crack through the frozen tundra surrounding Tara’s case. On February 23, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced that they had arrested a suspect in Tara’s disappearance based on information from an anonymous tipster. The suspect confessed, and a week later, the GBI brought his named accomplice into custody, as well.

This is the pinnacle for every true crime podcaster and enthusiast. Using the resources at his disposal, Payne sat out to simply put pressure on the case and stir up some new leads. In doing so, he helped crack a case in six months that had investigators stumped for twelve years.

Whew. That’s a heavy credential. Payne will likely be one of the only amateur investigators at CrimeCon who can claim it. I am beyond excited to watch the events of this case unfold and to hear Payne speak of this incredible experience during CrimeCon.

Can you see now why I couldn’t keep this stuff to myself anymore? There’s so much to see and experience, just in these five small pieces of CrimeCon! One last Informant’s tip for you: if you’re not registered yet, stop reading this and go register and reserve your room now. With fewer than 100 days until CrimeCon, we're filling up fast.

--CC Informant

 

BONUS: The JW Marriott Hotel

I can’t believe I almost forgot this. Have you guys seen this place?? This isn’t the conference room at the Days Inn, guys. I’m an unapologetic hotel snob, and this hotel exceeds even my highest expectations. The JW Marriott is stunningly beautiful and ranked #5 on Conde Nast Traveler’s list of the best hotels in the U.S. It is 33 stories of pure luxury, boasting one of the largest hotel ballrooms in the world, and I can’t wait to see what the CrimeCon team fills it with! Whatever it is, I’ll be there lurking somewhere in the crowd. Will you?

Former Defense Attorney Kirk Nurmi Adds a Unique Perspective to CrimeCon

Anyone who describes himself as “happily disbarred” is someone I want to have a conversation with. Former defense attorney Kirk Nurmi took his leave from the profession following his embattled experience defending accused murderer Jodi Arias. Arias admitted to stabbing and shooting her ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander in his Mesa, Arizona home in 2008. Arias claimed she killed Alexander in self-defense. The case captured the attention of hundreds of thousands of people, myself included.

That being said, once the guilty verdict was handed down at the second trial, the case fell off my radar. So when I sat down to do some research before speaking to Mr. Nurmi, I was pleased to learn that he’s moved on from a very public case that must have been one of the most challenging of his career.

When I spoke to him, Nurmi was enjoying a beautiful sunny day on the veranda of his Arizona home with his beloved chihuahua nearby. There was an ease in his voice that was almost unrecognizable from that of the impassioned defense attorney whom millions watched defend a client that he, himself, could barely pretend to like. It makes me wonder: if Jodi Arias had never come into his life, would Nurmi still describe himself as “happily disbarred,” or would he have continued in his chosen profession?

He considers his words carefully before replying.

“I really don’t know,” he admits. “I absolutely still enjoy the law as a concept, I like discussing and learning about the law. I enjoy the intellectual pursuit. But I don’t miss the work.”

One can hardly blame him. From pretrial to final verdict, the case dragged on for an exhausting five years. During that time, Nurmi attempted to recuse himself from Arias's defense more than once, citing his client’s unreasonable demands and refusal to cooperate with the legal process. For her part, Arias seemed more than agreeable to it, as well, but the judge denied the change in representation.

“Once I had a sense of where this case was going, I was willing to give up the job, simply to get away from Ms. Arias,” Nurmi divulged in his tell-all book Trapped with Ms. Arias, published in 2015. “And when I could not get away, I realized that I was truly trapped in her case, which also meant I was trapped with her,” Nurmi wrote.

His book goes on to cite what Nurmi describes as Arias’s “deeply disturbed” behavior during the course of the trial as another reason why he sought to leave her defense team.

By the time the trial was over, it was no secret that there was no love lost between Nurmi and his client. Many commentators and legal peers maligned his endeavor to write the book, but Nurmi stands by his decision.

“I thought it was a proportionate and ethical response to her criticisms of my performance while defending her, and the defamation she spread once it was over,” Nurmi explains with that same lilt of contentment in his voice. “This case may be the one from my career that most people remember, but it doesn’t overshadow the other good work that I’ve done for my clients in the past. They know that I worked hard for them and if this case obscures that for outside observers, that doesn’t concern me.”

With the rise of social media running parallel to the timeline of the trial, Nurmi was among the first generation of defense attorneys to experience the wrath of an inflamed public as they watched the events unfold. Undoubtedly, those platforms most made his already difficult job even harder. But he seems to take it in stride as we discuss whether social media is a more positive or negative influence in cases like that of Jodi Arias.

“I don’t know that it’s one any more than the other,” he considers. “People have a right to know what’s happening in the courtroom, and maybe it helps create a better understanding of the process itself.” On the other hand, sometimes it throws a wrench in that process. “As these trials become more of a reality TV staple, there are implications for jury selection, witness credibility, and the purity of the process as a whole.”

Those who stayed glued to their televisions during the embattled trial may sneer at Nurmi’s decidedly content and comfortable demeanor. They may -- and do -- publicly accuse him of defending an admitted murderer or demonstrating indifference or insensitivity to the slain Alexander’s family. He hopes to dispel that image during his time at CrimeCon.

“I look forward to bringing a perspective to the discussion that’s often overlooked,” he says. “Many times, defense attorneys are ridiculed and despised or they’re seen as colluding with their client. People think that by defending them, we condone their actions or deny their guilt. It was clear that Ms. Arias killed Mr. Alexander. My job wasn’t to prove that she didn’t. My job was to represent for her the Constitutional rights that we all enjoy in this country, including accused criminals. That’s the job I did, and I did it successfully.”

With that job finished, Nurmi has turned a significant corner in his life. He dropped 75 pounds and was diagnosed with Stage 3 Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in late 2015. Now in remission, healthier, and happier, he enjoys his quiet life as an author and professional speaker. But he isn’t ready to rest on his laurels yet.

“Sometime in the future, I’d like to work with people who are experiencing what I experienced. There’s a lot of burnout and dissatisfaction in the legal profession. If I can help others deal with that and find happiness -- on the job or not -- then that’s something I’d like to do.”

Maybe old habits die hard. Or maybe, like Kirk Nurmi, they just evolve.


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Kirk Nurmi will discuss his exstensive experience at CrimeCon, including his representation of Jodi Arias. Register now to be part of what's sure to be a lively and informative discussion at CrimeCon 2017.

CSI Sheryl McCollum Dishes about Wine & Crime at CrimeCon

Sheryl McCollum is remarkably upbeat for someone who has spent most of her life surrounded by tragedy. There’s something reminiscent of the comforts of home underlying her thick Georgia accent. Within five minutes of sitting down together, I get the feeling she would invite me home and cook dinner for me if she thought I was hungry. That feeling, I would learn, stems from an almost superhuman capacity for compassion.

Sheryl (Mac, to her friends) began her career over 25 years ago at the Rape Crisis Center of Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. Since then, she’s worked with the Department of Corrections, the office of Secretary of State, the FBI, and served as coordinator of the statewide response to the 1996 bombing of the Atlanta Olympic Games. Today she’s a CSI with Metro Atlanta PD. Somewhere along the way (2004, to be exact), she founded the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute (CCIRI), an organization staffed by student and expert volunteers dedicated to finding new evidence in cases that have been frozen in time.

I’m exhausted simply summarizing how much work she has done to find justice for victims. So it’s remarkable that she has the energy to host extracurricular events like the Wine & Crime and Bloody Brunch sessions we can look forward to at CrimeCon.

These sessions have, so far, been shrouded in mystery. Participants must sign a non-disclosure agreement, and cell phones are not allowed. No tweeting, no texting; nothing leaves the room. That’s because we’re about to lend our amateur investigation skills to a real cold case.

“This event is tailor-made for true crime junkies,” Sheryl says. “We’ll treat you just like we would any rookie police officer or rookie detective in the war room of the homicide unit.”

I am instantly hooked. This is the holy grail for CSI fans everywhere.

“I’m giving you exactly what we know about a case that we’re working on. I’m holding nothing back. You’ll get the autopsy reports, the crime scene photographs, witness statements-- anything that we have, you will have. Then you go to work.”  

Best of all, we may get to see the results of our efforts.

“When we get back from CrimeCon, we’re going to put every suggestion you give us into action,” Sheryl continues. “If you’ve ever watched your favorite shows and said “Why didn’t they talk to this guy? Why didn’t they do it this way or that way?”, now is your chance to put those instincts to work. We’ll post updates if and when your theories turn up anything on the case.”

Participants in this event may not realize how lucky they are. In the room with us will be world-renowned experts Kelly Ayres (forensics), Dwayne Thompson (homicide), and Cindy Hatfield (criminal profiler). That’s nearly 100 years of combined experience at our disposal to help us find new ways to look at this mystery. It’s enough to make even the most casual true crime enthusiast giddy.

And there’s wine! But even the wine has a role to play in this event.

“We wanted to reinvent the ‘wanted’ poster,” explains Sheryl. “People just don’t walk up to light poles and look at missing person posters anymore. They get lost among signs for garage sales or missing cats. So we put actual victims on the label of these wine bottles with a synopsis of their case.” (These are available for purchase from Benefit Wines any time you want to get tipsy and solve a crime. One hundred percent of the proceeds are deployed directly to investigating the case on the label.)

So, is there an expectation that we’ll actually come up with something that will solve the case featured at Wine & Crime? It certainly wouldn’t be the strangest thing Sheryl has ever seen.

“A student volunteer recently helped find a potential witness in a cold case using a mobile app,” she explains with a new level of excitement. “We wanted to re-interview the victim’s landlord, but nobody could find him at first. Within two days, a student at Chatham University found him using an app called Stud or Dud.”

Stud or Dud is an app created to provide the user with basic background information about potential romantic partners. The app itself may sound a little sleazy at first, but we didn’t spend all this time obsessed with true crime without learning that people aren’t always what they seem, did we?

This brand of technology-driven investigative methodology is the beginning of a trend Sheryl sees more and more in her work with CCIRI. It’s a double-edged sword, she explains.

“Two things are about to happen. One, the next generation of investigators will be able to do things beyond anything we can understand right now. Even your smartphone recognizes your fingerprint now. Eventually, we’ll be able to take prints and run them right on a phone or tablet and get results instantly. Crime scene photos, measurements, witness statements-- everything we gather on a case is about to go mobile. We can even use drones to document crime scenes, and it’s great to be able to view that from anywhere.”

But, as is always the case, convenience comes at a cost. In every industry, as operations become more automated and technology-driven, the human element decreases in kind.

“The second thing,” she warns, “is that something will be lost. There’s no substitute for seeing a crime scene with your own eyes. Let’s say you have a victim found in a wooded area. What’s on the other side of that woods? Is it a subdivision? Is it a brothel? Is it a church? It matters. Your suspect pool is going to depend on that answer because that suspect felt comfortable enough to go to that spot. And a video isn’t going to show you that. Technology is great, but sometimes you still have to get your hands in the dirt. Sometimes you just need a pencil and a piece of paper.”

She’s already seeing the effects of the Digital Age as new generations enter the field.

“We have students who are extraordinarily bright and great with the technology, but they can’t talk to people. And that means people aren’t going to talk to them. There are still pockets of the population that aren’t at all tech-savvy. They’re not going to log onto the internet to submit a tip, they aren’t going to call the police to tell them they saw something. You have to knock on their door and talk to them.”

Sheryl is exceptionally easy to talk to, and it occurs to me that this may have been a factor in her outstanding success as an investigator. Again, it’s her immeasurable ability to care about people which lends itself to this task, and I can tell she cares about every family that has approached CCIRI with their loved one’s unsolved case. With thousands of cold cases out there and a staff of unpaid student volunteers, how could one possibly decide which cases to take?

Initially, CCIRI only worked one case per year. Over the course of time, experienced juniors and seniors began assisting underclassmen to help them learn from the case. This freed up enough time for Sheryl to begin taking on more requests, and today they’re re-investigating five cases simultaneously.

“We used to take cases based on an area of study for the students. We looked at Natalee Holloway because it’s a water crime scene, we took Chandra Levy because it’s a forensic anthropology case. But as we became established and gained legitimacy, families began coming to us with cases and we try to address them all eventually.”

And how’s that working out? Pretty well, it seems.

To date, CCIRI has achieved some degree of success on every case they’ve re-investigated. Every case. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they were all solved.

But any progress on a cold case, Sheryl notes, is indeed a success. “Whether that success means that laws were changed as a result of something we found, a new witness came forward that hadn’t been interviewed before, or a suspect finally agreed to a polygraph, it’s still a win.”

She attributes that success to the overwhelming generosity of the experts and volunteers at CCIRI.

“Some of these people could make so much money teaching or working in the field instead of volunteering for us, but they come and give everything they have to help these families. Some of them travel across the country and back to do the work. They don’t sleep, they’re not home for dinner, and they’re doing it because they genuinely want to make a difference. Are they going to solve every single one? No. But they care about every single one.”

I’m willing to bet they learned that from her.

 

--CC Informant

5 Essential Tools for the Armchair Detective

Like many of you, I haven’t spent the past mumblemumble years immersed in true crime stories without picking up a few investigative tips. Let me be clear: I won’t insult the time and resources that real-life investigators have committed to their craft by claiming that I have any real clue what I’m doing. But the online true crime community has stirred up some handy tools to assist in their amateur sleuthing, and sometimes, it makes a difference. I poked around some forums and did some research to find the five essential tools any amateur investigator should keep in their arsenal.

National Unidentified and Missing Persons System (NamUs)

NamUs is an indispensable online database of missing persons and unidentified bodies. It contains information about the circumstances in which an unidentified victim was discovered, including descriptions and pictures, if possible, of clothing, appearance, and other notable pieces of evidence.

Recently, NamUs factored into the case of Jason Callahan, a 20-year-old man missing since 1995. When a new facial reconstruction of an unidentified body was released, online sleuths noted the resemblance to Callahan’s NamUs profile and alerted authorities. Roughly a year later, DNA confirmed that the unclaimed body was, indeed, that of Jason Callahan.

Of course, for the morbidly curious, you can simply get lost in a rabbit hole by searching for the missing people in your area.

Websleuths

If there’s a comprehensive database of all cold cases, Websleuths is it. Every case you’ve heard of (and plenty that you haven’t) has a related Websleuths forum. The serious, diehard investigators and true crime junkies collaborate to look at cases from new angles and sift through long-forgotten or overlooked evidence to find new leads. Occasionally, law enforcement agencies even turn to the massive forum for assistance. If you’re not active on Websleuths already, it can be a bit intimidating to get started. Forum participants may be amateurs, but they’re the most serious amateurs on the internet. Check out the FAQ and forum rules to get started, and don’t be afraid to jump into the conversation. Everyone starts somewhere, and most commenters understand that.

Reddit’s Unresolved Mysteries

In the same vein as Websleuths, Reddit’s Unresolved Mysteries subreddit offers a wealth of information and secondary sources for many cases, cold and otherwise. While Reddit’s history with amateur investigation has had some hiccups, the subreddit is a great place to find new perspectives that you may not have considered. Reddit is less strictly moderated than Websleuths, so I recommend having or growing a thick skin before participating, but it’s mostly a supportive environment of like-minded people.

Google Maps

It’s one thing to read about the cases that fascinate us, but sometimes visiting the scene of the crime helps put many case details into much clearer context. If you’re as entrenched in true crime as I am, that would add up to a large travel bill. That’s where Google Maps comes in. Many investigators, documentary filmmakers and podcasters use the street view feature to get an idea of spatial relationships and other crime scene details. And sometimes, the Google car even catches baddies in the act!

Freedom of Information Act Requests

For the super-serious armchair detective ready to invest some time and effort, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests can often provide firsthand accounts of case details. FOIA makes many (not all!) documents and records available from public agencies all the way to the Executive Branch. FOIA requests may turn up overlooked police records for prematurely cleared suspects, witness interviews, and many other documents related to an investigation. Sometimes, even one missed statement in an obscure document can mean the difference between a dead end and a hot lead.


Not all true crime fans are interested in getting deeply involved, but these tools may come in handy during CrimeCon! You’ll have an opportunity to review some real case evidence and contribute your ideas. So brush up on those case details and bring your investigating A-game to CrimeCon!

 

--CC Informant

Devin of Thinking SidEways on Coming Out of Hiding & What's Next for TS

Informant’s note: The fangirl squeal I unleashed when I finished this interview was so shrill that I’m pretty sure only my dog could hear it.

Informant’s note: The fangirl squeal I unleashed when I finished this interview was so shrill that I’m pretty sure only my dog could hear it.

One of the coolest things about CrimeCon is that we’ll have a chance to get up close and personal with our favorite true crime authors and podcasters. That is what initially sparked my own interest in CrimeCon and, if the Reddit and forum posts I’ve seen pop up are any indication, it’s a major factor for many of you.

That’s why it’s such a thrill to bring you CrimeCon-exclusive interviews with some of the upcoming guests. Recently, I spoke with Devin from Thinking Sideways to find out what we can look forward to at CrimeCon and the future of the remarkable podcast she shares with longtime friends Steve and Joe.

CC Informant: The three of you have remained somewhat famously anonymous. Why are you coming out of obscurity now?

Devin: When we first started, we were nervous to open our public lives to the internet. The internet can be a scary place. Even despite our efforts, we’ve had incidents; about eight months ago, someone tweeted a pic of my parents’ house. That’s the drive behind staying anonymous.

At the same time, we had a growing base of really great fans and we wanted to get some face time with them. So when we learned about CrimeCon, it sounded like a great, supportive space to kind of unveil Team Sideways (although we did jokingly consider renting a booth and then just never being there). It just sounded so cool that we couldn’t turn down the offer. We’re all feeling more confident with it, and we’re hoping that, being surrounded by like-minded people, nobody will have ill intent. We’re also at a point in our show and our lives where, if our identities were revealed, it wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world. Plus, we’ve finally come to terms with the fact that we’re not some clandestine government operatives that Snowden is about to crack any day now or something.

CCI: You recently picked up sponsors. Has that changed the way that you produce the podcast?

Not really. It has changed the process a bit in that we have to consciously take a break, but it hasn’t significantly altered, say, what kind of content we can produce or anything. The reception and support from our fans has been great, with very little backlash. Plus, we always strive to be accessible to everyone; we don’t swear, we give warnings when the content is about to get a little gnarly, and that’s made a difference in our ability to work with a wide variety of advertisers.

CCI: When did you realize the podcast had taken off way more than you ever expected it to?

It was surprising when we realized it. It was right when Serial came out and we’d been doing this show for a year and a half and all of a sudden there was this explosion. There was a Mashable article with a list of podcast recommendations for people going through Serial withdrawals, and we were featured on it.

Overnight, we went from about 2,000 downloads per episode to almost 300,000. Now we’re on track for 1.7 million this month, and we’re laughing at the time when we really thought we’d really made it at 1,000 downloads. It was just something we were doing as friends, and now it’s grown to this size. It keeps us on our toes; when we had a small crowd, it was easier to maybe get lazy with the research, let some technical glitches go, and just not have to worry about being as good as we are now.

CCI: What do you hope it will lead to? What’s the future of Thinking Sideways?

I don’t know, that’s a good question. We’ve been kind of dancing around that subject a while. We’re all at very different points in our lives. Steve just got married. I’m in a serious relationship. Joe is a perpetual bachelor. And also, we have these generational factors-- there are several years of age difference between the three of us. But we all care about each other a lot, and if doing the podcast ever came between that. . . No, really, we’re planning to do it forever.

CCI: How do you each prepare for an episode?

We each have our process. We’ve worked over the years to make sure we’re doing the same thing on a fundamental level because it’s what works best. We have shared docs and spreadsheets, we keep to deadlines. Then before we record, we post our outlines for each other to look over.

But when researching, we all have our own methods. Joe loves to call police stations to get information when he can, and he’ll go on Google maps and poke around these places we're talking about. I tend to dig more into online forums, going back through pages and pages of comments looking for something super obscure that may offer a new angle or theory we don’t know. I use the Wayback Machine a lot. And Steve likes to buy books-- I’m talking 20 books at a time and then he reads and reads and reads. He has more stories in his backlog than any of us because he’s constantly soaking up all this information.

CCI: What are some “third rail” cases that you just won't do?

There are a few. The big one is JonBenet Ramsey. Johnny Gosch has been a big request since the Netflix special came out. When push comes to shove, the cases we won’t do are the ones where we just don’t feel like we have anything else to contribute. We enjoy doing this because we like to dig in, look at what’s out there, develop our own theories and talk it out. Some cases have just reached maximum talk-it-outedness. Things like the Netflix documentary are terrific because they’ve brought a lot of new attention to cases like Johnny Gosch’s, but they have paid, professional researchers and massive amounts of resources. They actually CAN dig into primary resources and maybe turn up some new evidence. We can’t top that, so we want to stick to what we do best.

CC: Okay, last question: can I get a Team Sideways group hug at CrimeCon?

Yeah, duh. You just have to find us first. No, really, we’ll be there. Probably.

 

_____

You could be among the first people to meet Team Sideways in person! Register for CrimeCon to come face to face with your favorite true crime podcasters and writers.








 

Meet the Coolest Canines in Crime

Informant’s Note: Because I know you’re dying to ask, yes, you may pet Garmin at CrimeCon (unless she’s working)!

It all started when Michael Sarvich watched the Disney classic The Fox and the Hound as a child. Dismayed to learn that he could not, in fact, keep a fox for a pet, he set a simple goal: when he was grown up, he would get a bloodhound dog instead.

And that’s exactly what he did. Seven years ago, Michael brought home Sophie, a bloodhound puppy, and fulfilled his lifelong dream. To keep the energetic puppy busy and entertained, Michael decided to train her as a tracking dog. After all, it’s what she was born to do. But Michael never thought Sophie would search for more than his own kids in the backyard.

After Sophie’s first day of training, her trainers excitedly informed Michael that she had extraordinary potential as a search and rescue dog. “She had demonstrated commands on her first day that took older dogs months to master," says Michael. Sophie, indeed, became a certified search and rescue dog and worked until her passing at three years old due to a kidney complication.

Today, Michael and his adopted bloodhound Garmin work with the Midwest Search Dogs group to train and deploy highly skilled search and rescue dogs. I was lucky enough to sit down with him recently to learn some more about the heroic (and perfectly smoochable!) dogs coming to meet us at CrimeCon.

 

kota

Name: Takota

Breed: Australian Shepherd

Certifications: Live area search; Human remains detection; Water remains detection

Takota (Kota for short) is a workaholic. He’s certified in nearly every function of search and rescue, and he loves his job. After the 2011 tornado that wrecked havoc on the town of Joplin, MO, Kota answered the call of duty. Arriving with his handler, MWSD President Chelsea Gill, Kota worked 12-15 hour shifts for four days, alerting authorities to victims and survivors trapped in the devastation and rubble. After more than ten years on the job, Kota is approaching retirement. I’d say he’s earned it.

 

Name: Nikhya

Breed: Australian Shepherd

In Training: Live area search; Human remains detection

Nikhya is Kota’s roommate and will replace Kota as the de facto team captain after Kota’s retirement. At two years old, Nikhya is still in puppy mode, but is quickly learning the ropes and continues to work toward certifications in other SAR disciplines. Nikhya is currently in training for live search and human remains detection.

 

Name: Lambeau

Breed: Labrador Retriever

Certifications: Live area search

In Training: Human remains detection

Lambeau is the quintessential lab. He’s highly energetic, has an extremely high activity drive, and will do absolutely anything for food. He’s affectionate, loyal, and loves to cuddle. But when it’s time to train or work, Lambeau is in the zone. His off-the-charts energy manifests in a remarkable dedication to the job. Lambeau is currently in training for human remains detection.

 

Name: Garmin

Breed: Bloodhound

Certifications: Tracking/Trailing

Garmin is a poster-perfect bloodhound. If you saw her in a movie, she’d be the classic police K9 hound, dashing through the prison gates in hot pursuit of an escaped baddie. Garmin (so named, I presume, because she knows exactly where she’s going), began training at two months old, and five years later, she’s an expert tracking dog. When she’s not working, however, Garmin is stubborn-- sometimes the only way to get her attention is to open a cheese wrapper within earshot.

What can we expect at CrimeCon?

These dogs have serious skills, and Michael is eager to show them off. I think it’s safe to say we’ll see Garmin and her friends showcase their supercanine strengths. Michael told me that Kota once found a single human tooth in a football field in under three minutes, so maybe we’ll get to see her chase down some obscure artifact hidden in some random storage cabinet of the JW Marriott.

If you’re a true crime nerd and a bleeding-heart animal lover like I am, you will NOT want to miss this session! Click here to register for CrimeCon and catch these extraordinary dogs in action!