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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!