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