Nancy Grace: Amateur Crimebusters, 24-hour Social Media, and How Crimes are Solved

 Nancy Grace is an unstoppable force. But recently she met an immovable object and found herself in surgery to repair an injury resulting from a torn ACL. But from the recent conversation we shared on a crisp Spring morning just days after her surgery, I can confidently report, though, that she has no intention of slowing down.

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” she says of her knee. Most crimewatchers can identify her powerful voice from a single syllable, but this morning there’s merely a hint of the indignant tension we’re accustomed to hearing. There are many adjectives in that voice, and I’ll spend the entirety of our conversation trying to identify them all.

With her relentless schedule, a little rest may have been good for her. Since her departure from HLN, she has attacked new projects with characteristic conviction. Her new podcast, Crime Stories with Nancy Grace, quickly became a staple in the true crime genre, and she recently launched a new crime-watching website: CrimeOnline.com.

“I’ve always wanted to have my own website for crime news and tips,” she explains. Her network contracts ruled it out, so when Grace left HLN, she knew exactly what she wanted to do.  “The site showcases horrific crimes, hardcore criminals, and ways to stop them. I’m just so proud of the site and it means a lot to me.”

For good reason. Crime Stories has taken a fast hold on the true crime community, breathing new life into cases like the widely-ignored disappearance of military veteran Chase Massner. Meanwhile, CrimeOnline.com spotlights crimes even we websleuths may have overlooked, and they’re doing it with dizzying speed.

“We start at 8:15 every morning to pick the day’s stories. We’re committed to being timely and responsive,” Grace emphasizes.

That agility paid off when news that Elizabeth Thomas, a 15-year-old Tennessee high school student, disappeared with her 50-year-old teacher Tad Cummins. With thousands of unconfirmed sightings and conflicting reports zipping across social media, Crime Stories became the most reliable source of information, especially when Thomas’s lawyer Jason Whatley joined as a recurring contributor.

Crime Stories kept floodlights on Cummins’s 39-day, nationwide cat-and-mouse chase right up to the day Cummins and Elizabeth were found destitute in a remote Northern California cabin. Grace credits social media with Elizabeth’s safe return.

“She was saved by a man in the middle of nowhere!” she exclaims, the first hint of her signature…  indignation? Incredulity? Optimism? “A man cut off from the world called in a tip that solved a kidnapping because someone saw Cummins on social media and showed it to him,” Grace recaps with... awe? Shock? Excitement?

With the rise of social media and dozens of ‘crowdsleuthing’ platforms, amateur crimebusters became more available, attentive, and sophisticated in their methods. Many people are dubious about the value of that trend.

Nancy Grace? She is not.

“The input of crimebusters, amateur and professional, is what solves cases,” she says with emphatic conviction punctuating each word.  “Law enforcement brought Elizabeth Thomas home because people like you have their backs.”

It’s that public engagement, she says, that created the demand for an event like CrimeCon.

“People want to reconcile the normalcy of the people they see with the horrors they see them commit,” she explains. “So when they see something they can’t reconcile, there’s a compulsion to solve the mystery and make sense of it.”

(As far as what we can expect from her CrimeCon keynote address, she promises only “Lots of interaction and a lot of boot stompin’” in characteristic frankness. To be fair, did we expect anything less?)

Grace’s vision for Crime Online is to see it grow into a platform inviting ordinary wannabe detectives like you and me to crowdsource information that helps resolve cases. She reminds me that everyone has a stake in justice.

“Crime touches everyone,” she softens, more… contemplative? Melancholy? “You don’t have to be poor, or a minority, or educated or uneducated; it’s an equal opportunity offender. One pull of a trigger can change everything.”

The raw emotion that rattles her born-and-raised Georgia timbre betrays the tragedy pinned under it. Grace was nineteen years old when her fiance Keith was gunned down in his vehicle. She cites his murder as the impetus that compelled her to a career in the justice system. She’s not shy to speak about the horror that followed Keith’s death, but one can tell that it never gets easier.

“Human life - my own and anyone I interacted with - meant nothing to me after that,” she admits. “I wanted to know why. But it doesn’t matter why. What matters is that it happened. What matters is what we’re willing to do about it. That’s what pulled me back.”

So she became an attorney. Then a prosecutor. Then a broadcaster. Wherever she can best do the work she’s called to do, that’s where she goes. And though her judgments are sometimes... let’s say “impassioned” and her fervor unstoppable, they bring along a razor-sharp eye and keen insight.

That’s not to say that passion and fervor haven’t garnered negative attention along the way, but of the things she has time to care about, the haters don’t rank.

“I hope I’ve done good work,” Grace says with sincerity (that one is easy to pinpoint). “My detractors don’t think so, but if I took every mean thing people have said about me to heart, I couldn’t do my job. Nobody could. No dream would ever come true, no task would be finished because we’re afraid of opinions.”

Tragedy. Horror. Injustice. Vitriol. One can imagine that decades in the cold shadow of humanity’s cruelty might deaden what hadn’t already frozen over. Joy. Hope. Optimism. Empathy. The first things to go when darkness smothers day.

“If I think about it too much, it’s the devil on my back,” Grace begins. “If I didn’t have the twins…” She lets the thought fall away with an audible shudder before stillness spills into the space between words. “They are my real joy. They help me look past the evil I see in the world.”

She switches gears and singsongs through adorable twins-related anecdotes: pre-dawn cuddle time; the art of arranging stuffed animals; field trips; soccer practice. Oh, and the omnipresent and admittedly obsessive urge to protect them from what horrors bubble to the surface even still.

“I’m not a helicopter mom, I’m a straightjacket mom,” she admits, officially ousting William Shatner as arguably the most self-aware public figure in the developed world. She goes on to explain the origin of her knee injury, which involves climbing over a fence to keep an eye on her daughter’s soccer practice while she jogged.

“My superhero cape did not unfurl.”

 In all fairness, it probably needed a break, too.