Rob Hardy on books


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Sleuthing on the Internet



Rob Hardy


Everyone knows that the Internet has changed the way we do everything - shop, look for mates, watch movies. It isn't surprising that law enforcement departments use it to gather information on crime and criminals. But no one would have expected that the Internet would have made possible that regular citizens could solve cold case crimes and disappearances. There are, however, armchair detectives working on and solving such cases for little other reason than it is a challenge and it is useful. There are plenty of such sleuths, working independently or together, and their story is in The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America's Coldest Cases (Simon and Schuster) by Deborah Halber. This is Halber's first book; she is a journalist who has written about science themes, and there are plenty of those forensic subjects here, but also she is good at bringing out the personalities of some peculiar loners and competitive cranks who are, in a strange little way, benefiting their communities. 




"According to the National Institute of Justice," writes Halber, "America is home to tens of thousands of human remains, with four thousand more turning up every year: intrepid adventurers or athletes who left their IDs at home; victims of accidents and mass disasters; suicides; undocumented immigrants; the homeless; runaway teenagers; victims of serial killers; and those who cast off a former identity, changed names, and left no forwarding address." The bodies are out there, and though the process of decay is all natural, it isn't a pretty story; if you are squeamish, you will have to skip many sections about decomposition, maggot infestation, animal depredation, gas generation, and stench. Beyond the messy details of recovering and researching the remains, the anonymous bodies represent an unwelcome duty for law enforcement: "Unidentified corpses are like obtuse, financially strapped houseguests: they turn up uninvited, take up space reserved for more obliging visitors, require care and attention, and then when you're ready for them to move on, they don't have anywhere to go." It isn't surprising that after an initial flurry of attention from authorities, bodies that cannot be identified are an administrative and logistical burden, and are subject to official neglect.  




Thus the Internet sleuths have plenty of work to do. It might be a morbid way to spend free time, but it is undeniably useful when they help law enforcement with long-cold cases, put a name to a body, or help provide answers to bereft families. "This book is the story of the men and women whose macabre hobby of trolling Internet bulletin boards and gory law enforcement websites in an attempt to match names of the missing with the remains of the unidentified dead has propelled a remarkable shift in the number of cases that are solved, and in the relationship between the public and law enforcement." Sometimes law enforcement members had to be convinced that an amateur was a helpful resource, and don't mind showing that they consider such an amateur as "a time-sucking, death-obsessed wacko." Halber has interviewed lots of these amateurs, and cops and other authorities, and she has visited the physical sites where bodies have been found, and she has even done a bit of sleuthing herself.  




There are lots of cases discussed here. The most prominent is the framing story Halber tells throughout the length of the book, with plenty of digressions into other cases. The decomposing body of Tent Girl was found in 1968, wrapped in a striped tarpaulin off a rural route in Kentucky. Todd Matthews was a factory worker who became obsessed with Tent Girl's story at age seventeen, partially because the body had been found by the father of his girlfriend at the time. Matthews, one of the key players Halber worked with extensively, tried to figure out her identity for years, but got nowhere until the Internet came along. He checked on a genealogy electronic bulletin board some thirty years after Tent Girl's death, and found that there was a message from a woman asking for any information about her sister who had gone missing long ago. The missing sister had disappeared on a date not long before Tent Girl's body was found, and the description of the sister seemed roughly to match Tent Girl's remains, although her size and build had convinced the initial investigators that she was a teenager. Matthews looked at the description of the body as found, and realized that the towel found with it might well have been a diaper, and that Tent Girl might have been a mother. He wrote the police about what he had found, and the police arranged for the remains to be exhumed and the DNA sampled, technology not available when she was found (and no family member would have been known anyway for DNA comparison). It was a match; she was Tent Girl no longer, but Barbara Ann Hackmann Taylor, the mother of two. Her husband, it turns out, had been a carnival worker who said at the time that Barbara Ann had run off with another guy, and he thereupon left their children with relatives. He is the prime suspect in the murder of his wife, but by the time the body got an identification, he himself had been dead ten years. The family, at least, was able to lay the remains to rest with a proper headstone, rather that the one that had been donated for Tent Girl, which bore her description, a carved reproduction of a police sketch of her presumed appearance, and the not-so-final word "UNIDENTIFIED." 




Matthews has had other successes. He founded the Doe Network, a center for other citizens who wanted to follow his lead as they pursued their own cases. He became communications director for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), which was established by the Department of Justice in 2005 as a national clearinghouse for information on the missing. There are other resources, like Websleuths and Porchlight, helping to do the same thing. Because of personality clashes and turf disputes, not all has gone smoothly, partially because the organizations are new ones newly solving an old problem, and partially because of philosophical differences; there are "mavericks" who charge off on their own to attain recognition, and there are "trust builders" who try to encourage teamwork. Other researchers include a scrappy mother who takes care of her Down's syndrome son by day and scours the Internet by night. Another woman has a superb visual memory for photos and facial reconstructions. Another woman worked in a supermarket for twenty years because her family could not afford her going to college. She gets by (as do many of these sleuths) on an unreliable and outdated computer, and she succeeds in one case after another. "She may have been robbed of a college education," writes Halber, "but her considerable brainpower - like that of many of the web sleuths I'd encountered - was completely wasted on her day job." 




Sometimes the searchers get a financial reward from a grateful family, but it's no way to make a living. They are in it for the thrill of solving a mystery (one of them feels it beats crossword puzzles any day), for the fun of outsmarting the police (who might have been uncooperative or rude), and for the sincere and compassionate pleasure of being helpful to forgotten victims and their families. The book includes stories of successful identification in cases like the Lady of the Dunes or the Head in the Bucket. With thousands of unidentified bodies turning up every year, however, the actual success rate must be minuscule. Halber's intriguing book ought to bring in lots more volunteers.



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