In America today, an estimated 40,000 unidentified dead are stowed around the country in freezers and evidence rooms, cremated and buried in potter’s fields. A lack of resources, a disconnect between medical examiners and law enforcement, and a reticence to share information across jurisdictions means these “cold cases” languish within local police departments for decades. But now, a growing cadre of web sleuths—scattered all over the globe and armed with little more than laptops—is changing the rules of the game. Author Deborah Halber shares some of these fascinating stories in her new book, The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases (Simon & Schuster, $25), taking readers into the curious and colorful world of internet detectives, ordinary people who spend their spare time combing the web for clues that will help them connect unidentified human remains with profiles of missing persons.
The book is a fascinating exploration into this internet subculture. Most of these web sleuths have day jobs, yet spend their evenings poring over facial reconstructions (a sort of Facebook for the dead), newspaper archives, missing person listings and various databases, trying to match the unidentified with photos and other details of the missing. Many are the sort who excel at crossword and logic puzzles, for whom solving cases becomes a competitive sport, complete with jealousy and sore losers—and in this case, a scorecard of dead bodies.
In her terrific tome, Halber explores:
• Dr. Marcella Fierro, the real-life model for Kay Scarpetta, the unassailable expert pathologist featured in more than a dozen of Patricia Cornwell’s best-selling books. As Virginia’s chief medical examiner, Fierro worked on some of the nation’s most notorious crimes and wrote a handbook for pathologists on tricks of the trade for conducting postmortem examinations of unidentified remains
.• How September 11 became the world’s largest forensics case, illuminating thneed for fast, accurate DNA fingerprinting and spurring the development of new technology, tools, and even legislation to help identify human remains.
• The groundbreaking Justice for All Act (also known as the DNA initiative), signed into law by President Bush in 2004, which established rights for crime victims; provided for post-conviction DNA testing that might set the innocent free; and helped state and local law enforcement get access to DNA analysis labs. Less than one hundredth of the total $232.6 million proposed budget was allocated to “missing persons identification.”
• How NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, is revolutionizing efforts to solve unidentified and missing persons cases. A searchable online database accessible to law enforcement, medical examiners, coroners and the public, NamUs compares and tracks DNA samples and other identifiers and provides family and friends access, for the first time, to the official records of their missing loved ones.
• Why websites like The Doe Network, Official Cold Case Investigations and Websleuths Crime Sleuthing Community attract thousands of postings from anonymous users trying to match the unidentified with photos and other details, making solving cold cases into a competitive sport.
• How web sleuth Todd Matthews went from Tennessee factory worker to one of the central figures in a revolutionary era for law enforcement and the internet.
• John Walsh, host of America’s Most Wanted, was one of the first proponents of using the public’s help in solving crimes. He paved the way for a growing movement: ordinary citizens working on cold cases. Years later, the web sleuth phenomenon would force law enforcement’s hand in ways Walsh likely never anticipated.
Death be not proud: Against all odds, the web sleuths are succeeding in providing tips crucial to solving cases, some decades old, and demonstrating that the persistence and power of crowdsourcing can alter the way law enforcement has traditionally interacted with the public. The Skeleton Crew is an engrossing foray into a most curious treasure hunt.