True crime followers know how easy it is to fall into the rabbit hole of online investigation, especially when it comes to open forums such as Reddit and Websleuths. Usually these discussions are nothing more than strangers sharing thoughts and theories, but here are three times when internet sleuthing actually helped investigators solve a crime.
Florida Lotto Murder Mystery
In 2006, Abraham Shakespeare was like any other lottory ticket buyer; hopeful to win, but not expecting it. Unlike most people, he ended up actually winning the $30 million jackpot and walked away with $17 million after taxes.
Unfortunately, that’s when things began going down hill. Shakespeare was constantly approached by friends, family, and acquaintances asking for money. He became sick of this, and eventually teamed up with a woman named Dee-Dee Moore, who claimed to be a financial advisor, to put all of his money into a business. They called it Abraham Shakespeare LLC.
Years later, in 2009, Shakespeare’s family grew worried when they hadn’t seen him for a while and began recieving texts from his number that didn’t sound like him. They reported him missing to police.
Police and the public were quick to look into Moore, who had full control over Abraham Shakespeare LLC and all the money in the fund, which had suddenly run-out.
Websleuths began posting their theories about the case, prompting Moore to sign up for an anonymous account to defend herself.
“She came back to me in an email and said I don’t know who is posting it, that wasn’t me, and I said ‘That’s funny the IP address in this email matches the number of your computer,’” recalls Tricia Griffith, who has co-owned the site since 2004.
She promptly handed this information over to police. “I had a detective call me up and say this is just great.”
In 2010, Shakespeare’s body was found buried in Moore’s backyard, leading to her arrest. He was 42 at the time of his death.
After trying to blame drug dealers, a lawyer, and even her 14-year-old son for the murder, she was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Twitter Detectives Find Suspects of Pennsylvania Hate Crime
On September 11, 2014, two men in their twenties went downtown Philadelphia for a pizza dinner. Though this seems like it would be an ordinary night, it was anything but.
The two were brutally attacked by a large group of young white people. The group of “well-dressed” and “clean-cut” men and women yelled homophobic comments as they held the two down and beat them. Both victims had to be hospitalized and one of them even had to undergo surgery to have his jaw wired shut.
Police analyzed surveillance video of the people believed to be the perpetrators but were unable to identify them, so they reached out to the public for help. Screenshots of the video quickly circulated on twitter, prompting online sleuths to get to work.
One user, who went by the twitter handle @FanSince09 began sending the images out to friends with larger followings to get the word out. He then began receiving direct messages from people who thought they had helpful information.
Another user, by the twitter name @GreggyBennett, posted a picture of the entire group at a restaurant earlier that night. @FanSince09 then checked Facebook’s graph search to see who had checked in at the restaurant that night and what other photos were tagged at that location.
He created a list of names of people linked to the restaurant with profile photos that looked similar to the individuals in the restaurant photo and sent this to his friend, Joe Murray, who’s a detective with the Philadelphia Police Department.
Another twitter user messaged @FanSince09 saying that he goes to school with the people in the photo and had their names but wanted to remain anonymous, so @FanSince09 sent the names in to the police for him.
All of this happened in a matter of two hours of the surveillance video being released.
Detective Murray said that the police were simultaneously working on the case but the “social media stuff helped a ton.”
@FanSince09 couldn’t help but post a tweet directed at the perpetrators, saying, “If you’re going to gay bash don’t fill your FB profile with gay slurs and also delete that restaurant check in from earlier.”
A few days later, one woman and two men in their early twenties were brought in for questioning. They were later arrested and charged with aggravated assault, criminal conspiracy, simple assault, and recklessly endangering another person.
The three were not charged with a hate crime since Pennsylvania hate crime laws did not include lesbian, gay, bi, and transgender people. Since then a bill was approved by the House Judiciary Committee to expand the law to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and mental and physical disabilities.
Jalopnik Users Identify Car From Fatal Virginia Hit-and-Run
On April 7, 2012, 57-year old Betty Wheeler was struck and killed by an unidentified vehicle that fled the scene.
All police had to go off of was a small piece of metal that had fallen off the vehicle during the incident. The car part didn’t seem to have any identifying marks on it, so police turned to the public for help.
They released the image, which ended up on the website Jalopnik, a news and opinion website about all things cars.
Frequenters of the site quickly began investigating and it wasn’t long until they were able to identify the car part as a Ford F-150 truck grille. They were even able to narrow the model down to the year and possible trim level.
Jalopnik sent the information over to police, who were able to confirm their findings. Along with this information and an anonymous tip, police were able to obtain a search warrant which eventually led to the arrest of two men.
The suspects were arrested for being the driver of the vehicle and failing to report an accident involving injury or death and for being a passenger of the vehicle and failing to report an accident which resulted in a person being killed or injured.
Police said that the Jalopnik users’ help was “critical” to the investigation. After the arrests, the Waynesboro, Virginia Police’s Departmental awarded Jalopnik users with the Commendation Ribbon for “exceptional performance by a citizen.”