by Kathryn Miller Haines
In the last few years, I have become a true crime junkie. Where once I watched any true crime program I could find, I now follow new cases online and have found myself gravitating to bulletin boards where amateur sleuths congregate to try and piece together evidence.
My recent obsession has been the Caylee Anthony case unraveling in Florida. Caylee is the two year old girl who disappeared in June and whose mother, Casey, didn’t report her disappearance until a month later. Evidence is mounting against the mother, who has steadfastly refused to explain what happened to her daughter. Tests now conclusively show that the body of her deceased daughter was in the trunk of her car.
Online sleuths have glommed onto the investigation since Casey Anthony was an online presence herself, documenting her wild social life on her myspace page and deleting hundreds of photos of her daughter in the days after she went missing. Casey’s uncle appeared on message boards and aired the family’s dirty laundry, including detailed information about Casey’s criminal history. Casey was bonded out of jail by California bounty hunter, Leonard Padillia, whose nephew, Tony, joined in online discussions to explain why Leonard decided to put up the money for her bail and why he was thinking about revoking it. And an Orlando TV station set up a webcam directly in front of the Anthony home to document the family's every movement, including Casey’s parents’ frequent meltdowns in front of the media and Casey’s eventual rearrest last week.
For a while I was on the message boards every day following the theories. But as the ideas grew increasingly absurd (she sold the baby for drugs!) or increasingly cruel (maybe Caylee was the offspring of an incestuous relationship between Casey and her father!) I found my taste for sleuthing dissipating. It started to feel like the worst sort of rubbernecking and I had to wonder about my own complicity in all of it. Were these sleuths helping the investigation,or serving as rumor mongers? Was their interest academic, or had they been seduced by their desire to prove their own intellectual superiority, often condemning the efforts of law enforcement in the process? Unfortunately, I saw examples from every spectrum, both those who wanted nothing more than to put this poor child to rest and those whose primary goal seemed to be able to claim that they were the first to figure something out.
Can good come from it? Absolutely. Recently online sleuths identified a Jane Doe who’d been without a name since 1997, providing much needed closure for her family. But too often online detecting seems to become a weird game for its participants, stripping the victim -- and everyone associated with them -- of their humanity as though they were nothing more than fictional characters in a book.
I’m off to Michigan for the Kerrytown Bookfest this weekend. If you’re in the area stop by and say hi.
And don’t forget: the release party for the marvelous Rebecca Drake’s latest thriller, The Dead Place, is this Friday at 7:00 at Mystery Lovers Bookshop.