Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Backseat Detectives

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.


Tory said...

"Unfortunately, I saw examples from every spectrum . . ."

I feel like that's true of the web in general. It puts you in contact with it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly. And because of its once-removed, semi-fictional quality, people are willing to say things that they would not be willing to say to another human being.

It's certainly not all bad, but there are parts of it I stay away from!

Annette said...

Kathy, this case has haunted me since it first hit the news in July. I keep thinking of our own local case of Tasha Lanham that I blogged about here on July 2. I was so hoping (and knowing I was kidding myself) that the child was safe somewhere.

I must admit I didn't know there were online sleuthing message boards.

Thanks for the thought provoking post.

Martha Reed said...

Kathy, thanks for sharing an interesting example of a new form of social networking that I wasn't aware of, and the resolution for at least one family out there.

Maybe there's another prototypical sleuth/character in here somewhere? A Monk/Nero Wolfe type afflicted with agoraphobia who only works online?

Joyce said...

Fascinating post, Kathy!

I haven't been following this latest case, but the Baby Grace case (that I blogged about) really got to me. The one I would really like to see solved is the Boy in the Box case, but that one is 51 years old. Not likely.

Kathy MH said...

Of course the problem with writing about people online is that being online isn't very...er...dynamic;)

I've seen the sleuths working on both baby Grace and the boy in the box. Just like DNA's amazing advancements in the last few years, the number of databases for missing children has exploded, giving investigators new ways to cross check old cases. Of course, you need man power for that and that's where some of these online sleuths come in.


Wilfred Bereswill said...

"I found my taste for sleuthing dissipating. It started to feel like the worst sort of rubbernecking... "

Kathy, I had a similar discussion about the deadening effect of law enforcement with a person the other day. I'm sure that being around the worst acts of society for any length of time must take its toll on any human.

Many years ago, my wife and I witnessed the search and recovery of a small boy in a waterfall at Rocky Mountain National Park. Camcorders were just becoming popular and I recorded the entire event, whil my wife couldn't watch. I think the camera acted as a shield of sort, de-humanizing the event for me. The image was in black and white in the view finder and the event didn't really hit me until later.

I think the keyboard has the same effect as a shield to the horrid reality of events like the Caylee Anthony case.

jenifer said...

This is an interesting topic. I also had no idea that online sleuthing of true crime cases existed.

I'm looking forward to hearing your panel discussion at Kerrytown this weekend! I've been stewing over a historical murder mystery story idea, and I'm very interested to hear you all talk about the genre.

Jennie Bentley said...

Very interesting topic. I didn't realize there were online sleuthing boards either, although I do enjoy watching true crime shows on TV occasionally.

Not to be critical, but I doubt the online message boards do a whole lot of good. It's more, as you touched on, a kind of rubbernecking or voyeurism; something to give the average Joe the idea that he's a part of something exciting. (Although not something too real, if you catch my drift. It's almost like watching TV or reading a book, isn't it? They're not quite real people, somehow.)

For there to be any lasting good done, I think there has to be organization behind it, though. Not AN organization, although that's often the way it turns out. I was thinking more of a common goal, and some structure, not just a lot of people yakking. The Jane Doe network is a good example. They do great work, and would make a wonderful setting for a series of mysteries or thrillers. Martha, I like your agoraphobic idea a lot. Get busy, girl!

Kathy MH said...

No, I agree, Jennie. I should point out, by the way, that I've only been a voyeur to these online discussions -- I don't participate.

What bothers me is that some of these folks contact Law Enforcement with their latest finds and I have to believe that constantly being bombarded with theories by people who think they are on par with the real investigators can't be helping things. People seem to want to insert themselves into the investigation for the glory. Perhaps a better use of their time would be doing what Wilfred did and actually volunteering with a group like Texas Equusearch for search and recovery.

Glad to hear you'll be at Kerrytown, Jenifer! I'm really looking forward to it.