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HomeTrendingIn Focus: How our true crime obsession created armchair detectives

In Focus: How our true crime obsession created armchair detectives

Tricia Griffith was just 15 when she came face-to-face with serial killer Ted Bundy.

On her first solo shopping trip to her local mall in 1974, the ‘cute stranger’ asked her to leave the store to give him directions.

However, Instead of engaging in conversation with the man who would go on to find infamy after killing at least 20 women, the teen’s intuition kicked in and Tricia refused, calling her brother to pick her up.

It was only years later that she realised she’d had a lucky escape. 

‘It was a Saturday morning,’ Tricia, now 64, remembers. ‘I came downstairs and saw the newspaper – the headline was something like “The seven faces of Ted Bundy” and I realised that was him.

‘After that, I just became obsessed with true crime.’

From devouring books about infamous murder cases to following news stories of unsolved crimes, it wasn’t until Tricia came across the case of JonBenet Ramsey, a six-year-old girl who was found murdered in her family’s home on December 26, 1996, that she discovered the world of ‘web sleuths’.   

Thinking that she’d misread the headline about a young child being a beauty queen, she headed to the internet, where she stumbled across a true crime discussion forum. There, people were sharing their theories on what had happened to the girl. 

‘I was in awe of them,’ she muses. ‘They were so smart and they knew how to do things. I became a woman obsessed.’

In fact, former radio DJ Tricia’s obsession led her to buying her own true crime forum, called ‘Websleuths’ for $1,500 in 2004. Back then it had just 250 members. Now the website has over 200,000 and 16 million posts.

Tricia bought her true crime forum 18 years ago and it now has over 200,000 members (Picture: Youtube/Websleuths)

Perhaps the most well-known of its kind, Websleuths is just one of the thousands of true crime forums set up across the globe, where dedicated amateur detectives group together to discuss, and attempt to solve, cold cases. On TikTok, the #truecrime hashtag has garnered over 9 billion views.

Then there are the high-profile documentaries like Making a Murderer, Tiger King and recently, Worst Roommate Ever, also serving up our fascination, alongside the countless podcasts dedicated to the subject.

Adnan Syed, who had been in prison for 22 years, saw his sentence overturned after becoming the subject of popular 2014 true crime podcast Serial. Meanwhile, in Australia, the hit podcast Teacher’s Pet helped secure a murder conviction in August this year, following the disappearance of Lynette Dawson in 1982.

It was the 2019 Netflix hit documentary Dont F**k With Cats that first offered a no holds barred glimpse into the world – and power and grit – of armchair detectives. During the series, Deanna Thompson and John Green used Facebook, Reddit, Google Maps, Google Image searches and every other tool at their disposal to identify the name, and whereabouts of killer Luka Magnotta.

Dont F**k With Cats gave a real insight into the world of armchair detectives (Picture: NetFlix)
Killer Luka Magnotta was found guilty of first-degree murder (Picture: AFP/Getty Images)

However, that’s not to say there aren’t flaws within the armchair detective community. 

One of the most notorious cases involved the hunt for the suspects behind the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. As theories of who the bombers were circulated across social media, a Reddit thread called “FindBostonBombers” went viral and as people scrutinised pictures of the suspects, several innocent people were wrongly named.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to stop amateur detectives here in the UK, police arrested a man this week who posted videos from the Nicola Bulley search scene on TikTok. The influencer, who uploaded footage of his arrest on YouTube, says he was also fined £90.

Lancashire Police also said online sleuths have ‘distracted’ the investigation, with detective superintendent Rebecca Smith adding that officers had been ‘inundated with false information, accusations and rumours’.

Both instances highlight an important distinction between live and cold cases, with amateur intervention in the former often a significant hindrance – and with the potential to cause significant distress to the family of those concerned.

According to a study from Birmingham City University, published in Crime Media Culture, our fascination with web sleuthing goes hand in hand with the growing popularity of ‘infotainment’ – a blend of news with entertainment, together with access to more tools.

‘Audiences now have considerably more participatory opportunities when it comes to infotainment,’ the paper reads. ‘They can post a comment on an online news article, tweet about a television programme using a hashtag or join one of the multiple online communities established to discuss and debate particular cases.’

Chair of the Psychology Department at Illinois Wesleyan University, Amanda Vicary, tells that another reason people are fascinated with solving crimes is because they ‘want to learn ways to prevent becoming a victim themselves’.

‘By understanding what sets a killer off or how a victim escaped, for instance, we can learn how to better protect ourselves,’ she explains. ‘If a crime is unsolved, we are lacking that information. We don’t know what happened, who did [it], or why. This can be scarier for people because now we don’t have the information that could help us protect ourselves.

After documentary Making a Murderer dropped on Netflix, theories surrounding Steven Avery’s guilt or innocence soon circulated across the globe (Picture: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

‘There’s a theory in psychology called the “just world” theory. We want to believe the world is a fair place and that bad things only happen to bad people. This is why people have a tendency to try to blame victims or look for something they did wrong. If we have less details about the crime, this can make it harder for us to try to rationalise what happened in a way that can make us feel better about our own odds of being a victim.’

While Tricia’s website has strict rules of sticking with facts and not accusing someone of a crime unless the police confirm them as a suspect, she herself has been known to make an exception. 

One case in point was in connection to the unsolved disappearance of Abraham Shakespeare – a casual labourer who won $32 million (approx £23.9 million) on the lottery in 2009, then vanished into thin air. 

Tricia describes how Websleuth members began discussing the case and one name kept popping up: Dorice ‘Dee Dee’ Moore, a ‘flashy’ lady, who came out of the woodwork claiming to be his best friend, saying she had helped Abraham get out of town and had been granted power of attorney. Officially, she was his financial advisor. 

As evidence stacked up, Tricia decided to make the accusation in a post of just five words: ‘Dee Dee Moore killed him.’

Her words didn’t escape the attention of Moore, who logged onto the forum and fired answers back to every claim made and piece of incriminating evidence that was thrown at her. Ironically, according to Tricia, it was a move that cemented the suspicions of Websleuth users.

Tricia correctly named Dee Dee Moore as the murderer of Abraham Shakespeare (Picture: Florida Department of Corrections)

‘She realised she spoke too much,’ she remembers, adding that Moore then pretended her computer was hacked and that it was someone else talking under her name. 

What she didn’t realise was that Tricia had the receipts – her IP address, a unique code given to each device on the internet – to prove otherwise.

Shortly after, in January 2010, Abraham Shakespeare’s body was found under Moore’s boyfriend’s garage and she was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.

Despite their investment into investigating crimes, Tricia is keen to assert that her members aren’t there to solve crimes – that’s the remit of the police. 

What they do, she says, is ‘think outside the box’ and offer up theories and evidence that could support an investigation. She admits she doesn’t know just how much they help ongoing cases, but concludes that ‘we must because [law enforcement] are always reading’ the forums.

According to Tricia web sleuths ‘think outside the box’ (Picture: Getty Images)

While many people are dedicated to solving the ‘who’ behind crimes, others are more invested in working out the ‘why.’

This is the case for author N Leigh Hunt, who describes himself not as a ‘whodunnit’ person, but a ‘whydunnit guy.’ 

The two are linked, he explains, saying that if we understand the perpetrators and their motives, the more likely we are to find them.

Like Tricia, Hunt’s obsession started after he had his own brush with a major crime event – in his case, the 1979 San Diego school shooting, which took place just after his 10th birthday. 

16-year-old Brenda Spencer’s shooting spree was the subject of Boomtown Rats’ song ‘I don’t like Mondays’ (Picture: Copyright: AP)

That day, 16-year-old Brenda Spencer opened fire from her window from across the street, killing two adults and injuring eight children at Cleveland Elementary School. When asked why, she told a reporter, ‘I don’t like Mondays, this livens up the day’ – a quote later immortalised by the Boomtown Rats’ song of the same name.

Hunt has always felt connected to the case – his family had just moved from Nottingham to the US into the neighbourhood and it was his dad’s own team on the Evening Tribune newspaper city desk that scooped the iconic quote.

‘It shattered the American Dream for us pretty quick,’ he tells ‘It wasn’t my school but I’ve always felt connected to it due to my dad’s link to the crime and how close it was to my house.’

It also ignited Hunt’s obsession with crime stories across the globe – something that has seen him visit countless crime scenes worldwide: from five of the Yorkshire Ripper’s burial sites to the house of Jeffrey Dahmer. 

Never quite able to shake his fascination with Cleveland school shooting, at the age of 52 – 42 years after the crime – Hunt decided to write to Brenda Spencer, and pen a book about her story. 

‘I just wanted to tell her she’d had a profound impact on my life,’ he recalls. ‘Brenda wrote back and we’ve been pen pals ever since.

‘I’m vague about what I share with her – she is a killer after all. But I haven’t lied to her.’

Armchair detectives across the globe toil away under a veil of anonymity (Picture: Getty Images)

On whether he found out why Brenda committed such a horrendous crime, Hunt reveals she insists that ‘she doesn’t know’. 

Hunt, who works in IT by day, sees true crime as a full-time hobby, one he works on ‘every waking moment when I’m not working’.

He refrains from releasing his full name, telling us one of the main draws of being a web sleuth is that ‘you’re really far removed from a lot of things’.

‘There are people on the internet from Australia who are solving crimes in Russia. We’re anonymous, we can change our names online and ask hard-hitting questions,’ he explains. ‘And if we get a bad answer, we just log out and log back in tomorrow with a new username.

‘It can sometimes come across as trolling but isn’t. It is web sleuthing and it’s solving crimes. It’s keeping the police honest.’

The sense of community and working towards a common goal is another draw for many to become armchair detectives (Picture: Getty Images)

According to Amanda Vicary, the sense of community and people working towards a common goal is also another big draw for many to become armchair detectives.

‘People tend to enjoy having the acceptance and support of others,’ she explains.

‘It’s probably no different than a group of neighbours planning a new community park. You’re working together to accomplish something everyone is interested in, except now it’s mostly virtual.’

It’s this sense of community which has expanded web sluething to a global scale in the age of the internet – whether it’s Tricia based out in Texas, running a massive operation from her house, or people like Hunt, spending their evenings putting together fractions of cold cases until the early hours. 

While it’s not always clear whether these people really are a help or a hindrance, one thing is clear: the armchair detectives are here to stay, and for every cold case, there’s an army of people willing to try to put together its missing pieces.

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