Deborah Halber's new book The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, digs into the underground network of self-made detectives working to solve mysteries of unidentified human remains, using modern tools to put names and faces to thousands of John and Jane Does--often in unofficial competition with the police, as well as each other. Here Halber offers her guide to becoming a successful shamus for the Information Age.
Essential Tools and Tips for Becoming a Successful Private Investigator
by Deborah Halber
Just to be clear, I would make a lousy PI. A reviewer noted that in my newly released narrative nonfiction book, The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, my writer’s voice is "inflected with the gritty timbre of a noir detective; it’s hard not to imagine her spitting the words out of the side of her mouth." I’d say in real life I’m more bumbling TV gumshoe than ace detective Philip Marlowe. More Columbo or Cloiseau than Veronica Mars.
Maybe that’s why I’m in such awe of the web sleuths. The real-life Sherlock Holmes wannabes you’ll meet in my book have the patience of a ox, the attention to detail of a neurosurgeon and the visual acuity of a shark, which, I’m told, can detect glimmers ten times weaker than anything humans can see. One self-proclaimed amateur sleuth has such a spot-on visual memory that she’s able to peruse dozens of photos of missing people and compare them in her mind’s eye to facial reconstructions of unidentified human remains. Another tirelessly combs through records of persons reported missing in the general vicinity of a discovered body, working her way outward in concentric circles through counties, cities, states.
Also key is the ability to look at grisly photos without running screaming from your computer or face-planting in a dead faint onto your keyboard. There are repositories of images--artists’ reconstructions, vivid color portraits, crude pencil sketches, cartoon-like illustrations, and distorted clay dummies sporting wigs, like something out of a beautician’s academy for the hopeless--a Facebook for the dead. There are also actual morgue photos barely Photoshopped into presentability. It takes a strong stomach--or a fascination with the macabre--to click past “may be disturbing for some viewers.”
Once you’ve narrowed your search--noting, say, this missing person from Wisconsin looks a lot like that facial reconstruction of remains discovered in Florida--you get to delve into the details. Height? Weight? Scars or tattoos? There’s a mind-numbing mountain of data to sift through--and any given data point is not necessarily accurate. A website devoted to Princess Doe--an unidentified young homicide victim found in Blairstown, New Jersey, in 1982, her face bludgeoned beyond recognition--lists almost 100 potential matches, all young women loosely fitting her description, all reported missing after 1975. The amount of work involved in sorting through these leads would be daunting for even the most seasoned detective.
Yet the problem is formidable and well worth the benefits of crowdsourcing: The National Institute of Justice estimates that some 40,000 unidentified remains--the population of Wilkes-Barre or North Miami Beach--are stowed in the back rooms of morgues, crematoriums or buried as Jane and John Does in potters fields. No one in the medicolegal community seems to “own” the Does, but web sleuths using sites such as the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS) and the Doe Network have “adopted” well-known ones such as Princess Doe; the Lady of the Dunes in my home state of Massachusetts; and the Boy in the Box, found murdered in Philadelphia in 1957.
Many of the web sleuths are motivated by a genuine desire to help families of the missing. Dig into the attributes of the most successful and efficient web sleuths and you’ll find people whose motives are pure, whose diligence is noteworthy, and whose eyes are much sharper than mine.