True crime is a very popular niche in our culture, with popular YouTubers and podcasters often discussing cases or exploring unsolved mysteries.
But social media communities have also gotten involved in cases—and on several occasions, they’ve even helped police in their investigations. Here are three examples of when social media users assisted the police with their investigations…
1. The Identification of the “Grateful Doe”
A subreddit actually helped with the identification of a “John Doe” in January 2015, following two decades without an ID.
The case related to two men who were involved in a fatal car accident in Virginia in 1995. While the driver of the van was immediately identified as 21-year-old Michael Hager, his young passenger’s identity remained unknown for 20 years.
It is suspected that Hager fell asleep at the wheel and his van struck a tree, killing both of the young men instantly.
At the time he was found, the young man had two ticket stubs for the band The Grateful Dead in his pocket and he was sporting the band’s T-shirt. A note was also found on his person that said, “Jason, Sorry we had to go, see ya around, call me #914-XXXX. Caroline T. & Caroline O. Bye!!!!”.
He was named “Jason Doe” by investigators. 10 years later, the internet renamed him the “Grateful Doe”.
An Australian Redditor named Layla Betts became interested in Jason Doe’s case. She created a subreddit called r/GratefulDoe in the hopes of identifying the young man.
Her community eventually grew to have thousands of members and Jason’s case went viral.
One day, Layla received a message from a Redditor named Steve. Steve said that the composite photos of the Grateful Doe looked very much like his college roommate, Jason Callahan.
He described Jason as a “hippie” and a huge fan of the Grateful Dead. He said that the last time he saw Jason was in 1995.
Steve sent Layla photos of his friend, which were identical to the composites of the Grateful Doe.
Jason Callahan went missing in 1995. The 19-year-old had left his Myrtle Beach home to follow The Grateful Dead around the United States while they toured.
At the same time that Steve reached out, Jason’s mother, Margaretta Evans, came across the subreddit. When she saw the photos of Jason and the Grateful Doe’s profile, she filed a report with the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina police department.
The link between the two cases was confirmed with DNA evidence from Jason’s family, which matched Jason Doe.
After 20 years of waiting, the Callahans finally found out what had happened to their loved one, thanks to the work of a part-time internet sleuth.
2. The Murder of Jun Lin
If you live in Canada, you will probably remember this case well. Jun Lin was a 33-year-old international student from Wuhan, China.
At the time he went missing, he was attending Concordia University in Montreal, working towards a degree in computer science.
When he failed to show up for his part-time job at a convenience store and his friends had not heard from him, Jun Lin was reported missing on May 29, 2012.
A few days before, a video depicting a gruesome murder was uploaded to a gore website. Several viewers of the video and a US attorney attempted to report the grotesque video to law enforcement, but their reports were dismissed.
But things changed when human body parts were mailed to Canada’s Conservative and Liberal parties, and a torso was found outside of a Montreal apartment building.
Eventually, the killer was identified as Luka Magnotta. Meanwhile, DNA evidence confirmed that that the body parts found outside of the apartment building, where Magnotta lived, were Jun Lin’s.
Shortly after, Jun Lin was identified as the victim in the video.
Magnotta had actually been on the police’s radar for months before Jun Lin’s murder due to other crimes he had committed and uploaded online.
From 2010, internet sleuths had been trying to track him down due to Facebook videos depicting him killing kittens.
The animal advocates, who called themselves “The Animal Beta Project”, watched the videos for identifying clues, like the perpetrator’s bedspread and furniture.
In early 2011, the group identified Magnotta as the man in the videos and pinpointed his location to be Toronto, Ontario.
They attempted to warn the authorities of Magnotta’s behavior and whereabouts, worrying that he would soon move from animals to humans, but they were dismissed.
At the end of the day, while social media users helped get Magnotta on the police’s radar, DNA evidence and police work ultimately solved the case.
In December 2019, a controversial documentary was released about the case and the animal rights activists who worked to identify Magnotta.
3. The Hit-and-Run of Susan Rainwater
Sometimes social media users who help solve crimes aren’t fans of true crime podcasts—they just stumble across cases and manage to provide insightful information.
This is what happened in the investigation into the hit-and-run of Susan Rainwater, where a photo asking for users to identify a car part helped solve the case.
Rainwater was riding her bike 60 miles South of Seattle when she was hit and killed by an unknown driver who fled the scene. With few clues to go on and no witnesses, the police were stumped.
The only piece of evidence they had was a black piece of plastic that fell off of the vehicle when it struck Susan. A state trooper who arrived at the scene posted an image of the unknown object to her Twitter account.
One of her followers then posted the photo on Reddit’s r/WhatIsThisThing subreddit.
Surprisingly, a Reddit user named Jeff knew exactly what the object was. He had worked as a vehicle inspector for many years and stated that the piece of plastic was a part of the headlight bezel of a late-1980s Chevrolet pickup.
It turns out that the piece of plastic had a distinctive notch that was used to access the headlamp adjustment screw. He did a reverse Google image search and found the make and model of the truck that the part belonged to.
Jeff’s post was immediately acknowledged by the police. In conjunction with surveillance video, an anonymous tip, and the information about the headlight part from Reddit, police were able to arrest a suspect.
Jeff used the skills that he learned in his career and his knowledge of technology to help lead the police to the person who killed Susan Rainwater.
The suspect, Jeremy Simon, was arrested for vehicular manslaughter, possession of a controlled substance, and leaving the scene of an accident. He pleaded guilty to the charges.
Reddit and Facebook have many communities for people who want to read about true crime cases and attempt to solve them from home. And these cases show how sometimes, social media users have been able to make a difference.
While it’s best to leave investigations up to the professionals, there’s no denying that social media has played a role in certain cases over the years. Giving the victims and their families the closure they needed.
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