In an Internet Era, Can Armchair Detectives Actually Solve a Case?

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Podcasting allows today’s true crime fans to take a crowdsourced approach to amateur detective work.

By Stephanie Faris

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(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In the early morning hours of September 15th, 1986, 20-year-old Kathy Perry left her job at a book-binding company in Warwick, Rhode Island. She made a brief stop at a local gas station, where she was seen making a purchase at 2:30 a.m. Several hours later, her body was discovered in an industrial area a few miles from her work.

More than three decades later, Perry hasn’t been forgotten. Sergeant Frederick Pierce, who took over the cold case in 2006, has turned to social media to help solve it, setting up a Facebook page to allow Perry’s former friends to share memories and discuss her life. Pierce hopes that, in the process, someone might come forward with information that can help him in his efforts to solve the cold case.

Nina Innsted hosts the Already Gone podcast, where she profiles one new case a week. In the process of covering Perry’s murder, she recently spoke with Pierce, interviewing him for a potential story. Innsted’s podcast focuses on missing and murdered people, highlighting cold cases like Perry’s. During the research phase, she often interviews the detectives who have put hours of work into the case.

“In my experience dealing with law enforcement, they have been helpful, candid, professional,” Innsted says. “Some are more willing to talk than others, but by and large they are interested in legitimate information that can move a case forward. I have a great deal of admiration for the law enforcement officers I've been in contact with while working on the podcast.”

True crime has become a popular topic for documentarians, authors, and podcast hosts. While the genre has been around for decades, the Internet has given it new life, allowing fans to participate in the crime-solving process. Instead of merely reading a bestselling novel about a high-profile case, people can do their own investigating, comparing theories with other true crime fans and conducting their own online research.

But as social media continues to change the way fans consume true crime, a persistent question haunts those fans. Could armchair detectives someday actually solve a case?

Truman Capote has long been credited as the originator of the genre with his 1966 publication of In Cold Blood. The best-selling novel told the story of a quadruple murder in Kansas using the author’s own unique prose. While writing the novel, Capote immersed himself in the community, getting to know all of the players, including the accused killers. It was a huge departure from typical newspaper coverage of crimes at that time and it launched a new genre: true crime.

The Internet has brought new opportunities to true crime fans. Early forums and chat rooms gave people the opportunity to gather and discuss cases in ways they never had before. In 1995, much of this discussion seemed to center on the O.J. Simpson case, and the murders of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, which had captivated the nation. For the first time, trial watchers could discuss the case with other true crime fans, creating a new generation of what the New York Timescalled “armchair analysts.”

Today, this online discussion is an everyday thing. Through social media, friends and family members can spread the word immediately when a loved one is missing. Fans can choose one case and investigate it thoroughly, gathering information that they either freely share with others online or put into a book or documentary. Thanks to the Internet, crime solving is no longer limited to detectives.

This growth is especially seen in podcasts, which continue to grow in popularity. In 2016, 21 percent of adult Americans listened to podcasts, up from nine percent in 2008. The iTunes Top 100 charts is dominated by big-name podcasts like This American Life and The Joe Rogan Experience, but true crime shows hosted by relative unknowns are scattered throughout. My Favorite Murder, Crimetown, and Casefile: True Crime are just three of many true crime podcasts regularly seen on the charts.

Police departments might not be as excited about the growth of armchair detectives. A popular documentary like Netflix’s Making a Murderer often shines a spotlight on a small police department, putting serious pressure on authorities to investigate further. The general public never has access to all of the information on a case; if someone files a Freedom of Information Act request to access records, and without all of the information, it can be easy for audiences to fill in the blanks with random theories.

“Good detectives operate under this principle: Occam’s Razor,” Detective Tim Marcia told writer Josh Dean, referencing the famous problem-solving principle. “Other things being equal, a simpler explanation is better then a more complex one. In other words, when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.”

Thanks to the Internet, crime solving is no longer limited to detectives.

When a cold case gets attention from a high-profile podcast or documentary, detectives can face an onslaught of calls, some from people simply posing theories about a case. They know they need to take every lead seriously, but some calls can lead to hours of needless work. Still, just one of those leads could break the case, as it did in the 27-year-old kidnapping and murder of Jacob Wetterling. Wetterling was abducted in St. Joseph, Minnesota, in 1989. His case remained unsolved until 2016, when blogger Joy Baker, believing his case was connected to similar crimes in the area at the time, pushed for the case to be reopened. Eventually, that led to a killer’s confession.

Unfortunately, police departments are often overloaded with cases, making it difficult to devote 40-plus hours a week to a 20-year-old case. That’s where podcasters can be a big help. The best recent example of that is the well-known podcast Serial. By sharing the case of Adnan Syed in 2014, This American Life’s Sarah Koenig demonstrated the power that a large listenership could bring to a possible wrongful conviction.

The podcast, which won a Peabody Award, also helped lead to a new trial for Syed, based largely on the very inconsistencies Koenig pointed out in her series. Empowered by Serial’s success, the number of true crime podcasts almost immediately began multiplying, capitalizing on the many true crime fans who were seeking similar podcasts as Serial came to an end.

As Lanie Lopez, host of the True Crime Fan Club podcast, points out, Serial inspired an offshoot podcast called Undisclosed, which took a more in-depth look into Syed’s case. In the process, the show’s co-host discovered the cell phone tower evidence that was eventually used to overturn the original conviction. “As a community in general, we are very cognizant of the impact podcasts like Serial and Undisclosed have had in the legal community,” Lopez says. “People thought Adnan’s conviction being overturned was impossible, and Undisclosed proved that it wasn’t. That is huge.”

Despite Lopez’s fervor, podcast hosts face a challenge when it comes to being taken seriously. There’s no shortage of conspiracy theory podcasts, documentaries, and television shows, and a true crime podcaster can easily lose listener trust. This is especially true in criminal cases where a victim seemed to completely disappear, leaving few clues behind. Successful podcasters stay in the realm of reality, avoiding supernatural theories like alien abductions.

Often reality becomes more challenging with certain topics. Lopez finds that cases that have no clear resolution can more easily lead to listener skepticism than a case where the perpetrator was eventually convicted and punished for the crime. She finds that mysteries like the Black Dahlia Murder or the Jack the Ripper case can send a podcast host down a rabbit hole, chasing theories that are more bizarre and less believable to listeners. So few facts are known about these cases, it can be easy to buy into theories that are closer to urban legend than reality. It’s important that armchair detectives follow the lead of professional detectives and learn to separate corroborated facts from fiction. Yet true crime fans love to hear various theories in addition to the facts.

“The host is basically choosing which theory to believe or offering their own theory, which can then result in skepticism,” Lopez says. “It's a tricky line to walk, for sure.”

That same obscurity can also tend to fascinate fans, however. Innsted has found that podcasts encourage crowdsourcing of theories, with fans often pitching in to offer their own thoughts. Like many other true crime podcasters, Innsted encourages her listeners to participate in a Facebook discussion group she’s created. This provides a forum for fans to share their own theories, increasing the chances that a resolution may eventually be found.

“A hobbyist investigator has both time and resources available to them that a law enforcement officer may not,” Innsted says. “Myself or another armchair investigator can immerse ourselves in one case for a couple of weeks, or even months, pursuing leads and information in a way that an officer, particularly one with a full caseload, may not be able to do.”

In addition to interacting with the public and police officers, popular podcasts often attract the attention of people who knew the victim personally. They listen to the podcasts and join discussion groups, bringing insights and information that the public might not ever have learned otherwise.

“The great thing about being a podcaster is people consider you to be less of a threat then say, a detective.”

“On two different missing persons cases that I covered, people who knew the victim reached out to me via my webpage with tips and information about the case,” Innsted says. “That was information I was able to share with investigators.”

Although podcast hosts may not always have access to all of the information law enforcement does on a case, they do have an advantage when it comes to interviewing people. Lopez has found that many people can feel intimidated while being questioned by a detective. The same doesn’t necessarily apply to a podcast host or documentarian.

“The great thing about being a podcaster is people consider you to be less of a threat than, say, a detective,” Lopez says. “This can allow those being interviewed to relax and not have their guard up, which could result in them saying something that could help an investigation.”

Recently, Lopez covered the case of Christina Morris, a Fort Worth, Texas, woman who was last seen walking into a parking garage with a friend at an upscale shopping center. Although a man was charged and convicted for kidnapping Morris, the 23-year-old’s body has never been found. By bringing attention to her case, Lopez hopes to be able to reach someone who might know something that could bring closure for the family. Using her platform, Lopez was able to reach out to those who personally knew the victim, giving them a chance to speak publicly about the case and keep it in the public eye.

Before the Internet, victims’ loved ones had to rely solely on the mainstream media attention a case like Morris’ got. Keeping a story alive was always challenging, especially after years had passed. But podcasters and documentarians have the power to bring attention to a case that happened years ago, igniting interest from armchair detectives who might go out on their own to solve the case.

Stories like Adnan Syed’s demonstrate the benefits massive attention can have on a case, but there still are few cases that have been solved by the public. Fortunately, as the number of true crime documentaries and podcasts continues to grow, the number of cold cases that receive renewed attention grows with it. Police departments are seeing that the public truly does want to help find justice for victims and their families.

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