By Todd Matthews
Presenter, Radio 4's Internet Sleuths
There are 100,000 missing people in the United States alone and at least
6,000 unidentified bodies. With the authorities struggling to solve so
many cases, thousands of volunteers are using the internet to try to
match the missing with the unidentified.
It all started for me with the "Tent Girl", so called because her body
was found wrapped up in a canvas tent bag. I heard about the case when I
first met my future wife Lori at school.
She had come to Tennessee from Kentucky and told me how her father
Wilbur had found a murdered girl in a field near Georgetown in the
Her name, Tent Girl struck my soul. It was as if it were almost
familiar. As Lori and her family became part of my own family, so did
the Tent Girl. Two of my siblings died of natural causes as infants
early in my life. She was no different to them in my mind.
I had a place to visit my siblings, but Tent Girl didn't have any
family. So she became part of my own family. And I became determined to
find out who she was.
I went to her grave many miles away in Kentucky. I visited newspapers in
the area to look through hard-copy archives, searching both for stories
about the Tent Girl, as well as any accounts detailing a missing person
that matched her description.
For 10 years that is how I conducted the search. I spoke to
investigators and journalists by phone or in person, looking for any
shred of data. I felt so close yet so far, as if the information was
just outside my field of view.
As I worked, I also learned many things about how to search for
When the internet arrived, the main thing it changed was communication.
In the early days the vast online resources available today did not
exist. But I could do my searches by e-mail, and information about how
to contact government and media offices was easier to find.
Research was much easier, more affordable and realistic. Distance was no
longer an obstacle.
But perhaps more important was that it ended the isolation of individual
investigators. Once the World Wide Web connected the planet, a natural
gathering took place. I found other like-minded people doing the same
kind of work.
The internet gave us an opportunity to gather and share information, to
work on a common cause. We could cross the globe in seconds with a click
of a computer mouse.
Yahoo-based Cold Cases group was one of the first of these such
"virtual" gathering places and out of it grew organisations such as the
Doe Network, so called because John or Jane Doe is the name used by the
FBI for the unidentified.
Over the past decade, an increasing number of websites devoted to
particular cases of missing persons have been created. One of the first
was my own for the Tent Girl.
There were more people coming online daily with missing pieces in their
lives. Message boards intended for other uses were being used to post
about missing persons and lost loved ones.
It was a night like a thousand nights before, when I found what I was
looking for at last. I had found a posting by a woman looking for her
sister last seen in Lexington, Kentucky. I read on.
The description was matching the description etched onto the Tent Girl's
headstone. The feeling in my heart was greater than the evidence I was
reading on the screen. A decade of burden was lifting away and I knew
deep inside this was her at last.
Rules and methods
Tent Girl finally had a name. She was Barbara Taylor, a wife and mother
when she died. By now, she would have been a grandmother.
It was one of the most profound and fulfilling moments in my life. And,
I was soon to find, it would have a deep impact on others as well.
Already the discovery of her remains in 1968 had led to the
establishment of the Kentucky State Medical Examiners Office.
colleagues and I get hundreds of e-mails a day from people
searching for their missing loved ones
Then, 30 years later, the discovery of her identity in 1998 led to the
creation of a state-based website by the Kentucky Medical Examiners
office, called UnidentifiedRemains.net.
The websites work by gathering the information on missing and
unidentified cases. A review process then begins. Researchers begin
combing the web for any shred of missing information in the news media
or public databases or websites.
Rules and methods have evolved to make the process work better. Data
must be validated for accuracy by communicating with law enforcement
authorities, and the Doe Network has a protocol which volunteers must
follow to prevent them jeopardising cases or putting themselves in
Case files are in a constant state of review and cross-referenced by
members, law enforcement and the public.
The Doe Network alone has helped bring closure to 38 cases of missing or
unidentified people. They have also helped gather data to keep thousands
of other similar cases in the public eye in the hope of resolution.
Often people involved in using the Internet to help resolve crimes are
called amateur sleuths. I think the amateur effort is becoming an actual
science. Those of us who seek the technology of the Internet, but not
only the Internet, to find resolve in cold cases have found a niche that
truly deserves a name. I suggest the term techni-criminologist after
which I have named my website, TechniCriminology.info.
My colleagues and I get hundreds of e-mails a day from people searching
for their missing loved ones. This is a new age where the ordinary man
can step up and make a difference. It doesn't matter your sex, age, race
or physical disability.
There are no boundaries to the level of involvement you choose to take -
and for those cold cases that have been filed away by hard-pressed law
enforcement, a Doe Network volunteer spending hours on a computer in
their back room, may be the only chance of keeping a case alive.
Todd Matthews presents Internet Sleuths on Radio 4 on Tuesday 24 April
at 1100BST then for 7 days at Radio 4's