Book review of The Skeleton Crew, by Deborah Halber

How online detectives are solving cold cases

Book review of The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases




By Deborah Halber

Modern-day versions of Sherlock Holmes abound on the Internet. Web sleuths, as they’re called, are amateur detectives who pore over missing-persons reports to try to crack cases on which the police have long given up.

Deborah Halber travelled across the United States interviewing these unsung, unpaid DIY investigators. Who are they? What motivates them? Most of them have never met one another. Each tends to get obsessed with a single case and work it for years, sometimes winding up at a dead end, other times hitting the jackpot and identifying a body. Some are related to the missing person or murder victim; others are random strangers with brains wired to solve puzzles.

According to Halber, approximately 60,000 unidentified bodies and skeletal remains lie in morgues across the States, Jane Does and John Does. When a body is found that cannot be ID’d (for instance, a killer cuts off the victims’ hands or pulls all the teeth), a forensic artist might be brought in to sculpt a facial reconstruction in the hopes that a relative will recognize the face.

Now, websites like The Doe Network bring together facial reconstructions with pictures of missing persons in a forum where amateur sleuths have a chance to sift through the images. Those with the sharpest memories for details and faces have the best chance of putting two and two together. “Making an identification—that’s power,” said one of the sleuths. “You just changed something. You changed an unknown person into a homicide investigation.”

Police used to disparage the early sleuths, calling them “Doe-nuts,” a reference to the nutcases that constantly phoned with bad leads. Law officers still have the attitude of, “I’m a cop and you’re not,” says one sleuth, but a lot are getting better. “One of the conundrums of web-sleuthing is this: Law enforcement welcomes a positive match and abhors a waste of time,” writes Halber.

Her bang-on descriptions and recondite details are riveting. According to Halber, a decomposing body smells like fishing bait left too long in Tupperware, and if you ever do need to rehydrate desiccated fingertips, why, simply soak the fingers in Downy Fabric softener for 90 days and, presto, you should be able to get a good set of fingerprints on an inked wad of Silly Putty.