Web sleuths help solve cold cases

Dan Brady, area director and investigator for the Doe Network, a Web-based group of amateur sleuths who try to identify unidentified bodies by checking databases for identifying marks and scouring newspaper accounts of missing persons.
Dan Brady, area director and investigator for the Doe Network, a Web-based group of amateur sleuths who try to identify unidentified bodies by checking databases for identifying marks and scouring newspaper accounts of missing persons. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

For mental health counselor Sheree Greenwood, the key to the case was a distinctive T-shirt; Bobby Lingoes homed in on some tattooed initials; and Tonya Finsterwald fixated on the unidentified body in New Jersey wearing swimming trunks and a missing Pennsylvania man who loved water sports.

All three of these amateur sleuths used freely available Internet resources to help reunite the unidentified dead with their names.

Such cases are mysterious and vexing, especially in an era when identities are so inescapably public. Over the past decade, the Internet helped create a growing army of volunteers who, with nothing more than a computer and the uniquely human ability to spot similarities buried in mountains of data, are helping bring closure to families and spurring law enforcement to reopen the most frigid of cold cases.

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These amateur sleuths share information gleaned from newspapers and other public sources on websites created for just that purpose, and they connect with one another, but not necessarily face-to-face. Participants across the country range from Web-surfing college students to professionals like Dan Brady, a software sales rep from Holliston, to stay-at-home moms who are true-crime fiends. “You meet other people, and develop relationships with some you’ll never meet in person,” Greenwood said. Brady said he regularly corresponds with a dozen Web sleuths he wouldn’t recognize on the street.

There are plenty of cases to investigate in Massachusetts. Many have heard of the Lady of the Dunes, the nameless young woman who was found with her hands cut off and her head bashed in on a Provincetown beach in 1974. There are at least 20 other local Jane and John Does: the disembodied cranium of a young woman found 6 miles off the coast of Marshfield in 1976; a 20- or 30-year-old man with two bullet wounds to the head and a distinctive metal medallion around his neck, found in a wooded section of Burlington in 1975; a middle-age Hispanic woman, wearing a red-and-yellow hoodie, prescription eyeglasses, and silver jewelry, found near Tolland State Forest in 1995; and a man with a tattoo of a broken heart and a copy of the Bible, whose body was floating face down in the Charles River in Waltham last August.

Circumstances unexpectedly thrust Greenwood into the world of the missing. In June 2000, when 16-year-old Molly Anne Bish vanished from a lifeguard post at a pond in sleepy Warren, Greenwood, mother of one of Bish’s classmates, logged onto the nascent Internet to spread word of the search. Greenwood stumbled upon the Doe Network, a website populated with photos of the missing as well as dozens of images of clay busts and other artist reconstructions of unidentified human remains: a kind of Facebook of the dead.

Brady made his way to the Doe Network when he spied an item in the Globe about a perplexing 1957 Philadelphia case known as the Boy in the Box, a 4- to 6-year-old murder victim dumped in a field in a cardboard box. “It seemed like, ‘Wow, somebody should have claimed that boy,’ ” he said. “It’s a little haunting.”

In 2007, a National Institute of Justice (NIJ) census of coroners, medical examiners, and law enforcement agencies estimated that there may be as many as 40,000 unidentified individuals — more than a sold-out Fenway Park — stowed in the back rooms of morgues and buried in unmarked graves across the country. The federal agency, a research and development arm of the Justice Department, called the little-known reality “the nation’s silent mass disaster.”

The Doe Network, whose website launched in 1999, and its spin-offs have swelled over the past decade to include hundreds, perhaps thousands, of volunteers who post details about the missing and unidentified culled from public records and the media. Some use official medical examiner and coroner websites such as Las Vegas Unidentified and the Florida Unidentified Decedent Database to ferret out possible matches, even though it means perusing disturbing post-mortem photos, computer-generated color portraits, cartoon-like illustrations, and distorted clay dummies sporting wigs, like something out of a beautician’s academy for the hopeless.

Greenwood, who once painted portraits, found she had a knack for “looking at reconstructions and photos and comparing the proportions of the ears, eyes, or length of the nose. I was able to look at different things and say, ‘This might be a possible match.’ ”

Others become advocates for families, or volunteer to track down DNA samples and dental records that enable forensic professionals to confirm or rule out possible matches.

The notion of ordinary citizens involving themselves in police work has been a sore spot with some in law enforcement, but police admit that cases involving remains that no one seems to be looking for are at the bottom of the food chain. “Cold cases are a strain on resources for a law enforcement agency,” said retired police inspector James Jabbour, director of forensic science programs at Mount Ida College in Newton. “Do I support civilians looking into cold cases? I would say, ‘Why not?’ as long as it helps solve the case and doesn’t interfere with the investigation.”

Greenwood, besides orchestrating a way in 2001 for her husband and other ham radio operators around the country to broadcast Amber Alerts for Bish and other missing children, was involved in a spectacularly unlikely solve. She worked with a handful of Doe Network volunteers, including Bobby Lingoes, a civilian dispatcher with the Quincy Police Department, on the case of a Baltimore woman whose body was found in 2000.

The Doe Network had posted a picture of the victim’s red T-shirt, adorned with a Native American-style graphic, the date of a family reunion, and a list of names. Greenwood, who for a time ran a T-shirt screen-printing and embroidery shop in Warren, said, “I immediately recognized that only a small group of people would have access to this T-shirt.

“I showed it to my mom, who is from Oklahoma and has Native American blood, and I said, ‘How can we figure out who this family is?’ ” With the help of a private eye and a search of Ancestry.com, they tracked down family members attending the reunion and the person who designed the T-shirt. Acting on a tip that one of the reunion attendees had given a shirt to a Baltimore woman, police from that city in 2002 positively identified murder victim Brenda Wright, whose family had reported her missing and never knew what had happened to her. Her case is still under investigation.

Lingoes also helped solve a 2002 case of an unidentified body found in the Sudbury River. The letters “PK” were tattooed on the man’s right shoulder. Lingoes posted the details on the Doe Network, where a volunteer recalled a missing Texas man with such a tattoo. Lingoes passed along the tip to Framingham police, who determined the body was that of 40-year-old Peter Kokinakis, who had disappeared from Houston earlier that year.

Joseph Formica Jr., a 24-year-old suffering from mental illness, left his family’s home in Pennsylvania on Aug. 24, 1980, carrying a knapsack and a bottle of Coke. His family never saw him again. A week later, an unidentified body was found along the shore of the Delaware River in New Jersey.

Twenty-eight years later, in 2008, Tonya Finsterwald, a Doe Network volunteer in Texas perusing the online database spotted the fact that the body was clad in swimming trunks. Because Formica’s missing-person report noted his love of water sports, and his age and date of disappearance lined up, she submitted a potential match. Late last year, a New Jersey medical examiner positively identified Formica based on fingerprints on file in Pennsylvania.

July 2012 marked the 38th anniversary of Massachusetts’s coldest case: the Lady of the Dunes. Amateur detectives in an online crime forum called Websleuths.com with screen names such as “polywog” and “dreamweaver” continue to speculate about her identity: a young Florida woman who disappeared in 1974? A 24-year-old who went missing from Birmingham, England, that year? “This is a fascinating case,” wrote “Upallnite.” “Evil, but fascinating.”

In 2012, the Provincetown police reported a lead: James “Whitey” Bulger. Bulger, 83, once considered Boston’s most notorious criminal, had allegedly been seen in Provincetown in the 1970s with a woman who resembled the Lady of the Dunes, WCVB-TV reported last year.

Despite the emergence of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), an NIJ database inspired in part by the Doe Network and launched in 2007, the Doe Network boasts 600 members worldwide and claims its volunteers have identified or aided with more than 66 matches in 11 years.

In early 2013, Brady took over as Massachusetts area director for the Doe Network, which makes him the go-to person for law enforcement. “In general, the culture here is less receptive,” he said. “Law enforcement is made up of very professional people here who take pride in what they do. They don’t really understand our role.” Doe volunteers try to chip away at that attitude by building trust and credibility. Many, like Brady, stick with it for years. Others burn out after a time — both Greenwood and Lingoes have “retired” from Web sleuthing.

“This is not in any way a profession for any of us,” said Brady, who estimated he spends around four hours a week on a PC laptop in his spare room. “This is a hobby. We all have families and jobs.” It’s not necessarily the kind of hobby you bring up over lunch, especially when you’ve been perusing morgue photos, as Brady sometimes does, to help confirm or rule out a potential match. “I used to kind of hide it, to be honest,” Brady said. “I was a little more circumspect because people would say, ‘That’s creepy.’ It spooked some people up.”

Tragically, Greenwood and others were not able to help Bish, whose remains were discovered not far from her home in 2003. Almost 13 years later, Greenwood still shudders to think about Bish’s abduction and murder. She has returned to her mental-health practice full-time but said “a lot of really good things” resulted from her time with the Doe Network, including being tapped by NamUs for civilian training in using the official database. “I’m a do-gooder, and I feel like I’ve contributed,” she said.

She suggested that anyone with a strong stomach might enjoy the work. “It gives you something to do with your time and gives your life meaning,” she said. “If you can tolerate it, you can look at these different stories, and you can make a difference.”