Cybersleuths Solving Cold Cases Through the Use of the Internet

March 27th of 2003 was seemingly just another ordinary day in Key West, Florida. A dazed and disoriented man stumbled over to a bus stop bench that was within easy sight of the local police station. A passerby noticed his confusion and obvious discomfort and called for help. Emergency medical personnel soon arrived and started to attend to him. White drool began to ooze from his mouth as he uttered that he had accidentally overdosed on his cough medication. He was rushed to Lower Keys Medical Center but within a few hours he died.

The Monroe County Medical Examiner performed an autopsy and found that the man had been suffering from bacterial pneumonia but his cause of death was an increased level of Salicylic Acid. The man had died from an overdose of aspirin. The cause of his death was a short-lived mystery, however, his true identity was a true enigma.

The body had no identification on it. His fingerprints did not match up with any in the databases available to the local authorities. There were no local missing person reports that met the description of the deceased man. With no name and no family to notify, his body was buried in a public cemetery and given the standard name of John Doe.

Although this case may be unique in its individual circumstances, it represents an unfortunate and an often too common occurrence in this country. An individual dies and the authorities are unable to identify the body; they are not able to notify the individual’s family or friends. At the same time, somewhere someplace else, there are family and friends that are wondering and worrying about an individual gone missing. As time passes, they feel evermore increasingly powerless to rectify the situation and only final closure will end their terrible desperation.

It was just after midnight on January 25, 2004 when Williamson, Georgia resident, Brenda Pass logged onto her Hewlett Packard computer. The 52-year-old mother of five grown sons had the television on while her husband and two of her mixed breed dogs slept nearby. Her rheumatoid arthritis was causing her joints to ache and making it hard for her to move. That early morning, something else was causing the former public health nurse more anguish than her disabling disease. The stress of one her son’s pending divorce was causing her duress. Brenda couldn’t sleep. The grandmother of six went on the Internet to pursue her hobby of hunting for lost people on the Internet. Since 1997, Brenda has spent over a thousand hours scouring over web sites that contain pictures and profiles of unidentified and missing persons. She analyzes people’s faces, their physical descriptions, and the dates they were found or went missing. Unusual tattoos, clothing or jewelry often resonate in the back of her mind as she seeks match the missing with the unidentified.

Brenda doesn’t have a specific number but she estimates that she has sent law enforcement over one hundred emails regarding potential matches. They’re longshots, and often there’s no polite reply or even a thank you. She has had success though. Brenda matched a murdered Jane Doe in Utah that was deceased for thirteen years to a missing Texas woman. After her email was sent to the two respective law enforcement agencies, a website called the DoeNetwork announced the positive identification a month later. Brenda was elated.

“Her name was Patricia Candace Walsh and I was so happy that her family finally had closure.” Pass said. “But why couldn’t they [law enforcement] tell me about her identification. It’s not getting the credit that didn’t bother me. It’s that Law Enforcement didn’t care to notify me.”

The family of Patricia Walsh knows what happened to her and fifteen years later police have a suspect in her murder.

With the advent of the Internet, Law Enforcement posts many of missing persons and John/Jane Does on various websites. It is their hope that someone, a family member or a law enforcement professional from another precinct will recognize them. Surprisingly, complete strangers are solving many of these unidentified person cases. These individuals voluntarily do research on the Internet in an attempt to solve these cases. In Internet lingo, they are called Cybersleuths.

At first glance, many of these websites resemble a visual cemetery. They contain pictures of the missing and unidentified. From the young to the old, they are often times a grim reminder of lives cut short. Most contain sketches or clay reconstructions of the deceased John/Jane Does. Others are more graphic and contain actual post-mortem photographs.

The DoeNetwork is the most well known of the websites. It contains over 2450 missing person cases and 840 unidentified person cases. The site has over 400 volunteers that work to solve these mysteries. They make potential matches between the missing and unidentified and collectively vote on whether they are worth submitting to Law Enforcement. Their success rate is exemplary. At last count, their members are credited with 22 successful recommendations and has assisted with 6 other matches.

The Doenetwork lists four unidentified persons from Connecticut on their website. Texas has 142 followed by Florida with 138.

Todd Mathews is the Media Director of Doe Network and a cybersleuth who through Internet research identified a decades old mystery of a woman found deceased in Kentucky. He had spent over ten years searching libraries, town halls, police stations and funeral homes looking for the identification of the young woman labeled “The Tent Girl”. It wasn’t until he got a computer and Internet access that within a year he was able to match her to a missing woman from nearby Lexington, Kentucky. DNA tests conclusively proved the deceased woman’s identity.

“According to the FBI-NCIC database [Federal Bureau of Investigation – National Crime Information Center] there are over 102,000 missing persons and almost six thousand unidentified persons in the United States, Canada and all of the US territories.” Matthews said. “In Connecticut alone, there are 540 missing persons and eleven unidentified persons. These numbers nationally are probably much higher since many families do not report their missing and many other cases caused by accidents or natural death are not reported by respective law enforcement agencies.”

Some of the cases in Connecticut have been largely forgotten. If not for the posting on a State Police website, the adult black female found deceased in May of 1985 in Westport near Interstate 95 would only be remembered by those that found her and worked to solve her murder. Other cases such as the tragedy of Baby X, received national attention at the time. She was discovered on January 31, 1975 and thirty years later detectives still work to find the identity of the deceased newborn abandoned behind a store in the town of Clinton.

Matthews believes that cases of missing and unidentified persons need more publicity. The Doe Network has tried to help. They have even set up an organization labeled, “Project Eden”, a group of forensic artists that draw sketches “free of charge” for Law Enforcement and victims families. It is a resource that agencies all over the country have been utilizing and has helped lead to successful matches.

He believes it’s vital that more people volunteer their time to solve these crimes. In Connecticut, some are heeding his call. Alyssa Cannata, is a part time college student that works in retail to pay her tuition. The 23-year-old New Britain resident remembers exactly what made her interested in the issue of missing children. She vividly remembers watching the grainy visual footage of 12-year-old Sarasota, Florida teenager, Carla Brucia being abducted by a tattooed man in daylight. The case shocked and encompassed all of America and ended tragically when the teenager was found deceased days later. A housemate of his identified the man who abducted Brucia and the killer now faces a possible death sentence in the young teen’s murder.

Despite the sad conclusion to the young girls life, Alyssa grew interested in the subject of missing children and did a search on the Internet about missing children in Connecticut. Within seconds she came across the picture of seven-year-old Janice Pockett. The blonde haired, gap-toothed girl from Tolland disappeared a few hundred yards from her house in broad daylight. The young girl’s name still resonates in the minds of many people that remembered the desperate headlines of the Connecticut Newspapers in July of 1973.

“I remember the first time I saw her face.” Canatta exclaimed. She looked so young and innocent.”

Canatta has joined different Internet posting forums about crimes, the most notable being where she and others exchange information about the Pockett case as well as other local and national cases.

She also cautions about frauds on the Internet. One person claimed to be a cousin of Janice Pockett. Alyssa knew something was not right, when the person gave out incorrect information regarding the missing young girl.

Alyssa searches the Hartford Courant archives and browses the Connecticut Sexual Offender Registry looking for potential suspects in the Janice Pockett case. In the end she knows it’s a Herculean task but she feels she owes it to the little girl who is forever seven in the minds of those that remember her.

“He [the perpetrator] could be dead, or in jail. Or he could still be in town, quietly guarding a deadly secret.” Cannatta said. “Some people tell me to forget it and that I’m wasting my time. I’d love to find out what happened to her. But time is against us.”

Connecticut’s State Chief Medical Examiner H. Wayne Carver II concurs. It is his office that plays a vital role in identifying John and Jane Does. He remembers many of the unidentified persons that come through his office. He doesn’t get attached to any of his cases, but the case of an older teenaged female found in New Britain in September of 1995 clearly baffles him. He wonders why any family members have never claimed the woman. He also knows that with every passing year it gets more difficult to find her true identity. Witnesses die, they move away, and people forget minor clues that could break a case wide open.

“The Longer a person goes [unidentified], the more difficult it becomes to identify them.” Carver said. “Time passage is always an obstacle.”

Time is the enemy. But sometimes, it is the best friend to solving a crime. With time comes new technology. Over twenty years ago, some cases could not be solved because there was no such thing as DNA testing. Now it’s usage has solved hundreds of previously unsolvable cases. Media exposure has also expanded; shows such as America’s Most Wanted have used help from the Public to capture over 800 fugitive criminals. With the Internet growing everyday, new sites of unsolved homicide and missing person’s cases appear almost every day. Sometimes all it takes is typing a few words; a click of a mouse and cases from the past can be revisited in someone’s living room.

The CharleyProject is a missing person site. It contains over 4,500 cases. The website is named after the unsolved disappearance of four year old, Charles Brewster Ross in 1874 in Germantown, Pennsylvania. His case was the first famous child abduction case in the United States. The CharleyProject has twenty-five cases from Connecticut. Some cases are recent such as 30-year-old William Smolinski of Waterbury, missing since August of 2004. Some cases are older such as that of 38-year-old Mary Badaracco who was last seen at her Sherman Connecticut home in August of 1984. Both missing persons are featured on many additional websites and their respective families have created their own exclusive sites dedicated to finding them.

These are valuable resources that were not available for Judi Kelly when her 13-year-old daughter disappeared while walking home from a friend’s house in Vernon on November 1, 1974. Over the years, Ms. Kelly kept a large scrapbook of articles about her daughter, Lisa White and other cases involving the murders and abductions of young women and girls from the Connecticut/Massachusetts area. She still keeps tabs on other cases and posts her daughter’s information on various websites.

“With new development in forensics and renewed interest in solving cold cases, I have hope that her case and others like it can be solved.” Kelly said. It’s been heartbreaking not knowing where my daughter is, but I hope one day I can put her to rest.”

Peter Bravo from the Fairfield, Connecticut Police Department knows how frustrating missing person cases can be. The Detective was baffled by the case of David Bargmann, a 44-year-old father of two children. Mr. Bargmann was a bartender at the V Restaurant and Wine bar in Westport. On March 24, 2003, Bargmann disappeared with no trace. He mysteriously left his wallet and personal identification behind. Days later, his 1987 Jeep Wrangler was found on a city street in nearby Bridgeport. Police learned that he had owed thousand of dollars to his ex-wife and close friends. But he had a good relationship with his children. Many of those close to him did not believe that he would abandon his children. There were no signs of foul play and even though police did not rule it out.

“We had no clue as to what happened to him. We had no leads.” Bravo said. “It’s like he dropped off the face of the earth.”

The Fairfield Police posted Bargmann’s personal information and his picture on various websites and vigorously continued to investigate leads. Nothing panned out.

She doesn’t remember what exactly got her interested in cybersleuthing but she thinks it may have started with a story she was told as a young child. For years, she was under the impression that a Great Aunt of hers had gone missing. Her fate was always a mystery to her. When Brenda was in her forties, she learned that her great aunt had actually died while giving birth. Purposely lied to by her grandparents, because her great aunt had conceived a child out of wedlock. To this day, Brenda still has not forgiven her family for this dark secret.

During that early morning on January 25, 2004, Brenda viewed a website she had never seen before, the Florida Unidentified Descendants Database. There she came across a profile on a John Doe found deceased in Key West, Florida. There was no picture or facial reconstruction of the deceased man. Information stated that the John Doe was in his fifties, white and found March 27, 2003. With no picture and little physical information, most cybersleuths would have moved on to the next case. Brenda Pass felt differently.

Pass went to a now defunct website called the Missing Persons Cold Case Network and decided to search for all missing males that disappeared in March of 2003. Immediately she came across the profile of David Bargmann.

“The age was off but the date of disappearance was three days from when the Key West John Doe was found.” Pass explained.

She had a gut feeling that told her it was a potential match. Brenda immediately sent an email to the Monroe County Examiner in Florida. Detective Bravo then received notice from the Monroe County Examiner about an unidentified deceased person in their county. After some correspondence, Bravo was able to see actual pictures of the John Doe.

“I lived in town, and had seen David in passing. When I saw the pictures I knew it was David.” Bravo said.

Fingerprints eventually confirmed the match. Four days later, Bravo emailed Brenda Pass and thanked her for her help.

Brenda Pass was elated yet still had mixed feelings. She was glad that she helped a family get closure. However, she felt sadness in that David’s family now had to deal with his death. In the months following her successful identification, David Bargmann’s ex-wife and sisters had thanked her through various letters and phone calls.

Brenda Pass still continues her Internet searches and hopes law enforcement in general takes cybersleuths more seriously.

“There are some in Law Enforcement that don’t appreciate the work that cybersleuths do. Many times, we’re ignored.” Pass said. “We’re not here to take away jobs from the police. The issue of missing persons is bigger than Law Enforcement.”

Detective Bravo is glad that people like Brenda Pass are continuing to solve the mysteries of unidentified and missing persons.

“If it was not for the actions of Mrs. Pass, this investigation would probably still be unsolved and the family would be wondering what happened to Mr. Bargmann.” Detective Bravo explained. “Law Enforcement all over the country have limited resources and time, help from the public is always useful. In this case, it helped us tremendously.”

Brenda is very adamant that more missing persons should be posted online on websites to help identify them. She is also an avid genealogist and is writing a book that traces her genealogy back to the 1300’s in England. Brenda also spends her time raising her dogs several of which are Labrador Retrievers. Despite all these interests and Grandkids to play with she vows to continue her Internet searches.

“There are more to people to be found and there are families that need answers.” Pass said. “But People like myself and law enforcement can not do it alone. We need more people to help solve mysteries.”

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