DENVER — While law enforcement agencies increasingly utilize the Internet to help solve murders by putting up Web pages
detailing unsolved cases, the general public is already there.
The True Crime magazines and pulp-fiction crime stories have gone the way of rotary phones and typewriters, but
amateur sleuths have more than made up for their absence.
Internet sites dedicated to the discussion and solution of murder cases have given anyone with a modem a shot at
solving America's high-profile homicides.
Murder and the Internet became partners in a series of chat rooms during the O.J. Simpson case, but the era of cyber crime-busting really
took off with the unsolved 1996 slaying of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey in Boulder.
There is no record of such sites solving any high-profile homicides, but their place in the culture
appears secure and permanent.
Among the first was the "Joshua7" site, which was established within weeks of the Ramsey killing and later gave way to Justice Watch, a site visited
daily by journalists, police, prosecutors and everyday crime buffs.
Another site, Cybersleuths, examines the Ramsey case and other homicides — solved and unsolved — and has
many of the same members as Justice Watch.
The cyber world of unsolved homicides even has its own language.
"Posters" are those who put their information and opinions on a site.
"Lurkers" are those who read a site but don't post.
"Newbees" are newer members, who are sometimes not warmly welcomed by longtime daily posters.
"Hats" are the pseudonyms used by the posters.
site could be considered a clearinghouse for news and information on unsolved murders, it would be "Mrs. Brady," a site operated for the past four years by a Pennsylvania woman whose first name is Carol but
whose real last name is a secret.
The Brady site has had more than 800,000 "hits" in the past four years.
Even as the Ramsey case fades from the headlines, Brady
still gets up at dawn every day — searching newspaper and TV Web sites for stories about the Ramsey case and other crimes. Her Web page provides links to those stories and also contains unabashed opinion and
commentary from Brady herself.
During the peak years of the Ramsey investigation, many of those involved in the case openly admitted visiting Mrs. Brady every day. Among those on
that list were former Assistant District Attorney Bill Wise, grand jury expert Michael Kane and Suzanne Laurion, who served as DA Alex Hunter's spokeswoman.
In an interview during the
Ramsey grand jury process, Laurion said she checked both Mrs. Brady and the forums daily "in order to determine what reporters were going to be asking me that day."
More often than not,
she was right, and it became difficult to determine if reporters were chasing the Internet or the Internet was following the media.
Laurion also followed the forums during that period,
often passing information on to Hunter.
Chris Wheeler, a Michigan woman who has operated the Justice Watch Community site since its inception, said such forums help keep interest alive
in unsolved cases after they have ceased receiving daily treatment in the mainstream media.
And they serve as an outlet for those frustrated by a system they feel has failed.
"You are raised to believe the police and prosecutors are there to protect you," Wheeler said. "When they don't, you feel frustrated."
Wheeler said she is
"surprised at the number of people who still come to Justice Watch" in spite of the absence of developments in the Ramsey case.
"People think they have been let down," she said.
"It's hard for people — they expect some kind of finality."
While finality has been elusive, opinions have not.
Cyber crime zealots freely offer
their opinions on various whodunits, and arguments among the forum members — as well as between different forums — sometimes get ugly.
"When nobody's around to watch, things erupt,"
Wheeler said. "I try to moderate the forum at a level the community can tolerate."
For Wheeler, that moderation kicks in when attacks become personal or threats are made.
"When there's a new piece of news, that's when I have to heavily moderate. There are all kinds of people and personalities, and it can get out of hand," she said.
Like many others, Wheeler is still drawn by the lure of the unsolved Ramsey case, although she finds the case as confusing now as it was four years ago.
"There is no conclusion there. I still go through every theory. All those theories still have merit, and that's why people are still interested," she said.
Wheeler said Internet
crime sites such as hers have formed what amount to cyber families that serve a valuable purpose, "even as dysfunctional as they sometimes seem."