We love mystery!

Real life amateur sleuths

We love reading about ordinary people who solve fictional mysteries. What about ordinary people who solve real mysteries? In today’s episode, Brook and Sarah discuss real life sleuths.


Abraham Shakespeare case

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (2018) Michelle McNamara

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (2020) HBO

Scamanda Podcast

Real Estate fraud

Title fraud: How a Toronto real estate lawyer helped thwart alleged scammers

Jan Marsh case

Home Before Dark (2020) Apple TV

For more information

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Contact us: hello@cluedinmystery.com
Music: Signs To Nowhere by Shane Ivers – www.silvermansound.com


This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook and we both love mystery.
SarahHi, Brook
BrookGood morning, Sarah. How are you?
SarahI’m doing great. How about you?
BrookI’m great and I can’t wait to talk about this really fascinating topic, real-life amateur sleuths.
SarahYeah, so I’ve been thinking a little bit lately about real people who’ve solved real crimes. I mean what mystery fan hasn’t dreamed of living in a small community with an unusually high number of deaths they stumble upon and solve. I think the appeal especially for readers of cozy mysteries is imagining themselves in similar situations. So, let’s talk about some mysteries that were solved by ordinary people. And by ordinary people, I mean people who aren’t detectives or other professional investigators. So although, Brook, you and I are going to talk about some mysteries solved by real people, we should probably mention that there’s a risk associated with amateur investigations. They can either compromise the police process or compromise the sleuth’s own safety. So I can give an example.
SarahThere’s a lot of bike thefts here in Vancouver and a few years ago after a woman found a Craigslist listing for her stolen bike. She met up with a thief and asked if she could test it out and then rode off with it. She ended up being unharmed but afterwards the police here had to issue a statement along the lines of “Do not do this.”
BrookOh yes, I mean it was very clever right. She did a very ah cozy mystery thing to go grab her bike and steal from the thief. But yeah that that could have gone bad.
SarahLet’s get started.
BrookSo one thing that I learned about that I had never known of but until we started researching this topic a little bit was ah, there’s an actual website called Web Sleuths. And this is an internet community. They primarily focus on solving missing person cases. But it’s privately owned and you um, create an account and register to be on the case. Members have the option to be verified with their credentials. So like sometimes there’s DNA analysis professionals or law enforcement people, like perhaps retired or even somebody who is specifically related to the crime in some way. But they have actually helped solve some cases. Probably their biggest case they helped solve was the high-profile case of Abraham Shakespeare. And Mr. Shakespeare was a Florida man. He worked as a laborer, but in 2006 he won a $32,000,000 lottery. Then in 2009, his family declared him missing and in 2010, his body was found under a concrete slab in the backyard of one of his acquaintances. Right away police speculated that Shakespeare’s financial advisor, whom he’d hired to help him organize this huge amount of money that he’d won, her name was Dee Dee Moore and they suspected that she might have information about what happened to him but the trail went cold. They weren’t able to pin it on her.
BrookWell members of web sleuths began digging into the situation and they agreed that Dee Dee Moore definitely had some information on this. Well their conversations, this is a forum so these different people were chiming in and discussing more potential involvement. And Moore learned about the forum and couldn’t help herself. She created an account under a fake name in order to interact on the platform and essentially defend herself. But they were so smart. These incriminating comments she made on the site. But she didn’t realize she was making um compared with the emails she sent as herself were cross-referenced and Web Sleuths were able to trace it back to the same IP address. So, in 2012 Moore was convicted of first-degree murder for the killing of Shakespeare and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
SarahFascinating. Yeah, and I think that’s you know one of the things about um the internet is it allows people to do this investigating from home without really risking themselves like we mentioned at the beginning right? Um, yeah, that’s that’s that’s super fascinating and I know like you know if you look at the comments ah under any kind of news story. There’s lots of people who have lots of opinions. Um, so I imagine that’s a pretty fascinating place to to read.
BrookOh yes. And I thought it was interesting that we’ll see this at sometimes in fiction. The criminal that just couldn’t keep their mouth shut.
SarahThat was her downfall right? Like why wouldn’t she just walk away?
SarahSo another at home sleuth is Michelle McNamara. So, she was a ah true crime researcher. I think early in her life she had been close to quite a violent crime and that made her very interested in true crime. And she had a blog where she was you know talking about various other um other crimes and and other investigations. But she wrote extensively about a series of rapes and murders that were committed in California. And she actually linked what were previously thought to be separate crimes to a single individual. So, she actually died before he was caught, but police credited the work that she did in helping them solve the case. And so, in 2018, a couple of years after she died, a book that she had started writing, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, was published, detailing her investigation. Her husband and I think a couple of other people finished the book after after her death. And there’s also a series on HBO with the same name, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and that was released in 2020. So I haven’t actually read the book or seen the series. But I definitely remember hearing about it. I know, Brook you’re a bigger fan of true crime than I am um, have you read or or watched either of those?
BrookNo I haven’t. I mean I’ve I’ve kind of been aware of that of that case and I I’m really interested in that I think that um, it’s so interesting she shares that thing that so many true crime investigators do where they had something tragic happen to them as a young person whether it happened to them or someone in their family I think you see that a lot in some of those um people who then go on to investigate.
SarahYeah, definitely. I think it it just leaves that indelible mark on people and they almost can’t help themselves to continue to look into either that particular crime or other similar ones.
BrookMy next one is a case I learned about from listening to a podcast speaking of true crime and this is the case that has been dubbed Scamanda. It’s the Amanda C. Riley case and she lied for over a decade about having cancer and was brought down by a determined journalist Nancy Moscatiello. So Amanda C. Riley was already peripherally in law enforcement sights when journalist Nancy Moscatiello came on the scene. She lived in proximity to Riley who had become somewhat of a local celebrity for this blog that she was publishing detailing her life as a young mom and struggling cancer patient. She was also very active in a megachurch where she would speak practically weekly. She had become a celebrity there as well giving these inspirational testimonies to other churchgoers. Kind of this “If I can do it. You can do it.” message and she would explain that of course as a cancer patient in and out of treatment for years and years on end she’d been unable to work and her family’s resources were stretched thin and she was getting lots and lots of money, gift cards, airline miles, free day care, free spa treatments, not only from her church family in person but also this blog that she had created. But here’s the thing as spoiled at the beginning, Amanda didn’t have cancer. She never had cancer and journalist Nancy smelled something fishy the very first time she went to Amanda’s blog site because Nancy knew first-hand what it was like battling cancer. She lost both a sister and her mother to the disease and she could just tell that Amanda’s affect, it’s always over-the-top bubbly and positive and you know full makeup and perfect hair. It just didn’t connect with somebody who is going through chemotherapy or other kind of cancer treatments. But as we know white collar or financial crimes really don’t get a lot of police resources. So yes, they were had had kind of gotten some tips that maybe this wasn’t um on the up and up. But it just really hadn’t come to the surface for them and then in addition, HIPPA laws made it really difficult for them to get any information at all. But Nancy, as a citizen sleuth went to work to prove that Amanda didn’t have cancer. She knew that if she could ah prove that that as a domino effect. It would show that she was conning people out of this money. So Nancy had to use really clever questioning because this was medical information and just stubborn determination, just like our favorite fictional sleuths I think. And it took years and years but she eventually saw Amanda convicted of five years in prison with an order to pay restitution of over $ 100,000 which I truly believe is a tiny fraction of what she conned people out of for years on end.
SarahOh yeah, that’s that’s really interesting. And and I don’t think that’s the first case like that I’ve heard of of someone you know pretending to have some terminal illness and really benefiting from other people’s generosity.
BrookRight? Um, we hear about some of that from um, like the not just Go Fund Me but those type of sites where you can set up some sort of charity account and then people have big hearts and they don’t want to see somebody hurting and then they’re able to profit from it.
SarahSo that makes me think of a case or a series of cases that have been happening here in Canada I don’t know if the same thing is happening in the US. But it’s real estate title fraud. So it’s another white collar crime and so there have been some news reports where houses have been sold without the owners knowing and these are often second residences or um, you know if someone has multiple homes that they’re renting out or whatever it is so they’re not resident in the homes.
SarahAnd so what happens is someone creates false identification in the name of the home’s actual owner and initiates a sale. And so there was a real estate lawyer in Toronto who became suspicious about a transaction that he was involved in. After the bank called him to just confirm a couple of details. So, he felt that you know something was up and actually took the initiative to go and knock on neighbours’ doors of this house that was that was supposedly for sale just to verify who the owners of the house were. And discovered that they were not the people that were that had approached him to sell the house. And so he went to the police and he actually worked with them in like a sting operation to to snag the criminals. Which I think is you know he’s being a real crime solver.
BrookThat is so fascinating I know you shared with me about this kind of ongoing issue that you had heard about ah some months ago and I’ve just thought about it since like we’re in a real estate boom right now in the in the area that especially that I live in and I see this now and I think I wonder if there’s something fishy going on behind the scenes there.
SarahWell and I guess there was this whole network of people that were involved in this and they would kind of look at the names of the actual owners of the homes and then in this network would find people who looked like that might be their name and got documents created in the owners’ names you know a driver’s license or um, some other photo identification and yeah, so it was like quite elaborate.
BrookVery sophisticated.
SarahYeah, yeah, totally. So yeah, good for this guy this this lawyer for thinking something wasn’t right.
BrookAbsolutely. He’s a hero. Well, my last case Sarah I think you’re going to agree that this story would be an excellent setup for a mystery series. So, at a class reunion Rose Morales and Cheryl Sanchez Simmons learned that fifty years before a young girl who had been their age was killed in their hometown. They, after learning this, went and told another friend that also lived in that hometown, Tina McKillip, and the trio decided that they were going to find out what happened to this girl. It was a case that had never been solved. And then their backgrounds are so ideal for a group of sleuths we have Sanchez Simmons at the time they went to work together. She was 66 and she had worked for Orange County’s public health authority. Ah, Morales was 68 and she worked for a logistics company and McKillip, she’s a little younger. She was 64 and she had been a researcher who helped adoptees find their birth parents. So they had this great set of skills to be researchers and investigation specialists.
BrookThey even printed business cards that read California Girls Investigations the o in California is shaped like a little magnifying glass with long eyelashes. And they compared their findings in a Facebook chat group that they created called the Snoop Sisters. Solving a cold case that is over half a century old is a daunting prospect of course for even law enforcement professionals, let alone amateurs but this was really personal to them because for one, they had never learned of it which they thought was very interesting. And they realized that this was in their neighborhood their town. It could have been any of them and so they really wanted to find out what happened to this girl who had been named Jan Marsh. So the women started with trips to the library. They would spend weekends and time off and just search through microfilm on old newspapers. Ah, but it soon became clear that they really needed like the police records so they went to talk to the police and they found themselves in this frustrating position that um. Cases that haven’t been solved are still considered open even if they aren’t being actively investigated so they’re like we can’t say anything. This is an open case. But the women remembered seeing the name of Bill Hefley in some of those newspaper articles.
BrookAnd he was the um rookie officer who had been on the case and then actually took over the cold case work in the mid 1970s. So they contacted him. He was more than willing to talk and he even said “I think I have a box of those files in my attic” and he did. So um, the ladies were able to uncover several really good lead. Leads that had never really been followed up with by ah police officers back in the day. And like a story, they started knocking each one down this one had an alibi, this one wasn’t in the area at the time, whatever. They were losing their suspects as well and time wasn’t on their side. Several of the people who had been involved in the case had already passed away. You know this is fifty years later and many former friends and relatives of Jan Marsh were now growing too old to remember information clearly. But during some of their investigations, they did gather a DNA sample from one of their most likely suspects. So this was what they were hanging their hope on and they went to the police and they said we have this DNA and we’d like to cross-reference it with the DNA evidence that would still be on file. They had been told that it existed but by this time the box had been lost, possibly destroyed or misplaced, but the police department could no longer find the box of information. So that was such a like theatrical thing to happen because don’t we see that a lot of times in fictional mysteries that um, you’re hanging your hope on this thing. So, unfortunately the women, have not been able to solve this case as of yet but they haven’t given up they continue to look. They continue to work with their forum online and they’ve even found two other cold cases from the area that they grew up in that they want to investigate so the California Girls Investigations continue.
SarahOh ,I love that, Brook. This is this is such a great setup for a mystery and actually I think there is a series that features older women as the as the sleuths. I may have mentioned it before. It’s set in the UK. It’s the WISE Women series by Cathy Ace and it’s a very similar setup where they you know older women who’ve had careers doing other things who come together and act as PIs. I love that story.
BrookI know. I wish that it was a triumphant ending that they had you know, even if that person is already deceased that they were able to like basically solve the case. But I think that probably more often than not that’s a much more realistic thing that happens.
BrookAnd even going through this process and um, being helpful and finding out information to give to the case was still probably a very validating thing for them to do and as a group of women together. I Imagine that they really found a lot of um camaraderie in that.
SarahTotally. You were just talking about some older real life sleuths. Um I’ve got an example of a young real-life sleuth. So there is a girl in the US named Hilde Lysiak who at 9 started or maybe she was even and younger um, but she started a newspaper in her town because there wasn’t one. And her dad had been a journalist in New York and then the family had moved to the small town that he had grown up in. And she reported on you know various goings on in the town. At one point she broke the story of a murder that had happened, which actually brought her some national attention. You know she I think was on Good Morning America talking about this and she was only 9. And I was reading some articles about her where she talks about one of the cases that she was proudest of investigating as a journalist was looking into drugs at the local high school which led to some consequences I imagine for some of the people who were who were involved. I think she’s only 16 or 17 years old now and so still quite quite young.
SarahBut she and her father co-wrote some books ah targeted at young readers which my son and I have actually read and um and enjoyed about you know her investigating various cases as a journalist in in town. And then I guess there were she was the inspiration Apple TV’s Home Before Dark, which I haven’t seen but again is one of those you know that I’ve um that I’ve heard about and I’m definitely going to check out now that I know that she was the inspiration for that.
BrookOh my goodness. What a fantastic young woman. I am just thrilled just the just the part of starting the newspaper because her town didn’t have that resource. You know like you had me right there and then the fact that she was like breaking stories like she was doing actual investigative journalism as a small child. That’s absolutely wonderful I love it. I love it so much.
SarahI think it’s I think it’s fantastic and I’m sure she’s um, you know going to continue to do some some really interesting. Investigations as she gets older and graduates high school.
BrookYeah, what will she be in the world. That’s she’s going to be one to watch.
SarahTotally. Maybe I’ll just mention um I was watching recently a documentary about Agatha Christie and um someone was talking about you know how true her depictions of ah victims’ reactions to various poisons were and there have been a few cases where people who have read her books have recognized poisoning in real life. So um, there’s a couple of nurses that recognize thallium poisoning in their patients after having read a couple of her books which I think is pretty is pretty neat.
BrookI think that is wonderful and um without giving too much away that may happen in one of my mysteries, Sarah. I may have written that in.
SarahI love it.
SarahWell, Brook, I think this has been a really interesting conversation. Before we end for today though I think maybe we should just mention again how being an amateur sleuth can carry some risks with it.
BrookAbsolutely you know when cases go viral, they can glean a lot of new information much faster than a normal police force could just because of the sheer manpower and all those minds and conversations. But that can also overload an investigation with ah you know tip lines overflowing and false information taking over the truth. Um, so I think that there’s pros and cons and I think there’s just some sensitivity that needs to be had because these are real life crimes and we and we need to remember that.
BrookI was reading a Reddit article thinking about you know why are we fascinated by these things and you and I talk about that a lot Sarah like why we love mystery and um, there’s ah a great quote. This person says I think people are here because it gives them some semblance of control over a tragedy that they otherwise would have no influence over. I thought that was super smart and you know I would pose that this is the reason we like reading fictional mysteries too that feeling of control of conclusion closure. It gives us when real life just usually doesn’t turn out so neat and tidy.
BrookBut thank you everyone for joining us today to discuss real life sleuths. I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.