Bloggers from across the nation, often with no professional investigative training, are digging into details of Joseph E. Duncan III’s history, hoping their undercover work will make an impact on the police investigation.
An underground network has sprung up on the Internet, sharing information on Duncan, a 42-year-old sex offender accused of killing a family near Coeur d’Alene and then kidnapping two children from the home and later killing one of them. Duncan faces multiple murder and kidnapping charges in the case that left two adults and two children dead.
Technology has given citizens some of the same tools that journalists and law enforcement investigators use, with the added ability to make it immediately available to the online world through blogs, as online journals are called.
Bloggers such as the man behind a Web site called “The Cellar” (http://jetd63.blogspot.com) are learning how to use these tools. The Cellar creator, who goes by the online name Mickey Rat, said in a telephone interview that he first heard of Duncan about a week ago, adding that he was drawn to Duncan when he heard the accused killer was a blogger.
A simple Web search led him not only to Duncan’s Web site, but to an entire community of bloggers scrutinizing every trace of Duncan’s presence on the Internet and posting the information on their own Web sites.”The first few days, I just buried myself. I didn’t get much sleep,” said Mickey Rat. “As bad as this is, as much as I wish I wasn’t in this situation, it was exciting to dig up this stuff.”
Mickey Rat started his own blog and joined the armada of untrained investigators. He had 700 hits – as Web site visits are called – his first day. A week later, it had garnered more than 12,000 visitors, he said.
The online community, meanwhile, has uncovered several Web sites they believe to be Duncan’s. They believe he uses 18 e-mail addresses.
Some blogs, including Mickey Rat’s, try to trace Duncan’s every move through clues left in his own blogs and photos. They try to tie him to other abductions or molestations the bloggers suggest he may have committed during vacations.
On his blog, “The Dark Side” ( http://www.planethuff.com/darkside/), Steve Huff has posted photos of a man resembling Duncan posing seductively in makeup, a tight black dress and a woman’s bathing suit. The photos, found on a Web site under one of Duncan’s suspected aliases, were dug up by other bloggers, said Huff, a 37-year-old Atlanta resident who works as a freelance opera singer.
While the images are convincing, there is only circumstantial proof that they were taken by Duncan, or that the text accompanying them was written by him.
Huff acknowledges he has been wrong in the past. In one instance he posted what he was sure was the online journal of a young heartland killer. He posted a link only to realize that while the blogger had the same name as the killer, he was not the same person.
Dan Gillmor, a former technology columnist and blogger for the San Jose Mercury News, said some bloggers publish every piece of information as fact.
“This just puts more onuses on the reader to be thoughtful about what they read,” he said. “In a world where anyone can publish, we have to reset our expectations. There is an unfortunate tendency to believe that everything you read must be true.”
Law officers have said they are aware of Duncan’s online postings. As for any help from other bloggers, Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson said that to the best of his knowledge authorities have not investigated the information those online sleuths say they’ve uncovered. Watson said he has not drafted any policies for dealing with tips based on “rather new technology.”
However, Huff said authorities did contact him after he used his Web page to draw comparisons between the Groene case and an old murder in California. Many bloggers, Huff said, are under the impression that authorities are paying close attention to their online postings.
The Groene case has captured many bloggers’ attention. But Huff can throw out names, places and dates from murders and kidnappings all across the country. He said his drive to start a true-crime blog four years ago came from readers’ enthusiastic response.
When the Wichita, Kansas, serial killer Dennis Rader – known as BTK – resurfaced in 2004 Huff cobbled together facts he could find on the Internet and wrote a profile of the killer whose identity was then unknown. Huff had no formal background in journalism, police work or psychology, but said he was surprised by the accuracy of his work.
“I’ve always read true crime,” he said. “My Southern mama left her copy of Vincent Bugliosi’s ‘Helter Skelter’ on her nightstand and I picked that up and loved it.”
Bloggers share information, a process that Gillmor calls “distributed journalism.”
“Overall, the phenomenon of distributed journalism is beneficial,” said Gillmor, author of a book on populist media. “The more people looking into something the more you can gather.”
He also has his reservations. He said not all bloggers provide useful or relevant information, and their investigations are often unfocused.
Tim Porter, a journalist and newspaper consultant, said that in some ways, blogging plays right into the culture of celebrity worship and sensationalist hysteria.
“Does this have anything to do with citizen journalism? I actually don’t think so,” he said
Huff said the perception of bloggers is changing as blogs add diversity and move away from the political punditry that first garnered the medium attention.
“With the Internet becoming so pervasive, it’s sometimes so easy to find evidence that a suspect – or victim, more sadly – has left something online somewhere. Most people are interested in that,” he said.
This mainstreaming and diversification has also meant that more people have blogs, he said.
“The moment I heard that (Duncan) had been a computer science major, I got on the computer because I knew immediately that he would have left footprints all over the Web, and I was right,” Huff said.
Suddenly the Groene case was much more interesting to Huff and to fellow bloggers, even though few of them live anywhere near Idaho or Fargo, N.D., where Duncan most recently lived. Huff said many bloggers felt outraged that Duncan was a blogger too.
Porter believes the bloggers are in some part driven by human empathy and the desire to help. But they are also motivated by the need to feel connected in a modern America where “our hometowns serve as launch pads for the rest of our lives,” with people losing a sense of community, Porter said.
“In some ways, now that the town square’s gone the Internet is the new town square,” he said.