For the layperson who has a knack for sleuthing out a cold case or untangling a web of seemingly unconnected clues, Websleuths scratches an itch and offers the potential to be a viable tool to help law enforcement officials.
In the early morning hours of Saturday, December 17, 2016, 27-year-old Ashley Brown left a friend’s apartment to go have a cigarette. She never returned.
The residents of the trendy West End neighborhood of Nashville, Tennessee, where she was last seen, were shaken. News outlets picked up the story, and social media lit up with questions and fears, theories and rumors.
Four days later, Ashley’s body was discovered in a trash disposal site on the other side of town. Devastated friends and neighbors held a vigil in the park across the street from where she was last seen. Her family arrived from Arizona and appeared on local TV with a desperate appeal to anyone who might have clues to offer.
And then that was sort of … it.
More than a month later, there’s been no further mention of her in the news. The “Help Find Ashley Brown” Facebook page hasn’t been updated, and it seems that Ashley Brown has become just another cold case file left to collect dust.
I live two miles from that West End neighborhood. The awful news fractured my sense of safety, as such crimes usually do. I was glued to the news in the days after her disappearance. I set up my Google alerts, and I returned several times a day to the Facebook page, hoping to discover any developments that might lead to answers.
And while I didn’t find many answers online about Ashley Brown, what I did find was Websleuths.
Crowdsourcing Cold Case Investigations
Websleuths is an online Web forum where people with a passion for true crime can discuss cases both current and cold, and tease apart the minute details in hopes of moving a case forward or uncovering new clues. In the Ashley Brown forum, I learned much more about the case than was being reported on the news. The people discussing her disappearance and the discovery of her body were just like me — curious but concerned. They gathered in that virtual space for a strange kind of comfort — an explanation, a possible scenario, or anything that might help them make sense of what happened to this young woman who had only lived in Nashville for a few months.
What sets Websleuths apart from other online true-crime forums is that the site’s owner, Tricia Griffith, and her team of volunteer moderators are dedicated to ruthlessly policing trolls. “We have wonderful moderators,” gushes Griffith by phone. “It takes a lot to be a moderator. You have to have thick skin, and you may get very frustrated, because not everyone on the site has good intentions.”
But there are a lot fewer of those ill-intentioned types on Websleuths than there once were.
Griffith was a stay-at-home mom back in 1997, when she first discovered Websleuths. “I was a radio disc jockey at a rock station in Salt Lake City, and the owner came in one day, decided to go country and immediately fired everybody,” she explains. “I had no children, I’d been married 17 years at that point, and I had no background in anything else whatsoever. My husband at the time — we’ve since divorced — and I said, ‘You know? Maybe we should have a baby.’”
The couple got pregnant immediately, and Griffith suddenly found herself at home and with too much time on her hands. “I had this wonderful little baby, but you get a little stir-crazy when you’re sitting there and you don’t know what else to do when the baby’s sleeping,” she confesses.
A headline in her daily paper changed all of that. “The headline was ‘Beauty Queen Found Dead in Her Basement,’ and then it said the beauty queen was six years old, and I remember thinking that’s just wrong!” The six-year-old beauty queen was Jon Benét Ramsey, and the allure of her mysterious death drew Griffith to the Internet to learn more. That’s when she discovered a forum about the case. That forum was Websleuths, and she suddenly had the antidote to her naptime ennui.
Years later in 2004, and having logged ample time on Websleuths, Griffith learned that the then-owner of the site was ready to hand over the reins. Griffith purchased the site from him, and she immediately made some changes. “[Websleuths] was a snake pit. People were calling each other names, everyone was threatening to sue everyone. There were only about 250 members then, but I went in and banned a bunch of people, got my life threatened,” she says. “We started over.”
Things were on the up and up, but the site wasn’t growing as Griffith had envisioned. She and her moderators decided to make the rules even tighter in an effort to get rid of the remaining trolls. The result was better than she could have imagined. “People started coming out of the woodwork saying, ‘We can talk and not worry about being called a name or being attacked,’” explains Griffith. “That’s when the forum exploded. People loved it!”
And then the Casey Anthony case hit.
“It was a combination of those two things,” says Griffith. “We’ve been growing ever since.”
A Virtual City of Gumshoes
Today’s iteration of Websleuths consists of about 115,000 members discussing the cases on any of the site’s 265,000 threads. Some members are more active than others, but all discussions are closely monitored by not only Griffith and her team of dedicated moderators, but also by Websleuths members, who gently police each other when someone veers off topic or deviates from the clearly outlined rules.
Additionally, Websleuthers who are either victims’ family members or law enforcement professionals are verified to ensure they aren’t imposters. And make no mistake: Law enforcement does use Websleuths. “Law enforcement agencies are on Websleuths all the time,” says Griffith confidently. “I see their IP addresses even though they won’t admit it.”
And while Websleuths doesn’t solve cases, Griffith does think Websleuths members have something to bring to the table. “Our main goal is to discuss the case, but another goal is that we hope to one day be able to work hand-in-hand with law enforcement,” she says. “Give our people a little piece of evidence, let them have a go at it and see if they can help decipher it. And if they can, great.”
“Give our people a little piece of evidence, let them have a go at it and see if they can help decipher it.” —Tricia Griffith, Websleuths site owner
Ultimately, Griffith’s mission lies in keeping Websleuths a place that stays focused on the cases. She wants to see even the ones that get no media coverage, or that have since lost public interest, garner some attention. But Griffith isn’t naive. She knows it’s the Jon Benét Ramsey-type cases that keep Websleuthers coming back. “That’s the one that still has everyone’s attention,” she says, even all these years later — twenty years, in fact, after Griffith herself first read that disturbing headline about the six-year-old beauty queen.
Like Jon Benét’s case, Ashley Brown’s has also yet to be solved. There are no new headlines and no new clues. Perhaps, though, the members of the Ashley Brown Websleuths forum, where there are nine discussion-filled pages, will revisit the case from time to time and pick apart any new evidence that may become available, so that Ashley Brown doesn’t become just another cold case file. “To have 115,000+ passionate true-crime lay detectives eager to help, not hinder,” says Griffith, “well, who knows what sort of cold cases could be cracked?”
To learn more about Websleuths, visit websleuths.com.
About the author:
Ashley Haugen has worked as a writer and editor for local and national publications for nearly 20 years. She’s the author of Historic Photos of Nashville in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, the managing editor of StyleBlueprint, and a true-crime obsessive. She lives in Nashville with her husband, three sons, and baby daughter.