How Internet sleuths solved the mystery of the 'Grateful Doe'

Driven by a love of mystery and compassion for people left waiting for answers after losing someone they care about, self-appointed armchair detectives are using the Internet to crack cold cases and bring closure to people they have never met.

A car crash victim has been identified 20 years after he was killed, thanks to help from some online amateur detectives.

Citizen sleuthing has been popular with Internet users for several years now, as curiosity about historic mysteries has inspired self-appointed detectives to try to crack high-profile cold cases like the infamous disappearance of extortionist D.B. Cooper in 1971 or the serial murders of the late 19th century committed by the assailant known only as Jack the Ripper. But some amateur detectives skills have also been applying their sleuthing skills to more recent and less publicized cases in an effort to bring closure to families.

In this case, a family now knows what happened to South Carolina native Jason Callahan, who disappeared 20 years ago at the age of 19.

Mr. Callahan was killed in a car crash in southern Virginia in 1995, but the injuries to his body left it unrecognizable. He became known as “Grateful Doe” because of a pair of Grateful Dead ticket stubs recovered from his pocket.

The “Grateful Doe” mystery captivated Internet detectives who dedicated themselves to solving the mystery. A computer-generated image of the victims face was shared online among websites dedicated to solving cases. It was those images and websites that led to the identification, two decades after his disappearance. DNA evidence has since confirmed that the young man who died in Virginia was indeed Callahan.

"I'm glad it was solved, but I'm also incredibly sad because I wanted so badly to reconnect with him," said Shannon Michelson, his half-sister, who lives in New Jersey, to the Associated Press. She hadn’t seen Callahan since he was a child.

Despite being missing for 20 years, a missing person’s report was first filed for Callahan with the Myrtle Beach Police Department in January. Callahan had a history of running away from home and his mother assumed he was traveling or living away. 

"No one ever thought to report him missing because they thought he wanted to be missing," Ms. Michelson said to the AP.

For many web detectives, the urge to help solve cold cases is driven by both a love of mysteries, as well as a desire to help people like Michelson, even though they have never met them, says Deborah Halber, a Massachusetts journalist and author of "The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America's Coldest Cases."

“What draws them is the mystery, the challenge. Nobody can really resist a mystery,” Ms. Halber" told The Christian Science Monitor around the publication of her book last year. 

“They're also eventually driven by compassion, a feeling that they'd like to provide closure for these families of missing people,” Halber added. “They realize these people are someone's daughter or wife or husband or uncle and they feel strongly that they'd like to end that agony for them.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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