MORE than 30 years after her sister disappeared without a word to her family, Rosemary Westbrook of Benton, Arkansas, placed a forlorn notice on a website listing missing persons: She has brown hair, brown eyes, is around five feet two inches tall and was last seen in the Lexington, Kentucky, area. Please contact me . . .
Browsing the internet after his wife had gone to bed, Todd Matthews spotted the notice and almost fell off his chair. He raced into his bedroom. Lori, wake up! he shouted at his wife. I found her! That chance internet encounter not only led to a unique breakthrough in a missing persons case that had troubled Kentucky authorities since the body of a young woman wrapped in a tent tarpaulin was discovered by a local oil driller in 1968; it also inspired a remarkable network of amateur American detectives who seek out the real identities of nameless corpses held in police morgues or buried in anonymous graves.
Matthews belongs to a small but dedicated group of internet sleuths whose researches have helped police to identify 36 bodies in recent years. In the latest breakthrough, Missouri police have reopened the case of a teenage girl who went missing in 1984 after Traycie Sherwood, another amateur detective, spotted a link with a different case involving the discovery of a set of human bones.
The amateurs specialise in so-called cold cases, usually involving police investigations that were suspended years ago for lack of progress. The FBI lists 6,000 unidentified bodies in its national crime database and Matthews's group called The Doe Network, after the name that US authorities use for unidentified people fears that police lack both the resources and the inclination to follow up difficult cases.
I sympathise with law enforcement because they just can?t keep track of them all, said Matthews. But these are all people with mothers or fathers or brothers or sons. We need to know who they are.
Matthews, who lives in Livingston, Tennessee, has been intrigued by cold cases ever since he learnt that Wilbur Riddle, his father-in-law, had discovered a body as he prepared to drill for oil in Georgetown, Kentucky, in May 1968. My wife first told me about it while we were dating before the high school prom, Matthews said.
When he started researching the case of the "tent gir" as the local media dubbed her, it was 1987 and there was no internet: I was going down to the library and using microfiche to read old newspaper articles.
Slowly his quest to uncover the girl's identity got inside me, he said. The police investigation had got nowhere, despite an extensive search for dental and fingerprint matches. The girl was initially buried in a municipal grave marked "No 90", but local residents held a collection for a gravestone that was inscribed with a drawing of her face and the name "Tent Girl".
When he was eventually connected to the internet, Matthews browsed missing persons websites endlessly, with no luck. He drove 200 miles from his Tennessee home to visit the gravesite. He visited the undertaker who had buried the girl and talked to the local newspaper. His marriage suffered as he agonised over the case.
Then he stumbled on Westbrook's notice and the description and the date fitted perfectly. He contacted Westbrook, the police were alerted, the body was exhumed and DNA tests proved that Tent Girl was Barbara Ann Hackmann, Westbrook's missing sister. Her murderer remains unknown.
A phenomenal feat of memory by Tracie Fleischhut helped to solve another case in Maryland. Fleischhut was routinely entering missing persons details onto her website when she noticed that a description of one New York teenager's tattoo sounded familiar.
Jennifer Landry, 19, had been missing from home since 2002. Fleischhut checked her files and the same tattoo appeared on a body found by Maryland police in August that year. The match had escaped police computers but was quickly confirmed by fingerprints.
Another member of The Doe Network helped Maryland police to identify a woman whose remains were found in the state 10 years ago. Kylen Johnson noticed that an autopsy report on the body mentioned an operation for a rare congenital brain condition. She later found a missing persons report for Tonya Gardner of Pennsylvania, which mentioned a large scar on the back of her neck.
I started wondering, said Johnson, who tipped off police. The match was confirmed by dental records and Dr Warren Tewes, the forensic dentist in the case, praised her "fantastic memory".
Matthews noted last week that many police had initially scoffed at the activities of the internet sleuths. A few years back you wouldn't find police co-operating with civilians, he said. But each year there's been a marked improvement. Numerous police departments now routinely alert The Doe Network to new cases involving unidentified bodies.
So many cases remain unsolved that Matthews believes his group has found a permanent niche as "advocates for the dead".
He added: "Everyone calls us amateur sleuths but I think we've become more than that. We are somewhere between sleuths and real detectives."