Featuring The Doe Network
By Douglass Crouse
North Jersey News
Last Saturday, Carol Cielecki left her home in Whitehall, Pa., to attend the funeral of a man she never knew, invited by a family she'd never met.
Still, the New Jersey native was hardly a stranger.
Cielecki, a paralegal whose ex-husband disappeared from Morris County in 1989, was surfing the Internet for missing persons sites earlier this year when a description of Sean Lewis Cutler caught her eye. The date was Feb. 26, when the disabled man would have turned 35.
"As I read the case history, I thought, 'How do you lose a blind boy in a wheelchair?'" she said. "He certainly didn't leave on his own accord."
Reading a description of unidentified remains on The Doe Network site a short time later, she made a connection that has amazed both Cutler's family and investigators who had puzzled over his whereabouts for more than six years.
The Doe Network is one of a few nationwide groups that aim to solve so-called "cold cases" by linking information that, to most folks, might seem unrelated. (Another is the Missing Persons' Cold Case Network, where Cielecki first came across the listing for Sean Cutler.)
Members of the Doe Network (www.doenetwork.org) scan the Web trying to make a match, and post their theories on a private online bulletin board. Former law enforcement officials are among the members, who are all prohibited from calling family members directly.
"This is in its infancy, but we believe it has a lot of potential," said Dana Gonzalez, the Doe Network's New Jersey director.
Barely 2½ years old, the group has solved 11 cases and provided links that allowed investigators to solve four others, Gonzalez said.
The next match may be for a woman's remains found 15 years ago in Atlantic Highlands . A woman recently submitted information to the network, saying her sister had visited that area from Detroit and never come back.
"The age fits. The description fits. We're just waiting for a call back from the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office," Gonzalez said.
Cielecki's first husband, Rockaway resident Todd Martin Smith, was last seen at a motorcycle dealership in South Orange. His car was found in the same town a few days later with the keys in the ignition, Cielecki said.
Now a single mom with two teenagers, Cielecki, 39, said her penchant for cybersleuthing may stem from the Nancy Drew books she devoured as a child. But such habits required a kick-start from a murder mystery-loving mother, Cielecki said.
"My mother bet me $50 I wouldn't read a whole book," Cielecki said. "I picked the true crime story 'Small Sacrifices' by Ann Rule, and at the end, I said, 'Boy, that was pretty interesting.' Of course, I couldn't tell Mom that."
Scanning Doe Network images recently in the Easton, Pa., legal office where she works, Cielecki said the faces become ghosts that demand to be named.
"With the Cutler case, I was really spending a lot of time thinking about it," she said. "My kids were like, 'Mom, can we eat now?'"
Cielecki, a West Caldwell native, said what helped her make the match was a resemblance she perceived between the faces of Sean and her 28-year-old sister, who is mentally retarded. Also, she speculated that if police had found a second femur bone, they might have concluded the victim used a wheelchair.
Within a couple of days, she e-mailed a delighted Vermont police trooper with her theory. Soon afterward, she and Cutler's cousin joined the Doe Network.
At the ceremony for Sean in Schenectady, N.Y., on Saturday, Cielecki was welcomed as a member of the family.
"What you did made it possible for all of us to be here today," one of Sean's aunts told her as the small crowd got back into their cars to go home.