Internet sleuths cause unnecessary harm to serious investigations


illustration by Samantha Haney

Internet sleuths have blown-up various social media platforms with dissscussion regarding the recent Idaho murders and their investigation. These ameteur detectives have wrecked havoc on the lives of those associated with the crime and even those completely apart from it.

Maddy Cox, News Digital Content Editor

The internet, while plentiful in its virtues, has opened the door for a plethora of destructive practices in the past years. From hacking to cyberbullying, new ways of causing chaos are found and exploited every day. Unfortunately, the effects of these advancements are beginning to be felt by law enforcement. 

Most recently, this has been seen in the investigation of the Idaho State murders. Four Idaho State University Students—Ethan Chapin, Madison Mogen, Xana Kernodle and Kaylee Goncalves—were murdered in the early hours of Nov. 13, 2022. The students were staying in a home that they rented along with two other students, both of whom were unharmed. 

 About six weeks after the murders, Washington State University student Bryan Kohberger was taken into custody and held for four counts of first-degree murder and one count of felony burglary without bail. 

The investigation faced a fair amount of problems, however, it was not at the fault of the detectives, but rather the invasive online community of self-proclaimed “internet sleuths.” Facebook groups, Tiktok accounts and countless other forms of social media were flooded with conspiracy theories and baseless accusations which negatively impacted the work of case detectives.

Genuine first-person accounts are enough to give the police department intern a week’s worth of tipline duty, but when those resources are abused by people deadset on proving their theories right: let’s just say the needle of useful information just got thrown into a much larger haystack.

A major controversy that was observed surrounded one of the two surviving roommates, who even after being cleared by police, were considered suspects in many online “investigations.” The roommate heard various noises prior to and during the time when the murder occurred. The roommate looked out her door twice, once after apparently hearing someone in the house and the second time after hearing crying. While seeing nothing the first time, the second time she looked out, the roommate saw a man walk past her door wearing all black. This is where many online personas saw fault, as the roommate decided not to call the police but rather go back to sleep. 

Yes, the initial decision probably should have been to call the police, but logically, doing so would likely have done nothing. The time it would have taken for the police to arrive would have been more than enough time for the crime to have still taken place. Not to mention that calling the police, however quiet one might try to be, is bound to create enough noise to endanger the caller. So while it may not have been the most heroic decision on the part of the roommate, it was the most self-preserving and it likely saved this from becoming a five-victim homicide.

One of the most recent and prevalent examples of an internet sleuth harming an investigation is that of TikTok user Ashley Guilliard. She has over 115,000 followers and her videos range from tens of thousands of views to over two million. Although she may not be the most popular TikTok creator, she has more than enough recognition to have her bogus fantastical ideas spread to the sponge-like brains of mindless scrollers.

Guilliard is a psychic and supposedly uses her abilities to help interpret and solve crimes. On her TikTok profile, her most viewed videos are those in which she claims that Idaho State University professor Rebecca Scofield hired Mogen’s ex-boyfriend Jack Decouer to commit the murder of the four students. Guilliard backs these claims up with detailed explanations of how the crimes occurred, according to her psychic readings. 

On her profile, Guilliard has over 100 videos in which she accuses and explains Scofield’s motives and means, claiming that Scofield wished to be romantically involved with Goncalves, and upon suspecting a relationship between Goncalves and Mogen, decided to kill them. 

Even since having a lawsuit opened against her, Guilliard has continued to make countless videos perpetuating the idea that Scofield is the mastermind behind the brutal crime. Scofield has said that she feels as though there have been threats to her and her family’s safety due to Guilliard’s accusations and the support from her following.

Regardless of one’s beliefs in terms of the reliability or legitimacy of psychic readings; when it comes to homicide investigations, or really any investigation, there should always be evidence to back up any and every claim. Unfortunately, random people on the internet following Guilliard don’t necessarily live by such morals, leaving these people eating out of the palm of her hand as she feeds them baseless theories that she introduces as fact.

Not only does this fuel people’s rage against innocent parties, but it feeds the spread of misinformation beyond simply the networks of the internet. Misinformation alone is a big enough beast to fight, but when it comes to investigations of crimes, the target of misinformation faces a level of danger and backlash that no person, especially an innocent one, should have to deal with.

That’s not to say that true crime media as a whole should be boycotted, but rather morally repaired. There is a difference between ethical true crime investigation by occasional hobbyists and invasive obsession by amateur sleuths surfing the web. As much as we would like to claim that it’s a fine line to cross, it’s not. It takes much more willpower and effort to deep-dive into the past of a suspect cleared by the police than it does to watch the news brief regarding a crime.

Guilliard and her groupies have trampled the line, not only are their actions hindering the polices ability to solve the actual crime, as they now must provide protection for Scofield and filter through all the conspiracy tipline submissions, but their actions are harming the victim’s family, friends and surroundings. It’s hard enough dealing with a death in the community, but it’s even harder when people you know are being accused, attacked, followed and stalked by anonymous true crime devotees.

Take for example the Cecil Hotel case in which Pablo Vergara a.k.a. death metal musician Morbid was falsely accused of murdering Elisa Lam by internet sleuths. Vergara had been in the hotel weeks prior to the date Lam went missing, and although never being considered a suspect by police, was one of the biggest suspects in online amateur investigations. Vergara received numerous death threats, hate mail and overall violence, leading him to disable all of his social media.

In the end, it was determined that it was not a homicide but rather an accidental death in which the hotel was at fault for not properly securing their water tanks. Not everyone agrees with this verdict and some internet sleuths still believe there is more to the case years later. As inspiring and euphoric as it is to find out that a decades-long cold case has been solved, internet sleuths need to know when a case has gone cold as opposed to when it is simply solved.

Crime investigations are not made for entertainment, they are not going to end with the villain being caught and thrown in jail while the hero gets medal after medal. Sometimes, an accidental death is just that; accidental. Constantly re-opening old cases, while entertaining for those watching, does nothing but bring pain and bad memories to those associated.

Internet sleuths exist as a means for regular people to feel as though they are aiding in the search for justice. An honorable cause on paper, but in practice, it brings about violence and the destruction of innocent lives. Average citizens are not detectives, they don’t have the necessary training, the resources, or the means of conducting a legitimate investigation. It’s time they leave the sleuthing to the professionals.