The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America's Coldest Cases

The digital age has unleashed a new breed of amateur detective: a dedicated group using the Internet to match missing people with unidentified human remains. These civilian volunteers comb vast databases for physical identifiers, dates and locations, hoping to match a body with a missing-persons report. The remains are often decades old, eluding identification despite law enforcement's best efforts or because of the insular, patchwork nature of the U.S. system of medical examiners and coroners. The Internet allows remains that might otherwise languish in storage to be seen in a new light and by fresh eyes; sometimes, through the work of cyber-sleuths, they can regain the human identity lost in often-horrific deaths.

Journalist Deborah Halber's debut book, The Skeleton Crew, explores these eccentric men and women who spend so much time and effort seeking justice for strangers. They are often compelled by a personal hunt for their own missing family members or because they were involved the discovery of human remains. Take rural Tennessean Todd Matthews, whose father-in-law discovered the badly decomposed body of a young woman dubbed "Tent Girl" in 1968. Matthews became obsessed with the girl's identity, sacrificing much of his time off from factory work to scour databases in his trailer's cramped computer room. In 1998, he finally matched Tent Girl with a missing woman, ending decades of uncertainty for her family.

Halber follows stories of other volunteers through a handful of exceptional cases, most still unsolved. Many of the details are gruesome and the search for justice inconclusive, but the journey is fascinating. Mystery and true crime readers will especially enjoy this book. --Tobias Mutter, freelance reviewer

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