The Future

When a cold case is solved, why can’t internet sleuths move on?

Redditors and forum users invest time trying to solve incidents involving total strangers, only to be left hanging when their research pays off.
The Future

When a cold case is solved, why can’t internet sleuths move on?

Redditors and forum users invest time trying to solve incidents involving total strangers, only to be left hanging when their research pays off.

In 2001, just a few days after two planes collided with the Twin Towers, a young man checked into a hotel in Amanda Park, Washington. A couple of days later, the maid arrived to clean his room. When she opened the door, initially she thought he was praying — he was in the corner of the room, head bowed. But a closer look revealed that there was a belt around his neck. Lyle Stevik had committed suicide.  

When the police arrived, they found no identification on their victim, and quickly deduced that the name and address he had checked in with were both fake. There was nobody named Lyle Stevik, and the address he provided was a Best Western in Meridian, Idaho.

Amanda Park, Washington is a very small town. You could pretty accurately describe it as the middle of nowhere, and maybe that was the point. Without any leads or the resources to mount a full-on manhunt, the case of Lyle Stevik quickly went cold. But nearly 20 years later, after a corner of the internet took the case upon itself, the identity of Lyle Stevik has become the center of a fractious debate over privacy, ethics, and Reddit true-crime sleuths.  

From 2001 to 2006, the Stevik case sat cold. No one came forward with clues. A sketch of his face circulated on missing persons databases didn’t surface anything, and he didn’t match any of the missing persons databases the police consulted. And so Lyle wound up on a long list of cold cases, unidentified bodies, John and Jane Does.

But in 2006, a 15-year-old true-crime sleuth stumbled across Lyle’s picture on one of these lists. “I’m a huge true crime fan, and a huge internet user,” the user, who goes by Clan_McCrimmon on Reddit, told me (she didn’t want to use her real name for this story, so we’ll refer to her as McCrimmon). While perusing the database, McCrimmon came across the Stevik case, and it made her pause. “Something just pulled me in into him,” she says.

His story appealed to her too because it was sad. He died alone. It was easy to think that he was desperately lonely. Many people who followed Lyle’s case connected with him on this level too. “My heart just went out to Lyle because I felt I could identify with him. I could have gone the way he did,” a Reddit user named dlenn commented on one thread about the case being solved last month.

McCrimmon wanted to figure out who Lyle was so that he could be reconnected with his family. “It became my goal to get him identified so that he could go home,” she said. “Because in my mind nobody should end up the way he did.”

In April of 2006, Clan went on WebSleuths, a true crime forum, and posted about the Stevik case. Quickly, people offered help in trying to dig up clues as to who he could be. Some suggested that perhaps he was a member of one of the nearby Native American tribes, but that didn’t lead anywhere. Others dug into the address he gave the hotel. “I still think that the choice of an address in Meridian is a little too coincidental. He either was from that area, had previously been in that area, or was planning on being in that area (but "changed" his mind),” wrote one user. Others pointed out that his death was just a few days after 9/11. “Perhaps he lost a loved one on 11 September?” another user hypothesized.

Eventually, the conversation moved to Reddit. Things got even more involved. Users requested more information about the case under the Freedom of Information Act, and pored over those case files. They crowd funded an age regression portrait to find out what Lyle might have looked like as a younger person. They placed  advertisements with Lyle’s image in local newspapers, asking anybody with information to come forward. Nothing.

Meanwhile, wild theories blossomed about who Lyle might have been. One posited that he was supposed to have been a 9/11 hijacker, but he couldn’t go through with it, and killed himself out of shame. Another suggested that he was a circus performer “because of the isotope reports that placed him in all these different states, and some of it actually coincided with their touring schedule,” Clan explained. Even though none of these theories checked out, the Reddit community grew steadily, nearing 4,000 members.

For many years, Lyle Stevik’s case was like many cold cases onto which true crime sleuths latch online. Communities form around these cases as users try and unearth new information. But, most of the time, nothing they do makes a difference. These cases don’t get solved, but they do provide a way for people to indulge in their morbid curiosity about unsolved mysteries.

Then, earlier this year, someone from the Reddit community reached out to a California non-profit organization called the DNA Doe Project, asking if it would be willing to help with the case. A non-profit dedicated to identifying Jane and John Does — bodies that have been left unidentified — DNA Doe’s approach to identifying unclaimed bodies involves using genealogy to uncover clues. This technique is relatively new and controversial, as it involves using people’s ancestry data on databases in ways that they didn’t necessarily consent to. It’s what led to the arrest of the suspected Golden State Killer, as well as the arrest a man suspected of killing a couple in Washington state in 1987. DNA Doe replied that they would take on the case, if Lyle Stevik’s online community could come up with the money for the DNA sequencing, about $1500. The community funded the initiative in under 24 hours.

With the money in hand, DNA Doe got a sample of Lyle’s DNA from local law enforcement (whether law enforcement should be giving DNA to third party non-profits staffed almost entirely by volunteers with no oversight is indeed a murky ethical ground, and perhaps the topic of another article; regardless official protocol DNA Doe was able to obtain what they needed from the police). After sequencing the sample, DNA Doe personnel plugged the results into the ancestry website GEDMatch. They spent weeks of pouring through the possible results, trying to identify relatives in Stevik’s family tree. They found a match.

Law enforcement reached out to a family. They confirmed that, yes, they were indeed missing someone. All these years they thought that he was still alive elsewhere. After 17 years, Lyle Stevik’s body finally had an identity. He was no longer a John Doe. Case closed.

For the Lyle Stevik subreddit, this was bittersweet news. “I have never felt more selfish in my life, but i feel so very disappointed,” bnat88 wrote. McCrimmon told me that she was excited to have him identified, but it took her awhile to process the news. She had been following the case for a dozen years, nearly half her life. She’d shephereded the case from its first WebSleuths post to Reddit to its to conclusion. And now it was over. “It kind of became part of my life, I guess. And then to find out that he's been identified... I had to get used to knowing that,” she said.

In the days following his identification, the subreddit raised money to send to Lyle’s family to help with funeral costs. They tried to send it to them through their law enforcement contacts, who served as an intermediary between the family and the subreddit. The family declined the funds, perhaps surprised that there was an online community fixated on his death. They asked for privacy, and the group’s moderators told its users that they should honor that request.

It was then that the realization set in in the subreddit: after all these years, after hundreds of thousands of hours of theorizing and plotting and thinking and organizing, they might never find out the true identity of Lyle Stevik. His identity was known to the police, and to DNA Doe, but it was never revealed to the subreddit. And it might never be; as of press time, the family has declined to share the information.

Some users understood, even if they weren’t happy with the situation. “Everyone is here because on some level they were also very curious about Lyle's identity, and we can all understand that not having that curiosity 100 percent satisfied is, well, not entirely satisfying,” wrote one of the moderators in a message telling people not to post identifying information about Lyle. “However, this is and has always been about giving the people who knew and cared for this guy during his life answers. It isn’t about our curiosity, and we're not personally entitled to those answers.”

Others were far more brutal. “After all of the effort this community has put into trying to find out more about this mystery when no one else seemed to care: “Mystery solved, but it’s none of your business. Go home, folks.” That’s a hard pill to swallow,” wrote user 5erif.

There was anger with the family, and suggestions that they didn’t care about Lyle as much as the Reddit community did. “my prediction is... he was never reported as missing. i say that because I've compared his pic with thousands of known missing persons with no luck. and when I say thousands, i literally mean thousands, over a ten year period,” wrote Quantum Satis.

The subreddit’s members wrote over and over that they felt like they had been used — that they deserved to know Lyle’s identity after all the work they had put in. “I get that we don’t do this for the recognition, but it does seem ‘sometimes’ disingenuous to want the public to help, then just say ‘we want the person to remain anonymous.’ It’s their right, but it still seems almost like ‘using,’” wrote a Reddit user mollymuppet78. Others directed their anger at the DNA Doe Project, complaining that the organization shouldn’t be allowed to take money from people without promising to reveal the name of the Doe in the end.

And it makes some sense, that a community built around digging for clues might bristle at being told to stop digging for clues. “You guys may want to remove the bit of the sidebar that says ‘Calling All Super Sleuths!’ then. There’s absolutely nothing left to sleuth except for his ID,” one commenter wrote. Ultimately, in the face of growing dissent and heated arguments in the subreddit, the moderators decided to close the Lyle Stevik sub on May 15th. McCrimmon said she would be moving on to new cases, and joining a group called Miami Dade Does, that looks into unidentified bodies in the Miami Dade area.

But some refuse to move on. And in the wake of the official Lyle Stevik sub being closed, they’ve formed their own groups, dedicated to tracking down Lyle’s identity. They’ve posted screencaps of Facebook pages, in which people have posted about losing a friend, wondering whether perhaps that friend was Lyle. They’ve submitted FOIA requests to Gray’s Harbor, asking for his identity to be revealed. They’ve scoured the website FindaGrave to look for updates.

To them, this isn’t unethical. “I don't see how it’s doxxing if the guy has been dead for over 15 years and there was a sub dedicated to identifying [him],” wrote one user in the new subreddit. Another agreed, “there was another sub with the whole intention of identifying him which was never removed, I don’t see whats any different in someone here identifying him.”

McCrimmon and other users from the original Lyle page see it differently. “People should let his family give out his name or information if they decide to down the road,” McCrimmon said. Trying to search any nook and cranny for his identity or just even a photo, to satisfy their own desire can open up opportunities for people to harass and bully the family.”

(None of the moderators of these new Reddit or Facebook groups responded to my requests for an interview.)

The Lyle Stevik case is, in many ways, a true-crime anomaly because it was actually solved. Most cases that the internet sinks its teeth into won’t be, no matter how good DNA technology gets. In that way, Lyle Stevik’s case a fascinating study in how people react to loss — the loss not only of a person, but of an obsession, a community. And it’s also a look into how even the most well-intentioned online true-crime sleuthing can go to a very dark place.

When Lyle was identified, one of the moderators posted that “During the last three years, you have all become our family — we support each other, care about each other and hope that you all feel the same.” It appears that many users didn’t feel the same way. They wanted answers, and they wanted them then.

One has to wonder though, how much information would satisfy their curiosity? A name certainly wouldn’t be enough — they want to know who he was. And, probably most, they want to know why he did what he did — hole up at a hotel in the middle of nowhere, and end his life. And that is almost certainly an impossible question, one that no amount of internet sleuthing will answer.

Rose Eveleth is the host and producer of Flash Forward, a podcast about possible and not-so-possible futures.