Monday, August 18, 2014

The Skeleton Crew by Deborah Halber

Deborah Halber gives us The Skeleton Crew, which is actually a number of nonfiction crime stories in one book. The twist is that the book chronicles anonymous do-gooders who spend virtually every minute of their free time scouring databases for unidentified human remains and trying to match them to a missing person case. As Halber says, "The web sleuths are all around you. Your coworker with the bowl of saltwater taffy on her desk, the guy who swipes your card for a latte, the high school teacher who kept the ball python in the glass tank . . . " In cold cases, we most often read about the hunt for the killer. The Skeleton Crew takes us on the hunt to identify the victim.

Halber shows us the web sleuths are a macabre group, who don't have any issue wading through gory photographs and digging into graphic police reports. They are a mostly volunteer community whose motives begin with altruism. But even the best intentions lead to infighting between various groups and various websites. Do they seek the attention that comes from news stories once they connect the dots or are they doing this truly for altruistic reasons? Maybe it's a combination of both.

Halber's excellent writing style lets her describe the cases in such detail that you feel you are doing a little web sleuthing yourself as you work towards solving the case with her and one of the sleuths she profiles. Halber makes you feel like you solved many of the cases just by reading the book, but gives you a glimpse of the frustration that comes with the tens of thousands of remains looking for a name.

The book mainly follows the exploits of Todd Matthews, who solved one of the coldest and most famous cases in web sleuth history, Tent Girl. Tent Girl was killed in Kentucky in 1968 and left to rot on the side of a highway until a passerby happened upon her remains wrapped in a tent. Her body created a local news story for decades while the case sat without an identity for the victim. That was until 1998, when Todd Matthews used the internet to scour postings about missing persons and matched Barbara Ann Hackman-Taylor who had been missing since 1967 with Tent Girl's remains. He sent the lead to law enforcement and it was confirmed through DNA testing. The national attention of the case helped serve as the catalyst for many different unidentified remains websites that exist today and the beginning of a national database to counter the problem. Many other web sleuths are profiled like Bobby Lingoes, Betty Dalton Brown, Chip Glass, and Ellen Leach.

The Skeleton Crew reminds us too that these sensational stories are more than just a pile of bones along a highway. The deceased was a member of someone's family; a family that is desperately trying to find out the fate of their loved one. When you put the book down, it is likely you will hop online and check out the various sites like NamUs or The Doe Network to see what a web sleuth does. At the very least, you'll be a little more careful when you stop at a roadside rest stop and see something unusual (that's right, someone found a human head in a bucket of concrete at a truck stop).

Click this link to pick up a copy of the book. And no I do not receive anything for this review or the referral, other than spreading the word about a great book.

In all of the cold cases I deal with, the victims are identified. There is no arrest, no prosecution, no suspect, until the victim is known. I never once thought about a case where someone stumbles upon a pile of human bones in their backyard and the victim needs to be identified. The book opened up a new world to me, someone who thought they had seen it all. I look forward to more from Deborah Halber.

And you should look forward to an interview with her later this week!


  1. I had no idea there were private citizens doing this, but it really shouldn't be a surprise when I think about it. There are groups for pretty much everything out there. Thanks for the tip, I may have to grab a copy.

  2. You can also go on the Doe Network or Namus to start youself.