My Weekend as an Amateur Cold Case Detective

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Illustration by olarte.ollie via flickr

Can a “crowd” help crack a real-life murder mystery?

Last month, I joined 300 attendees at the Grand Ballroom of the Seattle Westin Hotel for an inaugural effort to test whether a group of untrained amateur investigators could help professionals sift through clues from cold cases that have gone unsolved for years, sometimes decades.

The idea was not to replace law enforcement, but to reinforce their efforts with the combined talents of civilians who could use their intellect, curiosity and investigative smarts to root out clues that might have escaped the experts.

Help is certainly needed. Since 1980, the U.S. has accumulated 248,933 unsolved murders, and the number is growing. As James Adcock, one of the nation’s foremost experts on cold cases, wrote in The Crime Report last year, the burgeoning numbers amount to a “crisis” that should concern all Americans.

“Even if only a fraction of those unsolved murders mean that guilty individuals are still walking the streets and capable of killing again, it represents a persistent threat to public safety,” Adcock wrote.

The inaugural CrowdSolve event was organized by CrimeCon, which hosts educational conferences across the country where experts in the crime field are invited to teach participants about their respective skills or experiences.

During the long weekend, the participants would be taught by, and work alongside, world-class experts in the fields of crime scene reconstruction, perpetrator profiling, statement analysis, and strangulation to generate leads for the two unrelated Washington State cases: the 2009 disappearance and presumed murder of Nancy Moyer, and the 2007 killing of Karen Bodine.

Many of the attendees had already been involved in amateur investigations at home in their free time. They were dedicated to the idea of applying their skills and intellect to help bring justice to the families of victims.

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Graphic courtesy CrowdSolve

In the cases of Nancy and Karen, the families have been waiting over a decade for closure.

CrowdSolve participants didn’t need professional credentials, but everyone had to sign a non-disclosure Agreement to respect the victim’s families and preserve the integrity of the investigations. The price of attending CrowdSolve was a couple of hundred dollars, depending on when the passes were purchased.

To add to the event’s intensity, all copied documents and case evidence packets that we received were carefully numbered, and had to be returned to CrimeCon organizers — to be destroyed after the event was over.

As CrimeCon has said, “It’s a murder mystery, but it’s no game.”

Sleuthing in the Grand Ballroom

Walking into the Grand Ballroom, the first thing I noticed was the stage, with a shimmering curtain hung as the backdrop. CrimeCon, and their presenting sponsor, the Oxygen Network, had their logos projected onto the fabric folds. There were dozens of rows of long wooden tables that gave the room a classroom feel and space to work.

Each attendee’s seat was personalized with Oxygen Network notebooks and pens. I found a spot close to the front for optimal viewing and set up my space similarly to the way I do for lectures at school— coffee cup to the left, notebook in the center, and a black pen to my right.

Massive dual projection screens flanked the stage, and soon after the event started, the CrowdSolve logo was replaced by uncensored case file information pertaining to the disappearance of Nancy Moyer, 36, who disappeared on Friday, March 6, 2009, and is presumed murdered even though her body has never been found.

After her typical day at work as a Washington State Department of Ecology Fiscal Analyst, Nancy was last seen arriving home in her car around 9:00 p.m. by a Tenino, WA., police officer running radar checks. By the next morning, her front door was left ajar, and she was never seen again.

“You’re going to see everything—that is unusual,” said retired U.S. Marshal Art Roderick, the host for CrowdSolve, who took the stage first. “You’re going to be doing a lot of reading, I can tell you that.”

Roderick reminded the audience, as he would multiple times over the long weekend, that Nancy’s and Karen’s cases are active investigations. For that reason, with respect to the families affected, we would be limited to what we could share with friends and on social media.

“We can’t risk this information getting out to the public, or else, future police departments won’t trust us, and an event like this will never happen again,” Roderick warned.

Earlier this year, Eric L. Roberts, a former co-worker of Nancy’s, confessed to the murder, but then recanted his statement the next day. The Thurston County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t filed charges against him, and maintain it is still an active investigation.

We all took a collective deep breath before continuing to take an in-depth look into Nancy Moyer’s case file.

The Nancy Moyer Case File

The detective work began shortly after attendees received a briefing on investigative techniques. We were split into three groups and scattered across conference rooms in the hotel. Each unit of about 100 attendees was tasked with studying a different facet of Nancy Moyer’s case file.

Group A worked with Karen Smith, a forensic crime scene reconstructionist, to analyze the photos of where Nancy was last seen alive.

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The front of the Nancy Moyer Profiling folder given to participants. Photo by Andrea Cipriano.

In Group B, I worked with Dr. Godwin to profile the persons of interest.

Finally, Group C was led by James Baysinger to assess Nancy’s Victimology Profile.

Those 2.5 hours I spent profiling individuals related to Nancy’s case was not easy for me because I found it emotionally taxing. As a forensic psychology student, I felt fully equipped and up for the task of identifying a person of interest’s MMO (Motive, Means, and Opportunity) against a suspect profile ⁠— but these were real people’s lives I was scrutinizing.

I needed to think critically about the evidence.

After our smaller group sessions came to an end, we all re-assembled in the Grand Ballroom to debrief the other larger groups on our independent findings.

That Friday evening, as we finished working on Nancy Moyer’s case file and thanked the family and experts for their help and transparency, we were given new manila folders. The same confidential message was stamped across the top, but this time, the information inside pertained to Karen Bodine’s unsolved 2007 homicide.

That initial packet had over 70 pages of information.

I barely slept that night.

Who Killed Karen Bodine?

On Saturday morning, we were introduced to Karen’s three adult children, Karlee, Taylor, and Tanner. They were all in attendance representing their mother and advocating for answers to her 2007 murder.

At CrowdSolve, beyond getting access to confidential police files, you get to see the human side of cases. A quick Google search of Karen’s name brings up only a few articles, and most of them reiterate the same minimal amount of public information: Karen’s body was found early on a Monday morning on Littlerock Road in Rochester, WA., after being strangled to death.

But those articles won’t tell you who Karen was.

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Art Roderick with Karen Bodine’s children, from left, Taylor, Karlee, and Tanner. Photo by Andrea Cipriano

Karlee, Taylor, and Tanner were there to do that. We learned that Karen, 37, would sometimes lovingly take over the children’s chores and make their beds for them. She was a fashionista who always had perfectly styled hair. Karen was also described as having a contagious high-energy laugh that her daughter Karlee smiled about as she shared her memories with us.

“For better or for worse, my mother was passionate,” Karlee told the crowd. “She was passionate about everything.”

That included being a mother.

Taylor explained how her mom battled with some “bad habits” throughout her life. However, Karen was always present and giving towards her children. Karen was widely reported as being “transient” before her death which, we learned from her children, wasn’t accurate. Family members knew where she was living, up until the Friday before her murder.

Identifying the timeline of that January 2007 weekend is a big part of why detectives have hit a roadblock in her investigation.

On Saturday afternoon, I ran into Taylor Bodine as I was leaving one of the supplemental group classes. Her eyes were red and face slightly puffy from what looked like crying and a lack of sleep. I can’t imagine how difficult it must’ve been for their tight knit family to be there, but I know it took a lot of courage and bravery to be so transparent. Taylor and I chatted briefly about her mom, the case, and the hope that something will come of the event.

The hope in the atmosphere was tangible.

Throughout that Saturday and Sunday, we worked for hours poring over additional manila folders with reports and evidence to get Thurston County at least one step closer to finding the Bodine family answers. It was stressful, exhausting, emotional, and at some points, it made my head spin because of all the case complexities. I took more deep breaths.

Andrea Cipriano

However, I believe the struggle was all worth it.

I can confidently say that I believe we made meaningful advancements in both cases. I know that what we added to these investigations, on top of what law enforcement has already accomplished over the course of a decade, will shine a light on some answers.

“Sometimes when you’re in the forest, it’s hard to see the trees,” Roderick told the crowd as he closed the CrowdSolve event on the afternoon of Sunday, October 20th.

“But this weekend, we found new trees.”

Not for the Fainthearted

Overall, CrowdSolve is for the passionate, but not for the fainthearted.

I needed to keep in mind that working on unsolved murders is not like sprinting. It’s like running a marathon. For three and a half days, we were giving these cases our hearts and souls, but the future will be paced as we wait for updates from law enforcement.

Despite the long weekend concluding with all of the CrowdSolve attendees boarding subways and planes to return to their daily lives, the cases of Nancy Moyer and Karen Bodine haven’t slipped my mind. These are real victim’s families, and I was hunting real unidentified killers.

Someday soon, you may be hearing updates about these cases, on the news with breaking headlines.

Until then, I’m sworn to secrecy.

Andrea Cipriano, who studies forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is a staff writer for The Crime Report. CrimeCon’s CrowdSolve will be investigating another cold case in February 2020 in Chicago. To learn more, click here.

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