Social networking sites become ‘valuable tool’ in cold cases
Families and investigators searching for clues in missing persons cases are turning to online social networking sites, hoping to tap potential witnesses throughout the country and world.
“It has become the first line of defense for some families,” said Helena Murray, aunt of Maura Murray, a college student who went missing in Woodsville, N.H., five years ago.
“It is one way to get the person’s name and picture out there to as many people as you can,” she said.
Investigators have three social networking pages for the missing Jennifer Fay — two on Facebook and one on MySpace. There, announcements about the case are made, events to help pay for searches are posted, and people can post thoughts on the “wall.” Tipsters can also e-mail information to the account. Fay went missing in 1989 in Brockton.
“It is far less threatening than having someone come to your home,” said Michelle Littlefield, part of the private investigative team working on the disappearance of Fay.
There is a page on MySpace for Murray; one for Andy Puglisi of Lawrence, who was 10 when he disappeared in 1976, another for Billy Smolinski, who went missing in Waterbury, Conn., in 2004 at age 31.
There are pages pleading for help to find the killers of Molly Bish, the 16-year-old Warren lifeguard whose remains were found three years after her 2000 abduction; Kathy Lynn Gloddy, the 13-year-old found dead in Franklin, N.H. in 1971, and Patty Gonyea, 17, of Worcester, who was killed in 1984.
And as more older adults sign on to sites such as Facebook and MySpace, the sites are fast becoming promising tools in older cases, such as the Fay disappearance.
Forty-six percent of online Americans age 18 or older use a social networking site, such as MySpace or Facebook as of this year.
That’s up from 8 percent in 2005, according to a study by The Pew Internet and Research Project.
That older demographic may make it easier to find new potential witnesses.
Littlefield poured through yearbooks, Internet pages and other social networking groups to “invite” Fay’s former classmates and neighbors to become “friends” or “fans” on the missing teen’s pages.
“We have been trying over the years to reach out to people through traditional methods: through phone calls, visits to their residences,” Littlefield said. “This was the easiest and quickest way to reach out to people.”
For example, “Jennifer Lynn Fay” has 830 friends and “Jennifer Fay is Missing” has 266 fans on Facebook — but just a handful on MySpace where a younger audience turns. Maura Murray has 1,689 friends on MySpace.
“It is a valuable tool,” Maura’s aunt said. “Her name is all over the world. Other people will pick you up through the networking and spread the information. We have gotten e-mails from England and Ireland.”
Raynham Police Chief Louis J. Pacheco, one of the founders of the national High Tech Crime Consortium, said social networking sites are used by police for a variety cases. “Anything that the site does can be used for general police work,” he said. “It has become a completely routine part of an investigation.”
In the Fay case, information gathered through the social networking sites provided some “promising leads,” Littlefield said.
“It has already provided some new leads, new information,” she said. Whether it pans out to finding Fay remains uncertain, she cautioned.
Fay’s mother, Dotti MacLean, said she was surprised by the response through the social networking sites.
“There were only a few friends that I knew of that she had in Brockton,” she said. “Now, there are hundreds on Facebook, some I hope did know her back then and may know something that can help us find her.”
Fay’s family is now spreading the word of an upcoming vigil and walk in Brockton.
The vigil for the 20th anniversary of her disappearance will start at 5 p.m. on Saturday at St. Edith Stein Church, 71 East Main St., Brockton, and those in attendance will retrace Fay’s last known steps in the city.
Fay went missing on Nov. 14, 1989, in Brockton, where her family then lived. She was last seen on Broad Street after leaving her family’s home. Her mother later moved to Rockland and now lives in Raynham.
“I still hope, every year, that somebody will come forward and tell us where Jennifer is,” MacLean said. “I hope every year one of those kids, whoever knows what happened to her, will please put this to rest, let her come home, just let me find her. Then I can move on.”
Enterprise writer Maureen Boyle can be reached at email@example.com.