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The Disturbing Rise of Amateur Internet Detectives

Netflix shows are glamourising internet sleuths and their obsessive – often dangerous – quests. But what happens after the cameras stop?

The Telegraph

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Murders, missing persons and fraud; lost cats, stray husbands, and that obscure Eighties movie you can’t remember the name of. The internet is clotted with mysteries – and people trying to solve them. The Reddit thread Unresolved Mysteries has 1.5 million members; its sister forum, RBI: Reddit Bureau of Investigations, has more than 500,000. Websleuths.com – the granddaddy of online detection – has been running since 2004. Recent threads have tried to crack a 1975 homicide cold case, tracked the “most notorious unsolved crime in every state” and tried to identify two newborn babies left with the authorities in Carmel, Indiana. We live in the age of the internet sleuth. 

They’ve had some successes. In August 2021, a 22-year-old American influencer Gabby Petito went missing on a cross-country van trip with her fiancé Brian Laundrie. The couple documented their travels on social media, and web sleuths plotted their final movements from TikTok videos, Instagram posts and geolocating Petito’s blog posts. Eleven days after she was reported missing, and helped by information gathered by the online community, police discovered her remains. Laundrie disappeared; the following month his body was found. He died by a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. In his notebook, he described how the couple had argued and he had killed Petito. 


A makeshift memorial dedicated to missing woman Gabby Petito, who was later found murdered by her boyfriend. (Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Bellingcat – a collective of open-source intelligence investigators founded by the British blogger Eliot Higgins – have achieved some extraordinary coups. They identified the Skripal poisoners, mapped Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria and entrapped the KGB agents who dosed opposition leader Alexei Navalny with Novichok. In fact, they went further: as an astonishing recent documentary shows, with Bellingcat’s help, Navalny tricked one hapless stooge into confessing the whole plan by posing as his superior. In the new world of internet detection, a victim can solve their own attempted murder. 

But the line between genuine investigation and mob justice is only a pixel thick. In the aftermath of the 2013 Boston marathon bombings, Reddit “digilantes” combed through CCTV footage and Facebook for the perpetrators. Anyone who looked young, shifty or brown was fair game. Among those singled out was 22-year-old student Sunil Tripathi. In less than a day, his family were besieged by the media and cold calls. Tripathi’s Facebook page was waterlogged with hateful messages. A week later, his body was found. He had died by suicide a month before the bombings took place. Reddit issued a crawling apology. 

Recently, however, amateur sleuthing has gone mainstream. ITV’s How to Catch a Cat Killer followed the civilian investigators of a 2019 spate of animal cruelty in Brighton, England, while Hulu’s glossier comedy Only Murders in the Building features a trio of residents (played by Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez) who attempt to catch those responsible for a grisly killing in their bijoux New York apartment block. 

It’s Netflix, though, who has truly claimed this turf as its own. Thanks to series such as Don’t F**k with Cats and Trust No One, sleuths featured have become celebrities in their own right and – in bleak circular logic – the crimes they “solved” have been spotlit again, years after their victims or their families have tried to move on. In itself, this is nothing new: the entertainment industry has long known the value of gristly cold cases. But on the internet, no case is truly cold. Online sleuthing promises pristine, consequence-less justice – but, in fact, the collateral damage can be all too real. Is it right for entertainment companies to encourage this trend? 


‘Only Murders in the Building’ stars Steve Martin, Selena Gomez, and Martin Short. (Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

“It’s not everyday you wake up and lose a six-figure sum of money,” says QXCINT, the online sleuth at the heart of Trust No One, a buzzed-about Netflix series dramatising the hunt for the cryptocurrency fraudster Gerald Cotten. QXCINT fits the image of a web detective with precision: in the series, he wears an outsized geometric fox mask and his voice is disguised. When we talk, a telltale Australian twang pings from his black Zoom screen. “I don’t see anything to be gained from having my identity connected with this. You’re talking about a theft where hundreds of millions of dollars have gone missing. People have done some fairly evil things in the past over far smaller amounts of money.” 

Trust No One tells the story of how Cotten, a nerdish Canadian computer programmer, defrauded investors in his cryptocurrency exchange QuadrigaCX of more than $200 million. During the height of the Bitcoin boom, investors used Quadriga to convert cash into cryptocurrency and vice versa. But, in an archetypal Ponzi scheme, Cotten took their invested funds and transferred them into a secret slush fund or “cold wallet”. He got away with it until the price of Bitcoin crashed in 2018 – and Cotten couldn’t afford to keep up payments to investors. Then he died, apparently of Crohn’s Disease, while travelling in India. Cotten, though, held the exchange’s only “key”. Thousands of users were locked out, unable to withdraw their money. There was a stink of foul play, and web sleuths gathered. 

QXCINT was an experienced investor in crypto currency, and began to dig into Cotten’s history. Cotten, he discovered, had an IP trail stretching back over the last decade of scam sites and pseudonyms, nested within each other like Matryoshka dolls. This work took him nearly two years, and eventually he gathered enough material to produce a 100-page report which he gave to law enforcement (but never shared online). “I wasn’t doing it for sh-ts and giggles,” he says. “I wasn’t doing it for fame and glory or Twitter followers. I wanted to find those responsible.” 

Groups of stung investors constellated together on Reddit and Telegram. Those like QXCINT who had some background in blockchain research formed a small Telegram channel to pool their discoveries. But beyond their group, the sites crackled with speculation about Cotten’s death, whether he might be still alive – and whether his widow, Jennifer Robertson, knew anything about the missing funds. It became a witch hunt

“There was a huge amount of misogynistic abuse directed against Jennifer in that channel,” confirms Luke Sewell, who directed the series. “A lot of that world is kind of ugly, and the crypto community is male-dominated and it began with this sense of itself as a libertarian movement. Being an anonymous keyboard warrior gives people huge amounts of power to be really angry and unpleasant.” 

It wasn’t only Robertson who suffered. Andrew Wagner, a fellow crypto enthusiast who knew Cotten, says: “I had a friend who used to work at Quadriga, just as an office clerk. It was a very minor role, but he had to go completely off-the-grid. I can’t even tell you his name because of the death threats he received. Even his ex-girlfriend got threatening calls. When people lose money, they become suspicious of everyone.” 

But does Trust No One stoke that suspicion? It gives significant air time to the wilder theories about Cotten’s fate, and interviews users who seem to sincerely believe Robertson had a hand in it. There are also controversial recreations of “incriminating” scenes, such as Robertson’s apparent partying on the night of Cotten’s funeral. Robertson declined to take part in the series and her sister was left to defend her. (Though she has subsequently released a memoir and given several interviews about the case.) 

Sewell argues they got the balance right. “The producer and I discussed at length how much of [the abuse] to show,” he says. “But I think it was very important to show that Jen had death threats and people doxing her [publishing her location online]. It’s a story of our times. I was very interested in the conspiratorial mindset and how these crazy ideas can grow and develop. On the internet, there’s always another way things can be perceived.” 

For QXCINT, the case speaks volumes about the shifting balance of power online. Canadian police, the FBI and the IRS spent years investigating Cotton’s death and the missing money. But, so far, none of the funds have been recovered for investors. 

“There’s no doubt these kinds of crimes exceed the boundaries of conventional law enforcement,” he observes. “They happen online, across jurisdictions, and they tie law enforcement up in knots. If the FBI had a body and $200 million missing, I’m sure they’d be able to act quicker.” 

A body, though, was exactly what police had in the case adapted in the sensational 2019 documentary Don’t F**k with Cats. The first bona fide online sleuth hit, it became one of Netflix’s most-watched documentaries of the year, its gut-punch twists churning up a swell of articles, YouTube reaction videos and discussion threads.  

The three-part series followed the internet manhunt to catch Luka Magnotta. In 2010, Magnotta posted a video of himself killing two kittens by suffocating them in a vacuum bag; a follow-up video a few months later showed him feeding one to a python. The jerky videos were difficult to decode: Magnotta wore a hood over his face, and the small room was nondescript. Nonetheless, a Facebook page was set up to try to catch the “cat killer”. Soon it had thousands of members. 

“At first, I thought: ‘I’ll just watch how this goes down’,” says Deanna Thompson, one of the key sleuths interviewed in Don’t F**k with Cats. “But with this case they were being so stupid – they were focusing on the person, and trying to find someone with the same haircut.” 

Thompson, though, has a background in computing, and soon she got involved. “I was a victim of something which never got resolved, and since then I’ve had this obsessive thirst for justice,” she tells me.  

As with the Cotten case, many outlandish theories were aired and innocent people exposed amidst the dopamine rush of online justice. “The community was useful in that it helped connect us,” Thompson explains. “But by that point there were lots of people [on the page] and people were just posting random profiles they found on Facebook. It was insane. It was insanity.”

This wider group believed they had a suspect: Edward Jordan, an introverted young man who trolled the investigators by posing as the man in the video. The sleuths turned on him, swamping his profile with abuse. Jordan, who had depression, died by suicide soon after. Disgusted by their tactics, Thompson and half a dozen other sleuths formed a breakaway group. Using the same techniques that Bellingcat employed to track war crimes – scrutinising the videos frame-by-frame, conducting reverse image searches, tracing objects in the room – they eventually zeroed in on Magnotta as the possible culprit. It took Thompson, who comes across as an intense, somewhat isolated presence in the series, 18 months of all-night sleuthing sessions. She would log off from her day job as an analyst at a Las Vegas casino and vanish into Magnotta’s dark universe. 

In May 2018, her quest took an awful turn. Magnotta uploaded another video. It showed him murdering a Chinese student Jun Lin with an ice pick, dismembering his corpse and performing acts of necrophilia. After the killing, Magnotta mailed Lin’s body parts to the headquarters of Canada’s Conservative and Liberal parties and a school. The online sleuths spotted the video a week before law enforcement did. By the time they persuaded the police to take action, Magnotta was on the run. 

Thompson, though, had switched between using her personal Facebook profile and a pseudonymous one while she stalked Magnotta. This blunder led Magnotta to her workplace – he knew she was tracking him and posted a video of himself outside the casino to prove it. He uploaded it two weeks before he murdered Lin. 

“I was terrified,” Thompson says. “I knew I had to tell my boss because I worked in such close proximity to him. We had to monitor our mail too because we thought he might send something to me. How the hell do you tell your boss they might get a dead puppy in the post?” 

After a month-long worldwide manhunt, Magnotta was arrested at an internet cafe in Berlin. He pleaded not guilty, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The case was sensationally covered in the international press with the Chinese media, in particular, subjecting Lin’s family to vicious homophobic speculation. (Magnotta had worked as a gay porn star.) 

But by the time Don’t F**k with Cats was released, Magnotta had been behind bars for five years. He was largely forgotten; his disturbing videos buried. Did Don’t F**k with Cats dredge them back to the surface, burnishing his ghastly craving for celebrity? Its director, Mark Lewis, doesn't think so. In fact, he found the online detective community very difficult to penetrate: “These [sleuths] were not seeking publicity. They were very hard to get hold of, and they didn’t want to be public figures. It was extremely difficult to persuade them to go on camera.” Key to gaining Thompson’s trust, he notes, was a promise not to interview Magnotta himself. 

Don’t F**k with Cats is a rattling watch, though you never see the videos in full. In fact, the closest you come is watching Thompson view them; her face crumples in shock and she folds into tears before asking that the video be stopped. (She has never made it through them completely.) The approach is uncomfortable, shivering with voyeurism. 

“Mark told me: ‘The audience has to understand why you gave up 18 months of your life to this case,’” remembers Thompson. “And, you know, it made a lot of sense what he was saying. He was very understanding and compelling, and I agree it needed to be done.” 

The case scarred Thompson. After the initial high of seeing Magnotta brought to justice, her mental health crashed. She tells me she saw parallels with her obsession with Magnotta and that of Michelle McNamara, a true crime writer who died of accidental overdose while enmeshed in the search for the “Golden State” serial killer. “[Sleuthing] can take you down a really dark path,” she notes. “You’re investigating someone’s worst day, right? And it takes a toll on you, especially if you don’t have a good support network.” 

Lewis, too, was bruised by the making of the programme. “It was a fascinating series to work on, but to be honest it was traumatising to be immersed in that murky world for so long.” 

What’s the future of web sleuthing? It’s clear amateur online detectives are to stay. The depths of the internet can encourage our worst instincts – but also, as these series prove, our best, too. The trend for programmes celebrating these sleuths, though, is harder to welcome. It’s difficult to avoid the sense that they amplify the messy, fractious instincts of the online world, and make sleuths reluctant celebrities. Dragging them into the limelight can misrepresent their work, doing a disservice to their peculiar talents and experiences. 

Still, there is an undeniable pull to the world of online sleuthing. We can expect far more coverage of that murky empire. Thompson, despite taking a break for a number of years, is once again haunting detective forums, pursuing justice. For some though, once is enough. QXCINT is still pushing to recover some of the lost $200 million. But as for the fate of Gerald Cotton, he’s clear: “I’ve moved on.” 

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This post originally appeared on The Telegraph and was published June 14, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.