Five Murders and Other Mysteries Solved By Nobodies
Everyone loves an outsider. That’s a big part of why fictional amateur detectives, from Murder She Wrote to Poker Face, are so popular — cops have an image problem, but a drifter ex-cocktail waitress is perfectly unproblematic. Well, such hobbyist crimebusters aren’t confined to the screen and page. People who would be laughed out of their local law enforcement job fair have made major breaks in some huge cases.
The Zodiac Killer
Don’t get too excited: Ted Cruz won’t be punished for his crimes anytime soon. Among the reasons for that is that many of the letters sent by the Zodiac Killer to the media were written in code, which he claimed would reveal his identity once solved and then presumably sat back and watched the chaos unfold.
But it was barely out of the dresser before a California housewife named Bettye Harden broke his first code within a week. She reasoned that the first letter was probably “I,” since he was an egotistical son of a bitch, then looked for four-letter words that could be “kill,” and it was a snap from there. For some reason, we didn’t make this lady the head of the FBI. Of course, the letter didn’t reveal his identity, which would have really sucked the fun out of all the conspiracy theories.
It took almost a full year of the mind-numbing boredom of a global pandemic to break some of them, however. In late 2020, an American software developer, a Belgian computer programmer and an Australian mathematician teamed up to solve the Zodiac’s trickiest code, which, frustratingly, also failed to identify him.
Either he was lying about the whole thing or his identity must be contained in a message that starts “My name is” but is too short to conclusively solve. One of the possible solutions is “Alfred E. Neuman.” Like most psychopaths, he’s either very smart or very stupid.
The Murder of Billy London
In 1990, gay porn star London was found dead after leaving an L.A. nightclub with someone who witnesses said looked a lot like Jeffrey Dahmer. That was still a plausible event at the time, so Dahmer was investigated for the murder but denied it, and he was really forthcoming about a lot of other stuff, so there was no reason not to believe him. Consequently, the case immediately went cold.
More than 30 years later, a documentary filmmaker took up London’s cause and connected with a stay-at-home dad named Clark Williams, initially just for information on what London would have experienced growing up in Wisconsin even though we’re pretty sure 80 percent of Americans grew up in Wisconsin. But Williams became obsessed with the case, to the point of “researching” the late 1980s porn scene, and as far as excuses to ogle heavily hairsprayed genitalia go, this one at least bore impressive results.
Williams eventually (as so many others did) came across transgender actor Daralyn Madden, then working under the name Billy Houston, who happened to be serving multiple life sentences for murder. That’s pretty odd in almost every community, so Williams researched her further and found an interview in which she claimed she’d also killed someone in L.A.
It was a long shot (after all, who hasn’t been killed in L.A.?), but Williams shared the information with detectives who then visited Madden, who immediately confessed to the crime. She won’t be charged due to “lack of evidence,” meaning she’s already never getting out of prison and London’s family doesn’t want to relive the whole thing, but it should make for a great documentary.
The Identification of Jason Callahan
In 1995, Callahan was hitchhiking his way across the country following the Grateful Dead, which people apparently still did in 1995. Tragically, the car he was riding in crashed, and both passengers were killed. His family and friends had no idea where he was, but he wasn’t exactly missing— he was just the kind of guy whose whereabouts were normal to be unknown — so with little to identify him beyond the Grateful Dead memorabilia in his possession, he became known as Grateful Doe. It’s not the lurid sort of case that usually reels in true-crime fans. There are no villains, and the podcast would last about five minutes.
Still, something about it struck a chord with Layla Betts, an Australian connoisseur of unsolved mysteries. She became so obsessed with identifying Grateful Doe that she started a dedicated subreddit that she sometimes spent 12 hours a day moderating and updating. It paid off: Eventually, the sketches on the subreddit reached one of Callahan’s former roommates, who connected Betts with Callahan’s family, who agreed to a DNA test. It took a year to get the results because, shockingly, life is not an episode of Maury, but in the end, Grateful Doe got his name back, proving that every touch of gray really does have a silver lining.
A Philadelphia Hate Crime
It was a tale as old as time: Boys meet boys, some of those boys are different, boys beat boys up. Specifically, it was reported, a group of “clean-cut and well-dressed” men and women beat up two men in Philadelphia in 2014 after making “disparaging remarks” about the duo’s sexual orientation, and if you know Philly, you know what they were. Police had video footage of the incident and even a photo of the group at a restaurant earlier in the evening, but in an earlier age, that’s where the trail would have ended. People who hang out with homophobes don’t tend to snitch on them, and no one wants to be like, “Oh, that is my restaurant where the homophobes go.”
But by 2014, we had Twitter. We also had a variety of apps that encouraged users to “check in” as they moved about in the world because this was also a more innocent time when people weren’t so concerned about everyone on the internet knowing where their vulnerable, squishy bodies were at any given time. A community of sports fans managed to identify the restaurant, then combed through the data on people who had checked in there and matched their profile photos with the photos of the suspects. Three of those people were arrested for the crime, two of whom pleaded guilty, while the other one was the local police chief’s daughter. Amazingly, she got off.
The Murder of Crystal Theobald
In 2006, Theobald and her family were mistaken for a rival gang by members of a California gang called the 5150, and Theobald was fatally shot in her boyfriend’s car. This posed a lot of problems for the Theobald family, among them the prospect of cooperating with the police, because while these really weren’t the gangbangers the 5150 were looking for, they were historically on the wrong side of the law and generally wary of cops. They decided instead to take matters into their own hands, Catfish style.
After one of Theobald’s brothers heard from friends about the 5150’s involvement, Mama Theobald, Belinda, asked her teenage niece to help her set up a series of Myspace pages for pretty, young, fictional women to lure out the gang’s members. She eventually identified the man who drove the car Theobald’s assailant had been riding in, and it happened to be a guy who had fallen in love with “her” as a character named Angel who looked exactly like her daughter. One night, after he confessed his love for her, Belinda Theobald replied, “Then why did you kill me?” He left her on read, presumably to seek out an electro-exorcist. Once police brought him in, he sang like a birdie for fear of further revenge ghosts.