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The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America's Coldest Cases Hardcover – July 1, 2014

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (July 1, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451657587
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451657586
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.1 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #174,738 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Long before the popularity of forensic crime shows like CSI, amateur sleuths were using the Internet to gather clues and connect with one another to identify the remains of unidentified corpses—tens of thousands of them—across the U.S. Science writer Halber uncovers a gritty world of web sleuths taking up cold cases of murder, suicide, and accidents, of remains unmatched to missing-persons reports. Often competing with each other, sometimes appreciated or disdained by the police, many of these sleuths develop obsessions with particular victims. Using crowd-sourcing and databases, determined sleuths have managed to identify unidentified bodies. Halber takes the reader on visits to the morgues to witness autopsies of cadavers, some deteriorated by exposure to the outdoors and harsh conditions. She explores changes in investigative techniques and the growing use of DNA to identify remains. She draws on interviews with medical examiners, police investigators, coroners, and the web sleuths themselves for an intriguing look at an underground society of quirky people easily dismissable as wackos, except that some of them occasionally solve cases the police had long abandoned. --Vanessa Bush


“A lively study that’s part whodunit, part sociological study. . . . The result is eminently entertaining and will be devoured by armchair detectives.” (Publishers Weekly)

“Brilliant . . . Ms. Halber chronicles with lucidity and wit . . . the workings of this fascinating new subculture.” (The Wall Street Journal)

The Skeleton Crew is a carefully crafted account of an intriguing new opportunity for arm chair sleuths. Thanks to the Internet, anyone with a computer, curiosity, patience, and a passion for justice can enter the dark world of missing persons and unsolved homicides. It’s fascinating to learn how such matches are made and heartening to witness the growing cooperation between law enforcement and ordinary citizens whose persistence can sometimes crack the code in cold cases that have languished unresolved for years. I loved it.” (Sue Grafton)

“From home-computer screens to a new national database, join The Skeleton Crew for a page-turning behind-the-scenes look at the world of Internet sleuths who give names to the men and women who have died without identity. For the first time ever, readers are brought the real-life cases of missing persons, the unidentified dead, and the network of people that gives them their names . . . proving once again what I said at the conclusion of every episode of America’s Most Wanted: ‘One person can make a difference.’” (John Walsh, host of America's Most Wanted)

"A compelling glimpse into a little-known subculture inhabited by a colorful cast of the idiosyncratic, the quirky, and the downright weird." (Alison Bass, author of Side Effects)

"In this highly addictive story-within-a-story narrative, Deborah Halber skillfully exposes the complex Internet subculture of amateur sleuths. The people who obsess over the fates and identities of Jane and John Does are puzzles in themselves, which adds a fascinating layer to this captivating book. The Skeleton Crew will likely inspire many more case resolutions." (Katherine Ramsland, author of The Devil's Dozen and Cemetery Stories)

“Exploring the world of amateur sleuths, Halber proves to be the perfect guide: unflinching, perceptive, wry. I was hooked from page one.” (Allison Hoover Bartlett, bestselling author of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much)

“Halber’s artful sleuthing into this little-known demimonde leaves one bloodthirsty for more.” (Ted Botha, author of The Girl with the Crooked Nose)

“An integral component of NamUs is the group of responsible, dedicated volunteers who scour case details in an effort to match long-term missing persons to unidentified decedents. In The Skeleton Crew, Deborah Halber follows the journey of some of these volunteers who have made it their mission to assist criminal justice professionals in resolving those cases.” (Arthur Eisenberg, PhD, Co-Director, UNT Center for Human Identification)

“For me, this book was much more than a terrific read about a layered subculture in a field that crosses my own. It was an invitation to get involved… I hope a lot of people read this book. I hope they feel the urgency of the need to identify those who’ve been separated from their names and to reunite the missing with their loved ones. I hope this book inspires the addition of many more eyes and ears in this work…I know of no better guide for navigating this multifaceted world than Halber’s book.” (Psychology Today)

“Compelling” (Discover Magazine)

"The journey is fascinating." (Shelf Awareness)

If you like tales of discovered body parts, heads in concrete in buckets, corpses whose hands have been cut off, decomposition, decay and death, then this fascinating, riveting book is for you. (Providence Journal)

"Halber's intriguing book ought to bring in lots more volunteers." (Commercial Dispatch)

“[An] absorbing look at a very odd corner of our world.” (The Seattle Times)

"Engaging, arful." (Los Angeles Review of Books)

More About the Author

Deborah Halber started out as a daily newspaper reporter, then turned to the dark side to do public relations. She worked as a writer and editor for Tufts and as a science writer for MIT, where she chronicled everything from quantum weirdness (that's the technical term) to snail slime. A freelance journalist since 2004, her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, MIT Technology Review, the graphic news magazine Symbolia, and many university publications. A member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the National Association of Science Writers, she lives near Boston in a house with a lot of former pets buried out back.

Customer Reviews

Please read this book!
This book is somewhat difficult to plow through as the author jumps from one item of case information to another rather following a simple narrative outline.
Everyone knows that the Internet has changed the way we do everything - shop, look for mates, watch movies.
R. Hardy

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By she treads softly on July 6, 2014
Format: Hardcover
The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America's Coldest Cases by Deborah Halber is a very highly recommended, fascinating anecdotal look at how amateurs are solving cold cases.

Chances are you know of a cold case, an unsolved murder right in your own city. Startlingly, according to what Halber discovered, chances are also "good that you or someone you know has at one point stumbled over a dead body. There are shockingly large numbers of them out there. According to the national institute of Justice, America is home to tens of thousands of unidentified human remains, with four thousand more turning up every year: intrepid adventurers or athletes who left their IDs at home; victims of accidents and mass disasters; suicides; undocumented immigrants; the homeless; runaway teenagers; victims of serial killers; and those who cast off a former identity, changed names, and left no forwarding address." Location 159

These cases are often given "mournful monikers" from the communities in which their bodies were found and become known as the "Tent Girl, Somerton man, Princess Doe, Saltair Sally, the Boy in the Box, the Belle in the Well, the Lady Who Danced Herself to Death." I can think of several unsolved cases where I currently live and know of others from various other communities I've lived in over the years. The number of unsolved cases is shocking. It is easy to see why law enforcement officials don't prioritize these unsolved cases when there are so many other crimes that can be solved.

While amateur detectives did try to solve some of these cases over the years, often searching for a missing relative, the age of the internet has dramatically changed their success rate.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Amy L. Yingling on July 9, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Author Deborah Halber brings to the page tales of the volunteers that spend their lives hoping to give names to the thousands of unidentified dead that go unclaimed in the United States each year. These volunteers go over missing persons information and information complied by the medical examiners across the country looking for any clue that will help to match an unidentified body to that of a missing person case.

Halber interviews a few citizen volunteers that take this what seems to be macabre type hobby and shows you that these volunteers mean business and this is not some weird fascination with death but something that is important in the struggle to identify the unidentified and to help bring closure to those who have a missing family member that has yet to be identified waiting to be found and given their name back so that them may go home.

There are not tons and tons of success stories because the information given to these volunteers is of course limited and even when they do contact law enforcement they are often not taken seriously but the fact that there has been any success at all with such limited information really shows what these volunteers are made of. Using the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, which is run by the U.S. Department of Justice and through web groups such as the Doe Network these volunteers have done what not many are willing to do.

I found this book interesting and even though it tackled a tough subject I didn't find the information contained in the book to be overly frightening, which translates to "I didn't have to sleep with my light on!"
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By cem on July 3, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Maybe this book is intended for the summer beach crowd; for nonfiction it is very light read. It relies a lot on stories and anecdotes rather than statistics. The book jumps from subject to subject and time period from time period without any logical connection.

The “Skeleton Crew” are amateurs who go through the web trying to match missing persons to unidentified bodies. This matching of unidentified remains to missing persons aids the police in catching the killers and brings closure to the relatives of the missing persons. Despite what one sees on television, forensics is more of an art than a science. Humans are more successful and matching missing persons to unidentified remains than computers because forensic evidence is not clear cut. Forensics in many ways is more like an art then a science. Computers can’t pick up when the forensics is wrong and aren't good at matching sketches to actual human faces.

The book persuaded me that these amateur detectives are quite useful to law enforcement though they are not always liked by the police. Volunteers have the skills the computers don’t have and the time that law enforcement does not have in reviewing records of missing persons and unidentified bodies.

However, the book does have some flaws. It is not clearly organized and it took me awhile to understand the subject. The story jumps from one topic to another with no apparent rhyme or reason. I found the chronologically unclear and I was confused about the different web sites used by the “skeleton crew”. The book goes from one cold case to another without first finishing one.
I would be more critical of the book's organization if I did not learn so much from the book.
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