Online Sleuths Can Help — And Hurt — Murder Investigations, According To Paul Holes, Whose Team Identified The Golden State Killer

The true crime celebrity and his Buried Bones podcast cohost Kate Winkler Dawson warned about the dangers of online speculation and amateur sleuths potentially derailing police investigations.

Cold case investigator Paul Holes was on the eve of retiring when he cracked one of his coldest cases: Using DNA and genealogy technology, he played a crucial role in identifying the Golden State Killer, the serial rapist and murderer who had terrorized California in the 1970s and 1980s. 

For years before the 2018 arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., however, Holes had chased leads that went nowhere. Amateur sleuths were following the case too, most notably Michelle McNamara. The late author described her own “obsession” and was the first to rebrand the unknown suspect previously called the Original Night Stalker and East Area Rapist as the Golden State Killer in a 2013 Los Angeles magazine feature. In the article, she describes reading 20,000 posts about him on a true crime message board, “from paranoid cranks to the raw, curious insomniacs driven by the same compulsion to piece together the puzzle as I am.”

Holes would later describe McNamara as his “unofficial detective partner,” with whom he compared notes and research up until her untimely death in 2016. She wasn’t the only one he heard from: “After Michelle McNamara's article and rebranding of the moniker, then the sleuths came out of the woodworks,” Holes told me when I asked about the staggering rise in recent years of online true crime buffs, especially on TikTok. 

“Some of the sleuths have great skill sets, sometimes skill sets that are not found natively within law enforcement, and so they can apply their expertise to help, and I took advantage of that with select individuals,” said Holes, whose experience with armchair detectives dates back to the late ’90s, when he was working on the Zodiac case

The danger, he said, is when the amateur sleuths “contaminate the investigation” by approaching families of the victims and overwhelming investigators with “tips.” 

In the Golden State Killer investigation, Holes said, “I had about 30 of these online sleuths who were communicating with me all the time,” but he eventually had to stop responding to them. Unlike those tipsters, Holes said, “I had the DNA. I had the genealogy tool.” 

But people got angry when he cut them off and even today “say all sorts of derogatory things” about him, Holes said. He seems resigned to it. “There will always be this group that is thinking either they can help on the case or that they actually are better than law enforcement at working the case,” he said.

Journalist Kate Winkler Dawson, Holes’s partner on the podcast Buried Bones, in which the two reexamine centuries-old true crime cases, agrees. “My issue is when investigators, who, as far as I know, are doing as good a job as they can, are painted as this, like, nefarious entity trying to hold back information or are so ‘Keystone Cops’ that they don't know what they're doing,” she told me.

Dawson said the killings of four college students in Idaho is a “great example” of how people speculating on social media can hurt the investigation, including “harassing the surviving roommate.” “That's where I get a little bit frustrated,” she said, “especially for a group of investigators who might not be as experienced and who are overwhelmed to then be derailed potentially by people coming in and trying to take over an investigation. Or at a minimum, criticize and really kind of turn the tide against these investigators, just seems really sad to me. It's counterproductive.”

I asked Holes how he feels about people who insist a convicted killer is innocent despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt — like Scott Peterson, now serving a life sentence for the murder of his pregnant wife, Laci Peterson. (Peterson had vocal defenders from the time he was arrested, and in spite of his conviction, a 2017 documentary and some podcasters continue to argue he's innocent.) 

“I was pulled in on Laci Peterson early on, because she washed up in my jurisdiction, her and Connor did,” Holes said, referring to the couple’s unborn son. He met with the coroner, district attorney, and police and was briefed on what he called “the strongest circumstantial case I've ever heard.” 

“I doubt that the level of information that I've been exposed to in that case is being put out there in the public domain and interpreted properly by somebody who has the right experience and expertise to put it out there for public consumption.”

Experience and expertise are important for people to keep in mind when listening to a podcast, Holes said.

“Generally in the true crime space, those of us that came out of what I call the ‘real crime’ world — you don't have a lot of us that are activists,” he said. “A lot of people are just taking up this true crime genre and then now trying to take information — which may be limited — and extrapolate without having really the expertise to be able to do it. So that's potentially a problem because now you have listeners who also don't necessarily understand the limits of the person that they're listening to.” 

In addition to Idaho, another case that has dominated headlines and speculation by online sleuths is the 2017 killings of two young girls in Delphi, Indiana. Also like Idaho, the man who was arrested and charged with murdering 14-year-old Liberty German and 13-year-old Abigail Williams was not among the people considered likely suspects by true crime fans following the case. 

When I jokingly asked Holes whether he was the one who found the resurfaced 2017 police interview with the Delphi suspect, placing him at the scene at the time the girls were kidnapped and killed, I was surprised by his answer. 

“No,” he said, “but I did through a producer ask, because she had a source, ‘Have they done geofence?’ And then within a couple of days after asking that question, they landed on — they were kicking the door on the suspect's house.” 

(Geofencing is a controversial investigative tool that uses smartphone data to identify people within a particular area and time period — as federal authorities did to identify Jan. 6 rioters at the US Capitol.) 

“And so I'm kind of curious,” Holes said. “Did they do a geofence because he admitted he was at the location with his cellphone, and the geofence would literally show him meeting up with the victims and walking away with the victims? There's something that caused them to kick his door in, and it wasn't the live round found by their bodies, even though that was matched back to his gun. They would have matched that later. So I'm still kind of curious to see if maybe that suggestion — because there's a reason the US Marshals were at the press conference. You know, this guy wasn't a fugitive. There's a reason why they had the feds there. And who does geofence a lot? The marshals do. … I bet the geofence is what led them to that guy's house.”

“It could be coincidental,” Holes acknowledged. “For me, I just know when that suggestion was made, and when they kicked his door in.” 

Although officially retired from law enforcement, Holes continues to “offer [his] services behind the scenes” and has “some role” in both current cases like Delphi and cold cases like Zodiac and the Long Island serial killer.

“But I would love to take on maybe an expanded role and roll up my sleeves and actually get into it,” Holes said, “versus either getting updated as to what's going on or being a consultant in very finite ways.”

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