Cold cases attract amateur sleuths who think anyone with wifi can solve crimes – Jane Hamilton


I “solved” a murder eleven. Kind of. In this paper a few years ago. Let me tell you the story and where it’s leading and the point I’m making.

Regular readers will know unsolved murders are a particular area of ​​interest for me.

I want to see the bad guys caught and the victims get some kind of justice.

Decades-long murders hold a particular fascination because I always have a sense of despair for the victims and their families, especially when they feel their relative has long been forgotten.

Catherine's son Thomas was haunted by her death
Catherine’s son Thomas was haunted by her death

In 2016, we decided to run an unsolved murder series and came across the 1968 death of a young mother by the name of Catherine Duncan who had been assaulted and murdered in her home in Wallyford, East Lothian.

Catherine had been murdered while her husband was working the night shift down the local coal mine.

No one had highlighted Catherine’s murder for almost half a century and I wanted to right that wrong.

Maybe, just maybe, by featuring her death someone might come forward with new information that would help.

Catherine Duncan's murder was covered in our paper in 1968
Catherine Duncan’s murder was covered in our paper in 1968

I met her family, who were some of the nicest people I’ve come across in the course of my work.

Her lovely son Thomas, himself aged 70 by then, was haunted by his mum’s death.

Thomas spoke to me in depth and revealed his pain and anguish for the first time.

It was harrowing stuff and in the days after the story ran I found myself thinking a lot about Thomas and his family wishing there was something I could do to help.

Then a breakthrough – our article had the community talking about the crime once more and with it came new information.

An elderly gent recalled a man bragging about the killing in a social club, then a former detective got in touch with more information.

A petty criminal by the name of Thomas Edgar Gauson had confessed to the murder but was never prosecuted.

Gauson, who was described as sinister and a pest to women, made the confession to Andrew Brown, the detective in charge of the investigation into Catherine’s murder.

Further inquiries led us to a second police source, who backed up the story.

Police records confirmed his confession but the 48-year-old files contained no details of him being charged. The most likely reason was lack of corroboration.

I also managed to dig into Gauson’s background and discovered he had vanished without a trace and most likely met a grim end himself.

The only clue to his existence was his adoption certificate. This paper named him the most likely culprit. It brought some comfort to the family. I felt we’d done something worthwhile.

The case came to mind this week when a press release dropped about a new book by a “community detective” called Nate Campbell, who has written what is claimed to be an exposé on the myth of Bible John.

I haven’t read it yet but the press release tells me Campbell names serial killer Angus Sinclair as a person of interest and is scathing about the police failures and their star witness in the case.

I ended up going down a rabbit hole of armchair detecting and discovered that around the world, podcasts, blogs and internet forums are heavily involved within the criminal justice system.

“Internet sleuths” have helped to solve dozens of cases but it’s not all rosy in the garden.

There have been many instances when victim’s families are harassed, false or misleading narratives are published online and innocent people have been labeled killers. Not to mention the risk of prejudicing court cases.

What struck me most about armchair detectives was the reckless abandon with which they spouted their theories.

Cold cases will always attract amateur sleuths and it seems like anyone with a wifi connection could crack a case like Columbo.

Which brings me back to my original story – we went to great lengths to stand up our information before we named a suspect.

Crossing the Ts and dotting the Is is cliched but true.

While it feels like their work parallels mine, in some cases internet sleuthing is a minefield that can blow up at any time and has the potential to be incredibly harmful.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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