Enter a life of crime and there’s a good chance more than notoriety will follow. Breathing down the necks of criminals are legions of buffs who track all aspects of illicit acts and law enforcement’s quest against them. Some news outfits are counting on that persistence to catapult them into the big time. Trying to establish itself as the “ESPN of crime and police news,” APB Online (apbonline.com) sped onto the scene in hot pursuit just three months ago, with the cyber equivalent of a police light strapped to its dash and sirens blaring. This rookie news organization is out to offer something for everyone interested in true crime.
APB follows a slew of sites—a long line of hits and misses—that have tried to put the cuffs on the criminal element. Over a year ago MGM Interactive issued a press release trumpeting a new Web show, True Crime Stories, which was supposed to crack cold cases in the style of America’s Most Wanted, with crime-incident reports, crime-scene sketches, photographs, ballistics summaries, and autopsy and toxicology reports at the ready. It seems to have suffered an indefinite postponement. A much linked URL called The Crime Files dealt with crimes around the country and offered reward money for at-large fugitives. Its apparent demise—and the single-minded approach of sites like it—opened up the way for multipronged sites like APB. APB’s sections range from 911 News, covering stories from coast to criminal coast, to Safe Streets—safety and anticrime info—to major cases such as the never-ending JonBenet Ramsey saga.
APB director of content Mark Sauter, a former investigative journalist, calls the organization a combination of “a rust belt newsroom filled with old-school reporters and editors, and a Silicon Valley start-up with new media geeks and nerds.” APB’s staff—34 full-timers, 19 of whom are journalists, and all of whom have an equity stake or stock options—occupy an intimate office space on the East River near the bustle of Wall Street and the South Street Seaport. You can almost imagine that the bodies that once floated up nearby serve as inspiration. APB’s credentialed reporters generate original content, and in a generously consistent quantity, aided by stringers from across the nation, such as contributing editor George Lardner Jr. from The Washington Post and the New York Post‘s Murray Weiss.
APB is able to inundate even the most avaricious of would-be sleuths with the G-Files, filled to the rim with declassified government documents (accessed via the Freedom of Information Act). Ol’ Blue Eyes’ fed file was put up as soon as it was available—in its entirety, with plenty of editorial guide tags—prompting the FBI to direct voyeurs to APB. The G-Files tries to rival established sites, such as The Smoking Gun (coedited by the Voice‘s own Bill Bastone), known as the place to go for documents hand-selected by very discriminating eyes. “What people want is to be able to judge for themselves,” says Sauter, rather than merely accepting the media’s version of events. He added that the days APB posts big FOIA files, “there’s 15 times normal traffic. It drives the site to its knees.” He says that APB gets hits in the low millions daily.
Managing editor Hoag Levins, lured away from Editor & Publisher, says he knew there was high demand for this type of coverage. “Look at any paper and you’ll find that cops, crimes, courts, and prisons account for 33 percent of the edit content.”
Sauter says he intends the site to be “the popular authority across all media,” and has lofty ambitions of feeding original stories to mainstream media much as a wire service does.
APB hopes to capitalize on true crime’s infusion into our everyday lives. Reality TV delivers doses of violence to viewers, and the Fox network has made a killing with prepackaged specials geared toward video snatches of disasters, car chases, and good pets gone bad. But TV—as explicit as it is—can’t show everything. Censorship and scheduling constraints have prompted fans to make the move from the couch to the computer station, where there are fewer restrictions on content and the only speed bumps on the way to feeding the addiction are modem connections. Even crime dramas have made the transition from television to the Net.
NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street recently spawned a first: a collaborative story line with its Net-based spin-off series, Homicide: Second Shift. (Launched a year ago, it has featured four interactive murder dramas.) Sweeps fever may have instigated this latest hybrid gimmick, which earlier this month set in motion a ritual murder plot, “Homicide.com”—a fictional snuff film—on the Web site (nbc.com/homicide/SSHome/). The episode continued on the TV show, and is finishing back online through Friday.
Many sites, such as Ira Wilsker’s massive Law Enforcement Sites on the Web (ih2000.net/ira/ira.htm#city), offer up resources for combating crime. Others, like A.J. Goldman’s Serial Killer Info Site (serialkillers.net/), avoid gore and sensationalism by focusing on victim prevention. But sites like rotten dot com (rotten.com) or the Internet Crime Archives (mayhem.net/Crime/archives.html), which get down and dirty with stomach-turning imagery, act like magnets to a public infatuated with this genre.
With the aid of technology, serial killers are emerging as active players in our lurid fascination with deadly intent. This obsession has created a genre dedicated to a new cultural icon, a prospect revolting to victims’ families and law enforcement, but useful to those who want to explore and understand the criminal mind. Sondra London, who was once engaged to Danny Rolling—who terrorized the University of Florida’s Gainesville campus in 1990, killing five women—is the latest to get caught up in this controversy. After the threat of a boycott led by Marc Klaas, father of abducted murder victim Polly, AOL shut down London’s site in September. The site featured the words (including a “Self-Start Serial Killer Kit”—which London removed prior to AOL’s plug pulling) and artwork of Keith Hunter Jesperson, convicted of several murders in the Pacific Northwest. London, undeterred, came back online with a book on how monsters like her former fiancé are created (www.sondralondon.com).
This is just the type of thing Kevin Heldman is trying to put the brakes on. Heldman, an eight-year veteran crime reporter, covers serial homicides for APB. “I had assumed there’d be a lot of hype in this area, that it’d be sexy, high profile, but it’s not that at all. There are surprisingly sober concerns, e-mails coming in from the general public, relatives of victims, law enforcement. We’ve definitely hit some kind of nerve.”
bbb Heldman just returned from a two-week stint on the road—the I-10. He was looking for clues to the identities of mostly transient and/or marginalized victims along the highway, hoping to piece together a pattern heretofore undetected. His findings are updated in a growing APB database, the Serial Killer Atlas—where he also plans to post one victim’s reconstructed face along with the items found with her body—in the hope that someone may provide a lead on their identities.
APB is also trying to lure amateur detectives with its highly popular interactive component Unsolved, in which former FBI agent John Douglas, the prototype for The Silence of the Lamb‘s Jack Crawford, challenges the public to examine the evidence and try to come up with a profile. The current subject is the Green River killer, still at large more than 15 years after leaving a trail of 49 corpses in Washington State. The reporter who originally covered the case, Seattle’s Tomas Guillen, wrote an introduction.
The message board in this section reflects an audience high on the true crime buzz. “This is the positive side of the Internet. I’m amazed at the focused intelligence of 60 million to help solve crimes [and] find missing people and fugitives,” says Sauter.
To what extent this information exchange really works to solve crimes, though, is questionable. “Police will go down more-traveled roads, such as the FBI’s VICAP (Violent Crime Apprehension Program) database and talking to one another before going after a lead off the Internet,” says Marie Rosen, publisher of Law Enforcement News, a newspaper of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Given the nature of the beast of the Web, if I were a police officer I’d be really cautious.” And she’s even more cautious about the run on our latest taboo indulgence. “Like the westerns of the ’60s, you turn on something now and it has to do with serial killers or profiling. This kind of site is tapping into an enhanced public interest.”