Digitally Returning to the Scene of the Crime
BackBy Daniel Margolis — November 2007
One year ago, Dr. David Cornbleet was murdered in his Chicago office. The events following his death have provided insight into the role the Internet can play in solving a crime.
The crime occurred late in the day on Oct. 24, 2006. The building’s security cameras recorded the suspect getting on an elevator, then leaving 45 minutes later covered with blood.
This record of the murderer’s image did little to assist in his capture, in part because of the video’s poor quality. “The most frustrating thing is there is one moment where he turns and faces the camera,” said Dan Drucker, fiancé of Cornbleet’s daughter, Jocelyn. “I zoomed in on our enhanced images, and it’s just too grainy to get a look at his face.”
Jocelyn discovered her father’s body, and Drucker was with her at the time. He subsequently spearheaded online efforts to find the killer.
“Once I heard they thought the suspect was someone between 18 and 25, I told them, ‘We have to get this online,’” Drucker said.
So, the family turned to a platform that many have found is the easiest way to establish a Net presence: MySpace. The profile the family built, “Friends of Dr. David Cornbleet,” is sprawling and elaborate. That the family members were able to build it themselves is a testament to the extent to which online tools and skills are now available to anyone who wants to use them.
“I didn’t have that much of a technology background,” Drucker said. “I had to learn on the fly, but it’s amazing how many tutorials are out there for MySpace.”
Among the features of the profile are video of the suspect and a world map recording “pings” of the locations of anyone who looked at the site. These features proved to be of particular importance in solving the case because the killer was looking at the profile — digitally returning to the scene of the crime.
The family received a tip through the site that a man named Hans Peterson might have information related to the murder. Peterson had relocated to the French island of St. Martin since the crime occurred.
“We did some brief communicating with him,” Drucker said. “Once we got these leads about this guy and his potential location, we monitored the pings and when we saw them [in St. Martin], we would forward them directly to the police.”
The police spoke with Peterson’s former roommates in New York City. The case was really heating up, but to an outside observer monitoring the case online, it seemed cold. This was by design.
“A lot of the things I was doing online, once they really were locking in on Hans Peterson, the police asked us to cease and desist,” Drucker said. “‘Don’t post anymore bulletins, don’t send out any more mass e-mails.’”
Chicago police issued a warrant for Peterson’s arrest June 8. On Aug. 6, he surrendered to French authorities in St. Martin and confessed to the crime. This is where the next phase of the effort to bring Peterson to justice began.
Peterson, whose mother is French, applied for and was granted French citizenship upon arriving in St. Martin. France does not extradite its citizens to countries that conduct capital punishment. But Cornbleet’s family is fighting to win extradition of Peterson, starting by seeking the assistance of its state senators.
Again, they turned to the Web.
“The plan was to bombard their sites with e-mails,” Drucker said. “I was trying to convince people, ‘Let’s go break their sites — let’s send them the same e-mail 1,000 times in a day so they have to do something.’” It worked. Sens. Richard Durbin and Barack Obama joined the effort to get the French Embassy and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to bring Peterson back to the States to face charges.
The family also created an online petition that asks the U.S. and French governments to cooperate in extradition. To sign the petition or learn more about the case, go to www.drcornbleet.com.
This story illustrates how a crusade or issue can be successfully driven on a “netroots” level. The Cornbleet family didn’t merely post the case online — they drove the matter as hard as they could, spending morning, noon and night on the profile, responding to messages and processing leads.
The fact that Peterson is behind bars is a testament to their efforts, as well as to the power of the Internet itself.
– Daniel Margolis, email@example.com