A Viral Imgur Post Helped Identify a Man Who Had Been Missing For 20 Years

Jason Callahan is the "Grateful Doe" who went missing after a Grateful Dead concert in 1995.

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Dec 10 2015, 6:00pm

Image: Imgur

The "Grateful Doe," a man who died in a Virginia car crash more than 20 years ago, has been positively identified with DNA evidence in part because his story went viral on Reddit and Imgur, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children confirmed.

In June 1995, a car crash killed Jason Callahan (who was 19 years old at the time) and another man, Michael Hager. Police were able to identify Hager at the scene, but Callahan had no identification on him and his face was badly disfigured in the crash. Police found two tickets to a Grateful Dead show in Washington, DC (hence the name "Grateful Doe"), a dollar in quarters, a lighter, and a handwritten note that read "To Jason, Sorry we had to go, see you around, call me [phone number]. Caroline O. and Caroline T. Bye!!!!."

The phone number never generated any leads, and Callahan remained unidentified for nearly 20 years. His case popped up from time to time as police put out an artist's rendition of what his face looked like when he died, but the case remained cold.

Eventually, internet sleuths on Reddit and Facebook did what internet sleuths do, which is start calling phone numbers, tracking down where Callahan got his scalped Grateful Dead ticket, noting any and all distinguishing marks on him (he had a homemade tattoo of a star on his left arm, for instance), and tracking down old photos of people who looked similar to the artist's rendition.

This is more or less how things work now. Everyone is a potential journalist, everyone is a potential investigator, everyone is a potential police officer.

The break in the case came back in January. In the end, the artist's rendition of Callahan and the massive audience of a viral internet post was all that was needed. A Reddit/Imgur user who goes by "greymetal" posted the rendition as well as several other pieces of evidence on Imgur. The post went viral and was seen by an old roommate of Callahan's, who spoke with greymetal and other moderators of the "Gratefuldoe" subreddit. The roommate eventually spoke with law enforcement, the story was reported in mainstream media back in January, and a woman who said Callahan was her son came forward.

"Social media was the tool that helped bring all the pieces together, it helped spread this information out further," Carol Schweitzer, a senior forensic case specialist for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told me. "I would say that [Reddit, Facebook, and Imgur users] didn't investigate the case. Social media was used as an investigative tool by the agencies who were investigating the case."

This week, DNA evidence provided by the woman confirmed that "Grateful Doe" was Jason Callahan, who was from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Motherboard has reached out to greymetal and the moderators of the gratefuldoe subreddit and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which confirmed to local media in South Carolina that the DNA test came back positive. We'll update the story if we hear back.

The case speaks to the power of getting investigations like this in front of the eyes of as many people as possible—the collective memory of the people on the internet is always going to be more robust than that of a few people contacted by the police. It's not obvious that the subreddit's obsession with tracking down every tiny piece of evidence had much to do with the ultimate identification of Callahan, but the fact that his photo and story got widespread attention certainly did.

This is more or less how things work now. Everyone is a potential journalist, everyone is a potential investigator, everyone is a potential police officer. We see social media users dive into the pasts of people like Martin Shkreli, who bought the patent to a drug and jacked up the price; we see them identify police who commit acts of brutality; we see internet users conduct investigations alongside the Serial podcast and alongside the FBI in the case of the Boston Marathon bombing, and we see it here.

Schweitzer told me it's always good when the public takes interest in a case, but that people need to be careful to work with—not instead of—investigatory agencies.

"If they find new information, they need to share all of that with investigating agencies immediately and not take it upon themselves to release new information by themselves," she said. "Everybody has good intentions, but it's important to not interfere."

The investigations don't always go well, but it's heartening to see one end with some closure. As you might expect, the subreddit has since moved on to attempting to identify other long-missing persons. This is the new normal.