Here’s How Reddit Solved a Fatal Hit-and-Run With a Single Piece of Plastic
The internet hive mind brings a little justice to the world, and we talk to the man at the center of it.
There's no shortage of terrible tales involving the uncontrolled power of an internet mob. But that same power can be used for incredible good, as highlighted by a remarkable case of crowdsourced detective work on Reddit that led to the arrest of a hit-and-run driver suspected of killing a cyclist in Washington last week.
According to the Washington State Patrol, 63-year-old Susan Rainwater was riding her bike along the side of Route 7 about 60 miles south of Seattle when she was struck and killed by an unknown driver who fled the scene. The collision took place in the middle of the morning on an arrow-straight stretch of road, and it wasn't until several hours later that a passerby noticed her mangled bicycle in a ditch and discovered her body hundreds of feet away.
With no witnesses, police had precious little to build an investigation on. The biggest clue was a small, anonymous chunk of black plastic that broke off the vehicle when it struck Rainwater. One of the state troopers who responded to the scene posted a picture of the evidence on Twitter and appealed for help from the online masses. The sole identifying feature was a tiny, U-shaped notch along one side.
It's not uncommon for police to post pictures of broken parts or fuzzy screenshots from security cameras and ask for help in identifying a vehicle, and there have been other cases where this crowdsourced approach works. Still, puzzling out the make and model of this particular car or truck from such a small piece seemed too tall an order, even after someone reposted the trooper's tweet on Reddit in the r/WhatIsThisThing section the next day.
What followed was a lesson in never betting against the internet. Soon after the Reddit post went up, a user named u/JeffsNuts replied with a definitive answer and a matching photo: that chunk of plastic came from the headlight bezel of a late-1980s Chevrolet C/K pickup. He added in a follow-up that he's worked as a vehicle inspector in Maryland, where a "mandatory headlamp adjustment" was part of the safety checklist for a long time. He wrote that he instantly knew the distinctive notch was for accessing the headlamp adjustment screw on an older full-size pickup truck, and a quick image search led him to the exact make and model.
The Drive reached out to Jeff to hear what it's like being the point man of an internet investigation. He told us that he came across the post while casually surfing Reddit, and he's honest that at first he viewed it as an intellectual challenge more than a search for justice. He added his confident reply and went back to watching football; a few hours later, he checked back in and realized it was getting a ton of attention. That's when the gravity of the situation hit home.
"It wasn't until I read a private message from a friend of a friend of the deceased explaining how distraught the family was and thanking me for my help that [I realized] what I had just done was very real," he wrote to The Drive. "Someone was dead and [the perpetrator] may have gotten away with it, except for the randomness of the person that posted the link and me being online at nearly the same moment."
In response to the Reddit post, the trooper immediately tweeted that she'd be sharing the findings with detectives, who then started the search for a matching truck. After combing through nearby surveillance footage and taking in another anonymous tip, police arrested a local man named Jeremy Simon on Tuesday as he drove his lifted 1986 Chevrolet K-10 pickup that still bore the front corner damage from striking Rainwater.
The News-Tribune reports that at the arraignment on Wednesday, Simon's lawyer claimed he fell asleep at the wheel and drifted out of his lane. Simon allegedly told police that he initially thought he hit a mailbox, but fled when he saw the crushed bicycle "because he didn’t want to see a dead body." He pled not guilty to charges of vehicular homicide, leaving the scene of a fatal accident, and possession of a controlled substance.
For his part, Jeff is far more concerned about the victim's family than taking credit for anything. He told us that although he's been deluged with kind messages from strangers applauding his efforts, a note he received from one of Rainwater's relatives thanking him for his help "means more to me than any internet 'karma.'" Meanwhile, the family continues to mourn the loss of their beloved matriarch.
"She didn't deserve to be left on the side of the road with no one to help her because all she ever did was help other people,” daughter Leah Miller told KOMO News. "She was loving. She loved me more than anything. And she loved my children more than anything, and she loved her life."