Tips for investigating a story like Cleveland’s missing women

How do you dig up information in a story like the one unfolding in Cleveland when all you know is three women missing for nearly a decade suddenly escaped their captors? When the story broke, government offices were closed, the usual sources were hard to find and neighbors knew next to nothing of substance about the main suspect.

I asked Investigative Reporters and Editors Executive Director Mark Horvit and some of the country’s best investigative reporters to help me compile a checklist of public records that would be useful in reporting a story like this. Horvit and the IRE folks have compiled a first-rate collection of “essential tipsheets” to help journalists with stories like this one that require you to be find reliable information quickly. I also emailed with a reporter who used such tools in her own work on the Cleveland story.

Here are ideas and suggested resources drawn from our conversations:

Property records: Who owns the house, and what other property does he or she own? Google Earth and the Street View function of Google Maps can provide views of the property. Many property-evaluation offices also provide photos. You should also look at tax records. Paul Aker, an investigative reporter for WBNS-10TV in Columbus, Ohio, suggested checking city and county records “for drawings, pictures, etc. of the house and modifications to it,” noting that proved helpful when he reported about a girl who’d been abducted and held captive in a basement.

Some counties offer land and property plats. You may find descriptions of additions or renovations if the contractor “pulled a permit” to do the work.

Brett Shipp, an investigative reporter for WFAA-TV in Dallas-Fort Worth, said tax liens can be a rich source of information: “People who are owed money sometimes have very candid if not animated opinions about experiences and observations of a targeted individual. Any kind of insight at this stage of the investigation is front-page news.”

Police/Fire/EMT calls to the address: Cleveland police revealed Tuesday that a person identifying himself as Ariel Castro called years ago to complain about a fight going on in the street near the house where the women were found. That’s useful because it places Castro, one of three suspects arrested, at the residence. Be sure to check police/fire/EMT calls to all properties owned, as captives might have be held at any of the properties (or none of them).

Housing codes department: Have there been any complaints? Did inspectors actually visit the property?

Civil courts: Sometimes you can find rich and detailed information in marriage and divorce records. Civil lawsuits can offer clues about a person’s character.

Criminal courts: Naturally you will look at felony cases, but don’t overlook what seems like little stuff. Why? Because misdemeanor charges may have started as felony charges, but been reduced in a plea bargain. A good question came from Susannah Frame at KING-TV in Seattle: “Did anyone involved have any outstanding warrants? Cops rarely pursue misdemeanor warrants. Should they?”

Federal courts: Don’t stop with state courts — go to PACER and look at federal court records too. You want to see if the person you are investigating has any bankruptcy filings in their past. As with tax liens, creditors can be great sources of information.

Public assistance: Frame said that in Washington state, the Department of Social and Health Services will confirm if someone is receiving public assistance. If a person you are investigating was on public assistance, ask if his or her version of DSHS did the proper check-ups, especially if a child was involved.

Licensing: You can check all sorts of licenses — besides professional licenses and driver’s licenses, cars, boats, trailers and trucks are all licensed. Ariel Castro was reportedly a school-bus driver, which is a strong lead that he had an active license. IRE’s Horvit added: “If the state has a Department of Professional Regulation (or the equivalent) that regulates jobs like doctors, lawyers, coaches, massage therapists, and so on; I’d look up all three suspects in every place I could, in case they’ve ever had or issues before in previous professions.” A surprising number of professions have licenses, including plumbers, contractors, hair braiders and boxers.

Work record(s): Investigative reporter Polly Kreisman suggested that since the main suspect is a school-bus driver, it would be reasonable to seek out his employment record with the school system.

IRE’s Horvit reminded me how useful it can be to “talk to anybody who would have been around the property, especially the less accessible parts.” Horvit’s list of such people would include utility company workers — people from the water, sewer, cable, gas and electric companies. How often do utilities tell police or codes departments what they see on routine visits to homes?

Tom Merriman, a former investigative reporter who’s now a well-known lawyer in Cleveland, told me that “sometimes the best records are in your own building. Did any of these suspects attend one of the many vigils, get interviewed on television, or appear in your archives in any way?”

Such deep searches have produced two potentially stunning findings: As noted in this article, in 2004 Ariel Castro’s daughter Arlene told the America’s Most Wanted TV show that she was the last person to be with Gina DeJesus before Gina disappeared. And this 2008 story says a woman who appears to be Ariel Castro’s daughter was sentenced to prison for slashing her baby’s throat.

Merriman noted that “while these records may give an investigative reporter nuggets of information, ultimately you want them to lead to real people who can fill in the blanks. Ultimately, many of the best sources will likely be Spanish speakers given the ethnicity of the neighborhood and the suspects. I would want to find people who are plugged into the Puerto Rican community.”

Social-media searches: We certainly know that Facebook and Twitter are areas that journalists must search. Obviously a Facebook page such as the one believed to belong to Ariel Castro can offer lots of leads to a suspect’s friends, as well as insight into what a person might have been doing or thinking. Castro’s page (which is now unavailable) includes guitars, a note that “miracles do happen” and a rant against women who use their children against the man. The page also lists groups Castro says he was a part of.

You can use Snapbird to search a Twitter account history beyond the 10 days that you get through Twitter itself. If you want to analyze the most frequently used words used on an account, or want to know what time of day a person is most likely to post, use Foller.me. If you enter my Twitter account, for example, you’ll find I most often post at 1 p.m. and between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. (I think that’s skewed by my postings as the Boston bombing story unfolded.)  Socialmention.com is a quick and easy way to see how a word or name has been used in various social media.

Picasa, Flickr, Tumblr and other photo sites are always worth searching. Another way to search photos is to drop an image you find online (such as from someone’s Facebook page) into TinEye or Google Images Search. TinEye will try to match the image to others like it online. That’s one way to find photos that have been Photoshopped or compare various versions of a photo to see if something’s been changed. It might also help you discover where a photo originated.

How one reporter used these tools

One reporter I followed Monday night was WKYC’s Sara Shookman. Shookman was hot on the trail of a story that Ariel Castro’s son had written about one of the missing women for a local newspaper in 2004. I wanted to know how she found the story, how she tracked down the son and how she contacted him on deadline. She answered me by email:

I first saw the story posted on Twitter by Newsbreaker, saying the suspect may have written the article.

So I was not the first to uncover the Plain Press story. But I instantly started doing a deep web search on the Plain Press archives, and also on Ariel Castro to verify who really did write this story. The Plain Press is still being published, and the editor responded that he remembered Ariel Castro was a college journalism student at the time in 2004, writing the piece as an assignment. He didn’t have contact information or many other details.

I found two Ariel Castros in Cleveland through background searches, Cuyahoga County property records and Cuyahoga County Court records: the 52-year-old suspect already identified, and a 31-year-old now living in Columbus, Ohio — Ariel Anthony Castro.

I reached out to him through a Facebook message on the Anthony Castro page, and he responded. That part was just luck. He confirmed that he did write the article while a student, as an assignment. And I asked what he thought of the news and if he knew Ariel Castro, a Facebook friend of his, and he said, yes, it was his dad. He was stunned that something like this could happen.

I asked again — ‘your father is the suspect?’ He said ‘yes.’ He stopped answering questions after that, telling me that he needed to find out the best way to handle this for his family. But he reiterated he was ‘stunned’…it was beyond comprehension.

We used social media, deep web searches, property and court records primarily to find addresses, try to develop a timeline and profile of the suspect Ariel Castro.  Most of records we needed Monday night were online, but birth records, municipal-court records, and Ariel Castro’s employment history with Cleveland schools have all been requested today on paper.

More tools from IRE

Here are more practical resources from the folks at IRE, collected on one easy-to-use page:

  • Web tools for investigators
    Free online tools that will help you enhance your reporting and investigation. Get tips on social media searches, documents, Web scraping and visualizations.
  • Cultivating sources and better interviewing
    Discusses finding sources; persuading sources to help your investigation; getting sources to come to you; taking care of your sources; and tips for better interviewing.
  • After breaking news: what’s next?
    This tipsheet is comprised of many useful web links covering topics of aviation accidents, automobiles and trucks, political campaign data, federal spending, U.S. court system, crime, business records, weather and more.
  • Social-media tools
    Learn new ways to find sources, background people and companies, and break stories before the competition with this Powerpoint.
IRE and the National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting (NICAR) also offer a collection of interviews with investigative journalists who have deep knowledge about complex stories. These interviews are usually only available to IRE members, but IRE has made them available for free. Among the interviews on IRE’s special page is this one:
  • Missing: Children at Risk
    This yearlong investigation looked at mistakes police, the federal government and the national news media make in reporting missing children. Among the findings were that many police departments violate federal law by not immediately reporting missing children to state authorities, and that the National Child Search Assistance Act, passed by Congress in 1990, is largely ignored.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    One of the Plain Dealer AMEs is showing what not to do by getting caught up in some sort of quota contest with the BBC. Meanwhile, by his own count, it appears the paper did only 3 stories a year about Amanda Berry while she was missing. Some of those were likely the “We have no new leads” boilerplate. That’s pretty terrible.

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  • PAndeten

    Among the interviews on IRE’s special page is this one:

  • PAndeten

    quick and easy way to see how a word or name has been used in various social media.

  • Hoodah

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