Social Media Site Shines Light on Cold Cases

by Elizabeth Pitts-Hibbard

Most people use social media to keep up with friends and family, as well as keep up with current events. One Stephens County woman, however, uses Facebook to shine a light on cold cases in the area.

The Facebook page, Oklahoma Cold Cases, was started in 2017 and has over 17,000 followers. “We wanted to shed light on cold cases, because we believe someone knows something,” said the page founder Jennifer Wells.*

Wells’s interest in cold cases began when the death of a friend in 2009 was ruled a suicide, but Wells didn’t believe the evidence supported the ruling. “Her former fiancé murdered someone else in a similar way later, but he died before he could talk to the cops,” she said. “I know how frustrating it is to not have closure.”

Wells and her team – which includes a criminologist - believe that sharing stories of cold cases on social media is essential to casting a wide net. “The more they get shared, the wider they go,” Wells said. “Silence is betrayal. We can’t be quiet about the pain these families go through, not knowing what happened to their loved one.”

The page receives tips via private messages and comments on posts. Whether the tips contain sightings of missing people or simply hearsay, the team forwards the tips to law enforcement. “We’ve also been contacted by law enforcement officers asking us to make posts about specific cases,” Wells said.

Because she grew up in the area, she said, Native American issues are of particular interest to Wells. She emphasized the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and children, pointing out that missing Indigenous women and children are not always listed by the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), which runs the NamUs database, acknowledges the listing gap and attributes it to several factors including tribal jurisdiction issues, lack of clear law enforcement protocols, and lack of awareness of the NamUs system.

Wells said that she and her team have assisted families in getting missing loved ones on the database, which includes forensic services such as fingerprint analysis, examining dental records, and DNA assessment. “We walk them through the process so that an investigation can happen,” she said.

Wells and the other page administrators regularly host online events, during which they post several cases per day to increase the impact. She reported that one such event in May, in honor of Missing Persons Day, had 56,000 people interacting with just one post the page. She refers to these events as “information drives” that generate comments and messages about the featured cases.

The impact the page has on some families has been profound. “When we post about a case,” Wells said, “the families feel heard.” She said that the sister of one victim, Dorean Hudson, shares the post about Hudson almost daily. “Why? Because nobody else is,” Wells said.

As for the impact on law enforcement investigations, Wells isn’t sure. Once tips are given to law enforcement, the team doesn’t hear much by way of follow-up. Occasionally they hear of new suspects or indictments in cases, but they don’t know for sure whether their work had anything to do with it.

That lack of information can take a toll, Wells says. “There are really emotional days,” she said. “Reading case files, research, looking at crime scene photos.” The hardest part of what she does, however, is talking to family members, “especially the mothers.”

Wells and the team have plans for more online events in the future, as well as covering lesser-known cases and starting a podcast. She is also working toward getting her Private Investigator license so that she can get more access to case information.

Wells and her fellow administrators on the Oklahoma Cold Cases page encourage people in Stephens County to periodically take a look at the cases they feature to see if there’s anything they can shed light on. “You don’t know what you know,” Wells said. “But someone knows something.”

*Page administrators do not use their real names due to safety concerns