Susan Rainwater was biking down a highway in Washington State when she was struck from behind by a motorist and killed. The driver sped off, leaving behind Susan and her mangled bike — plus a tiny piece of plastic broken off from the vehicle. There were no known witnesses. It was in the middle of the state, on a remote highway that runs through isolated farmland. The only possible evidence police could trace back to the killer was this piece of plastic, and they didn’t know what it was.
So Washington State Patrol got online to crowdsource an answer. “Troopers and detectives are still looking for a black vehicle believed to be involved in this morning’s tragic bicyclist fatality,” the department wrote in a tweet, adding a picture of the palm-sized piece of plastic, and Susan’s bike. “If you know anything regarding this collision, please call the Washing State Patrol.”
Soon after, a redditor posted the piece of plastic to the subreddit r/WhatIsThisThing, a forum where people identify random crap.
Then police got lucky: A guy called u/JeffsNuts just happened to be scrolling by.
As a Maryland state inspector for three decades, Jeff had looked at thousands of headlamps on thousands of used cars and trucks. It took him two tries to guess the make and model of the truck the piece belonged to. “That notch in the plastic was the spot where I put my screwdriver in to adjust the headlamps,” he tells me, explaining his process. “I’ve seen this part and others like it millions of times. I first checked a late 1980s Dodge, and just by chance, one of the images of [a] 1988 Ram truck brought up a link to a 1988 Chevy truck.”
The post blew up. Redditors were amazed someone could know such a tiny fraction of a piece of plastic belonged to a specific truck from a specific year. The information got back to Washington State Patrol, who used Jeff’s tip in conjunction with an anonymous phone call describing such a Chevrolet: a 1980s pickup with right-side headlight assembly and damage to its front end.
After providing the license plate number, police found Jeremy Simon, 37, the owner of that 1986 Chevrolet K-10 pickup. Simon admitted he was the one who struck Rainwater and fled the scene. Washington State Patrol tweeted the above picture, crediting Reddit for aiding in the search. Jeff, though, still didn’t quite realize what he’d done. “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,” he says. “That what I had just done was very real. Someone was dead.”
Soon, he says, his Reddit inbox filled up. “There have been a handful that want to take some things from my comment history out of context to parade around to everybody and make me look like a bad guy, but I expected that,” he wrote on Reddit.
Wait, what comments?
Jeff is a regular contributor to the subreddit r/GreatAwakening, a community devoted to QAnon, the complex conspiracy theory about an alleged shadow network of pedophiles in the U.S. government. QAnon adherents believe President Trump working in tandem with Robert Mueller in a game of political chess that will eventually lead to the unearthing of a giant child-abuse ring that includes Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and every U.S. president before Trump. What started as a niche discussion on 4chan is now making headlines: Roseanne Barr is a believer, a QAnon follower recently blocked traffic on the Hoover Dam and one prominent QAnon figure was invited to the White House for a photo-op with Trump last week, tweeting Q hashtags that made the community go nuts.
Jeff says he tends not to take online drama too seriously. “You say shit and then move on,” he says. (Recently, he wished Hillary Clinton would “rot in hell.”) “It’s the internet. And more specifically, it’s Reddit — if I let everything I see affect me, I’d go crazy. There’s a certain disconnect (or at least there used to be) when browsing.”
Like QAnon, the hunt for Susan Rainwater’s killer crossed Jeff’s path as just another clue in some abstract online game. He first posted about that truck, he says, “for that all-important internet karma.” Only this time, the evidence was real — and Jeff had the missing piece. So what happens when a guy who tracks a preposterous tangle of alleged criminal mysteries finds a real one, and actually helps solve it?
“I did get a note from a direct relative of Sue, who expressed her thanks from the family,” Jeff says. The note said “something along the lines of, ‘We are all distraught here, but at least the husband of 35 years has the satisfaction of knowing the guy was caught.’” That’s when Jeff took the time to reflect, he says. “The situation became more than saying shit and then moving on. After reading a note like that, I must admit I did a lot of soul-searching.”
As for the murder, Jeremy Simon has been arraigned for vehicular homicide, hit-and-run resulting in death and unlawful possession of a controlled substance (police found heroin in his possession). He pleaded not guilty, telling detectives he fell asleep at the wheel. “Such an avoidable tragedy,” Jeff says. “I wish for the sake of the involved that this had never even happened to begin with.” And then he mentions that note from Susan’s relative again. “That means more to me,” he says, “than any internet karma.”