Bloomberg Businessweek

MURDER, HE CALCULATED

A tenacious data miner has built a tool that can help find serial killers and bring down murder rates—if police are willing to use it
Hargrove at home, which is also the home office of the Murder Accountability Project

On Aug. 18, 2010, a police lieutenant in Gary, Ind., received an e-mail, the subject line of which would be right at home in the first few scenes of a David Fincher movie:

“Could there be a serial killer active in the Gary area?” It isn’t clear what the lieutenant did with that e-mail; it would be understandable if he waved it off as a prank. But the author could not have been more serious. He’d attached source material—spreadsheets created from FBI files showing that over several years the city of Gary had recorded 14 unsolved murders of women between the ages of 20 and 50. The cause of each death was the same: strangulation. Compared with statistics from around the country, he wrote, the number of similar killings in Gary was far greater than the norm. So many people dying the same way in the same city—wouldn’t that suggest that at least a few of them, maybe more, might be connected? And that the killer might still be at large?

The police lieutenant never replied. Twelve days later, the police chief, Gary Carter, received a similar e-mail from the same person. This message added a few details. Several of the women were strangled in their homes. In at least two cases, a fire was set after the murder. In more recent cases, several women were found strangled in or around abandoned buildings. Wasn’t all of this, the writer asked, at least worth a look?

The Gary police never responded to that e-mail, either, or to two follow-up letters sent via registered mail. No one from the department has commented publicly about what was sent to them—nor would anyone comment for this story. “It was the most frustrating experience of my professional life,” says the author of those messages, a 61-year-old retired news reporter from Virginia named Thomas Hargrove.

Hargrove spent his career as a data guy. He analyzed his first set of polling data as a journalism major at the University of Missouri, where he became a student director of the university’s polling organization. He joined an E.W. Scripps newspaper right out of college and expanded his repertoire from political polling data to practically any subject that required statistical analysis. “In the newsroom,” he remembers, “they would say, ‘Give that to Hargrove. That’s a numbers problem.’”

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