Indianapolis tech veterans are heating up cold cases
Many tech startups result from an enterprising entrepreneur who’s recognized a pain point and had an idea to solve it. For Uncovered’s founders, Jim Brown, Ashlee Fujawa and Anna Eaglin, the pain is deeply personal and dates back years.
Uncovered offers the first platform that credibly centralizes all the publicly available facts of a case in a living repository where additional information can be acquired and shared in a connected network where interested parties can compare notes, share information or raise awareness of their cases. While many people are fascinated by true crime as a form of entertainment, Uncovered’s founders see the site as a means to advocate for victims of unsolved cases and bring more justice to a too-violent world.
How past violent crimes shaped creation of nation’s first interactive cold case platform.
Ashlee was 12 when Shanda Sharer was tortured and murdered near Madison, Ind. where both girls grew up. “We were the same age, and it was the first time I realized that this kind of thing happens to a lot of people and could happen to me. It really had an effect on me,” she said.
Later, at Indiana University, Ashlee met and befriended Anna. Before they graduated in 2004, Anna’s cousin, Molly Datillo, went missing. She has yet to be found.
“When Molly disappeared, I felt helpless. I couldn’t contribute anything meaningful in the search,” she said. “Building Uncovered lets me put something good into the world that has the potential to make a significant impact in a way that I couldn’t before.”
Jim’s interest in criminal justice was prompted by the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, for which O.J. Simpson stood trial but was acquitted. Jim met Anna through Innovatemap where they discovered their mutual interest in helping the millions of people whose lives have been touched by unsolved murders and missing loved ones.
“It was actually Jim’s idea to create a platform where we could compile all the publicly available information on these cases and use analytics to reinvigorate the investigation, ” Anna said. “I mentioned it to Ashlee, and she immediately saw the need to bring in a community aspect so people interested in these cases could pool their knowledge and bring in a whole new set of data.”
Uncovered’s founders have personally invested more than $100,000 into the company and raised nearly $20,000 in the first 24 hours of its crowdfunding effort to help grow and refine the organization’s database and platform offerings. The site works in a fashion similar to Ancestry.com but focuses on connecting true crime dots rather than genealogy. Access to the publicly available data is free, but memberships enable premium services and access to a digital workspace platform.
“We’re grateful for the initial support, which we take as validation that Uncovered is as necessary a tool as we believe it to be,” Ashlee said.
Unsolved murders and missing persons cases in the U.S. grow as police resources dwindle
There are currently more than 200,000 unsolved murder or missing person cases in the U.S. that are considered “cold,” or those for which law enforcement have exhausted leads. Five thousand more victims across all genders, ethnicities and ages are added as cold cases each year.
Some cases, like the JonBenet Ramsey or Simpson/Goldman, receive international attention. More often, especially for indiginous women, other minority groups and members of the LGBTQ+ community, the cases don’t get much attention at all. Public attention is important because it can generate leads for investigators to use to solve the mystery.
“It’s heartbreaking when a loved one is killed or goes missing, but when justice isn’t served, it’s an unending, cruel blow to those left behind,” Ashlee said. “We’re harnessing the power of crowdsourcing, advocacy, analytics and big data to increase the chances that some of these cases can be solved. We believe families deserve answers; victims deserve a voice, and no one should be a statistic.”
Uncovered doesn’t seek to replace law enforcement but is available as a resource should they choose to use it. Most law enforcement agencies do little cold casework, she said, citing U.S. Department of Justice and Investigative Sciences Journal data that shows only 20% of law enforcement agencies have a protocol to initiate cold case investigations; only 10% have dedicated cold case investigators; only 7% have a formal cold case unit and nearly 80% of all police departments have 25 or fewer officers.
Every year, thousands of killers literally get away with murder,” Ashlee said. “Analytics and big data can match people to their ancestors, make love matches and help you find the right wine. Why not use those same tools to bring closure to the survivors of these horrific crimes?”
Combination of disparate skill sets key to start-up success
It didn’t take long to outline and launch Uncovered once the three cofounders discovered their mutual passion for social justice and unsolved mysteries. Jim credits the varying skill sets of the founders for some of that.
Jim is a serial entrepreneur with investment/leadership roles in companies like Boardable, Malamo, Woven and SalesTuners. Anna is a veteran in product and building technology. Ashlee is a veteran marketing professional. Prior to joining the Uncovered team, she led marketing efforts at TechPoint where she met Jim.
“We’ve brought our disparate skill sets together on a passion project that we believe will truly make a positive difference in these too-long-unsolved cases,” he said. “Without any promotion, more than 800 people have found our resource and are already contributing to the database. We’re very optimistic about continued growth and interest.”
Uncovered.com is a public benefit, or B corporation. There is no charge to add a cold case and its information to the database. Access to the publicly available data is free, but memberships enable premium services and access to a digital workspace platform.
“We’re very pleased at the response so far, but success for us isn’t going to come down to dollars alone,” Ashlee said. “We want to create an inclusive and highly engaged community where we’ve provided an outlet for the millions of people interested in true crime to turn that into advocacy for the thousands of people who are missing and murdered who still need justice.”