How I Got “Crime-Pilled” by a Bunch of Very-Online Web Sleuths

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Four men drowned in Austin. The internet tried to convince me a serial killer was behind their deaths.

From February to April, four men were found dead in Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas. The Austin Police Department said these were all accidental drownings, caused by a combination of alcohol and easy access to the lake, which can be challenging to see at night.

At the time, I’d heard faint rumors of a shadowy figure stalking the city’s vibrant streets. According to numerous online sleuths filling up my social media feeds, the “Rainey St. Ripper” preyed on drunk men parading around one of the city’s popular bar areas near downtown. One of the most vibrant online forums for this chatter was a Facebook group called “Lady Bird Lake Serial Killer/Rainey St Killer,” which exploded to nearly 100,000 since its creation in February. The group quickly became a hub for speculation and theories, with some members suggesting that APD and the Travis County Medical Examiner were involved in a conspiracy to cover up the murders. Meanwhile, on Tiktok, the hashtag #RaineyStreetRipper amassed more than 1.2 million views, with the vast majority of videos detailing various rumors and hypotheses surrounding the case.

There has always been a certain appeal to true crime in America, but now we’re watching more true crime than ever. Not only consuming it, it turns out—internet sleuths searching and gossiping about a ghost killer in Austin is the latest in a series of internet-fueled crime dramas that have played out across the country. Just recently for The Atlantic, McKay Coppins covered the town of Moscow, Idaho, a community left in paranoia and fear after social media detectives flocked to the area to “help” search for a killer (spoiler alert: It made things worse). Web sleuthing, in general, has been on the rise since the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, and in turn, has evolved into one of the more problematic forms of citizen journalism.

Despite these broader trends, true crime never really appealed to me. But that changed when, just as social media was starting to churn with rumors of the Rainey St. Ripper, an Austin man named Raul Meza Jr. turned himself in for a series of unrelated murders that began more than 40 years ago. He was declared the city’s first “serial killer” in 138 years, and he had nothing to do with the men who turned up in Lady Bird Lake. Perhaps against my better judgment, my distaste turned into genuine interest.

After all, I thought, shouldn’t I be at least a little curious, as an Austin resident, to understand why some folks are so adamant there’s a killer on the loose? Turns out I’d been crime-pilled.

When I reached out to journalist Rachel Monroe, author of the 2019 true-crime book Savage Appetites, she told me that internet sleuthing is both human nature and a little bit of ego. “It’s flattering to think that you’re going to be the one that comes up with the answer that no one else did,” Monroe said over email. “The internet adds another element, too—social media makes it collaborative (or, sometimes, competitive), and algorithms incentivize the most sensational theories.”

Not long after I started paying closer attention to the whispers online, the 100,000-strong Facebook group community that started everything was shut down. But the two new spaces that followed in its wake—the private “Lady Bird Serial Killer” community and the public “Lady Bird Lake Mysterious Deaths-Does Rainey St Have a Serial Killer?” with 300 and 3,100 members, respectively—didn’t lack for wild theories of their own. 

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