To enter the jail cell where sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein hanged himself—or, depending on your appetite for conspiracy theories, was murdered—on the CrimeDoor app, scan the floor with your phone. When the app registers your surroundings, a floating blue door appears. Behind it, the decor of your living room or backyard dissolves into a grainy cartoon of a small concrete chamber, outfitted with a metal bunk bed, steel desk, and an array of musty orange blankets, all drawn in the primitive graphics of a 1990s video game. It looks like a frame from Myst, if the puzzle was a crime scene.
CrimeDoor, an augmented-reality app that launched Friday, operates under the assumption that, given the opportunity, App Store customers would want to enter a digital world that replicates with photo-accuracy the spatial layout of someone’s murder. If the true crime boom of the 2010s is any indication, they may be right. But unlike the murder podcasts or docuseries populating feeds, which tend to highlight crimes with endings, CrimeDoor more often focuses on cold cases without culprits—or in the case of Epstein, with answers some refuse to accept.
The idea, CrimeDoor co-founder Neil Mandt claims, is to give “a voice to victims” by calling attention to unsolved cases and crowdsourcing their investigations in a longshot, video game-like bid to close them. “Helping to solve a crime would be the most important moment in my life,” Mandt says, “and I feel confident this technology will be pivotal in doing just that.”
The app has two primary features. On a purely archival level, CrimeDoor keeps files on a couple hundred cases, ranging from the recent (the Delphi murders) to the historical (Lincoln’s assassination), from the well-known to the obscure, with lists of essential references—major articles, podcasts, case updates, audio—culled from media and the public record. Forty of those files are or will be linked to a “CrimeDoor,” an AR room that superimposes some scene from the crime on a user’s surroundings. These scenes, explains Mandt, are put together from photo evidence and available video. Using a tiny red joystick, users can tour a scene to see how far away the weapon was found, or in the case of Epstein, visit the morgue and inspect the striations on his neck.
The app seems to encourage Epstein suicide skepticism. Paul Holes, a former cold case investigator known for helping identify the Golden State Killer, and another paid sponsor of the app, cast doubt on the findings. “I have some concerns about the orientation of that ligature mark, as it appears to be very horizontal, versus vertical if he were hanging,” Hole said. “Oftentimes you’ll see that it will have an upward slant to it, and it looks more akin to more of a manual ligature strangulation than possibly a hanging. However, I need to know more. I can’t just rely on that. It’s just a red flag.”
A medical examiner, however, ruled that the billionaire died by suicide. “In all forensic investigations, all information must be synthesized to determine the cause and manner of death,” Chief Medical Examiner Barbara Sampson said in a statement about the conspiracies. “Everything must be consistent; no single finding can be evaluated in a vacuum.”
AR, unlike its more immersive relative, virtual reality (VR), doesn’t totally replace the user’s environment or require any special equipment, but alters it with layered graphics and sounds, using just a phone and an app—often Snapchat, which embraced the medium early on. CrimeDoor’s founders, Lauren and Neil Mandt, who are married, are convinced it is the future of all online communication, a future they believe to be “between 10 to 18 months away.” Neil is so convinced of the imminent ubiquity of AR that he has started acquiring AR real estate—advertising space on real-world buildings that will be visible only after widespread adoption of the “spatial web,” a Blade Runner-esque vision where digitized information appears superimposed on the world around us. Mandt says he has made agreements to monetize the invisible ad space on “thousands” of buildings. He also owns the AR life rights to long-dead crooner Dean Martin (Mandt declined to say if he owned other AR life rights).
“If you were to Google ‘Snapchat, Game of Thrones, Flatiron Building,’ you’d see that Snapchat and Game of Thrones put a giant dragon flying on the Flatiron Building and turned it into a big ice castle,” Mandt says. “You discover it with your phone and you might say that’s neat—except for the fact there’s an advertisement and the guy that owns a flat on a building didn’t participate in messaging or didn’t get the money.”
The app describes itself as a news organization; their ultimate goal is to partner with media companies to make AR renderings of their crime stories. (Mandt would not say if they had partnered with any outlets yet: “We are in discussions with the biggest media companies in the world,” he claims). And each case does come with an archive of references—some entail interviews with victims’ family members. The Delphi murders door, which opens onto the bridge in Indiana where Libby German and Abigail Williams disappeared in 2017, was assisted by one of the teens’ surviving sister, Kelsi German, who’d consulted on the accuracy of the visuals.
“We want the feel of what the girls were feeling to be correct,” German said. “So we’re going through videos and finding research on the bridge to get the most accurate experiences possible, down to Libby’s cellphone case and the clothes that the girls were wearing.”
Kelsi German (L); Libby German and Abigail Williams (R), who disappeared in 2017.
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Handout
But unlike news outlets, which typically don’t compensate sources on ethical grounds, CrimeDoor pays. Sources like German, or “creative partners” as the founders call it, receive a percentage of the profits. “We are 100 percent of the news. That’s how we see ourselves and we try and act like any strong journalistic outfit should,” Mandt offers. “We don’t work with every family in every case… But when they are a partner of ours, we give them a percentage of the money that is earned from their creative partnership in creating a new piece of content.”
One of the basic peculiarities of the true crime genre is its tenuous place on the border between news and entertainment—packaging real stories of violent crime in TV-friendly formats. CrimeDoor takes that to an extreme by turning armchair investigation into a kind of video game. The slippage between story and reality is partly a feature of the genre, says Holes. “When you look at the demographic of who is really investing in true crime, it’s predominantly women,” Holes maintains, much like many of the genre’s victims. “It’s almost like there’s an educational aspect, that some of these fans are consuming content to help protect themselves. Why didn’t the victim live? How can I avoid becoming a victim?”
For her part, German isn’t bothered by the idea that users might absorb her sister’s story like a video game. “That’s just how people have consumed this story for so long,” she says. “It’s kind of how it is.”