Polly Penwell considers herself separated from the outside world. As a grown woman with autism, she is isolated and doesn’t leave her house much.
But in her house, Penwell has become a one-woman crime solver unit, solving crimes long considered “cold” by the authorities.
Penwell became an online sleuth last year, solving a case that had eluded authorities for three decades.
She made a connection between a teenager who was found murdered in Texas and a girl named Michelle Garvey who went missing in Connecticut in 1982.
After submitting her findings to the authorities, the case was closed.
30-YEAR-OLD CASE SOLVED
Penwell, 46, believes her autism makes her particularly suited to online sleuthing. She believes she sees patterns and possibilities that other people don’t.
She said she is drawn to missing persons cases because of the pain involved, though no one in her life has ever disappeared.
“The pain that you see those families going through … I would always just be watching the show [“Disappeared” in the ID Network] and just be bawling,” she said. “I felt so much sadness for them. I’ve always been very sensitive – compassionate, I guess – even as a little kid. Overly so. Very overly so.”
Penwell started keeping notes and trying to figure out how to use clues from the Internet to solve disappearances. It didn’t take long for her to crack her first case.
Her method needed tweaking at first, though. She had begun by trying to locate missing persons, which led to dead ends.
She soon realized she needed to work backward. If she started with unidentified remains, she could search databases of missing persons and try to match an identity with a body.
“When you work backwards, you have a much better shot,” Penwell said.
On the day she solved the Garvey case, she opened two databases on her computer screen from National Missing and Unidentified Persons System — one a list of people missing, and the other a list of unidentified remains.
“I ran perimeters in each of those that would bring up somebody,” Penwell said. “I narrowed the results down to somebody who was just found in Texas. And that was just it. A missing white young girl [from Connecticut], and a found young white girl from Texas. … It took me 10 minutes to find her.”
A MATCH, BUT NO CREDIT
Penwell was certain she had found a match when she brought up two pictures on her screen: one of the missing girl and the other of the un identified remains taken hours after death. It was obviously the same person, she said.
The match was confirmed soon after Penwell contacted the Harris County Medical Examiner’s office, though Penwell was never given credit publicly for the match. Rather, a state police press release from Connecticut credited a DNA database match.
Penwell saved an email exchange with Sharon Derrick, a forensic anthropologist with the Harris County Institute of Forensic Science, that confirms Penwell provided the information that solved the case.
In a Jan. 13 email to Penwell about the Garvey case, Derrick wrote, “You were right on with your suggestion.”
Derrick confirmed that she had an email exchange with Penwell when contacted by the Northern Express but said she could not answer further questions because she was not authorized to speak to the media.
“The official story was that they identified her by DNA, but it was really just a matter of probably anybody seeing the two pictures,” Penwell said. “They couldn’t admit that an individual, whoever, from the public, came forward with the ID…they’re saying that it took 30 years to solve because they had to wait for advancements in DNA.”
Penwell believes the case went unsolved for so many years because authorities believed Garvey ran away from home but assumed she stayed on the East Coast. The search for her was limited to that part of the country.
Penwell said it stings that she has not received any official recognition.
“As a human being, I have to admit, I’ve been a failure my whole life. As far as society is concerned, that’s the way people see me,” she said. “I feel guilty about it, but I do – I wish I would have gotten some validation.”
AUTISM AND SPECIAL SKILLS
Penwell moved to Traverse City eight years ago. Her family vacationed in Suttons Bay when she was growing up downstate. When her father became ill, the family decided to move north.
Penwell said her autism makes it difficult to get by in the world. She has struggled with her mental health lately. The past few years, in particular, have been extremely difficult — there’s been an arrest and some trouble with Community Mental Health case workers.
In October, her mother hired a caretaker to make sure she keeps up her home and takes care of herself. The caretaker, Jamie Gaskin, said she and Penwell have hit it off.
Penwell says Gaskin’s support has given her the confidence to follow up on the missing persons leads she has found online.
“She has an extreme IQ,” Gaskin said.
“She has an outrageous mind. She told me about this [crime solving] stuff and I was completely floored.”
Penwell now believes she derives selfworth from her online work.
“There are so many people out there with autism who are undervalued,” she said. “They’re different, and so they’re considered damaged and they’re considered not as hirable or there’s this negative association with it. Most of us are isolated. I’m a very isolated individual.”
A TASTE FOR SOLVING CRIME
Penwell was first drawn into the world of serial killers and crime in 1998, when she lived in Orlando and answered a call for volunteers to form a picket line to scour the countryside for a missing girl.
“On the news they were pleading with people to come down and join the search party and as soon as I heard that, I was like, I couldn’t say no,” she said. “I mean, it was kind of like, I just knew I wanted to go and be part of it and try to help.”
That same day, the missing girl’s father confessed to her murder and her body was found in another part of the state.
Penwell, meanwhile, got a taste for crime solving that day.
Not long after, she got her first home Internet connection and found herself again drawn to police websites and missing persons cases.
“In the process I found a boy in one precinct and a boy in another precinct who looked very much alike, only they were found in different areas,” she said. “They were wearing different clothing, and I wondered if they might not be brothers.”
She called a detective who was investigating; the detective did not appreciate the amateur help.
That, and some ridicule from an uncle about her crime-fighting inclinations, discouraged Penwell and put her off sleuthing for a while.
‘CANDY MAN’ BREAKTHROUGH?
Penwell believes since she took up sleuthing again last fall she may have leads in several other cases, though there have been no official confirmations in those.
In one, she believes she may have connected a Wisonsin woman who vanished in 1990 with a Jane Doe who committed suicide in a Virginia cemetery six years later.
In another, Penwell thinks she might have answers about a 70-year-old who vanished from Portland, Ore. after boarding a stagecoach to visit his doctor in 1920.
In a third, Penwell believes she may have found evidence that Dean Corll, a notorious Houston-area serial killer known as “Candy Man,” may have taken his horror show crosscountry.
Penwell believes she has ID’d a missing boy in connection with Corll, who handed out candy to neighborhood children, and is thought to be responsible for 30 or more deaths of young boys in the 1970s.
He and two teenaged accomplices offered alcohol and drugs to young boys to lure them into Corll’s house or van and then the children were tortured, raped and killed.
In 1973, Corll was killed by one of his accomplices.
Penwell believes she may have found evidence that 14-year-old Darren Bruce Hillis, who vanished from Norfolk, Va. in 1973, was one of Corll’s victims.
She found a photo of Hillis and compared it to a Polaroid snapshot from the Corll case that only recently surfaced.
Penwell said this could open up the possibility that during a four-month window when Corll was thought to have been inactive, he may have actually abducted boys around the country.
“This is monumental, because this boy is the only victim we know of not from Houston, which would suggest that Dean Corll in fact did travel outside of the state of Texas to procure victims, which blows the whole case then to a nationwide level,” Penwell said.
She said the unknown victim photo was discovered a couple of years ago by a documentary filmmaker who searched the belongings of one of Corll’s teenaged accomplices.
It shows a boy who bears a resemblance to Hillis strapped to a torture board like the one Corll was known to use.
Another clue is that Hillis was last seen wearing red pants with white stripes down the sides.
The boy in the picture is wearing the same pants, Penwell said.
CRIME SOLVING AS THERAPY
Penwell believes working on the missing persons cases is therapeutic.
“For the last five years or six years, all I’ve been saying is, ‘I need a voice, I need a voice, I need a voice, somebody please help me have a voice,’” she said.
Dr. Jordan P. Boudreau, an autism specialist and owner of the Autism Center of Northern Michigan, said he doesn’t believe that an autism sufferer would be more inclined to look at things like solving a missing persons case differently than anybody else.
Boudreau, who doesn’t know Penwell, said he believes she could have solved cases, but he doesn’t believe autism would play a role in having an ability to do something like that.
He also doesn’t believe autism could be responsible for Penwell feeling isolated.
“I think that’s an over generalization,” he said. “If you look at people in general, there’s a lot of people who are isolated and live alone.”
Gaskin said she noticed signs of depression in Penwell when she became her caregiver last year.
“The major advice that she receives as an autistic person is, ‘Well, you have the choice to be normal, you should just be normal, you should just try and change or try and pretend that you’re somebody else,’” Gaskin said. “That is so devastating, because who are we if we can’t be ourselves? I guess all I wanted to do with her was to celebrate that.’”