The Delphi murders were a true crime obsession. Then an unexpected press conference

The Delphi murders were a true crime obsession. Then an unexpected press conference

Abigail Williams and Liberty German – known as Abby and Libby – disappeared on February 13, 2017, aged 13 and 14 respectively. The discovery of their bodies the following day in Delphi, Indiana, launched a murder investigation that continues to this day.

Abby and Libby were friends who went for a short hike across an abandoned railroad track on the day they died. When they failed to return to a pickup point to be picked up by a parent, the alarm went off. The fact that they disappeared in such a short amount of time was a topic of conversation. The unusual piece of evidence they left behind made headlines.

Investigators released this evidence piecemeal after Abby and Libby’s bodies were found. First, they released a recording of the prime suspect’s voice; then a photo; and finally a clip from a video. The fact that these materials came from Libby’s cellphone only heightened interest in the case: there wasn’t much information on who might have caused the girls’ deaths, but it appeared that Libby, who almost certainly sensed the danger, somehow had the presence of mind to arrest the alleged perpetrator.

This picture was taken on Libby’s phone the day the girls were murdered

(Indiana State Police)

Then, on Monday (October 31), the Indiana State Police held a press conference that had been in preparation for five years. They confirmed that a suspect had been arrested. Richard Matthew Allen, 50, was arrested last Tuesday and is now charged with double murder.

Not much is known about the circumstances of Allen’s arrest or the evidence against him. During Monday’s press conference, the most repeated line had to do with precisely that opacity. The investigation is still active, and the tip lines remain open to information about Allen “or anyone else.” As a result, investigators are keeping pretty much everything they know about the case under wraps. “While I know you are all expecting the final details of this arrest today, today is not that day,” Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter told the press Monday.

Richard Allen in a mug shot after being arrested for the Delphi murders

(Indiana State Police)

The indictment documents and probable cause affidavit were sealed — a move that Nicholas McLeland, the county’s attorney, said was “unusual” in the county, where they would normally be released. Pressed on the matter by one of the journalists present, McLeland reiterated that “the investigation is still open and while all cases are important, the nature of this case requires additional consideration.” A public hearing will be held to decide whether these records should remain sealed.

The secrecy of these documents and the odd nature of the press conference – where police gathered media only to repeatedly tell them they could not share details – has sparked speculation. The pending tip line and mention of “someone else” suggest police may suspect others may be involved in the murders. It’s also reasonable to assume that law enforcement is being extra cautious about a case that has known to have garnered worldwide attention.

I don’t think the desire to learn the details behind Allen’s arrest is due solely to pathological curiosity. A public thirst for information is not inherently scary, even in the context of true crime stories. Law enforcement relied on the public to help solve this case. After the killings, police released the first photo of a person they said was the prime suspect walking on a bridge, head down, hands apparently in pockets. They later released the audio clip mentioned above, in which someone – presumably the same person as in the photo – says the words “Down the Hill”. And there was the short video of the suspect walking, the apparent purpose of which was to help the public identify him by his gait. Photos of the girls during their hike that day were uploaded to Snapchat before they disappeared, leading some to refer to the Delphi killings as the “Snapchat murders”.

All of this content spread well beyond Delphi’s local community—and well beyond Indiana and the United States. We knew just enough to be intrigued. Huge communities of people began poring over the video frame by frame. There are two communities on Reddit associated with investigating what’s happening: the main subreddit, DelphiMurders, has nearly 73,000 members; and a separate group, DelphiMurdersTimeline — with over 5,000 members — dedicated solely to creating an accurate timeline of everything that happened that day.

I don’t blame anyone who has googled everything there is to know about the case. I certainly have. But Monday’s low-key press conference provided an opportunity to focus on the victims and their families for a moment before we turn – as will inevitably – to the logistics of the case. Allen’s arrest comes at a time of much conversation about true crime, specifically how victims and their families fit into the genre. Ryan Murphy’s dramatization of the Jeffrey Dahmer case, released in September, sparked renewed debate about what, if anything, true crime may bring to the table. Is it simply pathological voyeurism? Is it a great way to bring together a community of people who can help solve cold cases? Is it a bit of both?

During and after Monday’s press conference, attention was also paid to the local community, who are sure to be shaken by the arrest of local resident Allen. The prosecutor himself spoke of “mixed feelings” and described the arrest as a “bittersweet” step “in the right direction”. Of Allen, he added, “It’s concerning that he’s a local.” According to NBC News, Libby’s grandparents told reporters that Allen was an employee at a local CVS shop, processing photos for the girl’s family. (CVS told the platform in a statement, “We are shocked and saddened to learn that one of our store associates has been arrested as a suspect in these crimes. We stand ready to cooperate in any way we can with the police investigation.”)

More details will no doubt be known in the near future. Allen has pleaded not guilty and a trial date has been set for March 20, 2023. But Monday was about Abby, Libby and the people who knew them. That’s how it should be.

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