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CrimeDoor opens the ‘AR’ door to unsolved murders

Who killed JonBenet Ramsey is still unknown. The granddaughters of a lead investigator in the 1996 case promised to carry on the investigation, and launched a podcast devoted to the murder case.

Citizen sleuths can study details of this celebrated case and others, and through AR ‒ augmented reality ‒ step inside the murder scene using CrimeDoor, an app dedicated to true crime stories.

Sonoma Valley’s Ben Flajnik, who gained notoriety for his run on TV reality series “The Bachelorette,” is the director of business development for CrimeDoor. Flajnik said there are “certain cases that hit closer to home.” For him, it is the 1996 Menendez brothers murder case that convicted brothers Lyle and Erik Menendez for the 1989 murder of their parents, Jose and Kitty Menendez.

Lyle, left, and Erik Menendez sit in Beverly Hills Municipal Court in 1990. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Lyle, left, and Erik Menendez sit in Beverly Hills Municipal Court in 1990. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Flajnik was born in New Jersey and his family lived near the Menendez family. He didn’t know the family, but his mother did. “My mom used to play tennis with Kitty and knew them. My mom talked about the glamorous parties she threw,” he said.

“It’s always been a case that’s been on my radar,” Flajnik said.

The Menendez murders are a solved case – and there are several on the app including the Ramon Salcido 1989 mass murders in Sonoma County – but CrimeDoor’s hook is the unsolved murders such as that of JonBenet Ramsey, the 6-year-old child beauty queen found dead in her family’s basement in Colorado.

JonBenet Ramsey was 6 when she was killed in Boulder, Colo., in 1996. (RP Studio / ZUMA Press)
JonBenet Ramsey was 6 when she was killed in Boulder, Colo., in 1996. (RP Studio / ZUMA Press)

Her parents John and Patsy Ramsey were suspects, but Lou Smit, a detective who came out of retirement to work on the case, concluded that the couple was not involved in the murder. When he died in 2010 he asked his family to carry on the investigation.

They might get some help from CrimeDoor.

Husband and wife team Neil and Lauren Mandt are the founders of CrimeDoor. Neil has a long list of Hollywood credits, from producing and making films, to developing and selling shows. While Neil closely follows media trends, Lauren is a true crime buff. They paired their interests and created CrimeDoor.

Not a “tech guy,” Neil said he noticed it was getting harder to sell show ideas because viewers were “leaving cable.” He had been paying attention to advancement in technology; when Facebook bought virtual reality company Oculus in 2014, that was his turning point.

“That began the immersive media push,” Neil said. “I dedicated all my time into immersive media.”

The couple produced the virtual reality show of the 2018 Superbowl with the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots, for example.

“We were the official company for Indy Car and did a live New Year’s Eve for Fox,” and won a couple of technology Emmy awards, Neil said.

Both the market and the technology needed more maturity, he said, but when the mobile game Pokemon Go came out in 2016 he knew augmented reality would take off. While it might seem that Pokemon flamed out because it is not talked about as much, Neil said in 2020 it made a profit of $100 million a month.

“It is a thing, no question it is a thing,” he said of augmented reality (AR).

Neil and Lauren focused on how they could use AR in a way that would “enhance two-dimensional content, and what is that content,” Neil said.

Lauren said: “And along the way I was going to sleep every night watching ‘Forensic Files’ or listening to every podcast…there was of true crimes.” She said she was “all in” – reading books, watching TV shows, listening to podcasts – “whatever it is I can’t get enough. So, I’m truly the consumer that our app is made for.”

Drawing on Neil’s experience in news – he was a reporter and producer covering such trials as the O.J. Simpson and the Oklahoma City bombing – they drew on their interests and backgrounds to come up with CrimeDoor. It’s been a “covid” project, too, Lauren said, and a “labor of love” as they work on it every day.

In six weeks the app went to 220,000 downloads from 11,000 downloads, Neil said, with little media attention paid to it so far.

Some of the content is free, including the AR JonBenet Ramsey case, but to step through the “AR Doors” for crime scenes of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar or Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace, for example, there is a fee.

The images found stepping through the doors are pieced together from actual images of the cases and through the screen of a smartphone users can move the phone this way and that to take in a view of the entire crime scene.

All of the information of each case – those solved and unsolved – are from actual cases and vetted by professional journalists, they said.

An average Joe may find a clue in a search that could help law enforcement solve the case, and that is one of the motivations behind the project.

“They think it’s a game changer. They say it will definitively solve murders,” Neil said.

Orlando Rodriguez, City of Sonoma Chief of Police and former detective, is intrigued. He watches true crime TV shows and watches for where police may have made a mistake ‒ “We learn from mistakes,” he said. But he said it’s easier to be an armchair detective than one who is working 12 or more hours a day and managing other cases and pressures.

One tip Rodriguez said people should keep in mind is that both real and virtual detectives will keep certain pieces of evidence secret when it is something only the killer might be able to know, identify or acknowledge. It is a technique used to confirm or discount a confession, he said.

The Mandts accept and acknowledge that law enforcement may not want to share all their evidence, but say detectives who may not have worked on the case can benefit by stepping through CrimeDoor’s AR door and “see” what previous detectives who worked on the case saw. And they can share among themselves the evidence unknown to the general public.

Rodriguez said he was concerned about victims and their families reliving the crimes, but Neil Mandt said they’ve had nothing but positive contact with families. At least a couple have actively contributed to CrimeDoor, hoping that someone out there might have some clue to help bring closure.

“We have worked with (victim’s) families and we will continue to be open with families,” Neil said.

Everything CrimeDoor has on its site is already available on the internet, Neil said.

“It’s not like we’re revealing anything that public hasn’t had access to. We’re just enhancing it into a different experience so that the public can understand it,” he said. “Remember you can’t understand anything, anything in life, unless you experience it.”

The cases on CrimeDoor are not all high-profile cases, Lauren said, and that is an important piece to her. A low-profile case of a missing person may not have a podcast or a TV show or even a news story about the case, but CrimeDoor might trigger a memory of someone out there who can help locate the missing person.

CrimeDoor is an international app and they get suggestions and requests from all over to include a missing person or an unsolved murder on the app. “It’s difficult because there are so many,” Lauren said. “We feel a real purpose to try and put (the cases) out there.”

The pillars of the app are to “be accurate, present the facts and give a voice to the victims,” Lauren said, and the couple said it feels “amazing” that they are being contacted by victims and victim families to be included in their app.

“These are real people, real stories. True crime is real crime,” Lauren said. “People might focus on the AR, which is an amazing component, but it is just another delivery mechanism of the case.”

Since joining CrimeDoor last summer, Flajnik said he has become more and more interested in following unsolved crimes. The group is looking to partner with Netflix and other media groups to help deliver their content, he said.

“The whole idea for us is to increase awareness around those particular cases,” he said. “You never know, maybe there’s something that somebody missed. My hope for the app is that the community really gets behind it and helps solve the unsolved.”

The app is available for Apple or Android at crimedoor.com.

Contact Anne at anne.ernst@sonomanews.com.

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