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A tall, aging metal railroad bridge on concrete pillars spans a shallow, rocky stream, with wooded riverbanks on either side.
The Monon High Bridge in Delphi, Indiana, where Abigail Williams and Liberty German were murdered in 2017.
Stephen B. Goodwin/Shutterstock

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The Delphi murders were a local tragedy. Then they became “true crime.”

The investigation into the murders of Liberty German and Abigail Williams sums up the messy state of true crime.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

In my inbox sit three eerie, unsolicited photographs of a crime scene.

The photos, not graphic but disturbing all the same, were allegedly taken at the scene of the Delphi murders — the double homicide of two best friends, Abigail Williams, 13, and Liberty German, 14, in rural Delphi, Indiana, in 2017. The whistleblower who sent them to me, as he calls himself, runs one (or several) of a slew of anonymous accounts who’ve recently been contacting reporters, YouTubers, and true crime podcasters in an effort to get someone to publish these allegedly exclusive photos. The assumption is that as a reporter who covers these stories, and an admitted true crime fan myself, I’d be interested.

I’m not, but this is one of the things that happens when a murder, or murders, in America stops being a local tragedy and becomes “true crime.”

It’s extremely difficult to describe Delphi — “Delphi” here encompassing the murders, the town, the investigation, the online community of true crime enthusiasts following it, and all of their complex interactions with one another. It’s too vast and tragic to put into words, and also too messy and complicated. Of all the recent “big” cases, Delphi has developed an entire true crime ecosystem of communities — all wanting justice for two tragically murdered girls, and all too often at odds with each other in their pursuit of it.

It’s easy to see why it has gotten so big and complex. With both images and audio of the alleged killer made quickly available to the public, this was a case primed for virality — and all that goes with it. Six years, two separate witness sketches, a long chain of hotly debated suspects, multiple side investigations into different crimes, a massive online sideshow, and one strangely unsatisfying arrest later — of a local man who made himself known to police on the very first day — Delphi is still a troubling, disturbing mystery.

As difficult as Delphi is to stare directly at, however, it’s worth making the attempt. Because as eerie and ugly as it is, this case is significant, not just for the complex ecosystem that has formed around it, but because, in all its messiness, it points the way toward the complicated future of true crime itself.

Monon High Bridge, Delphi, Indiana; Courtesy of Nexstar/WXIN, Indianapolis

“Down the hill”

Carroll County, Indiana, where tiny Delphi, population 2,972, is located, is as rural as it gets. Near the northern edge of town lies the Monon High Bridge Trail, an easy walking path that runs southeast to the Monon High Bridge. An abandoned railroad trestle, it’s a massive, 853-foot-long structure, the second-tallest bridge in the state, and it has no railing: A slip and a fall, a tumble through one of the many missing railroad ties on the bridge, and it’s a sheer drop of 63 feet to the creek below.

While the terrifying bridge is technically off-limits to the public, in reality it’s a cool hangout spot.

On February 13, 2017, a sunny Monday afternoon, best friends Abby Williams and Libby German asked German’s older sister to drop them off at the trail. According to German’s grandmother, German and her older sister frequently hung out at the bridge, hiking and taking photos, so it wasn’t a concern for big sis to drop the two girls off, shortly before 2 pm, and be on her way.

German’s father intended to pick them up in an hour or two, after he was done with his afternoon errands. As the girls were crossing the bridge, German turned back and posted several photos to Snapchat, including one of Williams minding her steps.

One of the last photos taken from Liberty German’s phone, posted to Snapchat.
Snapchat via Facebook

The girls walked to the southeast end of the bridge, at which point the trail effectively ends, petering out into the undergrowth. German’s camera briefly captured footage of a burly man in a blue coat and jeans, walking along the bridge toward them. As German continued recording, what started out as speculation turned to fear. As a 2022 arrest affidavit eventually revealed, one of them, likely Williams, murmured, “Gun,” as the man approached.

Trapped between the man and the woods, with a steeply sloping hill on either side and no way back across the bridge, the girls were effectively cornered.

“Guys,” he ordered them, “down the hill.”

A 2017 search warrant, revealed in 2022, confirmed the existence of a chilling 43-second video of almost total silence following these words, during which the girls were seemingly marched to their deaths. By the time German’s father reportedly called her at 3:11 pm to say he was on his way to pick them up, the girls had likely already been abducted. The families quickly formed search parties; at 5:20 pm, German and Williams were officially reported missing.

Numerous people were on the High Bridge Trail that day. Several of them came forward that same afternoon, but none of them reported seeing what happened to Williams and German.

Around noon the next day, Valentine’s Day 2017, the girls were found lying about a half-mile from the bridge, across a stretch of private property by the creek. The widely accepted but as yet unconfirmed details of what happened to them are horrific and bizarre, with some authorities believing the bodies could have been “moved and staged.” This has prompted theories that the girls were placed in the creek after the initial searches on the 13th were called off for the evening.

But this is just one of the myriad speculations in a case that became a many-headed hydra of warring beliefs, agendas, and endless theories, with few answers.

A frustrating conundrum: An abundance of leads, and no suspect in sight

The Delphi murders should have been easy to solve. Law enforcement had a full, if blurry, video of the perpetrator, plus a recording of his voice. Surely, someone in such a small community would recognize him immediately. Right?

That’s not what happened.

Using the footage German captured of the abduction in-progress, police quickly released the now-famous double photo of the man the internet has dubbed “Bridge Guy.”

Stills of footage of “Bridge Guy,” believed to be the suspect in the murders of Liberty German and Abigail Williams, taken from German’s phone on February 13, 2017.
Indiana State Police

Nine days after the murders, police released an audio recording of Bridge Guy, now officially named a suspect, saying, “Down the hill.

This was arguably the moment when Delphi stopped being solely a hometown tragedy and entered the annals of true crime fame — when the eerie disembodied audio, complete with the pixellated image of the killer, swept across media outlets nationwide, galvanizing interest in the tragic story of two young friends who died brutally, side by side. The day after the release of the recording, police had to divert tips in the case to a national call center run by the FBI’s Major Case Contact Center. By early March, the case had received over 11,000 leads from across the country.

“I consider Delphi to be the first case that hit that land speed record in terms of [generating] interest in it at once,” defense attorney Bob Motta, who hosts the Defense Diaries podcast, tells Vox. This is the rare case that law enforcement wanted to go viral. Police turned to the wider public in the hope of generating leads, and when public interest waned, they kept the case on the national media radar by doling out new tidbits of information.

At the same time, the police seemed to clamp down hard when it came to providing vital context for the info they shared. Even six years later, there’s scant information on the official ISP tip page. (A spokesperson for the Indiana State Police was unable to comment on the investigation due to a recent court gag order.) The little information the police did reveal was often confusing, baffling, even contradictory. This limbo left the public with no real guidelines for how to be helpful — which may have rendered them anything but.

The first police sketch, and the chaos it awakened

On July 17, 2017, authorities released a sketch of a suspect based on an eyewitness sighting. ISP Sgt. Kim Riley informed the public at a press conference that authorities believed this to be “the same person” captured in the stills from German’s video, a.k.a. Bridge Guy.

The first released sketch of a man believed to be “Bridge Guy.”
Indiana State Police

This sketch opened the floodgates for online guesswork. Just two days after the sketch’s release, ISP was cautioning “armchair sleuths” to stop posting side-by-side images of the suspect sketch and random men on social media. Online, suspicion was often aimed at the victims’ family members as well as unaffiliated Delphi residents and men across the US — anyone and everyone who bore a passing resemblance to the sketch. Two Delphi residents who have the same name both experienced intense harassment after multiple true crime podcasts hinted at the involvement of one of them, again based on nothing more than speculation.

Multiple people I spoke with lamented the current state of online sleuthing around the case, but blamed the pointed but incomplete information coming from law enforcement for leading to the anarchy online. “I don’t think of myself as having been drawn to the online community in this case so much as having been ‘pushed’ to the online community due to law enforcement being so tight-lipped,” Robby Coleman, a 36-year-old Indianapolis websleuth, tells Vox. “This was the only avenue for learning anything for years.”

The second sketch, and a trail going cold

Despite this frenzy of interest in the case, for the next two years, there were no significant developments. Then, on April 22, 2019, authorities unveiled an onslaught of information. Among the reveals was an amended audio clip of the killer, in which he could be heard saying one extra word; “Guys, down the hill,” and a two-second video clip of the image they’d previously provided stills of. Both clips raised more questions than answers.

The most puzzling reveal was a new suspect sketch, reportedly drawn early in 2017. Authorities presented it as a replacement for the old sketch, eventually clarifying that this was an entirely new suspect — a man in his mid-20s to 30s, where “Bridge Guy” appeared to be 40-50. Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter described the investigation as “shift[ing] gears to a different investigative strategy,” without specifying what that strategy was.

The second released sketch of a man believed to be “Bridge Guy.”
Indiana State Police

After two years, was the case back to square one?

Any hope that this about-face would lead to renewed momentum quickly faded: Another two years passed before there was a significant update in the case — or at least one that seemed significant at the time.

In December 2021, authorities arrested a man named Kegan Kline, a 27-year-old resident of nearby Peru, Indiana, who had been linked to an online catfishing account. Although authorities have never named Kline as a person of interest in the Delphi investigation, they made it clear they believed there was a connection. Kline was subsequently prosecuted for 25 charges related to possession of child sexual abuse material and child exploitation; his trial is currently scheduled for May 2023.

In early February 2022, the ISP’s Carter did an interview with ABC in which he stated — in what was certainly news to those following the case — that police “know a lot” about the killer, without saying anything about what, or who, that might mean.

A cold trail gets hot online

Following Carter’s interview, ambivalence from law enforcement again enabled the websleuths to fill in the gaps with chaos. On numerous subreddits and other forums, hordes of “leakers” tout exclusive insider intel and spout arcane theories built around regional gossip and local politics: law enforcement cover-ups, drug ring conspiracies, sheriffs with tunnel vision, former prosecutors with vendettas, officers maligned for doing their jobs too well, an investigation driven more by the vicissitudes of local elections rather than a pursuit of justice — every “murder in a small town” trope you can foist onto one crime.

To even be able to read most of the Delphi forums, you have to learn a glossary of acronyms and shorthand lingo — BG (Bridge Guy), FSG (Flannel Shirt Guy, one of the witnesses seen on the bridge), OBG (Old Bridge Guy), YBG (Young Bridge Guy), LE (law enforcement), MBW (“Muddy and Bloody” Woman — we’ll get to her), and an endless parade of other people referred to only by their initials. Anyone who surmounts that barrier to entry is already more likely to be invested in the case — and more likely to find themselves joining in the rampant, furious finger-pointing that accompanies it.

Carroll County Sheriff Tobias Leazenby speaks during a press conference on the murders in 2022.
Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

One of the most polarizing constituents is The Murder Sheet, a podcast by a husband-and-wife team who originally met and bonded over true crime. Áine Cain, a former senior retail reporter at Insider, and Kevin Greenlee, an attorney, wanted to bring their professional roles to the podcast. In an interview, Cain says the show focuses on journalism that “furthers your understanding of the case.” They’ve arguably been successful; they’ve gotten several exclusives, like excavating the 2017 search warrant of the property where the girls were found. (Suspicions against the property owner, Ronald Logan, have lingered and continue to run rampant; Logan was never named a person of interest and reportedly died in 2022.)

Online, however, despite Cain’s long journalism career, and perhaps because they began as true crime fans, some sleuths see them as little more than glorified redditors. Then there’s the issue of money. The podcast is self-sustaining (“just barely”), and Cain and Greenlee have recently gone full-time. That move, in turn, invites criticism that the podcasters are exploiting tragedy for personal gain. Yet The Murder Sheet is far from the only monetized true crime project focused on this case. One forum advertises a secretive community with exclusive access to private information from law enforcement ($20 to join; the owner told Vox he has made over $5,000 from the entry fees alone). The massive growth of the true crime industry means more people than ever are engaging in the space — and not always ethically. One popular podcast courted controversy when it aired a series of episodes in which the hosts put forth speculation about a random Delphi resident with no known connection to the crime.

The Murder Sheet’s biggest find arguably came in 2022: a transcript of a police interview with Kegan Kline. The interview contained a wealth of new information. Yet the pair came under fire from other podcasters and onlookers for leaking info and reportedly initially leaving in an unredacted identifying detail. The transcript, however, provided the first substantiated link between Kline and the murders. Kline admitted in it to having previously interacted with Libby German.

This flurry of online activity stood in stark contrast to the radio silence from law enforcement. By 2022, even the victims’ families were voicing their frustrations. “They don’t know what they’re doing,” German’s mother told reporters in May.

In October of that year, however, the state of the case abruptly changed — with a surprising, confounding arrest.

A sudden arrest and a whole new set of questions

On October 26, 2022, authorities arrested a Delphi resident: Richard Allen, a 50-year-old CVS pharmacy employee with no criminal record.

A few days later, authorities confirmed the arrest in a frustratingly brief press conference. It took another month for the arrest affidavit to be unsealed, revealing the stunning truth behind the arrest: Allen had actually gone to police in 2017, shortly after the murders, and identified himself as having been on the bridge on February 13.

Why had it taken so long to find him? Media reports blamed the snafu on the FBI, hinting that a filing error by “a civilian FBI employee” led to the delay. Was it really that simple? Did the investigation spin its wheels for five years for no reason at all?

A mug shot of Richard Allen, charged in the Delphi murders.
Indiana State Police

The most overwhelming evidence for Allen’s guilt is that he placed himself on the bridge and he looks like Bridge Guy. According to the affidavit, Allen’s self-identified outfit of a blue jacket and jeans matched that of the suspect. This could, on the one hand, be highly damning circumstantial evidence; if he didn’t realize Libby German had caught him on camera, he’d think nothing of placing himself on the bridge. Then again, he was arguably wearing one of the most generic outfits in Indiana: a blue Carhartt jacket and jeans.

The multiple eyewitness sightings of Bridge Guy are consistent with Allen. One woman claimed to have seen a man who fits Allen’s description looking “muddy and bloody.” Then there are the ballistics. According to the affidavit, an unspent shell casing was found lying between the bodies of the victims — a casing investigators were able to match to Allen’s gun. There’s no mention in the affidavit of DNA, so this could be the best forensic evidence the state presents.

There are several problems with this, however. For starters, the entire field of ballistics evidence is increasingly considered to be subjective pseudoscience rather than legitimate forensics. And even among already-shaky ballistics, matching an individual gun cartridge to an unspent casing is an extremely rare type of evidence. In an interview with The Murder Sheet, one anonymous criminal defense attorney said he’d never seen an unspent shell casing presented as evidence in a trial.

The probable cause affidavit has divided followers of the murders into camps; Allen’s defense released a strongly worded rebuttal to it, pointing out the many gaps in the investigation. Meanwhile, the case is under a gag order, which means no more information will be forthcoming until trial. The first hearing was recently delayed because the prosecution had yet to turn over all of its evidence to the defense.

If Allen is Bridge Guy, then his role in the crime raises numerous questions. Was he acting alone or — as prosecutors have claimed — with others? Is Kegan Kline still somehow connected to the murders? If Ronald Logan was the original hot choice for Bridge Guy, as indicated in the search warrant for his property, why didn’t law enforcement pursue him as a person of interest more diligently? And why did Allen continue living in Delphi, even keeping his clothes from the day of the homicides, as though nothing had happened?

If there’s little forensic evidence tying Allen to the crime, then the abundance of alternate suspects could present a gold mine for his defense. Meanwhile, websleuths continue pursuing their own agendas — to the point that, even if Allen is found guilty, there will likely be plenty who reject the verdict. “You need to accept that Ron Logan is Bridge Guy,” the whistleblower tells me. When asked about the lack of evidence, he retorts, “I don’t care about evidence, there’s no such thing as evidence.”

He has a point: If there’s anything true crime teaches us, it’s that facts, circumstances, evidence, proof, doubt, and truth are all often in the eye of the beholder. “There’s a million Scott Petersons out there,” Defense Diaries’ Motta says, referring to the convicted family annihilator whose guilt has lately been a trendy topic of debate. “If people start digging they’re going to find warts on every single case.” He feels there likely will be no narrative resolution. “It’ll always be left for us to wonder.”

And yet, ironically, as C.J. Hoyt, news director of the Indianapolis news stations Fox59 and CBS4, points out, if Allen is guilty, it won’t be in any way because of the years of obsessive work by armchair detectives.

“I think any exposure can be good,” he said, “but there are elements that can clearly be harmful, especially to the victims’ families. An example of that would be the person trying to sell crime scene photos. But like most cases, the online community didn’t factor in at all when it came to solving it — if Allen is, in fact, the killer.”

Two young girls, their faces blurry in the dark, wear light-up glow stick glasses as the sun sets behind them.
Liberty German, left, and Abby Williams.

And that might be the biggest irony of all — because however obstructing, counterproductive, or messy their efforts are, every websleuth I spoke to says they do it not because of the game, the thrill of the chase, or the clout, but because of Abby and Libby — the girls who had a sleepover the night before and awoke early that morning, excited about having a day off school. They helped Libby’s grandmother with filing papers in exchange for pocket money; they wanted to go shopping later that afternoon, after the bridge.

“Last year, I took my own kids to the bridge,” Coleman told me. “I didn’t tell them what happened. They thought it was just a neat hike. They noticed the teddy bears and the memorials and asked, but I kept it at arm’s length. But I needed that to keep perspective. To make it real. A lot of the people in these groups need their own moment like that.”

And even those furthest down the rabbit hole say they are doing it for the girls.

“I believe the girls are watching this,” the whistleblower tells me. “I believe the girls are helping.”

Still, the empathy only extends so far. When he talks about the mother of one of the victims, he’s derisive. “She’s blocked, we don’t care about her.”

Then he tosses in an aside: He wants me to know he knows who killed Natalie Wood.

A vertical photo of the length of an old, disused railroad bridge, surrounded by the tops of trees.
One of the last photos taken from Liberty German’s phone, posted to Snapchat.
Snapchat via Facebook

Clarification, March 6, 1 pm: This story, originally published March 6 at 7 am, has been changed to reflect a source’s preferred job title.


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