FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- There's a new crime-fighter in town, and it's gunning for crooks armed with grainy footage.
Capitalizing on the public's fascination with crime videos, a Coral Springs man's website is giving constant face time to surveillance footage from around the country -- and generating hundreds of leads on unsolved crimes.
America's most wanted, meet Crookstube.
With nearly 12,000 members and more than 60 law enforcement agencies signed on, Crookstube -- first launched in November 2010 -- appears to be going gangbusters, judging by the number of views its videos are getting.
Believing there's a little crime-fighter in all of us, the website offers a central database of thousands of surveillance videos, uploaded by law enforcement agencies and crime victims alike, said Brett Goldstein, the man behind the Crookstube cape.
Videos live on the site in perpetuity, increasing their chances of being seen and yielding leads. Every time new footage is uploaded and confirmed as authentic, an alert goes out to the website's members living in the general vicinity of the crime. Membership is free.
"If someone's bored and they're in the mood to catch a criminal, they can just jump on the site and see if they can find anyone they recognize," said Goldstein, a chiropractor by day.
If you have knowledge of a crime or perpetrator, all you have to do is click on a link under the video, type in the tip, and it's sent directly to investigating officers, or forwarded to them by Crookstube. Meaningful tips can earn the armchair crime-fighter some do-gooder pride, as well as cash. Tipsters remain anonymous, and those with leads that result in an arrest are eligible for a Crime Stoppers or other award being offered.
"I think it's great," said Palm Beach County Sheriff's Sgt. Jim DeFago, program coordinator for Crime Stoppers of Palm Beach County, which uploads its videos on Crookstube. "It's another way for us to get information out to the public, so that's good."
There's no way to tell how many crimes Crookstube tipsters have solved, Goldstein said, since the website's involvement ends after the tips are forwarded to investigating officers. But the site generates two to three tips a week, he added, and new videos are uploaded just about every day.
A Crookstube tipster is credited with solving a Pompano Beach shoplifting case, according to Goldstein, who said he discussed the tip with a Broward detective. The viewer watched footage on Crookstube of two women stealing $9,000 in cameras from a Wal-Mart store in 2010 and recognized the pair from a TV news story about two Fort Lauderdale women who had just been arrested for a similar theft at a Port St. Lucie Wal-Mart.
The website's No. 1 most-seen video, of a Fort Lauderdale homeowners association president getting his head stomped by a robber, has been watched more than 77,000 times, according to Crookstube numbers.
And that number drives home a point that police often make: These videos work. The head-stomping video was shown not just on Crookstube but by area media outlets, and police credited the video for generating information that eventually led them to charge Jamal Pinkney, 27, of Fort Lauderdale, with battery and strong-armed robbery.
"We recognize that people get their news from various sources, and one of those sources is the Internet," said Veda Coleman-Wright, spokeswoman for the Broward Sheriff's Office, which has videos uploaded on Crookstube. "The more eyes we have viewing our surveillance videos increases the possibility of suspects being identified, especially when all other investigative leads have been exhausted."
Police agencies and Crime Stoppers chapters all over the country have their own websites, and many of them have surveillance footage of crimes in their area. But it is rare for one site to have crime video from across the country, and for it to be operated by someone outside of law enforcement, several officers acknowledged.
It's all in a night's work for Goldstein, who manages the website as a hobby when he's not seeing patients at his Boca Raton chiropractic business. He said he makes no money on Crookstube and estimated he's invested $3,000 of his own cash in getting it going.
As the son of retired Broward Circuit Judge Barry E. Goldstein, he was raised in the criminal justice world and always had an interest in unsolved crimes.
"I was always a big fan of the show, 'America's Most Wanted,' " the 29-year-old said.
But the idea for starting the website came a few years ago, when as a student at a chiropractic school in Daytona, he happened to read an online news story about a break-in and hostage situation at a home across the street from his family's Coral Springs house.
"It was scary, and I realized I never would have known about it if I didn't happen to catch that news story," he said.
Though Goldstein originally started Crookstube with a friend who had IT experience, the two parted ways last year and Goldstein completely revamped the site. Relaunched about a month ago, Goldstein said it is much more user-friendly, with search functions that allow people to find videos by crime category, location, whether the crime's been solved, and whether there's any reward in the offing.
And for the truly crime-obsessed with time to spare, there's the Mug Shot Game, where members can test their Crookstube knowledge by choosing which of three potential crimes had gotten a particular offender arrested, with nothing but the mug shot to go by. One disheveled man, according to a correct answer, got in hot water for giving wedgies to random strangers. Another, his nose bloodied in the mug shot, threw feces on arresting officers.
"I try to make it fun," to help encourage users to visit the site frequently, Goldstein said.
DeFago, for one, said he applauds Goldstein for dedicating his efforts to a noble cause.
"There's nothing in it for him," DeFago said, "except the satisfaction of helping to put bad guys behind bars and helping keep the country safer, and I think that's why he's doing it."
By Nicole Brochu
(Florida) Sun Sentinel