Days after the Mobile Police Department (MPD) launched a blog dedicated to missing 25-year-old Danniella Vian, it had amassed thousands of comments — some making accusations, some claiming to have seen a car like hers and others simply asking questions.
Many posts were from locals but others where from people around the United States. Yet, the activity on MPD’s blog was only a drop in the bucket compared to how many people were — and are still — discussing, and arguably investigating, Vian’s disappearance and death online.
As Lagniappe has reported, Vian went missing on July 17, 2018. She was last seen shortly after 11 p.m. that evening near a Shell gas station off Government Boulevard in a blue Chevrolet Cruze she had purchased earlier that day. She was said to have been looking for her phone.
Almost immediately after her disappearance, Vian’s case seemed to catch the interest of people who like to follow true crime stories online as well as those who just wanted to help.
With no trace of Vian or her missing car months into the investigation, many assumed she could have been anywhere. Social media posts with pictures of Vian and her last known whereabouts were shared hundreds of thousands of times in the months since her disappearance.
“We thought if she was out there, she would at least know we were looking … we were trying and would never stop. She’d know she was important and needed,” the administrator of one Facebook page about Danniella told Lagniappe earlier this month.
Vian was said to have a strained relationship with her biological family, which is one of the reasons Julie Thomas — the mother of Vian’s ex-boyfriend and Vian’s daughter’s grandmother — became almost a de facto spokesperson for those who knew Vian.
Thomas said last week she was blown away by the support Vian found online.
“Social media has been such a wonderful tool to get information out to people, and all those people who did everything they could to get the word out — it’s been amazing,” Thomas said. “One of the only reasons I’ve spoken with the media [since her car was found] has been to thank them and the local news for all the stories and posts trying to help find Danni.”
There are still multiple Facebook groups and pages dedicated to Vian’s case with hundreds of members. There are also several threads about Vian on websleuths.com, which is an internet community focused on crime and missing persons.
After nearly a year with no new developments, the discovery of Vian’s car on May 2 caused a significant resurgence in activity in those online communities. Police found Vian’s car submerged in more than 20 feet of water in Bayou Sara, 27 miles from where she was last seen.
The body of an adult female was found inside, and while police have all but said its Vian.
One of the more popular Facebook pages that has provided updates and information throughout the case has been “Justice for Danniella Vian,” run by two women who’ve never laid eyes on Vian. Bonnie lives in California, while Janet does her sleuthing from Kentucky.
They said the lack of updates from MPD made them concerned Vian was being “viewed as just another missing girl,” and they wanted to get information out to as many people as possible. Bonnie said she personally put money into boosting Facebook posts about Vian.
“People have really become attached to Danniella, and we were all hoping for a miracle,” Bonnie said. “When we announced the [car’s] finding, the post had 25,000 shares within a few hours. People care about Danniella. We will not give up until justice is served.”
While some groups have simply shared pictures and offered prayers, it’s important not to underestimate the dedication some online communities have had to Vian’s case. This is especially true of Websleuths, which has strict guidelines requiring information to be sourced.
Some of its members include attorneys, investigators and retired law enforcement, but also everyday citizens who’ve taken an interest in Vian. Some have reached out and spoken directly to her family and friends, while others have gone so far as to obtain private communications that could very well become evidence if someone is ever formally charged in MPD’s investigation.
As Lagniappe has reported, Vian and a group of acquaintances traveled between two or three bars and restaurants the night she disappeared. Bonnie said she actually worked with someone in Mobile who drove between some of those locations to measure the respective travel times.
Not every discussion group has been that productive, though.
In fact, one of the reasons Janet said she and Bonnie felt their Facebook page was necessary is because there were problems with in-fighting and speculation within other pages and groups on social media. Janet said she wanted the focus of their page to be on finding Vian only.
According to MPD spokeswoman Charlette Solis, the blog detectives launched about Vian’s case wound up not being “particularly fruitful” either. It was created in September 2018, only made a few posts, and by December was riddled with little more than accusations and spam posts.
The grisly discovery in Bayou Sara may have answered questions about “where” Vian was for so many months, but there is still an army of virtual investigators clamoring to “why.” Many of them have had a hard time accepting the most recent updates from police about the case.
Last week, Chief Lawrence Battiste said MPD’s initial investigation of the area where Vian’s submerged car was found showed signs “consistent with an accident.” Even as he made that announcement, the live comments coming in on social media were incredulous.
Battiste dismissed those comments when asked about them, saying MPD would use every resource at its disposal to find a perpetrator if any sign of foul play was found. In the meantime, though, the level of skepticism in Mobile and beyond hasn’t subsided much.
“I don’t think one person out of the thousands that follow believe it’s an accident. I’ve actually seen one single comment that said “maybe,” Bonnie said. “Janet and I think an accident could be a reasonable explanation, but I also have questions.”
The Justice for Danniella Vian page nor its administrators have taken a firm position on whether Vian’s death could have resulted from an accident. It’s also clear that most anyone who agrees with that law enforcement narrative isn’t saying so online — perhaps to avoid pushback.
The events of the past 11 months have no doubt been unspeakably tragic for Vian’s family and friends, but they have also affected thousands online who were hoping to find Danniella alive.
“I think people want someone to blame for this,” Janet said. “Whereas, accidental puts it on Danni and that’s tragic.”
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