Police in Illinois haven taken an unorthodox approach to smoke out the people they believe played a part in the killing of a young girl who vanished nearly 22 years ago: trolling them on social media.
Trudy Appleby was 11 years old when she was spotted sitting with an unknown man in the front seat of a silver or gray four-door sedan in the driveway of her father’s Moline home on Aug. 21, 1996.
"We believe she got into the car with someone she knew," Det. Michael Griffin of the Moline Police Department told InsideEdition.com. "She got in there and was never seen again."
Witnesses told police they saw Trudy that day on Campbell’s Island, a small residential island adjacent to Moline in the Mississippi River.
“They saw her there late that morning with a person named William Edward Smith," Griffin explained.
Smith, a suspect in Trudy’s disappearance, was interviewed several times over the years, but never cooperated with investigators.
Though Smith died in 2014, officials believe others were involved in the disappearance and likely killing of Trudy.
“We know that those people are alive and abound, they still live in the area and we know that they follow our social media," Griffin said.
So Griffin and the Moline Police department set out to make a statement that would be impossible to ignore, starting first by erecting two billboards featuring Trudy’s picture and the directive: "YOU know something, it’s time to say something."
Griffin then posted about the billboards on the Moline Police Department’s Facebook page.
“To the people who committed the violent acts against Trudy and to those who continue to harbor their secrets," the post began. "As you drive past these billboards, we wonder if you enjoy the little things in life. Little things like, looking straight ahead. You are going to start looking over your shoulder. Looking behind you and wondering. Wondering when we are coming for you. The dark secrets of the past shall soon be brought to light."
It was the first in a series of messages that promised investigators were close to getting answers in the unsolved case that had evaded them for nearly 22 years.
“You can call it what it is — I’m trolling them," Griffin said. "I’m trying to be very pointed about it. This is the homicide of an 11-year-old girl … and the concealment of her body. I’m talking to these people in ways they will understand."
The messages struck a balance between ominous and hopeful, meant to send chills down the spine of anyone with a guilty conscience while inspiring those who may have been afraid to come forward with information to finally do so.
“To those who are responsible for the disappearance of Trudy Appleby, it's been 8,014 days since we last saw her," Moline police wrote Tuesday. "For the last 8,014 days you have been lucky, but you will need to continue to be lucky every day for the rest of your lives. We only need to be lucky one day, is today that day? We are coming for you and the truth shall be brought to light."
The post has been shared more than 1,500 times and viewed by more than 120,000 people, Griffin said.
"That’s 120,000 different sets of eyes and ears," he said. “It’s been 22 years … 22 years ago these [possible suspects] had relationships with certain people, family relationships, all dynamics that have changed. People break up, people get divorced, people aren’t friends any more. It only takes one person to see it and be like, ‘OK, I’m going to say something.'"
Those who love and miss Trudy have been encouraged by the Moline Police Department’s efforts, as they have watched others realize something they have known for nearly 22 years: Her case must be solved.
“I don’t understand how anybody can keep that a secret," Kelly Carlson, 59, told InsideEdition.com.
Trudy made a memorable first impression on Carlson, who moved into Moline with her family three years before the disappearance.
"I looked out my window and there was this little girl in my yard, just kind of jumping around playing and I opened the door, and said ‘Hi, can I help you?’ and she said ‘My name’s Trudy and I want to know if you have any kids I can play with,” Carlson said, laughing.
Two months younger than Carlson’s son and two years younger than her daughter, Trudy quickly became a fixture at the Carlson home.
“We became best friends,” Carlson’s daughter, Amber Dunlap, said. “We were tomboys. We’d roller blade, we played street hockey, we played basketball … we were always outside."
Trudy spent the night before she disappeared with the Carlsons and planned to go back over the next day. It would be her first day of full freedom in several weeks after having been grounded by her dad.
“She said, ‘I’ll call you in the morning, Amber,’ and said, 'I’ll see you guys tomorrow,'" Carlson said.
Ever punctual and comfortable enough with her surrogate family to not mind waking somebody up, the Carlsons knew something was wrong when Trudy didn’t ring first thing in the morning.
"I remember Amber telling me, 'Mom I think somebody’s got Trudy,'" Carlson said.
When Trudy’s father, Dennis Appleby, returned home from work to find his daughter missing, he immediately checked with the Carlsons.
“Nobody ever saw her again,” Carlson said.
Throughout the years, Trudy’s family and friends who were like family have remained vigilant in keeping her memory alive and her potential unforgotten.
“They stole the innocence of a child,” Carlson said. “She could’ve done so much with her life. She would’ve been 34 this year. She probably would be married and have children of her own. She could’ve been a veterinarian. She loved animals and dogs. She had so much potential, but that was ripped from her in the blink of an eye."
Carlson and Dunlap often took to social media to share stories about the little girl who was like a daughter and sister to them, and in 2011, took over the Missing Trudy Appleby Facebook page from an advocate for missing persons who started it in support of the case.
“People know who she is,” Dunlap said of the Facebook page’s impact. “It has helped people from all over know about her and who she is, and it makes it easier for her to not just become a statistic."
Trudy’s mother was also committed to telling her daughter’s story until her death in 2014, when she was killed by drunk driver just weeks after that year’s candlelight vigil in honor of her child.
“Brenda Gordon, Trudy’s mom — when Trudy disappeared, she said, ‘I don’t want people to forget about her,’” Carlson said. “She said, 'Promise me you won’t let people forget about her.' Until my dying day, until we find her, I will not let people forget."
It’s apparent the Moline Police are also working to ensure sure that doesn’t happen.
“We believe we’re making significant progress in the case," Griffin said. "You know, the social media [posts] — it’s very unorthodox, but the normal police procedures … have been done. It’s time to think outside the box."
Griffin’s already seen results, he said, noting he knows for a fact that the people believed to have been involved in Trudy’s case have become heavier drug users and are "deteriorating."
"They don’t have a conscience," he said. "They’re just out for self-preservation. They’re wondering who I talked to, who’s said what. I know more than they think."
That includes their daily driving routes, which factored into the placements of the billboards, he said.
“We know they drive by them on a daily basis," Griffin said.
Carlson has also driven by the billboards.
“It hits you right in the gut,” she said. “There’s her face, big as day — boom — and it takes you back 22 years ago. They put up billboards then along the highway with her missing poster. And here we’re doing it again. I hope [whoever] they’re intending to see this, I hope it hits them like it hits me, only 10 times worse. I hope it makes them think, 'I can’t do this anymore, it's eating at me.'"