The disappearance of Tyler Davis and the rise of the true crime complex

Andy Downing

After waking up late on the morning of February 23, Tyler and Brittany Davis scrambled to make the hour drive to Columbus from their home in Wilmington in time for lunch with Tyler’s parents. Brittany was turning 23, and the couple planned to celebrate with a night out at Easton while Tyler’s parents watched their young son.

Following a long, leisurely Saturday meal, the couple checked in at the Easton Hilton, where they watched TV and lounged while waiting for a close friend who lives in Columbus to join them for the evening. Sometime between 8:30 and 9 p.m., the trio left the hotel and walked through the shopping complex, stopping for drinks at Bar Louie and Adobe Gilas, Brittany said. Later in the evening, the three hailed an Uber for the 15-minute ride to the Dollhouse, a North Side strip club, where the party continued until nearly 3 a.m.

On the ride back to the Hilton from the Dollhouse, Brittany said Tyler fell asleep in the car. When Brittany and the friend, whose name has not been publicly released, woke Tyler after arriving at the hotel, Brittany said he appeared confused and agitated. “He didn’t think we were at our hotel,” Brittany said. “He did not think we were where we were supposed to be.”

After exiting the car, Tyler took off walking, Brittany said, followed by the friend, who promised to keep an eye on him. Brittany retreated to the couple’s room to plug in her cellphone for a brief charge, and then returned to the front of the hotel, where she was unable to locate either in her party. At that point, Brittany started calling Tyler’s cellphone, getting no answer. At 3:37 a.m., Tyler finally returned her call. Brittany said he apologized for his abrupt departure and told her he was just taking a walk around the block and would return momentarily.

In the interim, the friend returned to the Hilton, Brittany said, telling her that Tyler was just blowing off steam and there was no cause for alarm.

Around 4 a.m., Brittany said Tyler called her again. He told her that he was walking through the woods, and that he could see the hotel and would be there in five minutes. Immediately after the two hung up, Brittany said Tyler called right back. This time the line remained open but silent for four seconds before the call ended. When Brittany attempted to return the call, Tyler’s phone went direct to voicemail, as it has every time since.

It was the last anyone heard from Tyler.

In the months since Tyler Davis’ disappearance, few details about the case have been released to the public. In that information vacuum, an ecosystem increasingly common to these types of cases has developed, composed of conspiracy-filled Reddit threads, competing Facebook groups, true crime television programs and podcasts, and multiple missing persons organizations, some with motivations that can be difficult to ascertain.

Due in part to these various external elements, the Columbus Division of Police has refrained from sharing details about the case, said Sgt. Daniel Weaver, who heads up the Missing Persons/Exploited Children’s Unit.

“There are so many competing forces involved in this, and it’s almost taken on a life of its own,” Weaver said. “It’s hard to discern between valid information and armchair quarterbacks who read into things that just aren’t true. … It is an active investigation, and we are continuing to follow leads, but other than that I do like to remain pretty tight-lipped.”

Brittany Davis said she initially thought that Tyler had fallen asleep outside somewhere, perhaps on a bench, or that maybe he had been arrested. But as the hours dragged on and he didn’t turn up, she finally called his parents around 9:30 a.m. on the morning of Feb. 24, informing them of his disappearance. She placed a call to CPD 90 minutes later. Brittany said an officer initially told her that since Tyler was not a minor or a senior, that there was little that could be done for between 48 and 72 hours, because “a 29-year-old man can go missing of his own accord, if he chooses.”

“These are difficult cases, but they’re not oddities; we’ve got a handful of them now,” Weaver said. “It is difficult to tell reporting people, whether they’re friends or family, that their loved one can just leave without telling anybody.”

Weaver said at least one of CPD’s detectives still handles the Tyler Davis case every day, and the investigation has included, among other methods, social media analysis, witness interviews and collection of cellphone data. While Weaver couldn’t offer specifics, he did say that “we were able to extract some information from [Tyler’s] phone.” Both police and volunteer groups also have conducted multiple sweeps of the Easton area, turning up nothing.

“It’s almost a plodding investigation … where all these facets keep popping up and we have to follow each of them to see if it has anything to do with Mr. Davis’ disappearance,” Weaver said. “So it is slow moving, but it doesn’t mean that we’re dragging our feet. There’s just a lot of information to collect and digest and plan our next moves. It requires a bit of patience.”

In mid-March, frustrated by the early slow pace of the investigation and stung by the lack of media attention paid to Tyler’s disappearance, Brittany started to reach out to media outlets and missing person organizations that had previously contacted her offering assistance (the case has since been covered by both local news stations and national programs like “Dateline”). She also started a Facebook group, Bring Tyler Davis Home, posting a detailed physical description of Tyler (he weighs 170 pounds, stands 5-foot, 10-inches tall and has a distinctive red birthmark on his right arm that extends from his hand to his neck and chest), information about how he was dressed the night he went missing (dark blue jeans, a white T-shirt, a blue/green flannel and white and black Nike sneakers), along with multiple photographs and contact methods for tipsters to provide information.

As the closed group, which currently numbers 7,949 participants, accumulated members, Brittany struggled to control the discussion, with some posts veering heavily into rumor and conspiracy. She and other moderators were occasionally forced to delete posts or remove members, leading some participants to accuse the family of trying to shape or control the narrative around Tyler’s disappearance.

One exiled member, Katie Frederick, started a spin-off Facebook group, Tyler Davis Missing - Case Discussion (since changed to True Crime Junkies – Tyler Davis Missing – Case Discussion), which currently has 2,620 members and allows the types of anonymous posts and speculation frowned upon in Bring Tyler Davis Home — much of it centered on Brittany and the friend. (There’s also a third Facebook group, Tyler Davis missing: Sleuth Coup, which currently has 1,901 members and was launched because moderators didn’t like how Frederick ran her offshoot, Frederick said.)

“I was going through the [Bring Tyler Davis Home] page and people were posting their theories … like, ‘Oh, the wife is so guilty,’ and then someone else would post a link to [a news story] about a body that was found, and the family would come on and say, ‘Don’t post these, Brittany follows up with them and it’s too much,’” said Frederick, who lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and discovered the Tyler Davis case via another Facebook group centered on the Smiley Face Killers, a conspiracy theory about a national ring of serial killers targeting young men. “I wanted people to have somewhere to go where they could speak more freely.”

Frederick said she initially became interested in true crime by watching programs on TV networks like Lifetime and Investigation Discovery (ID) — a fascination that deepened following college, when she developed a severe case of insomnia.

“I would be up all night reading, and I started to learn about Reddit, and then I found Unresolved Mysteries, which is a subreddit (a niche community within Reddit), and I would sit and read these cases for hours,” Frederick said. “The thing that really kept me going with it was reading a story about somebody that sounds like it will never be solved, and then all of a sudden it pops up in the news that they either have a good lead or it was solved, and it’s just such a sense of relief you feel for the family knowing that all of their questions have been answered. Otherwise it’s too morbid of a hobby. If you don’t hear the good stuff once in a while, it gets to be a lot.”

Amanda Vicary, a social psychologist and professor at Illinois Wesleyan University who has studied the psychology behind true crime fascination, partially attributes the growth in the genre to its increased availability.

“Twenty years ago, there weren’t true crime podcasts, and there wasn’t an ID channel, so if you were interested in crime you were going to need to read the newspaper or read a true crime book,” said Vicary, who traced her interest in the subject to the true crime books she devoured beginning at age 12. “Now, people can watch it on TV literally 24/7. And then people are on their phones and computers, listening to podcasts about crime. So basically there’s a way to access it now for everyone who could be interested.”

One of the more popular true crime podcasts, True Crime Garage, has been recorded in the Grove City area since late 2015 by co-hosts Nic and the Captain. Patrick, who goes by the Captain and withheld his last name citing privacy concerns, said each new episode typically receives 250,000 downloads on the first day, topping more than 1 million after a single week. He estimated that the podcast has logged more than 120 million downloads to date.

That reach, in part, inspired Brittany Davis to appear on an April 23 episode of True Crime Garage. She conducted an extensive phone interview with the hosts, during which she offered a detailed timeline of the events that preceded Tyler’s disappearance. Patrick said some listeners criticized Brittany for sounding overly rehearsed, not realizing she was reading from a prepared document assembled with the help of bank and phone records.

“She has all the records of when they got a drink, when they took an Uber, and she can tell roughly how many drinks they had from [the size of] the bill,” said Patrick, who developed a fascination for true crime growing up with a detective father. “So she has very detailed accounts and people were like, ‘She sounds scripted.’ Well, if your loved one went missing, I’d hope you’d sit down and write down all the facts and anything you can remember, too.”

While helpful in spreading information about the case, the show also attracted more conspiracy-minded types who theorized that Brittany and the friend had something to do with the disappearance. The friend’s phone number and home address were even shared online, causing the friend to delete social media accounts in an attempt to avoid further scrutiny.

Patrick said that while the percentage of podcast listeners who will engage in online harassment is small, referring to those who will ascribe guilt to Brittany absent evidence “irresponsible,” he also said there was little he could do to stop this behavior. He did add that the hosts take great care to vet any case details before discussing them on the podcast, owing to the sensitivity of the stories they cover.

Katie Frederick largely demurred when asked if she had any concern that the types of rumors and speculation the True Crime Junkies Facebook group trades in could have a potentially damaging, real-world impact.

“That’s a hard one to answer, because of course it concerns me, but at the same time I don’t think anything we do on Facebook is going to interfere with what they’re doing in real life,” Frederick said. “For the most part, our group is just a discussion group.”

Still, Sgt. Weaver said detectives need to remain mindful of this type of theorizing as it spreads.

“I don’t know if it’s dangerous, but it might lead to more conjecture and more theories that might cloud the issue,” he said. “If you have one theory, you can have 10, and those theories branch out when you start saying ‘if’ and ‘but.’ It’s almost a force multiplier, and it’s hard to rein that in and look at just the facts, just the evidence, and that’s obviously what we base our investigation on.”

In addition to making the media rounds, beginning in March Brittany Davis also started working with multiple missing person groups, including Missing Person from Ohio, a Facebook page with more than 32,500 followers that has been run by Lori Davis (no relation) s  ince 2011, and We Can Bring You Hope, a Pennsylvania-based volunteer organization that founder Michelle Heilman Bender said she started in May 2017 as a response to the disappearance of her daughter, who she said has since resurfaced.

Both groups focus on social media, posting regularly to Facebook as a means of boosting public awareness around a case. Bender said she also organized multiple searches for Tyler Davis in Easton, in addition to advancing her own investigation into his disappearance, conducting interviews and even accessing Tyler’s private email account after Brittany inadvertently gave her the password.

Brittany said the detailed timeline, which she assembled at the urging of Lori Davis and used during her appearance on True Crime Garage, included passwords for Tyler’s email account. Brittany later provided the timeline to Bender as a means of assisting in the search, forgetting about the password inclusion until she received an email notice that Tyler’s account had been accessed by a computer in Pennsylvania. Reached by phone, Bender said she thought she had received permission to access the account from Brittany’s mom. Brittany said she later changed the password on Tyler’s account and informed police about the breach.

Bender’s involvement has also raised red flags among several interviewed due to her criminal record. In 2015, Bender pleaded guilty to theft by deception-false impression, according to records retrieved from the Butler County Court of Common Pleas in Pennsylvania, receiving two years of probation. Bender said the charge stemmed from a bad check. We Can Bring You Hope currently accepts donations via a link on its website.

Of the past charge, Bender emailed that “just because someone may or may not have had something on their history does not mean that is all the facts.” She also defended the work done by We Can Bring You Hope in a phone call, and said that collected funds, which have totaled $800 since 2017, are spent assisting families currently searching for loved ones. “We’re an open book,” she said. “We share whatever we spend our funds on with our families and with the people who donate to us, and we have no problem doing that.”

Brittany and Tyler met working together in 2013, and the two were friends long before marrying in November 2017. In interviews since his disappearance, Brittany has described Tyler as a dedicated family man, a kind soul, a hard worker, funny and a great provider, among other things. She’s then been forced to sit back to see how the media outlets will portray her—or how they’ll edit down her comments. (One TV news organization excised most of her description of Tyler save “a great provider,” leading some to label her a money grubber, or worse.)

“I’ve done so many interviews, and talked to so many people, and I told everyone the same story each time, but they can all spin it,” Brittany said. “I’m telling you my story, but I’m not going to write your article, so you can write it in any direction you feel, which is obviously your right. But if I had six different writers and I tell them all the same story, they’re not going to write the same thing, which makes people say, ‘Her story doesn’t match up.’ … This has never happened to me before, so I’m just trying to navigate the waters as best I can.”

Among the various Facebook groups, every aspect of Brittany’s existence has been open to criticism. Brittany said people have searched her records and shared a speeding citation she received at age 16, as well as photographs of the vehicle her father died in when she was young. Lori Davis said she has also seen negative posts and comments remarking on everything from Brittany’s weight to her manner of speech.

“It’s one of the oddest cases I’ve been involved with, so my goal with Brittany has been to keep it positive, and when she calls me and she’s really down, saying, ‘I don’t even know what to do now,’ I’ll give her a list,” Lori Davis said. “I’ll say, ‘OK, you’re going to reach out to the detective. You’re going to contact the [Ohio Attorney General’s Office] and see if there’s any more help they can provide you.’ Families need to feel like they’re doing something to help with the case, and she’s done as much as she can.”

Regardless of how the case unfolds, Brittany is wary of the future, and how the disappearance of her husband and the growing circus surrounding it might impact her son moving forward.

“We’ve all seen how damaging social media is, and there’s going to be a point, regardless of the outcome, regardless if Tyler pops up tomorrow, there’s going to be a point maybe 15 years down the road when our son gets online and finds this,” Brittany said. “He’s going to see people talking so badly about his dad and me, and it’s just so awful, and I don’t think people are considering the gravity of what they’re saying and how it can really affect people. I pray to God our son never has to hear about all of that. I really just want Tyler to come home so we can finally move on.”

Correction: An earlier version of the piece said that the criminal records for Michelle Bender were obtained from the Butler Court of Common Pleas in Southwest Ohio, while they were actually retrieved from Butler County, Pennsylvania. Additionally, while Bender initially told Alive that We Can Bring You Hope collected less than $2,000 a year in donations, she now says the amount totals $800 since 2017. A quote from Lori Davis commenting on We Can Bring You Hope was also removed since Davis was speaking more broadly about missing person groups and not specifically WCBYH.