Unlike biking or scrapbooking, Dianne Kuykendall’s hobby is not suitable for polite conversation. She regularly checks the Tarrant County medical examiner’s website, for example, looking for newly discovered bodies that got dumped long ago. “That’s one of the fun things I like to do,” she says. She also reads old newspaper articles about missing persons. She checks Facebook pages dedicated to unsolved Fort Worth mysteries, like the “Missing Trio,” three girls ages nine, fourteen, and seventeen who went Christmas shopping in 1974 and haven’t been seen since. While Kuykendall’s friends are taking Australian cruises or camper trips to Wyoming, she scrolls through cold case posts, commenting “Where was the body found?,” “Where did she hang out?,” “Would this have been near the old Bluebird Nightclub?”

In late 2017, while searching one of those unsolved murder pages, someone threw out an idea that would eventually engage much of her free time. “Why don’t we all get together and have dinner?” someone posted. The idea took hold of her. She had always been interested in murders. She wrote a senior high school term paper on the Charles Manson true crime book Helter Skelter (she got an A) and devoured similar tales like Serpentine. As she got older and true crime became more popular, she started watching shows like CSI: New York and CSI: Miami, but only a few friends in her life liked gory discussions about, say, the decomposition levels of human remains.

Freshly retired from the post office in February 2018, Kuykendall was looking for some camaraderie when she reserved a room down at Ol’ South Pancake House, a 24-hour family restaurant with booths and small tables. On the day of the gathering, she braved a gully-washer rainstorm to work the room as about twenty crime hounds wandered in, among them a friend of hers from work who was obsessed with President John F. Kennedy’s assassination; a police officer with some itches to scratch; and the “Gone Cold” Fort Worth podcaster, Vincent Strange. At first, the attendees were content to discuss pet cases over their burgers and chicken fried steaks. But as they talked, they asked themselves if they could provide more of a service and follow leads the cops didn’t have time for. “We decided we were going to research the cases, because we all enjoyed talking and speculating,” she says. “We’ve all been watching murder shows for years, reading the books. We know a lot of psychology. We know a lot!”

It turned out others felt they could offer some insight, as well. That summer, while Kuykendall was at Nashville Crime Con passing out informational packets on the Carla Walker case, the local TV station Channel 5 showed a segment on the Ol’ South meeting. “Fort Worth has over nine hundred cases,” the reporter said. “These amateur sleuths are hoping to lend a hand at the first meeting of the Fort Worth Cold Case Club.” Before Kuykendall’s plane landed back in Fort Worth, a fellow Cold Case Club member gave her the news: the Facebook page for the group had grown from one hundred to five hundred. “My friend Rose, who was in the group, texted me and was like, ‘What is going on?’ ” Kuykendall said.

This past April, a few core members gathered in a small conference room at the Benbrook Public Library, twenty minutes southwest of downtown Fort Worth. They’d spent the afternoon at a downtown rally to raise funds for the Fort Worth PD Cold Case Support Group, a nonprofit that helps pay for the most modern forensic testing at places like Othram, in Houston. The club members hashed out whom they’d recognized in the crowd: Jim Walker, Carla Walker’s brother, was there of course, as he’s instrumental in the support group. They spotted several relatives of the Missing Trio. The guy with the mustache and glasses was a new face; he was married to Melissa Highsmith, the woman who was reunited with her family 51 years after she’d been abducted. But the club didn’t dig into these cases. The issue of the moment was money. The club, which doesn’t have funding of its own for forensic analysis, had already helped raise $15,000 for the support group. How much more did they think they could raise for cold case DNA tests—$500,000?

What the members lacked in professional experience, they made up for in pluck. Kuykendall said she brought diplomacy to the group, along with a hard-headedness. “I hear the word ‘no’ and it just means I have to talk longer,” she said. Lori Cates, a former hairdresser, brought a doggedness and curiosity that had always kept conversation rolling during her career as a hairdresser. Mary Kay Krueger, a retired Radio Shack employee, has “always been nosy”—but she had also been affected by proximity to violence: in 1977, a young mom named June Ward was found dead behind Krueger’s house. Other regulars who couldn’t join were a private investigator and an attorney, often busy with their day jobs.

During the first monthly meetings after the Channel 5 segment aired, roughly fifty people packed the wood-paneled restaurant—some, like Kuykendall, carrying notebooks for dates and names. The group drew cases from the Fort Worth Police Department’s list of unsolved murders. Where to begin? they wondered. Should they look into the string of women murdered in the same neighborhood in the 1980s? Maybe one of the many other women who’d been strangled in the seventies and eighties? With interests ranging from serial killers to lone stabbings, the members decided to break into six groups to discuss six different cold cases, with each group choosing its own leader and organizer, occasionally meeting for larger gatherings.

Through 2019, the smaller groups met each month, sometimes at the Ol’ South Pancake House, sometimes at the Richland Hills Library conference rooms or elsewhere. Once in a while they invited speakers, like true crime writer Patricia Springer, to talk about criminal psychology. Members updated each other on any new information they’d gathered. Apart from examining old newspaper articles, members sometimes met with former detectives to hear their broad suggestions, or they interviewed witnesses and family members. Looking for leads in one case, Cates went through every name in the victim’s yearbook: freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. “I have Facebook messaged every one of those people that I could find,” she said. “Hundreds of people.” (They had to be careful, Kuykendall said. In their passion to move a case forward, some armchair sleuths may accidentally plant memories, damaging any chance for successful prosecution.)

Not all the victims’ families have been welcoming. For a few months, one small group had been looking into a double homicide of a husband and wife, shot in the 1980s next to $5,000 cash left behind in their house, but the surviving family members requested that the club stop researching, as it was dredging up too many painful memories. The club members halted their pursuit.

Other families are grateful that their loved ones haven’t been forgotten. “Any help is good help,” said Virginia Gilliam, whose son has been missing for 35 years. “It’ll always be a worthy cause until the last case is solved. You never know who saw what and who may talk about it years later.”

Though Kuykendall said the Cold Case Club supports the police, detectives were initially standoffish. “They’re pretty tight-lipped,” she said. Officers would answer questions, but had to keep some information private to keep key evidence from leaking. “We welcome any support and any help in providing actionable information that would solve any of our cases,” said Detective Jeff Bennett, one of the investigators in Fort Worth’s Cold Case Unit, a small full-time segment of the homicide unit that looks for new leads on unsolved homicides. “And Dianne’s group has been instrumental in raising funds for the nonprofit, which is beneficial for everybody.”

“What we thought would be ideal,” said Krueger, “is if some of us could take some training of some sort and swear to whatever they have to swear to—you know, not to tell secrets—but to help them organize, answer the phones, and call people back, so that they could get to the meat of things.” Kuykendall added that they could organize evidence in boxes for detectives. “Mary Kay and I are both retired, so it would be up our alley,” she said. Because of regulations, that arrangement wasn’t really feasible, but they fantasize.

During the pandemic, the monthly meetings went virtual and membership gradually fell off to just a handful. They refer to themselves more often these days as the Cowtown Cold Case Chicks, though they keep the original Facebook page updated. From the initial 500 online citizen detectives and 50 in-person members, they’re up to 1,200 fans online and down to five in person.

The club perseveres, though the group’s strategy has shifted. “Of course we do run down every rabbit hole we can, but is it enough?” Kuykendall said. Members don’t get to see evidence, after all. They haven’t “solved” any cases. “I’ve kind of become discouraged in my thinking about it,” she continued. “We just send all our possible leads to Detective Bennett and let him sort it out.”

As it happens, though, the possible leads offer endless excuses for bonding. At dinner that night, at a crowded restaurant, the club discussed a case that seemed so sprawling that Kuykendall recommended a whiteboard or a chart for future updates. Pivoting to a human trafficking case, Kuykendall noted that five victims eventually went missing. Did they go into the meat grinder? Kuykendall asked. The employees never would take the pork sausage given to them at Christmas. Cates grew animated and insisted that Krueger start getting more involved. The waiter brought the food. At other tables, the patrons celebrated birthdays. They probably talked about sports or schools. They probably talked vacations like the ones Kuykendall’s friends brag about.

But Kuykendall was content right where she sat. She listened and nodded and took a sip of her mango margarita. Then, leaning into her group, she asked, “Y’all ever hear about the girl hung by the side of the road out by the lake?”