When Google Earth first came out, we all amused ourselves endlessly looking for strange things. We found hidden compounds and secretive hideaways. We spotted crop circles and suspiciously cloned-out areas of the map. Then brands even started using clever tricks like carving their logos into fields in order to get noticed.
When Google Street View came out, we all did the same thing again. We were hunting for embarrassing moments and suspicious sights. We found naked people standing at windows, fights in the street, and even some pranks pulled deliberately to coincide with the passage of the car.
But there was a sinister side to all of this, too. First there was the controversy from all of those images being pasted on the internet, with Google having to quickly pull some of them down and replace them. Then there was the need for privacy, with Google having to start blurring faces, number plates, and more.
More sinister than all of it was what it revealed about the criminals lurking in our midst. Crimes were caught in motion, and some cold cases were even solved with the help of the new Google Maps tools. Here we have gathered a collection of 15 times crimes were solved with the use of Google Earth or Street View. Ranging from the serious to the silly, with a lot of drama in between, they showcase how new technology can catch criminals everywhere. Just remember– if you plan on indulging in street crime (though we, in no way, condone this), take a quick glance around for the Google car first!
15. Italian Tax Dodgers
One enterprising man in Italy wanted to get away with more than a little fraud when he sold his Sardinian villa. He told the Guardia di Finanza (they control taxes) that he had sold it for just 280,000 euros. The Guardia were suspicious and decided to look it up on Google Earth. When they saw the size of the villa, as well as what a fantastic location it was in, they knew that something had to have been hidden somewhere along the line. They eventually discovered that the actual selling price was so huge that he owed more than 7 million euros in back taxes. The villa was perhaps an unfortunate choice for such a scheme: it was easily identifiable thanks to what has been described as a phallic-shaped swimming pool on the grounds. Well, if you’re going to be telling that big of a lie right to the tax man’s face, it may well be that you need to find an extra pair from somewhere!
14. Public Fun In Manchester
This classy pair was captured in Manchester under a bridge. It’s not entirely clear whether the encounter was one of mutual affection that simply couldn’t be contained, or more of a business transaction. Whatever the case may be, this man was quite literally caught with his trousers down when the Google Street View car drove past. It’s clear that they were on a public road, which begs the question of why they thought it was a good idea at all!
Although this certainly constitutes indecent exposure, and could have led to a prostitution charge as well, no arrests were made at the time. This was one couple who managed to get away with their crime, even though the evidence is right there for all to see. We wouldn’t recommend trying to copy their example, as this would normally be an offence which could even land you on an offender’s register.
13. Swiss field hiders
It seems like a field of corn might be the ideal place to hide something that you don’t want to be discovered. After all, the crop grows tall, and most people wouldn’t think twice if you decided to start growing it. However, Swiss police were using Google Earth at one point to find an address for which they only had partial details. Right next to that address, they happened to spot a field which didn’t look quite as innocent as it did from the ground. It was easy to spot the green marijuana plants on the two-acre plantation inside the field. It was a large operation, and 16 people in total were arrested. 1.2 tons of marijuana was seized at the scene, which had a street value at the time of $2.5 million. The site, in the northeastern state of Thurgau, turned out to be the centre of operations for a large drug ring.
12. Tree cutter
In some countries, it’s illegal to cut down certain trees if you don’t have prior permission to do so. This was certainly the case in Vancouver, Canada. Margaret Burnyeat had a property on which grew 23 cedar, evergreen, and cypress trees, all of which she decided she no longer wanted. She was charged with the illegal removal of the trees, and the case was made very easy for the prosecution when they looked at Google Street View images of the road. Not only was it possible to see the freshly made tree stumps, but the photographs happened to be taken on the day when the trees were being chopped down. The van driven by the workmen was still parked out in front of her property, right next to the stumps. This was definitely a case of fate conspiring against a breaker of the law! Were the trees really such a problem that they had to be removed?
11. Athens Pool Hiders
In the city of Athens, Greece, it’s essential to apply for a permit before you build a pool on your property. The authorities knew that there were around 300 pools in the wealthy suburbs, which in retrospect seems to be a very low number. After the country got into financial difficulty, the government created a new agency to start checking properties with Google Earth. They found that the actual number of pools in backyards was more like 17,000. Not only that, but people had also been building extensions and even holiday villas without declaring them. All of it could clearly be seen from the air, leaving the government very much red-faced– but with a brand new source of income that could not have come at a more needful time. Perhaps if they had been on the ball a bit earlier, things might not have gotten so bad with the economy.
10. Caravan Thieves
When a caravan was stolen from a driveway in broad daylight in Derbyshire, police apparently had no idea what had happened to it. The 2010 crime went unsolved for a year, until Google Street view updated with the latest set of images. Incredibly, the car happened to be going past with its cameras turned on exactly at the moment that the thief was preparing to steal the caravan. Police Constable Adrian Mason was astounded by the breakthrough, which came when the owner saw the unfamiliar man on their driveway. “It is amazing that we have such a clear image of a man who we think will be able to give us information that would help the police inquiry,” he said. “It was an amazing coincidence that the Google Earth car was passing at that time.” Two years later, the culprit was found and they were able to make an arrest.
9. Pot Growers In Wisconsin
Dean Brown, a resident of Racine, Wisconsin, was arrested by police when he was found in possession of 18 pounds of marijuana. This was 2007, and unfortunately for Brown, things were about to get a lot worse. He happened to be wearing a GPS unit around his neck, which the police were obviously keen to check out. By looking at the coordinates, they realized that they might be onto something, and so, turned to their computers for a quick check. Google Earth revealed that the coordinates pointed to a place where Brown had been growing marijuana. When you are so stoned that you can’t even remember where you left your own stash, it might be time to give up smoking and rethink your life. Or at least try to avoid the police as much as possible. But definitely don’t keep the clues to your own crimes hanging around your neck.
8. Mysterious Lake Murder
This one was a bit of a viral find which startled the internet for some time before being solved. A user randomly discovered what looked like the scene of a grisly crime. There was someone bending over a dark figure on the jetty of a lake. Expanding out behind them was what looked like a trail of blood stretching back to the shore. The photograph was captured over a city park in Almere, in the Netherlands. Thankfully, the mystery was soon solved. The dark figure in question was actually a dog which had jumped in the lake and swam to shore, before running back along the jetty to its owner. The ‘blood’ was created when the water splashed over the wood of the jetty, causing it to turn a reddish colour. It turns out there was no crime here at all– as Jacquelina, the dog’s owner, was later able to confirm. She and a friend were out swimming at the same time.
7. Lake Driver
A Michigan man named David Lee Niles went missing in 2006, much to the dismay of his family. They had no idea where he had gone, and it seemed that he had disappeared completely. That is, at least, until years later. Brian Houseman was on a lift outside a funeral home, decorating their Christmas tree, when he saw something odd at the bottom of the lake across the road. It looked like the shadowy shape of a car under the water, and a look at Google Earth confirmed it. The car had avoided notice for months, and when Brian called the Kent County Sheriff’s Department, they were able to confirm that he had spotted the car. Inside the car were the remains of Niles, along with his wallet and keys. He had been suffering from cancer and depression, and had evidently decided to end it all. His family was said to feel a sense of closure at the discovery.
6. Brooklyn Dealers
On the surface at least, this capture looks innocent enough; just three men standing around outside the Kingsland Avenue Grocery store. They are obviously shouting at the car, but that isn’t a crime in itself. The interesting thing was that these three men were known drug dealers, and police were intrigued to see them casually standing on the corner like that. As a result, they decided to launch surveillance on this exact corner, watching to see if the men would return and what they would do. Sure enough, they were there regularly cashing in drug deals. Police were able to set up a sting which led to the arrest of several members of a large ring. This was one instance where, although no crime was taking place in the Google images, it was clear that one was about to take place. It helped make sure the streets of Brooklyn were just a little bit cleaner.
5. Mad Axe Murderer
This is another example of something not quite being what it seemed. Those who looked at the Street View around Giles Street in Leith, Scotland, would have been very shocked in 2014. Before their very eyes, as the car moved down the road, they would have seen a man chased by another wielding an axe. In the next image, he had been struck down, and was lying in the street. Actually, there was no crime here either, even though the police were called when a member of the public spotted the images. It turned out that a pair of mechanics who worked locally saw the Google car coming and decided to have some fun with it. Shop owner Dan Thompson chased down his mechanic Gary Kerr with the axe and pretended to kill him for the benefit of the camera. Their bid for 5 minutes of fame was a success, and happily, the police also managed to see the funny side of things.
4. Florida Boat Dumper
A man in Florida was found to be guilty of abandoning his boat in an illegal way when he dumped it around 15 miles south of Pensacola. The sheriff’s deputy who found the boat was trying to think of a way to identify the owner when he stumbled upon the idea of using Google Earth. He utilized the satellite pictures to see if he could figure out where the vessel had been docking recently. He found a boat matching exactly the one that was moored in Dwight Foster’s berth, and realized who the owner must be. He was arrested, and faced a $5,000 fine and 5-year jail term if sentenced. Just to put that into perspective, it would have cost him about $18 to dispose of it properly. Sometimes the decision whether or not to commit a crime really should be based on simple math. When it costs so little to stick to the law, why bother breaking it?
3. Porch Gun Pointer
In Detroit, the Google Street View car was not received as warmly as it might have been elsewhere. These young men were hanging out on their gang’s front porch in September 2009 when the car drove past. One of them instantly picked up his gun and started pointing it at the car. He actually picks it up as soon as the car is in view and continues pointing it until the images no longer show his porch. Ultimately, there was no charge for this intimidation, as he had the legal right to bear arms on private property. The man’s uncle was arrested as the adult supervisor, but was then released. This story gets darker when you find out about the history of the property. In the previous July, a 1-year-old baby girl was found dead in a closet, with her family claiming it was an accidental death. This image perhaps throws that into doubt.
2. Oklahoma City Burglars
An Oklahoma City resident was frightened for her life when a group of burglars burst into her home. They held her at gunpoint for over an hour as they raided her house for everything that they could take away and sell. She remains traumatized and afraid that they will return. Despite this, they somehow managed to avoid leaving behind enough evidence to get an arrest made. It seemed like there would be no justice served– that is, until Google Street View uploaded its most recent shots. That was when the homeowner managed to spot two men walking by outside her house, on the day of the crime, looking totally calm and casual. Because of this, police were able to start collecting information on the perpetrators, including their identities. It was three years after the crime, but they were immediately able to put out an appeal for information using the images gathered from Google.
1. Bike Thieves
This is probably the most famous case of justice being served through Google Street View. The case concerned a 14-year-old boy in the Netherlands whose bike was stolen in broad daylight. They also took his phone and wallet for good measure. The police weren’t having any luck tracking down the thieves, until 6 months later when the boy was amazed to find himself riding the bike in the images captured by Google. Astoundingly, the images had been captured just moments before the theft, and the two culprits could be seen advancing closer to him. The twin brothers were easily identified as the thieves, particularly as they both already had a criminal record. Google was able to find the original photographs without blurs over the faces and sent these to the police so that convictions could be made. The brothers ended up going to jail. This was a happy ending for a teen who thought the case would never be solved.