On TikTok, missing people are everywhere. Or rather, the people looking for them are. There are moms missing children, children missing grandparents, husbands missing wives, strangers missing people they’ve never met but whom they can’t stop thinking about. Some of these missing people are victims of a crime; others are suspects wanted for their alleged involvement in one. Often, those searching for someone else have at least one thing in common: grief, maybe, but also a general mistrust of the criminal-justice system, a sense that they have been failed or abandoned by police and prosecutors and journalists, that crowdsourced vigilantism is the only avenue for justice.
At least that’s how Rebecca Fuentes felt when she uploaded a TikTok on May 26, 2021. The 46-second clip begins with an introduction: “This is my friend Daisy,” reads the white text over a photo of a woman smiling on a carnival ride, the neon lights in the background tinting her face with a pink glow. She has wing-tip eyeliner, a septum ring, and a shock of black-and-turquoise hair that peeks out from under a pink beanie. She looks exuberant.
“On February 23rd, she was murdered,” reads a line of text above a series of photos of a young guy with shoulder-length shaggy black hair and tattoos across his arms and torso. He wears a beanie in one photo and a bowler hat in another. The TikTok culminates with a plea for help in finding him. “Tik tok do your thing and blow this up so we can find this a$$hole,” the caption reads. The whole thing is set to a moody Timmies track: “Tell me why I’m waiting for someone / That couldn’t give a fuck about me / No, I wouldn’t.”
Fuentes, now 20, says she and Daisy De La O had been inseparable ever since they met as high-school freshmen in Huntington Park, just outside Los Angeles, where they grew up. By the time she posted the emotional montage, it had been more than three months since 19-year-old De La O had been found stabbed to death and wrapped in a roll of carpet outside her Compton apartment complex. Fuentes was tired of waiting — waiting for answers from detectives, waiting for a suspect to be arrested, waiting for the media to pick up the story.
“It really upsets me that I haven’t seen anything anywhere about this poor girl and I live in L.A.,” one TikTok user commented. “I know love. We’re doing the best we can to get her justice,” Fuentes responded.
At that point, there had been almost no media coverage of the case, save for an L.A. Times article, which identified De La O only as a Latina “Jane Doe,” and a short KTLA news report. Detectives “had no suspect information but plan to review footage from a number of cameras positioned throughout the apartment complex,” according to the article. The property manager who found De La O’s body, facedown, was quoted saying he didn’t even think the woman lived in the building. The overarching implication was that the murder may have been random. To De La O’s friends and relatives, there was nothing random about any of it.
Before that late-May evening when Fuentes posted the TikTok, she had mostly used the app to make lip-syncing and dance videos, but she also watched lots of true-crime documentaries and knew the kinds of imagery that got people’s attention. She posted the clip about her friend’s murder in the early evening and then later went to sleep. When she woke up for an early-morning shift at McDonald’s, she says, “I remember seeing my phone blowing up, and I got scared because my first thought was, like, Okay, there’s finally an update on if he’s found or something.”
The idea of a TikTok leading to a break in a murder case was not unheard of. About a year before Fuentes posted her video, Sarah Turney began posting TikToks about her older sister, Alissa, who had disappeared from their home in Phoenix, Arizona, nearly 20 years earlier. In the videos, Turney, who frequently wore a black hoodie emblazoned with the words trained detective — a jab at the actual detectives who failed to thoroughly investigate her sister’s case — repeatedly criticized the Phoenix Police Department and unabashedly accused her father of murdering her sister. In August 2020, not long after some of her videos began clocking more than a million views, her father, Michael Turney, was arrested for second-degree murder. The case is scheduled for trial in July.
But the case that most famously catalyzed legions of amateur detectives came last September following the disappearance of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old who had documented her cross-country van travels with her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, on Instagram. By the time Petito’s remains were found about a week later near a campground in Wyoming — Laundrie later claimed responsibility for her murder — the TikTok hashtag #gabbypetito had been viewed hundreds of millions of times. (Today, the hashtag has skyrocketed past 2 billion views.) Petito’s case garnered headlines around the world, exemplifying the phenomenon the journalist Gwen Ifill dubbed “missing-white-woman syndrome,” but it also drew attention to the lack, and sometimes total absence, of coverage for missing or murdered women of color: women whose cases have never been solved, whose remains have never been found.
To some friends and advocates, Instagram and TikTok have become a lifeline, especially when the news cycle dies out and police investigations lose steam. They offer a way of telling stories that go beyond the sterile facts on a missing poster or a wanted sign, a way to depict women dubbed “Jane Doe” as multidimensional humans with infectious laughs and goofy dance moves. And because TikTok’s algorithm serves up a unique sequence of videos from users who don’t necessarily follow one another, TikToks can reach an incredibly wide audience — fast. This is why, to some criminologists, using the app to fish for a murder suspect can be dicey.
“There’s obviously a risk to the investigation: Could they interrupt or interfere with the investigation? There’s a risk to the amateur sleuths themselves. What if they’re dealing with a dangerous perpetrator?” says Tracy Tamborra, a criminologist and domestic-violence expert who teaches in the criminal-justice department at the University of New Haven. “There’s also a risk to the alleged perpetrator. What if the individual is actually innocent?”
Yet the proliferation of cold cases on social media makes perfect sense to Tamborra, who sees it as a natural evolution in Americans’ fascination with crime — particularly when it hits close to home. “We have so many stories of families putting pressure on departments; why wouldn’t they then turn to social media?” Tamborra says. “Now the problem obviously is: Why should they have to?”
Fuentes’s TikTok gained traction quickly. In a span of weeks, it racked up more than 10,000 likes and hundreds of comments, many of them from people who expressed sympathy for De La O and said they couldn’t believe they hadn’t heard about her murder. They shouted out their locations in the comments to show how far the video had already traveled — San Diego, Santa Cruz, Oakland, Las Vegas, Texas, Washington — and said they would keep an eye out for the man in the photo. Some commenters said they thought maybe they had seen him, or at least somebody who looked like him. “There was actually some comments of people who went to school with him, and they were saying, ‘We know where his mom lives, where his uncle lives,’” Fuentes says. Finally, finding him — and delivering her friend some sort of justice — started to feel like a real possibility.
“Daisy was freaking awesome, you know? She knew how to choose her friends,” De La O’s mother, Susana Salas, tells me over margaritas at a regional Mexican chain restaurant in a suburban shopping center. When it came to boyfriends, however: “She was young, you know, naïve. Which one of us hasn’t chosen a guy who’s a loser?”
It’s a Thursday night in November in Huntington Park, a small city just a few miles southeast of downtown L.A. It’s sprawling with big-box stores, industrial warehouses, and single-family homes. Salas used to live here before she got divorced and moved farther south, to Compton, with her daughter and two sons. She knows this shopping center well: She used to pick De La O up from her evening shifts at the CVS a few doors down.
“That’s when it seemed like everything was going perfect,” says Salas, who is 40 years old and wears her long dark hair in a low ponytail. She says De La O was saving up to buy a used car and had been taking business-administration courses at East Los Angeles College. She had hoped to become a tattoo-and-makeup artist and open her own beauty shop someday.
To Salas, this was a turnaround from her daughter’s high-school days. De La O had met her on-again, off-again ex-boyfriend Victor Sosa on a dating app when she was about 15 and he was 21, according to her good friend Miriam Duran. Salas says De La O lied to her about Sosa’s age. Not until Salas noticed the tattoos on his arm soon after that did she think to herself, “Oh shit.”
It wouldn’t be the last time De La O would lie to cover for Sosa. When Salas started noticing scratches, bites, and bruises on De La O’s body months later, De La O denied that anything was wrong. “I said, ‘What happened?’ She said, ‘Nothing. Nothing.’ She would never admit it,” says Salas. “She was embarrassed, you know?”
As the relationship progressed, according to De La O’s family, so did the violence. Salas’s youngest son, Nathan De La O, recalls physically intervening when Sosa attempted to strangle Daisy at their apartment one day when Salas wasn’t around. Another time, Nathan says, he was lying in the bunk bed he shared with Daisy — Nathan was in the bottom bunk and Daisy in the top with Sosa — when an argument broke out and Sosa physically attacked Daisy. Nathan says he again intervened. But one instance of violence Nathan says he wasn’t able to intervene in came during De La O’s senior year of high school. Nathan says he watched Sosa hit Daisy over the head with a skateboard on the sidewalk outside their apartment. Sosa took off and so did De La O, who was bleeding from her forehead, Nathan says. At a recent court date, Sosa’s public defender, A.J. Bayne, declined to comment on the case. He did not respond to a follow-up email seeking comment on the abuse allegations.
“She was embarrassed,” Salas says of the incident. “She was such a mature, rough girl that, for her, that was embarrassing that she was getting hit by this person, you know? Especially ’cause she never saw actual physical violence between me and her dad.”
When De La O returned home later that day, Salas finally convinced her she needed to get stitches. Salas says she tried to file a police report at the hospital but was told, “‘Well, we can’t start a report unless she actually accuses him,’” Salas says. “I went to a police station in Compton, and they told me the same crap: ‘You cannot make a report.’ I’m like, ‘She’s underage! She’s a minor!’” (“We don’t know that a report wasn’t taken. It may have been, and she could be confused,” Michael Rose, a lieutenant at the Compton station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, tells me, adding that domestic-violence cases and cases involving minors are considered confidential under California law. “In general, we need a victim to have a crime report taken — a cooperative victim saying a crime happened.”)
Salas was despondent. “I want to at least make a record that this happened since the two freaking police departments are not helping me,” she remembers thinking. “I had to do something.” Salas says she attempted to report the assault to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department as well as the separate police department in Huntington Park, where her daughter still went to school. (Lieutenant Patrick Kraut with the Huntington Park Police Department similarly tells me there’s a “gray area” when it comes to reporting domestic-violence cases involving minors: If a minor declines to provide a verbal statement to investigators, it’s difficult for them to pursue a charge, let alone determine whether a crime has taken place at all.)
Eventually, Salas says she turned to the administrators at Huntington Park High School, who asked her son, Nathan, to give his account of the violence he witnessed. When they interviewed De La O separately and she denied that the assault ever took place, they used Nathan’s testimony against hers, Salas says, prompting De La O’s admission. “Daisy broke right there. She said, ‘My brother’s not a liar. Yes, that did happen,’” Salas says, using the Mexican expression “le pusieron un cuatro” to describe the ruse. (An assistant principal at the school declined to confirm or comment on the meeting, writing that “all student matters are confidential.”) Salas says the school banned Sosa from campus as a result. Salas also banned Sosa from her apartment, but she says De La O continued to see him — until about a month prior to her death.
That was when, while in the car together, De La O told her mom that she had broken up with “what’s his face.” As Salas recalls, her daughter knew Salas didn’t even like to say his name. Salas was elated but played it cool in front of her daughter. “Inside of me, I was jumping up and down, but I couldn’t show it because teenagers are just so weird, you know?” she says. “I honestly think that she had broken up with him so many times before, but this time I think she really didn’t love him anymore. I really believe it. And I think that’s one of the main reasons it happened.”
“It” happened sometime between late in the night of February 22 and the early hours of February 23, 2021. Salas was watching television after dinner with De La O and her mother, De La O’s grandmother. At one point — Salas estimates it was around 10 p.m. — De La O’s phone buzzed. Salas rarely looked at her daughter’s phone, she says, but she remembers glancing down at the screen to see a message from Sosa. “I’ve got something for you,” Salas recalls it said. A look of distress flashed across Salas’s face, and when De La O caught it, she reassured her mother that this — whatever it was — wouldn’t take long. “I kind of looked at her and then she said, ‘I’ll be right back,’” Salas says.
Eventually, Salas went to sleep, and when she noticed De La O wasn’t in bed the next morning, she figured she had spent the night with Sosa. It was disappointing but, given the up-and-down nature of their relationship, not surprising. Later that morning, February 23, Salas got a call from Detective Ray Lugo with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.
First, Salas says, she was asked if she knew where her daughter was; the question was odd, in hindsight, but detectives weren’t positive at that point that the body was De La O’s. (Salas acknowledges too that her own memory of that day is a little murky.) “Well, actually, we need to get ahold of her boyfriend,” Salas remembers hearing next. “When they said that, my heart sunk.” Salas had no way of knowing yet what had happened, but she was convinced of one thing: “He did something to her.”
She asked a friend to drive her home from work — “I was a wreck, you know?” she says — and rushed over to her apartment complex, which had been cordoned off with yellow tape. “‘Where’s my baby? Where’s my baby? Where’s my baby?’ That’s all I kept saying, ‘Where’s my baby?’” Salas says, reenacting her guttural screams at a whisper volume inside the restaurant. “Nothing. Zero. And I was like, ‘Where’s my daughter? Where’s my kid?’ When I turned around, I saw a body bag. I collapsed and started screaming.”
The rest of the day was a blur. Salas doesn’t remember the faces of some of the police officers she met. She knows her friends came over and brought her food and flowers, but she doesn’t remember exactly who was there or what they said to her or what they brought. Even today, she still has trouble remembering plans she makes with friends. Throughout our multiple conversations over several months, dates and times sometimes elude her. Life after De La O can be fuzzy.
Salas’s therapist says the misremembering is a result of trauma. But she’s confident she does recall at least one detail clearly from that day: Detective Ray Lugo, with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, pulled her aside and said, “‘I promise you, mija, we’re gonna catch him,’” Salas says. “And honestly, I looked at him and I’m like, ‘Bullshit’ … It’s a Mexican American girl. Who’s gonna care about her?”
In the weeks following De La O’s death, her family and friends waited patiently for detectives to work the case. Even in their grief and anger, they understood there were procedures to follow and laws to abide by. They were sure Sosa had murdered De La O, but they considered that maybe the cops knew something they didn’t. Was it possible that a serial killer was prowling the neighborhood preying on young women? Could it have been a random attack? Statistically, it was improbable, but that didn’t mean it was impossible. Or had De La O been leading some kind of secret life that had made her a target?
The only thing De La O had kept secret from even her closest friends was Sosa’s physical abuse. “She knows that we all would’ve pushed her to walk away,” says Fuentes, who adds that De La O made it clear she didn’t like to talk about her relationship. “I personally think she knew that if she tried to walk away, he would physically hurt her. She just never thought it would get to this point.”
Jazmine Garcia, a high-school friend of De La O’s, adds, “Daisy’s also not the type of person to leave a person hanging. If a person was doing bad, she would check up on them. Even if she tried cutting ties, she wouldn’t do it completely because she cares too much.” It’s the reason, Garcia believes, that De La O went outside that February night to meet Sosa outside her apartment complex.
De La O’s murder left her friends and relatives shocked. But as the weeks went by, their shock turned to anger. They could not understand why her suspected killer, a recent ex-boyfriend with a history of alleged physical abuse, still had not been apprehended. It seemed implausible that a case so cut-and-dried could just go cold. Then again, this was Compton, a majority Black and Latino city the Los Angeles Daily News had dubbed “among the unsolved-homicide capitals of Los Angeles County, where nearly two out of three killers get away with murder” in 2015.
To some of De La O’s friends, it seemed the police had simply dropped the ball. “They half-ass everything, especially in our communities,” says Garcia, who speaks rapidly and with conviction. “This is where ‘abolish the police’ comes in,” she says, her voice filled with anger. “Everyone’s always talking about, ‘Oh, you need the police, they prevent crime’ — no, you fucking don’t, they always come when it’s too late, they don’t protect shit. Then they always blame the girl. The girl who went out, the girl who cared too much, the girl who was so naïve.”
By early May, more than two months after De La O’s murder, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department still had not publicly identified Sosa as a suspect, nor had it asked for the public’s help in locating him. Detective Lugo, who was in charge of the case, maintains there was good reason. “There was doubt. There was always doubt. We can’t be wrong,” he tells me, arguing that the department did not have witnesses — at least at first — and that residents of Compton tend to be uncooperative with police. “Unfortunately, a murder investigation is not a movie, and sometimes it takes a little time. And the reason why it takes a little time is because we can never be wrong. Ever. And if we’re not sure, we have to wait. And in this case, that’s what happened.”
Among the things Lugo says took time: obtaining an arrest warrant and comparing DNA evidence from the scene with records from Sosa’s previous arrest for “something minor” (Lugo declined to say what) — all while investigating “10 to 16 murders” that occurred in that same time frame. “A whodunnit such as Daisy’s case, they’re not easy to solve. It takes a while,” says Lugo. “What if she was attacked by a stranger? In that area, they find girls there. We can’t make a mistake. We have to be positive, and we have to prove it. It wasn’t that obvious.”
It’s worth noting that some local “whodunnit” homicide cases have been solved in just a span of days. When Brianna Kupfer, a white 24-year-old UCLA student, was fatally stabbed while working at a high-end furniture store on January 13, 2022, the Los Angeles Police Department publicly identified a suspect five days later — and offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to his arrest (The reward money came from a mix of public and private donations). A suspect was arrested the following day, and prosecutors believe the killing was random. A recent column in the Los Angeles Times compared Kupfer’s case with that of Tioni Theus, a Black 16-year-old girl whose body had been found on the side of a freeway on-ramp in South L.A., not far from Huntington Park, less than a week earlier. In response to public pressure, the city, county, and state collectively chipped in $110,000 later that month as a reward for information leading to Theus’s killer; as of press time, a suspect has not yet been identified.
Detective Lugo, who does not work for the law-enforcement agency handling those two cases, balks at the basic assumption embedded in the comparison: that some women’s lives are valued more than others depending on the color of their skin or the neighborhood where they live. He says the main difference between a case that gets solved quickly and one that doesn’t comes down to something entirely different: video. The video of the suspect in the furniture store was clear, he says. No video pointing to a suspect has surfaced in Theus’s case. And while surveillance footage from De La O’s apartment complex captured a man appearing to drag what prosecutors believe is De La O’s body, Lugo says the video doesn’t clearly show that that man is Sosa.
Still, even without video evidence, domestic-violence experts say they can’t imagine a scenario in which Sosa would not have been considered the most obvious suspect. “The most dangerous time for a woman in a domestic-violence relationship, where lethality increases, is at point of breakup,” says Tamborra, who previously trained police departments on how to respond to domestic violence and sexual assault. (She maintains that she “did not witness police having the same desire to solve domestic-violence and sexual-assault cases as they did drug cases, homicide cases, and robbery cases.”)
Tamborra, who is not involved in De La O’s case, adds that police departments often have to make difficult decisions about how to prioritize their resources — and that often comes down to money and politics. “If they think the individual left the country, for instance, and we’ve got a victim who comes from a poor family that isn’t going to get the DA’s office a lot of pressure, the police might have decided, ‘We’re going to pursue this, but we’re not putting tons of resources into the pursuit,’” she says. “I think this is where you see class rear its ugly head … Is the victim’s life worth the pursuit financially, emotionally, physically?”
Salas was driving to the post office when she got a call from her cousin Nohemi “Mimi” Garcia (no relation to De La O’s friend Jazmine). It was mid-morning on July 1. Garcia told her to call her back once she pulled over and stopped the car. “I’m like, ‘No, no, no, what happened? Tell me.’ Because at that time, keep in mind, they hadn’t caught him,” says Salas. “I’m like, ‘Talk to me, don’t do this to me.’”
Salas was on edge. It had been more than four months since her daughter was murdered, and she knew her killer was still out there. Two days earlier, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department had finally released Sosa’s name and image in a bulletin they shared on Facebook and with the media. “Wanted for murder,” it read in a yellow band of text across the top. The local news picked up the story, this time identifying De La O by name. Salas was encouraged by the attention but frustrated that she had to wait so long for it. By this point, Sosa could have traveled thousands of miles away.
Salas pulled over and demanded Garcia tell her what was going on. She knew Garcia had created an Instagram page called “Justice for Daisy” — launched around the same time as the TikToks went live — and for weeks Garcia had been fielding comments and messages from strangers who said they thought they had seen Sosa. Garcia vetted the tips and sent the promising ones to Salas, who then relayed them to Detective Lugo, she says. (None of those tips led anywhere, according to Lugo.) The tip that came in that morning was different.
“She’s like, ‘Susy, I’m gonna send you something. I need you to tell me, is it him?’ When she sent me the picture, I was like, ‘Fucking shit, it’s him! It’s him!’” Salas recalls. In the photos, Sosa, who had a mop of bleached hair, sat at a table strewn with beer bottles, a cigarette balancing between two fingers. Not only had he apparently not been in hiding but he was out and about, drinking and smoking at Papas & Beer, a popular tourist bar in Rosarito, Mexico. Salas was aghast. “Seeing him so relaxed, it did something to me, honestly,” she says. “With a cigarette, enjoying the music, you know? That really drove me crazy.”
The images came from screenshots Garcia had snapped impulsively that morning when a stranger direct-messaged her a video set to disappear after she opened it; she hadn’t thought quickly enough to take a screen recording of it. “They were like, ‘Hey, I’ve been seeing these posts, and I think the person you’re looking for works here with us,’” says Garcia, who is 33 and grew up in the same apartment complex as De La O. She had recently moved to the Bay Area and planned to invite De La O to come visit, to see that a life outside of her neighborhood was possible. “That was my goal, was just to show her that there’s a lot more than just Compton,” Garcia says.
When Salas saw the images, she says she immediately texted them to Detective Lugo and called him in a panic. (Salas shared a screenshot with me showing what appeared to be the image of Sosa she had texted to Lugo on July 1.) But Lugo denies seeing screenshots of the video or receiving a text from Salas, claiming he became aware of Sosa’s whereabouts only through intel from the police force in Mexico. In Lugo’s telling of the story, he was the one who informed Salas of Sosa’s whereabouts — not the other way around — when she called him crying on July 2, not July 1. “Our information came from a different source. I know she didn’t know because I had to tell her,” Lugo recalls. “I told her, ‘Susy, just relax, we know where he’s at.’” (Lugo previously told the L.A. Times that the tipster who alerted Rosarito authorities had recognized Sosa’s photo from social media; it’s unclear which social-media post he was referring to.)
On July 2, a day after Salas sent Lugo the screenshot, Sosa was arrested by Mexican police at Papas & Beer in Rosarito. Three days later, Fuentes created a new TikTok — a split-screen “Duet” with her previous video — to share the news of Sosa’s arrest. In it, she attempted to rally her followers once again, this time inviting them to hold signs with her and her friends outside the Compton Courthouse to raise awareness about Sosa’s case and advocate for harsh sentencing.
The way Fuentes sees it, there’s no question that she and her friends’ social-media campaign aided in Sosa’s arrest. “I believe he would still be out here if we didn’t make that video,” she says. “The only reason he got caught was because someone recognized him from the videos we were making.”
Sosa is currently being held on $2 million bail at Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. He has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder. At a preliminary hearing last September, his mother, Claudia Gutierrez, testified against him, telling a Compton courtroom that he had bowed his head when she asked him if he’d committed the crime. She said she urged him to “do the right thing” and “turn himself in.”
Salas is trying not to think about the trial, which has been rescheduled multiple times. Whenever she gets an update about it from Compton’s deputy district attorney, she feels uneasy. She starts to think about all the things she still doesn’t know about what happened the night of February 22, 2021 — the awful things she’s bracing herself to hear when the jury trial begins on April 18, a little over a year after the murder. For now, she’s hyperfocused on work. It keeps her mind from wandering too far into what she calls “the dark place.” Plus, she knows she’ll have to save up money to offset the work — and the income — she will have to miss when she’s in court.
But as much as she’s dreading the trial, Salas is exceedingly grateful for it. She knows it’s a form of justice — if an imperfect one — that not everyone who has lost a loved one to homicide gets to experience. “Thank God for social media, honestly,” Salas says, sighing with relief. “I’ve heard so many stories of parents who are still waiting for the person to get caught. There’s no one that’s a suspect. And thank God I have that.”