Aug. 27, 2008 — -- When 27-year-old Joseph Jordan first heard the convoluted tale of missing 3-year-old girl Caylee Anthony, the story resonated with the Coco, Fla., father of two.
Allegedly left by her mother with a friend, Caylee has been missing from her Florida home since June, although her disappearance wasn't reported to authorities until July. Since then, Caylee's mother, Casey Anthony, has been charged with child neglect, making false statements and obstructing an investigation for allegedly lying to the police.
"It was close to home. We wanted to help," Jordan said. "The family seemed really frustrated and, initially, that's what prompted us to go out and try to help."
Jordan began looking for information online and quickly found others who also were eager to volunteer for an independent search, but law enforcement experts question how much amateurs can really help and point out that, in some cases, they can even do harm.
Using message boards on the Web sites Websleuths.com and Sacredmonkeys.com, Jordan found those fellow amateurs -- other concerned citizens who wanted to organize search parties for the young girl.
"I've been going out every day after work and we do a big group thing on the weekends," Jordan said. "The [Orange County] Sheriff's office has been phenomenal. They've been very responsive to our calls."
In an unsolved case such as Caylee's, tips from authorities are constantly solicited from the community and, in this case, stoked by sordid allegations and the media frenzy that followed, tips have been coming in droves.
Earlier this week, the state's attorney's office released more than 400 pages of court documents that included an arrest report and transcripts of witness interviews. Those documents included allegations that Caylee's mother wanted to give her up for adoption while she was pregnant, and deleted more than 200 online digital photos of her daughter.
A $225,000 reward is being offered for information that could lead to Caylee's safe return.
The sheriff's department has received more than 2,000 tips, according to Jim Solomons, a spokesman for the department.
"Anything that comes to us that's open-ended, they are looked at without hesitation. We let the investigators pick and choose what they want to follow up on," Solomons said. "But in a case like this, and I've been doing this for 23 years, I go back to that [idea]: it's that one little obscure piece of information that can turn the light in the right direction."
Search for Missing Girl
Solomons was unaware of how many volunteers were in the field searching on their own, and said that, while searches may yield false leads, every tip is important.
But volunteer-organized search parties that aren't handled well can slow down an investgation, according to experts.
"Unless they're working with law enforcement, it sort of sets up a situation where they're sort of working against each other," said retired Los Angeles police detective Frank Linley.
His wife Sarah Linley, who he met on the job when she was a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy, agreed.
"Sometimes, it's people that are wannabes that are struck by the excitement of law enforcement, or people that watch 'CSI' too much. People who decide they want to get involved [but] they don't know anything about what they're doing," she said. "I have no doubt they are good at heart, but at the same time, how would they know if they find something that might be of interest?"
Some search groups have been choosing their sites based on case "landmarks" mentioned in publicly available court documents and media reports about the case.
Wyatt Locke, a 27-year-old Orlando, Fla., resident, met Jordan while responding to calls for another search party through message boards on a local news station's Web site.
"The station kept saying, 'visit our message boards,' so I said, 'What the heck?'" Locke said.
There, Locke found a like-minded community that included Cookie Wilson, a 51-year-old Orlando hotel concierge and grandmother. Wilson, like Locke, had been following the case and felt a pull to Caylee.
"When I see this little girl's face, I just want to cry because it could be my granddaughter," Wilson said. "It just felt like nobody was out looking for her."
The group that coalesced on these boards formed a search party and agreed to meet for the first time on Aug. 12. Jordan soon combined his group with theirs.
In recent weeks, the group's work unearthed what they thought might be of interest in a local park: clothing, including underwear that fit the description of a pair that Caylee had been wearing, as well as two backpacks.
"The easiest way for me to describe it is, everybody's heart dropped. We didn't believe we were going to find anything," Locke said.
When the group found the items, they immediately called the sheriff's department, according to Locke. Authorities responded, roped off the area and walked away with items.
Search Tips Can Cause Problems
According to police, though, so far none of these searches have turned up any useful information related to the case.
"I know we had items found throughout this incident," Solomons said. "To the best of my knowledge, none of those items have been associated with Caylee or Casey."
Despite that, authorities aren't exactly asking these search groups to back off, either. Instead, the deputies that Locke and other searchers have interacted with have issued certain rules, according to Locke.
He said police told them not to touch any evidence they think might be related to the case, but to flag it and call investigators immediately.
"Our intentions are not to interfere or cause problems for the case," Locke said. "They have our information. If they want us to stop, they know how to get in touch with us and tell us to stop."
Larry Garrison, a spokesman for the Anthony family, maintains that volunteer participation is extremely important.
"We desperately need more people looking for her," he said.
Wilson insists that the search group is extremely careful to not touch anything, to watch where they step and mark perimeters with ribbons. When they find something, they take photos.
"We're observant of everything around us," she said. "We know we can trust each other."
That careful observation, along with some type of coordination with authorities, is essential to ensure that the crime scenes are not contaminated, according to Thomas Mauriello, a forensics expert and criminology professor at the University of Maryland.
"If, in fact, these people could help in searching areas that [authorities] couldn't have the resources to do, then they could be helpful," Mauriello said. "The key is to give them some very quick information -- in the event that you see something that might be evidence, not to touch it."
Still, he expressed doubt about how civilians might handle certain situations that even the professionals can sometimes botch. Defense attorneys in the O.J. Simpson case blasted police for allowing too many officers into a crime scene; too many people involved in a search -- cops or otherwise -- can contaminate a crime scene, he said.
"God forbid they saw a body and have 25 people surrounding where the body is, because that's where your evidence is," he said. "The key is ensuring that evidence is not lost."
But Wilson says her group is not looking for a body, but clues.
"We're not giving up on the fact that she could be alive and someone's got her," she said. "It's not good, but until it's definite, I'm going to hold out every possibility.I'm going to try to be positive. The more positivity we have, the better."
Nancy Quade from ABC News Research contributed to this report.