They Hired a P.I. to Find Missing Loved Ones. He Turned Them Into YouTube Content
Ashley Easterling’s son had been missing for 40 days when she says she got a call from a stranger offering to help find him.
She dropped off her 30-year-old son, Robert “Alex” Easterling, at an acquaintance’s house in Pickens, Mississippi, on April 20, 2022, and he had not been seen or heard from since. The family had conducted three large-scale ground searches, used drones and dog teams, and done everything to try to locate Alex — but they felt their local sheriff’s department hadn’t made any progress, and that the search efforts were starting to stagnate. The Easterlings were frustrated, defeated, and didn’t know where to turn to next. (Holmes County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on Easterling’s disappearance.)
Then came that call from Jim Terry, who, Ashley Easterling says, told her he was a private investigator who works missing persons cases. Terry came across as gruff and crass on the phone that day. Still, he said he could help — so he seemed like the answer to their prayers.
“He was just this pushy jerk — and at that point, that’s what I needed,” says Easterling, Alex’s 46-year-old mother, who works in the senior care industry in her home state of Mississippi. “I would have literally signed [over] the deed to my house if I thought it was going to bring my son home.”
Easterling says Terry listed other missing persons cases he’d worked on, footage of his appearances on true-crime YouTube channels, and news articles to prove his expertise. Easterling had never heard of him — but he seemed to be a legitimate private investigator. And, Easterling says, Terry assured her that finding her son would be his sole focus, saying he only took on one case at a time. On May 31, 2022, she sent him $3,000 upfront for his services by bank transfer, and they agreed a further $1,500 would follow when she could find the cash.
At first, Terry seemed eager to bring Alex home. The pair spoke several times a day, and although Terry consistently pronounced the family name wrong when discussing Alex, Easterling felt hopeful. But as time went on, Easterling says, it became apparent that Terry hadn’t unearthed anything new. He seemed to be rehashing information the family had already uncovered before his arrival. According to Easterling, by June 13 — less than two weeks after he’d been hired — Terry had completely cut off all contact with them.
That was around the time when Easterling found out Terry had been working with multiple families. “I was crushed,” Easterling says, “because we wasted three weeks of time in finding my son.”
It was several months before Easterling found out she wasn’t the only one who’d had a negative experience with Terry, after she was connected with some of his other former clients through Facebook. Both Easterling and the other families who trusted Terry with finding their missing relatives believe he charged for services he never intended to complete — and, when they pushed back, they say he harassed them online. “There are some cardinal rules you don’t break, [like] don’t steal from old people. But taking advantage of a grieving mother when her child is missing?” Easterling says. “That’s a new low.”
Terry — who spent more than two hours in a phone interview swerving most of the questions put to him by Rolling Stone — fervently denies all allegations of unprofessionalism and deceit. He cut off contact with the Easterling family because they never paid him in full for his services, he says, adding that he had permission from his other clients to work multiple cases at the same time (though he has claimed publicly he only takes on one case at a time). “The one mistake these people made was lying about me and trying to pick a fight,” Terry, 46, tells Rolling Stone. “Never throw rocks at a guy holding a machine gun.” He claims the online harassment is simply self-defense, as his former clients spread lies about his business practices, and that he’s just fighting fire with fire. “When you have to defend yourself against a grieving mother,” he adds later, “you’re going to sound like a bad person.”
FOR FAMILIES WHO ARE IN THE MIDST of the crisis of a missing relative, vetting the background of P.I.s is not always a priority — which can, in turn, make them vulnerable. There have been reports about fake private investigators conning families out of cash, or scammers using information shared on platforms like Facebook to request ransom money from unwitting, worried families; many of these scams are made possible through information picked up on social media.
“The World Wide Web can be a very dangerous place,” explains Todd Matthews, media director of volunteer cold case organization Doe Network, and former director of case management at the Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. He notes that the widespread exchange of personal information about missing persons online leaves families exposed to opportunistic “bottom feeders” — like unsavory private investigators or sketchy psychics — who try to take advantage of them. The issue is often compounded by the desperation and determination families feel when searching for a person, which can sometimes impair their sense of judgment. “We discovered the internet could be used for possibly solving a missing persons case,” Matthews says, “and then we realized that it could also be used for mayhem.”
While James “Jim” Terry — who has amassed nearly 5,000 followers on his YouTube Channel, Jim Terry TV — has allegedly created mayhem in the online circles he moves within, he is a relative newcomer to YouTube’s true-crime circuit. Terry tells Rolling Stone that “98 percent” of his career has been dedicated to arena football, a sport he has played professionally since college, rather than finding missing persons. But his reputation in sports, much like his reputation in the world of private investigation, is murky. In the early 2000s, he made a name for himself in his home state of Florida while operating pay-for-play games designed to get high school football athletes noticed by recruiters, which was investigated as a potential scam by the Tampa Bay Times.
Several years later, around 2008, he faced felony charges for grand theft and fraud over football equipment sales, although the charges were later dropped, and he was never convicted of a crime. Terry claimed the circumstances that lead to the charges were misunderstandings, and he denies that his pay-for-play games were a scam; he also insists he shouldn’t be judged by past brushes with the law. “O.J. [Simpson] was charged with killing two people, too,” notes Terry, who urged Rolling Stone to call his former attorney. (The attorney did not respond to requests for comment.)
It wasn’t until 2018, inspired by peers who worked as bounty hunters during arena football’s off-season, that he turned his attention to private investigation work. That year, he undertook a two-week college course in Florida, and upon completion was issued a two-year, intern-level private investigator’s license. He registered his business in Mississippi, a state that does not require private investigators to be licensed, and was once described as “a magnet for unscrupulous people wanting to work as private investigators,” by the president of its Private Investigators Association. But Terry says he has always followed the law, and that his business was registered in Mississippi so he could avoid low-paid intern work in Florida after he qualified as a private investigator. “I have been a private investigator based out of that state ever since that point — and it has been a wild, wild ride,” says Terry. “I thought indoor arena football was a dirty business — this is a way dirtier business.”
MOST OF TERRY’S CLIENTS who spoke with Rolling Stone say he approached them through Facebook after they’d posted about their missing loved ones. Four of the seven families we interviewed say he didn’t seem to do much work at all after taking payment from them. “He only called like three people,” claims Candace Howard, 38, a stay-at-home mom from Ohio. In January 2022, she hired Terry to locate her missing, then 20-year-old son, Tayber. Four months later, around early May, she welcomed Tayber home — without any help from Terry, she says: “All the information he got came from me.” (Terry claims he never worked for Howard and instead worked under her ex-husband as she was difficult to deal with, and that her family declined his offer of a conditional refund.)
On top of this, both Easterling and Howard allege that Terry’s behavior alienated people working to solve their sons’ disappearances. “He completely cut me off from my local news media,” says Easterling, who shared a recorded phone call with Rolling Stone in which Terry recounted telling one journalist to “fuck off” and called her a “fucking cunt.” “He destroyed that for me.”
Terry admits he used that language with the journalist but says it was justified, because he felt she was being manipulative and had not paid sufficient attention to him on the phone. The journalist was never truly planning to write an article about Alex’s disappearance, he says, adding that she was “ordering a latte” while they discussed the case on the phone. “I go: ‘Whoa, Whoa, Whoa, Whoa, Whoa. I thought you were recording me. I thought this was actually being recorded for the show for your [news] channel,’ ” says Terry. “You’re doing a story and interviewing a private investigator with a time sensitive subject — because press is important — and you’re ordering fucking Starbucks?!’”
Other families claim they lost crucial time in tracking down loved ones because of Terry. Candice Cooley, mother of then 19-year-old Dylan Rounds, who vanished from his Utah farm in May 2022, worked alongside Terry when her relatives hired him to help search for her son. According to Cooley, Terry made outlandish claims about Dylan’s lifestyle and whereabouts — including that he was alive and being held captive nearby — often urging the police to follow his leads without any real evidence. When she grew suspicious that he was making up information, she invented a fictional suspect and asked Terry to call him as a test of his honesty. She says that Terry came back later that day, and he recounted a conversation he’d just had with a man who didn’t exist, which left her heartbroken. “[Terry’s alleged fabrications] hurt the investigation because we were all out there looking in the wrong places, looking for the wrong things, looking in the wrong direction,” says Cooley, 42, who owns and operates a trucking company in Idaho. Law enforcement officials have since announced that Dylan’s disappearance was likely a homicide and arrested a suspect in the case. “We lost evidence chasing his theories.”
While Terry did not respond directly to the allegations of fabricating sources, he claims Cooley was seeking attention from the media, and using her son’s disappearance for fame. “Just because the families don’t think I’m doing a good job doesn’t mean that I’m not,” says Terry, who claims his detractors are speaking out to avoid paying him. “Imagine that you got a missing son and you’re more worried about going after a private investigator than you are looking for your missing kid.” Terry claims that the families who criticize him would have found their missing relatives by now if they’d let him remain on the cases. “No wonder [Easterling and Rounds] have never been found,” he says. “There’s a reason these people are in the situations that they’re in.”
IN SPITE OF CLIENTS SPEAKING out publicly on social media about their experiences with him, Terry has continued to thrive in the small-scale, true-crime vlogger circuit. It’s a corner of YouTube where influencers create content about active missing persons cases, like the disappearance of Gabby Petito or the recent Idaho Murders. In these vlogs and livestreams, disappearances are turned into whodunits, where vloggers and virtual audiences speculate and examine evidence, often without the consent of the families impacted. Terry has made numerous appearances as a professional commentator in such livestreams and vlogs, discussing active cases from the perspective of a private investigator.
In the summer of 2022, when scrutiny of his work began to emerge online, Terry launched his own YouTube Channel, Jim Terry TV. Since then, Terry — who has used the channel mostly for livestreams in which he takes calls from viewers to speculate on active missing persons cases — has churned out a steady stream of controversial videos. In them, he has referred to his former clients as “drug addicts, felons, [and] terrible parents,” broadcast that he “hate[s] the fucking people who go missing,” “because a lot of them are assholes,” and tells his followers that a 16-year-old missing girl was “looking for dick” when she disappeared.
“He’s got so many people sending him money every night that he’s on there,” says Howard, who claims she has observed Terry receive sums of up to $500 in one night for livestreams where he repeatedly threatens and mocks families who have spoken out about him. After his interview with Rolling Stone, many of the videos Terry was questioned about were switched to members-only or deleted from his channel; he did not comment on the amount of money he makes from his livestreams, but did confirm the statement he’d made about the 16-year-old girl, as, he says, she was hanging around with older men.
Some families who have worked with Terry have released statements to address inaccuracies they say he’s spread about their loved ones on social media. Others have been threatened with the release of explicit images, or used unwillingly as fodder in his vlogs. Cooley, Rounds’ mother, was one such person: Terry began to publicly discuss his theories about her son’s disappearance on other true-crime shows, where he made wild accusations about Dylan’s lifestyle. After the Rounds family made a public request for Terry to stay away from Dylan’s case, he shifted his focus to Cooley instead. “I just let him have his way with what he wanted to say about me,” she says. “He did exactly what I wanted: He left Dylan’s case alone.”
But others are still fearful. One family decided not to speak with Rolling Stone due to concerns about harassment through YouTube. “I have no doubt he will retaliate and that could completely ruin the progress we have made in [our relative]’s case,” says one former client, who asked to remain anonymous. “We just cannot take any chances.”
Some former clients of Terry’s believe he purposely finds families who might be easy to scare into silence with the information he digs up. “We need to end the stigma on addiction and the stigma on sexuality, because that’s what these parents are so scared of,” says Howard.
While no official statistics exist on the prevalence of these issues among missing persons, Matthews notes that many families come to the Doe Network with stories about interpersonal issues, drug addiction, prostitution, and other lifestyle factors which they feel contributed to their loved one’s disappearance. “There’s always a story,” he says.
When Easterling and several of her peers in the missing persons community began to circulate information about Terry, with the hope of warning other families about their experiences, they became targets of online harassment. They say Terry used his YouTube channel to publish embarrassing and personal information about them. In one video, he threatened to emblazon T-shirts, hats, and even a high school-adjacent billboard with images of the “dead corpse” of the husband of one of his detractors, who lost their spouse to an overdose. “You’re goddamn right I threatened to do that,” says Terry, who claims his actions were just retribution against the detractor, who he alleges was “making up lies” about him and threatening to circulate his Social Security number. “I threatened to do that, to defend my business, to defend my honor, and to prove that [the detractor] was a liar — we never had to do it because she was smart enough to go away.”
Today, almost a year after getting that call from Terry, Easterling says she is still dealing with the repercussions of his offer to help — and still searching for Alex, who has not been found. “The psychological aspect of it is horrific,” says Easterling, who claims Terry gave out the contact information of several of his detractors, and encouraged his followers to harass them at work. “You’re afraid to say anything because you don’t know what you’re going to get back.”
Terry, meanwhile, claims his vlogs and livestreams are his way of fighting back and recuperating the loss in earnings he’s dealt with since his former clients went public with the allegations about him. “What I’ll do is take all the stuff that I found out about the case, and I’ll put it out there to defend myself,” Terry — who claims that both he and his family have also been doxed and harassed by his detractors — tells Rolling Stone. “If that means it’s a picture of your daughter nude on a pole because she was a hooker, well then maybe you shouldn’t have fucking lied about me.” Terry says he only goes after the families who don’t listen to him. “If you hit me with the left, I’m going to hit you with a fucking sledgehammer,” he says, “which is why the families that are willing to fall on the sword and work my way, have their loved ones brought home.”
THERE ARE, HOWEVER, FORMER clients who are happy with the work Terry completed for them. Amy Hall, a 61-year-old registered nurse from Idaho, hired Terry for a flat fee of $4,000 while searching for her son, Jed. Jed’s body and vehicle were later sadly recovered from a lake near his home in May 2022 by YouTube scuba-search team Adventures With Purpose. Still, she felt that Terry was instrumental in stirring up attention during a time when her family felt frustrated and abandoned by police. “He was the one that got it out to [the] media,” she says. “He was the one that was pushing real hard.” Other supportive clients, like Amy Mann — whose 39-year-old son Beau went missing from Studio City, California, on Nov. 30, 2021, shortly after texting 911 during an Uber ride — have had similar experiences. For Mann, who finds it hard to balance her day-to-day responsibilities with the ongoing search for her son, having someone to work the case in her absence has been comforting, and well worth the more than $6,000 she spent on Terry’s services so far.
Other families seem to have found comfort in Terry’s consistent presence and efforts to support them through a traumatic time, even in the wake of serious disagreements. The family of Rebekah Barsotti — who went missing in Montana in July 2021 and was found dead in May 2022 — publicly cut ties with Terry after he threatened to “out” anonymous informants in their daughter’s case over a YouTube dispute. But Barsotti’s mother, Angela Mastrovito, is still a firm supporter of Terry, and says he was there for her, and her family, in a time where it felt like law enforcement had turned its back on her.
“I’m not going to say there weren’t rough times, because there were,” says Mastrovito, a 66-year-old registered nurse from Virginia. She does not want to involve herself in any public criticism of Terry; instead, she is focused on raising awareness about the authorities alleged mishandling of her daughter’s case, as well as the need for better support for both victims of domestic violence and the families of missing persons. “He still calls once in a while and touches base,” adds Mastrovito, who is campaigning to change Montana laws in her daughter’s memory. “We treat each other with respect and dignity.”
AS FOR THE FAMILIES whose experiences with Terry caused them more pain during an already traumatic time, Howard wants them to know they have the support of the families she has brought together through Facebook — and that they have nothing to be ashamed of. “I think everyone [who worked with him] thought they were alone. [That] they were just the only ones and there’s nothing they could do,” she says. “You’re not alone, and you don’t have to be scared. There’s a lot of us that would welcome you. Share your story, and join arms with us.”
For Cooley, Terry is one piece of a larger problem with true crime on YouTube. “The people who listen to [true crime] and get entertainment from it [are] seeking entertainment off of families going through turmoil, going through the worst thing they’ll ever experience in their life,” says Cooley, who continues the search for her son. “People who watch Jim? They should be just as ashamed of themselves as him.”
Easterling, meanwhile, hopes to create a central hub of resources for the relatives of missing persons. She wants to raise awareness about the lack of training for law enforcement officers, who she claims are ill-equipped to deal with missing persons cases. She also wants to tackle the stigma against people with substance-use disorders, like her son Alex, as well as help people from marginalized groups, whose missing loved ones often don’t receive as much attention as their white, straight, or cis counterparts.
For now, though, her priority is bringing home her son. She was reluctant to speak to Rolling Stone, especially since it upsets her to talk about Terry. “He’s not even worth my breath,” she says.
Still, Easterling recognizes the importance of sharing her story. “I would hate to know that even one other family had to go through what any of us have gone through because I didn’t speak up and say what needed to be [said] when something is obviously wrong.”
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