(CBS) - In their quest to find the man who brutally disfigured a young Marine out for a night of dancing, Santa Monica, Calif., police are using "crowd sleuthing" - a technique similar to the one used by the FBI to try to identify the Boston Marathon bombers.
On February, 22, 2013, just before midnight in the Santa Monica nightclub Zanzibar, an active duty US Marine, Ryan (police revealed only his first name), was on a crowded dance floor when he was "sucker punched" in the face, witnesses said.
The unprovoked blow knocked the victim unconscious for ten to fifteen minutes according to police. His injuries were frightening, seemingly moving his nose across his face.
When the victim's friend, another Marine, confronted the assailant, police say he was also assaulted. The attacker slipped out of the crowded bar, vanishing before police arrived.
Moments before he learned of the assault, the club's doorman told police he remembered a "mountain of a man" and his girlfriend leaving quickly, as if responding to an emergency.
While the assailant might have believed he evaded capture with a fast get-away, there is no telling how many digital photographs and videos were taken that night inside the club.
None of the witnesses knew the assailant's identity. He was described as Caucasian or Hispanic, at least 6 feet tall, 230 to 270 lbs, with a shaved head, a mustache and goatee, and wearing a black and white striped shirt.
Zanzibar employees told police that the club's video security system did not record that night so there was no video available for police to try and identify a suspect. Years ago, this type of situation might have signaled a dead end to the investigation. But today, with practically every citizen carrying a high resolution camera, things are different. As the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing revealed, when a crime occurs in public, the bigger the crowd, the better the chance the perpetrator could be caught on the digital camera of a bystander.
"I did not want to let it go," says Det. Thompson. "This guy, the victim, is a Marine and he is out there risking his life to protect this country. It just was not right that this could happen to him."
Ryan, a 22-year-old Marine from Tennessee, was serving at Camp Pendleton, Calif., 90 miles south of Los Angeles. Thomson says he has been deployed to Africa and the Middle East, but it was stateside that he sustained life-changing injuries that left him with titanium plates in his face, and permanent nerve damage.
"That bar was really crowded that night," explained Santa Monica Police Detective Karen Thompson, who says that some of the techniques on public display as part of the Boston Marathon bombing investigation have become standard in police work because of the proliferation of digital cameras.
"Almost everything we do now involves examining cell phones, Facebook accounts, Twitter. All social media has become a standard part of most investigations."
Det. Thompson began contacting nightclub patrons through credit card receipts from the bar. One woman she contacted remembered the assailant and his girlfriend standing close to her group of friends that night.
She guessed that the attacker might have been caught on photos from one of the ten people out together celebrating on friend's birthday, said Thompson. So this patron contacted her friends and collected everyone's cell phone photos from that evening at Zanzibar.
"She had one we could use," Thompson explained.
In her photo (blown up, left) back in the shadows behind the bright flash of the girl who is the subject of the snapshot, a large man's bald head stands out. He seems to have a goatee, and he is wearing a black and white pin striped shirt.
When computer technicians at the SMPD enhanced the photograph, they suddenly had an image of the man they believe is the suspect in the assault of the young Marine. On Tuesday, they issued a press release featuring the man's image, and asking the public for help in identifying him.
Photos of the Boston bombers caused an internet sensation. The SMPD is hoping for a similar result, albeit on a smaller scale in their beachfront neighborhood west of Los Angeles.
Anyone who can assist the Santa Monica Police Department identify this man is asked to contact SMPD, at (310) 458-8495.