It’s no secret that I listen to a lot of true crime podcasts. A lot. I’ve shared recommendations for some of my favorites in here and here. Today as I was on my walk, listening to yet another podcast, I thought it might be fun to share some of the most intriguing episodes I’ve come across lately. Here are some you should check out if you haven’t already:
Hazel & Nancy Frome Pt. 1 and 2
Description of the episode:
In April 1938, the nation was shocked by the news that Hazel Frome and her daughter, Nancy—two innocent, beautiful Bay Area socialites—turned up dead in a ditch outside of El Paso. Even more shocking, there were signs that the women had been tortured before their deaths.
More information on this story:
Episode: Jason Dies
Description of the episode:
In June of 1991, 20-year-old Jason Dies returned from Operation Desert Storm when the USS Horne docked in San Diego, California. He was now on leave and had a month to report to a new duty station in Pensacola, Florida. Jason never showed up and was classified as an unauthorized absentee and later a deserter. Before Jason disappeared, he mailed some packages to his family back in Louisiana. He phoned them and asked them not to open the packages. The mystery of what was in the packages and what happened to Jason loomed over his family for years. What had he sent them? Military secrets? Was there some kind of conspiracy? When Jason’s younger cousin grew up, she embarked on a journey to find him. She opened the packages and started pressing for answers.
Prepare to be spooked with this podcast created by Payne Lindsey that shares real-life stories told by anonymous people with a twist—an employee at a video rental store (voiced by actor Rainn Wilson) sets the stage. The ones that have stuck with me so far are Episodes 2 and 4 of the first season. I couldn’t stop thinking about “The Doppelganger” and “Laura of the Woods.”
The Minds of Madness
Episode 78: The Whitaker Family
This story has s stayed with me since I first heard about it several years ago. It makes you wonder if a person really can be born without a conscience and explores the power of forgiveness.
Description of the episode:
December 2003 was a special time for Kent and Tricia Whitaker. Their sons had returned home from University for the holidays, and they were happy to have the whole family back together again. Little did the Whitakers know it would be the last fond memory the family of four would share.
Dateline NBC: The Charleston Affair
In this Dateline classic, a wealthy Charleston banker and his wife are locked in a bitter divorce. One week before their divorce hearing, authorities find an ex-con in town who confesses he had been hired to kill someone in their family. Who was the mastermind behind the hit? Keith Morrison reports. Originally aired on NBC on September 19, 2014.
Check them out and let me know what you think!
This article appears this month in the June 2020 issue of Lake Norman CURRENTS.
It was while interviewing Davidson resident Stacey Simms about her Diabetes Connections podcast for CURRENTS several years ago that I first learned about podcasts. For anyone unfamiliar, a podcast is an episodic series of spoken word digital audio files that a user can download to a personal device for easy listening. There are now more than 800,000 active podcasts available worldwide, if that tells you anything about their popularity.
When a friend started telling me about some true crime podcasts a few years ago, I started wading my way into the podcast waters. I loved studying the different formats, the choices of music and sound effects, and the way all the elements could come together to tell a compelling story.
How hard would it be to create my own podcast?, I thought to myself more than once. In my spare time, I would jot ideas down in a notebook. What type of equipment would I need? What would the format be? How would I learn all the technical aspects of production? How would I find content? I even attended a specialized writing conference in Raleigh last summer, t “MurderCon,” so I could glean more ideas and network.
Finding myself with extra time on my hands thanks to COVID-19’s shelter-at-home orders, I gave myself a deadline to finally get a podcast up and running. I honed in on a topic (missing people) and came up with a title, “Missing in the Carolinas.” I bartered services with a graphic artist friend of mine to create the cover art (she needed editing done for her online business).
I began writing scripts. I bought a microphone and started playing around with GarageBand on my computer. I begged one of my teenagers for help. I bought stock music and created an introduction that could be used at the beginning of each episode. I tried recording the first episode, and quickly learned a read-through of each script is mandatory before hitting the record button. I also may have deleted the audio more than once when I was only trying to erase part of the recording. I researched the best media hosts for the podcast, because you have to buy a membership to one before you can get it to “feed” into places like Apple podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, etc. This was uncharted territory for me.
It was much harder than I anticipated. But after producing the first few episodes, I realized it would be silly not interview guests if I could find them. After recording one interview via Zoom, I wasn’t entirely impressed with the audio quality and am now looking for other options.
Although it’s been a slow process, I’m proud of the new skills I’ve taught myself—audio production, recording, interviewing, media hosting, creating an e-mail list, script writing—just to scratch the surface. So far, I’ve invested a small amount of money into this project and am not receiving compensation. It’s a complete passion project, but one that I hope will grow over time and generate more interest. And if it can be used to help solve a missing persons case, well, that would be worth the time invested. Wish me luck.
As a fan of many of Wondery’s podcasts, I instantly became hooked when “Over My Dead Body: Joe Exotic” was first released last fall. I appreciate good investigative reporting, and host Robert Moor actually went out to Oklahoma to meet Joe Maldonaldo-Passage (the name he now goes by) and recorded what transpired during much of his time there. I had never heard of Joe Exotic before the podcast, but Moor’s production, voice and storytelling left me eagerly awaiting each new episode (the series was only five or six episodes originally).
Sure, there were parts that made me cringe, and I absolutely do not agree with breeding and selling large cats. I felt both empathy for Joe (after hearing of what he dealt with as a young adult) and anger towards the narcissism that eventually led to his downfall. It’s also clear Joe mistreated both the animals at his park and his employees, so I’m not one in the “Free Joe Exotic” camp. The podcast series slowly delved into Joe’s feud with Carole Baskin, and her voice is also heard on the podcast, and that is the narrative that the podcast stayed with until the finale.
So when I heard Netflix was planning to release a docuseries called “The Tiger King,” I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back and relive that world again. It was hard enough the first time around. I watched part of the first episode and turned it off after about 20 minutes. It came across as exploitive and salacious, and I wasn’t sure I liked the direction it was going in. But then as the internet exploded with discussions about the series, I gave in and binged it in a few days. At the time I’m writing this, 64 million households and counting have watched “The Tiger King.” I guess I felt like I needed to go back and give it another try, especially since I already knew the backstory from the podcast and wanted to compare the two. It’s interesting that there were all these journalists working on this story simultaneously over the course of several years, before Joe was even arrested and convicted of murder for hire.
I grew frustrated with the direction of the Netflix series. I understand it’s the work of the filmmakers (and bless them for spending so many hours upon hours interviewing the key players involved) but the second episode, “Cult of Personality,” left me scratching my head. I never knew there were so many people running exotic animal operations in the United States, and they all seem to be more than a little off their rockers. I had also heard about the mystery of Carole Baskin’s missing husband from the podcast, but the documentary seems to have unleashed a whole new level of interest in that case. (I will admit the disappearance is more than a little fishy, but there is no concrete proof of her involvement at this point). I grew frustrated that the documentary also made it look like Joe Exotic was a real country-music star, and I knew from the podcast that Joe can’t even sing, much less write music. I believe the real songwriters are credited at the end of the series but who was actually looking for that in the credits?
And as for the “bonus” episode of “The Tiger King,” where E’s Joel McHale interviews several people from the series, skip it if you haven’t already. He comes across as condescending and treats the whole episode as a big joke. It was completely pointless.
I may feel more connected to the podcast because I’m also a journalist and feel it depicted the story more honestly without trying to be sensational. I was really surprised at the end of the docuseries when statistics about the number of large cats that exist in the United States appeared. That information almost seemed to come out of nowhere. In my opinion (and apparently Carole Baskin’s), Netflix chose to focus more on the crazy antics of the characters rather than the opportunity to educate the public about the importance of preventing the breeding and selling of large cats.
If you want to check out the podcast, it’s available on all podcast platforms. Wondery has released bonus episodes that feature uncut interviews Robert Moor conducted, but after listening to two of them, I don’t feel like they add anything to the story. There are awkward pauses all throughout and it becomes clear why things are edited the way they are in the final product. Texas Monthly also produced a great piece on the story.
I’d also recommend checking out the podcast “Life is Short with Justin Long,” where Long interviews Moor about his experience researching and producing the “Joe Exotic” podcast.
I think I first heard about the Kristin Smart case back in the late 90s on the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries.” She was a 19-year-old student at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo. The Friday before Memorial Day weekend, Kristin was ready to unwind and blow off some steam. She attended a party thrown by a local fraternity, and after walking back towards her dorm with a few other students, was never seen again.
24 years later, we still don’t know what happened to Kristin. But according to recent news reports, the mother of Kristin Smart has been told to prepare for new and breaking details about the case. When I learned that a new investigative podcast does a deep dive into Kristin’s life and the theories surrounding her disappearance, I knew I had to check it out. I was pretty surprised with what the podcast uncovered. And I’m only on Episode 3.
I’m not going to get into too many details, because I recommend you check out the podcast “Your Own Backyard; The Disappearance of Kristin Smart” yourself, especially if you liked Payne Lindsey’s coverage of Tara Grinstead’s disappearance in the “Up and Vanished” podcast.
But here are a few things I didn’t know going into the podcast:
Investigators have always had a suspect in the case, a young man who was supposedly the last person seen with her on that walk home. That young man had a black eye in the days following her disappearance, and he gave three different explanations as to how he got that bruise. When cadaver dogs were taken through the Cal Poly dorms days later (because it took campus police almost a week to report her missing), they hit on the corner of the mattress in the dorm room belonging to this young man who was the last person seen with her. Unfortunately, by that time, the rooms had already been thoroughly cleaned by college janitorial staff because students had gone home for the summer.
There is so much more circumstantial evidence that points to this suspect, and the host of “Your Own Backyard,” California native Chris Lambert, covers it all. He was in elementary school when Kristin first went missing and has grown up driving past the billboards featuring the young girl’s smiling face. He interviews her family, her closest friends, and scores of young women who knew the suspect in the case and are not surprised that he may have taken advantage of a young intoxicated college girl leaving a party. In fact, most of the women won’t use their own names in the podcast because they fear retribution by the suspect.
I have a feeling Lambert’s reporting may have put the final pieces of this puzzle together. I plan on finishing the rest of the episodes this week to find out more.
Round-ups are some of my favorite posts to read, and hopefully this one will be no exception. In this post, I’ve gathered up my top five posts all about true crime–whether it’s discussing theories behind the addiction to missing people or specific cases that have stuck with me over the years.
Situational awareness. A glimpse into the dark side of humanity. The adrenaline rush. In this post, I take a deep dive into Three Reasons Female Writers are Addicted to True Crime.
The Case of Mike Williams. This story out of Florida intrigued me from the moment I learned about it, from the shifty wife to the “best friend” who sold him a hefty life insurance policy before he went missing, to the theory that Williams fell into a lake during a fishing trip and was eaten by alligators. Nope and nope. The update post shed light on recent developments.
Why I find the Parcast podcast Unsolved Murders is so intriguing.
As a mother, this case haunts me. Hopefully the loved ones of Lauria Bible and Ashley Freeman can find closure soon.
These days, I listen to podcasts more than I listen to music while I’m working out, doing chores around the house or driving. I find my podcasts through word of mouth from friends, social media ads and from other podcasts. If you’re looking for new podcasts to binge, here are a few of my recommendations!
For the Person Looking to Pivot.
Second Life. Hosted by Hillary Kerr, this podcast features weekly interviews with women “who’ve made major career changes and fearlessly mastered the pivot.” The first episode I listened to featured musician/actress Mandy Moore, and after that, I was hooked. I love hearing all these stories of how women paved their own way and found the ultimate joy and happiness in their careers. From nutritionist and celebrity health coach Kelly LeVeque to journalist and former CNN Chief White House Correspondent Jessica Yellin, these interviews are full of inspiration and encouragement.
For the True Crime Junkie
Cold. If you’re obsessed with true crime, chances are you’ve heard of the Susan Cox Powell story. Unfortunately, you also know her body has never been found, and all of the key players in the case are no longer with us. This in-depth look at the case, from the beginning of Susan’s relationship with her eccentric husband Josh Powell to the day she disappeared, takes the listener all the way to present day. I binged all 18 episodes in about a week, if that tells you anything about how addictive it is. This podcast features never-before heard audio with both Josh and Susan Powell and Josh’s father, Steve, who had an unhealthy obsession with Susan. This podcast is stunning and riveting all at once.
For the Budding Entrepreneur
Goal Digger Podcast. I started listening to Jenna Kutcher’s podcast as a way to get tips on personal development in my marketing day job. What I got was so much more. From interviews with movers and shakers in the business world (again, mostly women), to tangible podcasts like “Launch Your Dream Biz in Just 90 Minutes Per Day,” I come back to this one again and again while I’m exercising because it’s so full of motivation and enthusiasm.
For the Person Obsessed with Eating Healthy
I love, love, love The Hungry Girl, and her podcast “Chew the Right Thing,” is just as practical and delightful as Lisa Lillian, the woman behind the brand. Each week she and her team members Jamie and Mike tackle topics like “The Top 8 Ways to Overcome a Weight-Loss Plateau” and “The Breakfast Awards Episode,” which are full of great product reviews and tips. Warning though, they have a taste-testing section in each episode that might make you ready to head to the grocery store and have a snack after you listen.
For the Seeker of Great Storytelling
Imagined Life. This is storytelling at its finest. Co-hosted by Robbie Daymond and Virginia Madsen, each episode walks you through an immersive journey of a world-famous person. The hook? You don’t get to find out who the person is until the very end—unless of course, you guess the person first! So many of these episodes surprised me and even had me shedding a tear or two! My personal favorite: “The Handler.”
I’m always on the hunt for a great podcast. What are some of your favorites?
It’s like a match made in heaven. A podcast that features a look at unsolved murders (some are so obscure that even a true crime buff like myself has never heard of them), but this podcast has a twist. Hosted by actor Carter Roy and voice artist and coach Wenndy Mackenzie, this podcast features reenactments of the stories that are much like the radio dramas of centuries past. Instead of sitting around a radio in the living room, I can pop in my earbuds and listen to tales that will make the hair stand up on the back of my neck while I’m exercising or doing chores around the house.
I was especially creeped out when I listened to the two-part episode of The Oklahoma Girl Scout Murders.
And the case of Dorothy Jane Scott, who received months of creepy phone calls before finally disappearing from a hospital parking garage one night. And then the creepy calls continued–except they were then directed at members of her family.
I’ll admit the very first time I heard an episode of Unsolved Murders (E103 The Skeleton Under the House-James Gilmore) I wasn’t sure how I felt about the voice actors’ portrayals. I thought it was a little cheesy, but after awhile, it grew on me. After all, it is more interesting that listening to 45 minutes of a podcaster reading a script about a missing person in monotone voice. (True story–I won’t name names, though.)
What may be frustrating for some is that these cases are, for the most, unsolved. But the co-hosts do a good job of presenting pretty viable suspects in most cases, along with their own theories, and I haven’t found them to be too far-fetched. The good news is that I’ve only recently discovered this podcast and I have a whole stockpile of episodes to catch up on!
It’s a story I’ve heard about in the past few years and it’s like something out of a horror film. A group of innocent young girls say goodbye to their parents at Camp Scott in Oklahoma in 1977, and three of them are murdered in the night before the adventure even begins.
A camp counselor found three sleeping bags containing the bodies of Lori Farmer (age 8), Michelle Guse (age 9) and Denise Milner (age 10) on the morning of June 14, 1977. The girls had been sexually assaulted and murdered, and then left on a trail not far from the tent they had been sleeping in during a thunderstorm the night before.
I heard about this case in more detail in a two-part episode the Unsolved Murders: True Crime podcast ran called “The Oklahoma Girl Scout Murders.” The case made my heart break on a number of levels. For one, these three girls were sleeping in a tent all by themselves on the night of the murders. During a storm, which had to have been scary. They were writing letters home, the contents which were later published. During the investigation, officials discovered a counselor had heard odd sounds in the middle of the night coming from the direction of the girls’ tent, including a guttural moaning. She got up with a flashlight and investigated the noise, but couldn’t find anything. Another scout reported hearing a scream coming from the direction of where the three girls’ were sleeping in their tent. Another counselor remembered hearing a girl cry, “Mama! Mama!” I know the 1970s was a different era, but there sure didn’t seem to be much in the way of security for a place responsible for caring for such young girls. (The families of the victims did eventually sue the organization that owned the camp, but they lost).
Camp Scott was evacuated and shut down the day after the murders. A local farmer called police and told them he had seen a man hiding out in a cave near his property, which made them suspicious. A convicted rapist, Gene Leroy Hart, had escaped from police custody in 1973 and had never been captured. Law enforcement wondered if he could have been involved in the Girl Scout murders. When they checked out the cave, the found evidence from the camp, including a roll of tape (like tape used on the girls’ hands) and a pair of sunglasses that had belonged to one of the camp counselors. They caught up to Hart in an abandoned cabin 10 months later, and he went on trial for the murders.
Many in the community rallied behind Hart, a former high school football star, including members of the Native American population who felt he was being railroaded because of his ethnicity. DNA testing was not as sophisticated as it is today, so the samples taken from the murder scene could not be definitively tied to Hart. The case was purely circumstantial, and he was eventually acquitted. He did have to return to prison for the 1973 rapes of two pregnant women. In 1979, only two months after his trial, he died in prison of a heart attack.
There are people in Oklahoma who think he got away with murder, but that karma worked its magic in the end with Hart dying so quickly in prison. Others wonder if there could have been another killer, or killers. A boot print was found at the crime scene that wasn’t linked to hart. A re-test of DNA in 2008 was inconclusive, as too much time had passed with a degraded semen sample. The current sheriff in Mayes County has raised more than $30,000 for a new round of DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene that still remains.
Hopefully, with a renewed sense of interest on the case and advances in technology, the families of these three young girls will find some closure soon.
Sometime last year I came across a video on the case of Tara Calico, who vanished from her hometown in Belen, New Mexico after heading out on her daily 34-mile bike ride on her mother’s Huffy (Tara’s bike had a flat tire and needed to be repaired). The year was 1988 and Tara was 19 years old. Her mother knew she wouldn’t be gone too long because she had an afternoon tennis date with her boyfriend.
Witnesses saw a white pick-up truck following closely behind her as she took off, and although she had only planned on taking a short ride, she never came home. After the initial 24-hour waiting period, police traced her route and found her Boston cassette tape lying by the side of the road about three miles from her home. Tara was described as outgoing, studious, and hard-working. She was attending a local college and working part-time when she vanished, so her family believed immediately that she wouldn’t have left on her own.
Some time later a Walkman believed to have belonged to Tara was discovered about 19 miles away at a local campground, along with what looked to be bike tracks or scuffle marks.
About nine months after Tara vanished, a woman came across a Polaroid photo in the parking lot of a grocery store in Port St. Joe, Fla. A white cargo van had been previously parked in the spot where the photo was found. The photo showed a young woman and an even younger boy both bound and gagged on a bed with some striped sheets.
The picture appeared to have been taken in the back of a white Toyota cargo van with no windows. When Tara’s mother saw the picture, she insisted the girl, who had a V.C. Andrews novel placed beside her, was Tara. Andrews was Tara’s favorite author. Other people speculated the boy with Tara was Michael Henley, a nine-year-old boy who had gone missing in the New Mexico Zuni mountains in 1988, but his remains were later found near the area where he went missing two years later.
The case has never been solved, but with the renewed interest of the former sheriff, Rene Rivera, and an old classmate of Tara’s, Melinda Esquibel, closure could be on the horizon. There are rumors in the town of Belen that two teenage boys were possibly involved in the abduction and subsequent murder of Tara, and that parents of the boys helped cover it up. When Esquibel began working on documentary of the case, the sheriff’s office in Valencia County gave her access to what little files existed on the case. What she found was in shambles and it was evident files had gone missing over the years. She began her own investigation that has been turned into a podcast, Vanished: The Tara Calico Investigation. I just started listening to the podcast and am curious to see what unfolds.
A lot of the fiction I write is inspired by true crime stories, and the Tara Calico case is no different. After hearing the initial story, I envisioned a young woman and boy held in captivity together for several years, and what would happen when they finally got the courage to escape. I wrote a short story called “The Polaroid,” and recently found out it placed first in the Suspense/Thriller Category of the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards.
When most people think of Orlando, Fla., they envision theme park resorts, Mickey Mouse, water parks, and a place where people go to seek thrills and adventure. For 24-year-old Jennifer Kesse, Orlando provided a place for her to start off a career as a financial analyst. That’s where she was headed on Jan. 24, 2006, when she disappeared. When she didn’t show up for work, her employer called her family because it was so unlike her normal behavior. When police and family members searched her condo, they could tell she had showered and gotten ready for work per usual, but there was no sign of her car.
Two days later the car was found in a nearby condominium complex. Video surveillance captured the grainy image of a person exiting her car and walking away on foot shortly after parking (the car was left in the lot on the day Jennifer disappeared). Unfortunately, most of the footage of this person was obscured by a tall, black, wrought-iron fence.
At the time of her disappearance, Jennifer’s condominium complex was undergoing a massive renovation, and from what it sounds like, many of the workers on the project were illegal immigrants who didn’t speak a lot of English when questioned. Some theorize the person captured on the surveillance image could have been a painter or other contractor based on the white, non-descript clothing. Jennifer had told friends and family members that she felt uncomfortable having so many workers in the complex where she lived alone, especially when they made comments as she walked by.
In subsequent interviews, Jennifer’s father Drew shared that he feared she had been kidnapped and kept in one of the unoccupied condo units while community members searched for her. No one interviewed remembered seeing her in the parking lot that morning, leaving her family to think something happened to Jennifer before she even made it out of the breezeway outside her condo.
Elementary-school teacher and Tampa-area resident Shaun Gurd has helped the case receive a resurgence of interest the past year with the podcast, “Unconcluded.” Gurd produces episodes of the podcast along with is friend Scott Jamison. (It seems pretty popular with at least 300,000 downloads so far!) I haven’t listened to any episodes yet but hope to in the next week to see if I can learn any other details.
Have you listened to the “Unconcluded” podcast? If not, what are your theories on what happened to Jennifer Kesse?