A few months ago, I got the opportunity to attend the writing conference of a lifetime. I had heard about Writers Police Academy, which allows writers to learn about police procedure and investigations from law enforcement experts. But when I learned this year’s academy would focus all on the crime of murder, and that it was only three hours away from where I live, I hopped on registration the second it opened. The conference lasted four days and was crammed full of keynotes, networking events and classes that took place both at our hotel and at the Sirchie Training Facilities in Youngsville, N.C.
I took classes on things like “Murder Mayhem,” “Buried Bodies,” “Glorious Shoes: Footwear Evidence,” “Prints on the Page,” “The Art of Interrogation” and more. I also was fortunate enough to land an assignment detailing my experience in WOW! Women on Writing’s Fall e-zine, which explores the dark and twisty side of writing. Read my article here and then check out the other articles chock full of useful information on writing about mystery, thriller, crime and suspense. You won’t regret it.
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.
When I first heard about the disappearance of Florida resident Mike Williams on “Disappeared” a few years ago, I couldn’t help but hear the alarm bells go off in my head. Nothing in the story felt right with me.
Williams, a 31-year-old real estate appraiser, went missing on Dec. 16, 2000 after his wife told police he had failed to return from an early-morning duck hunting trip on Lake Seminole. It was his wedding anniversary, and he and wife Denise were supposed to have dinner plans that night. His truck was found at the lake, and his fishing boat was found in the water, but there was no sign of Mike. Upon an initial search, authorities believe Williams fell into the water and drowned, and was possibly eaten by an alligator.
Here’s the thing that made me pause. His wife didn’t seem to be sad that he went missing. In fact, even though Mike was her high-school sweetheart, after the birth of their daughter a rift grew between Mike and Denise and Mike’s family. They reported that Denise didn’t seem to be interested in maintaining a relationship with them. Mike tried to keep the peace by taking their toddler to visit his family, often without Denise. After Mike’s boat and truck were found, Denise seemed ready to move on with her life and presume Mike dead. Mike’s best friend Brian Winchester was often by Denise’s side, consoling her and trying to explain to the police his theory about how Mike died.
Mike’s mother Cheryl, however, was not so quick to presume her son was gone. She consulted with experts at Florida State University who theorized alligators would have been hibernating in the cold December weather–they wouldn’t have been out in the waters while Mike was duck hunting. But she was warned by Denise’s family that it was time for Denise “to move on.” In fact, six months after Mike went missing, Denise put together a memorial service for Mike and petitioned the courts to pronounce him legally dead. This usually takes at least five years. She won her case, and received more than $2 million in Mike’s life insurance. But guess who had sold Mike the hefty policy? That’s right. Brian Winchester. He sold it to Mike about six months before the disappearance. Cheryl also never saw her granddaughter again–she was told if she kept looking into Mike’s disappearance that would happen, and Denise followed through on the threat.
In the episode of “Disappeared” that I watched, I found it interesting that Denise and Brian chose not to participate in the episode. They declined to answer any questions from producers. They also got married a few years after Mike’s disappearance, once Brian was divorced from his wife. The mystery of what happened to Mike may have remained unsolved if Denise and Brian’s marriage hadn’t eventually fallen apart. (I mean, what do you expect though? Look at the circumstances that led to their marriage!) They separated in 2012. In 2016, Brian got desperate and held Denise hostage in her car at gunpoint for several hours, trying to talk her into a reconciliation. Upon her release, she pressed charges and Brian was arrested. In October 2017, he was sentenced to 20 years for the kidnapping. The day after he was sentenced, investigators finally found Mike Williams’ body buried in about six feet of mud near a boat landing not far from his mother’s home. He had been murdered. And on his wedding anniversary. It doesn’t get much colder than that.
He had probably never been at Lake Seminole in the first place.
At the beginning of this month, I was shocked to come across a news article that Denise had been arrested for conspiring to have Mike murdered. This was the first I had heard about the divorce, the charges against Brian, and the discovery of Mike’s body. In a way I can’t help feel like it’s karma that finally caught up with Denise Williams. It makes me sick to think about the three childhood friends (they had all gone to high school together–and Brian and Denise may have even known each other since preschool) and the plot to kill a man who seemed like a hard worker, dutiful husband and doting father. When he signed that insurance policy he thought he was probably just doing the right thing and having a plan for his wife and daughter in case anything ever happened to him. I’m glad the truth finally surfaced, although it won’t surprise me one bit if it comes out that Denise told Brian she or her daughter were being abused. And Brian decided to be the hero. I can only hope his conscience led him to tell investigators where Mike’s body was, and not just the temptation of a plea deal.
I hope the Williams family can finally find some peace now.
Jay and Laurene Bible know their daughter is dead. Now, they just want to bring her home once and for all.
This case has always baffled me. In 1999, Sixteen-year-old Lauria Bible only wanted to spend the night at Ashley Freeman’s home in Welch, OK, eat cake, and celebrate her best friend’s 16th birthday. But hours later, the Freeman home burned to the ground, and as investigators sifted through the rubble, they found the bodies of Ashley’s parents, Danny and Kathy. Autopsies revealed the Freeman’s had been shot to death.
The girls were nowhere to be found. Laura’s purse was found on the property, though, with $200 cash inside along with her driver’s license. Her car was also still parked in the driveway.
When I first read about this case, I was perplexed. Had the two girls managed to escape the fire? If so, where were they? All sorts of conspiracy theories floated about. Danny Freeman had a history of being involved in drugs. Was it a drug deal gone bad? He had also been feuding the local sheriff’s department and was planning to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the county. His son Shane had stolen a pickup drug and been shot and killed during the pursuit. Or was it a murder-suicide and the girls saw what happened and fled?
Over the years, Jay and Laurene Bible tracked down every lead they could think of, only to be met with heartbreak at each turn. A death row inmate claimed to have murdered the Freemans, kidnapped the girls, murdered them and then abandoned their bodies in a mine shaft. After an exhaustive search of the mines he pinpointed, he finally admitted he had made the whole story up.
Ashley’s surviving family members moved to have her legally declared dead in 2010.
Last week, there was a huge break in the case along with an arrest. Investigators arrested a man named Ronnie Dean Busick, who they believe killed the Freemans as part of a drug dispute and then kidnapped the two girls. Two other suspects, Warren Phillip Welch and David Pennington, were also implicated but both are deceased. The arrest of Busick comes after old case notes were discovered. Apparently, over the years, different women who were involved with the three suspects claimed they knew the two girls were abducted, held captive for several days, raped, and then murdered. These witnesses were said to have been in fear for their lives, which was why they never came forward officially. One woman has claimed to have seen a briefcase full of polaroid photos of the girls, some with Busick posing with them. No actual evidence of these photos has been found.
Investigators and the Bible family are now hoping for closure and to find out where the girl’s bodies are so they can have a proper burial. So while there are answers, but closure has yet to be found.
This case caught my eye in a recent round-up article of mysterious disappearances, mainly because it involves my home state of North Carolina, and the numerous theories that swirl around it.
Mary Shotwell Little was a young 25-year-old newlywed and secretary at a bank in Atlanta, GA. On Oct. 14, 1965, the night of her disappearance, her husband Roy Little was out of town for work training but planning to return the next day. Mary had plans to throw him a welcome-back party, and after work, she shopped for groceries and arranged to meet a co-worker for dinner at the Piccadilly Cafeteria at the Lenox Square Shopping Center. The next day, Mary didn’t show up for work and never called in, which was unusual for her. Her boss spoke with the colleague she had dinner with the night before and found out Mary left the cafeteria around 8 p.m. in good spirits. Security guards couldn’t find Mary’s car, a 1965 Mercury Comet, at first but then located it in the parking lot of the shopping center.
There was something unusual about the car, though. It was covered in a layer of red dust, as if it had been driven on a dirt road. Police found bags of groceries were found in the backseat. A pile of folded undergarments, speckled with blood, lay between the bucket seats, and a single nylon with one cut in it and a bra were on the floor. Mary’s coat, purse, keys, jewelry and dress were never found.
On the day following her disappearance, Mary’s credit card was used at a gas station in Charlotte, NC, which also happened to be her hometown, and then 12 hours later in Raleigh, NC. Investigators thought that was odd because the two cities were only about 3- 3 1/2 hours apart–so why would anyone wait so long in between credit card purchases? They were both signed “Mrs. Roy H. Little Jr.” Attendants at both gas stations told investigators they had seen a woman who appeared to have a head injury with blood on her head and legs with two unidentified men, but she kept her face hidden.
There are many theories about what happened to Mary, although none have ever been proven. Of course suspicion fell first on her husband, Roy, as it often does when a woman vanishes. He reportedly came across as cold and unconcerned when she went missing and refused to take a lie detector test on many occasions. But although many of her friends didn’t care for him, she seemed to be happy in the marriage and he had no motive to bring her harm.
There is also speculation that Mary staged her own disappearance, due to the carefully staged items (and small amount of blood smears) in her car, but that hasn’t been proven, either. A woman did report that a man tried to accost her in the Lenox Square Shopping Center just a few hours before Mary would have been heading to her own car after dinner.
Co-workers told investigators Mary had taken several calls at work that seemed to be from an old suitor, whom she told she was married and no longer available. She also received a bouquet of flowers from a secret admirer that so that was also a little unsettling. Had someone been stalking her?
There were also reports of a sex scandal at Mary’s office that she knew about, and an F.B.I. agent had been sent in to investigate it. But although Mary had knowledge of it, investigators couldn’t tie those claims to her disappearance. It is a strange coincidence though that 18 months after Mary went missing, a female co-worker named Dianne Shields was found murdered, sexually assaulted and left in the trunk of her car. No link could ever be found between the two cases, though.
According to this recent article in The Charlotte Observer, a retired area detective has been spending time trying chase down a story that an inmate told two F.B.I. agents in 1966. He claimed he had been acquainted with two men who told him they had abducted a woman and killed her at a house in Mount Holly, NC. And . . . they were each paid $5,000 to do so.
And the mystery deepens, indeed.
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.
The story of the McStay family intrigued me from the time I first heard about their sudden disappearance from their California home to the discovery of their bodies in the desert in the fall of 2013.
By all accounts, Joseph McStay, age 40, and his wife Summer, age 43, were happy and living the American dream. They had recently moved to a home in the suburbs of Fallbrook with their sons Gianni, age 4 and Joseph Jr., age 3, with plans to renovate it. Joseph ran a successful decorative water fountain business and he and Summer doted on their two young children.
In February 2010 Joseph’s father Patrick received an e-mail from one of Joseph’s business partners who was concerned because he hadn’t heard from Joseph. After Joseph’s brother visited the house and saw no signs of the family, Patrick called the local sheriff’s department and asked for them to do a welfare check. The detective who visited the home noticed two dogs in the backyard with a large bag of dog food, and signs that the family may have left the home abruptly. There was evidence of paint cans where Joseph and Summer had been painting along with food on the counter and bowls of popcorn on the couch. Family members were concerned–as Summer loved her dogs and would have never left them unattended in the backyard for days. The last time anyone had heard from the family had been on Feb. 4.
After several days, the sheriff’s department learned that the family’s Isuzu Trooper had been towed from a strip mall in San Diego, not far from the border of Mexico. Video surveillance on Feb. 8 during that time period showed a shadowy family of four making their way across the border checkpoint, but no one could ever confirm if it was the McStays or not. Authorities believed for the first few years that the McStays had traveled to Mexico during that time period and never returned. But the McStays had more than $100,000 in their bank accounts when they disappeared and it was never touched.
In November of 2013, a motorcyclist in the desert found a set of human remains buried in Victorville, Calif. The bodies were later determined to be those of the McStay family, and it was clear they had died violent deaths, including blunt force trauma. Not long after, police arrested Chase Merritt, Joseph’s business associate in the fountain business who had also been the one to notify Patrick McStay of the missing family. Merritt was also the last person known to be in contact with Joseph–they met for lunch the afternoon of the family’s disappearance. He also had borrowed $30,000 from Joseph to cover a gambling debt. Merritt is still awaiting trial, as he keeps firing his counsel and has attempted to represent himself a few different times. He has a criminal background and apparently wrote thousands of dollars worth of check’s from Joseph’s business accounts in the days after the disappearance.
While this all seems shady, I have to wonder what exactly went down. Had Joseph discovered Merritt was embezzling money and confronted him? Or was he about to make the discovery and Merritt tried to head him off? Why kill the whole family? The police didn’t see any signs of violence when they examined the home, although there were fresh coats of paint on the walls where they assumed Joseph and Summer had been painting. But by the time they arrested Merritt in 2014 another family was living in the house and they couldn’t do the usual testing for blood spatter, etc. Too much time had passed. There also wasn’t any blood in the Isuzu Trooper, which Merritt must have driven to the border checkpoint in an attempt to throw a wrench in the investigation. His DNA was found in the car, possibly from a skin or sweat transfer, but that could easily be explained away by a criminal defense attorney. Investigators are looking into the idea that Merritt may have had help in committing the crime.
So where did the murder take place? A sledgehammer, most likely the murder weapon, was found in the shallow graves of the bodies. That would cause cast-off that was never found. The bottom line is–the story is heartbreaking. A loving mother and father and two very young children lost their lives over what–money? I’m just hopeful that if Merritt is the one responsible that he is convicted and given the harshest punishment possible for the senseless deaths of the McStay family.
Zachary Bernhardt was 8 years old when he disappeared on Sept. 11, 2000. One can only hope that he is alive and well today at the age of 25 years, possibly with no memory of who he is. But there are many that believe he met with foul play years ago.
The story is an odd one, and you pretty much only have the word of one person about what happened that night, and that’s Zachary’s mother, Leah. A single mom who often had trouble making ends meet, she told investigators she had insomnia that night and decided to take a swim in the apartment complex’s swimming pool between 3 and 4 a.m., leaving Zachary alone with the door unlocked. When she returned, she immediately took a shower and then checked on Zachary, only to discover he wasn’t in his bed. She called police around 4:47 a.m. The phone call was odd, based on the recording played on the episode of “Disappeared” I watched. She sounded distraught, told 911 that is was “her fault” he was gone, and that he was a very well-behaved boy.
Right away, investigators had a few problems with her story. For starters, who goes swimming at 3 a.m. fully clothed, without even putting on a bathing suit? And why leave the door to your apartment unlocked when you know your 8-year-old son is in there sleeping? A few neighbors also stated that they noticed Leah’s car had left around the time she went swimming and returned later in the early hours of the morning before she made the call.
Leah and Zachary had a history of moving around a lot, and were reported to have been facing eviction at the time he went missing. Despite a massive search, no evidence of what happened to Zachary was ever found.
Investigators thought there might be a break in the case in 2001 when a nearby resident, Kevin Jalbert, told an acquaintance he was looking for a child to abduct and that he had abducted and killed many children before. When police questioned him about Zachary, he pointed at the wrong apartment and his description of the boy’s pajamas conflicted with information from Leah. He had a history of lying to people in order to get attention, though, which made him less than credible. There was no physical evidence to tie Jalbert to Zachary’s disappearance, but he is serving 40 years in prison now on child pornography charges.
Another odd thing? On New Year’s Eve 2001, a 5-year-old boy was abducted from the same apartment complex and found alive in a dumpster ten hours later. He told police a white man with stringy hair had taken him. Despite thorough investigation, the police couldn’t find a connection between Zachary’s case and the New Year’s Eve abduction.
At some point, although Leah’s family members are still spearheading the search for Zachary, Leah herself stopped cooperating with the investigation, moved to Hawaii, got married, and changed her name. She appears to no longer be looking for her son that disappeared all those years ago.