• True Crime

    True Crime Wednesday: Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Child Trafficking Scam

    As a parent, it’s an unimaginable scenario. You send your children out to play in the front yard of your rural home in the country, and they are never seen again. Because you are poor with no money and limited resources, no one seems to care that your children are missing.

    In fact, a social worker is sent to tell you that you’ve been a neglectful parent, and your parental rights are being stripped away. Your children will go to a much better home, a home with rich parents who will give them a better life.

    This is only one of the ways the Tennessee Children’s Home Society procured thousands of young children, many of them blonde haired and blue eyed, and then “sold” them to wealthy families for thousands of dollars. It’s hard to believe, but this early child trafficking ring operated out of what was supposed to be a charitable organization and headed by a woman named Georgia Tann.

    Georgia Tann

    Tann was born in 1891, the daughter of a Mississippi district court judge. One of his responsibilities was dealing with homeless children who were the wards of the state. When she became an adult, Tann worked as a field agent for the Mississippi Children’s-Home Finding Society in Jackson, and soon overstepped her boundaries by placing poor children in adoptive homes without first getting the consent of the birth parents. After being sued by one of the parents, Tann decided to take her scheme and try it elsewhere, eventually landing in Memphis, Tenn.

    There, she set up the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and began carefully networking with local politicians, law enforcement officers, doctors and nurses to basically steal infants and children from poor families and unwed mothers in hospitals. She would give them a cut of the adoption fees to keep them quiet. One of her most ardant co-conspirators was a female judge named Camille Kelley, who presided over the juvenile court in Shelby County, Tenn. for 30 years. Kelley had a spy in the welfare department who would pass along the names of family applying for assistance to Kelley. Then someone would be dispatched to take the children from the home under the guise of “neglect and you can’t care for them anyway.”

    Tennessee Children’s Home Society.

    Mothers would go to the hospital to give birth and be told their babies were stillborn. They weren’t. And not all the children who were stolen were adopted. At one point the home had an outbreak of dysentery and between 40 and 50 babies died in the year 1945 alone. If babies were too “weak” or stolen children had cognitive or physical impairment, Tann would simply make sure one of her employees made the children “disappear.” Some were buried on the property of the home and about 20 children were buried in an unmarked plot of land within the Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis.

    Records show she charged adoptive families desperate for a child up to $1,000 per child, a lot of money for the 1940s. With interstate adoptions, she charged up to $5,000. She had a team of “nurses” who would transport the babies on airplanes to their adoptive families. Many celebrities such as Joan Crawford and Lana Turner adopted babies from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, and pro wrestler Ric Flair claims he was one of her victims as well. Children who were born into Southern Baptist families suddenly became Jewish on official paperwork and then adopted to wealthy Jewish families.

    Tann even toured the country lecturing on the subject of adoption, claiming that she could ensure that “poor children” could be remade into a “higher type” by placing them with well-bred families. She would place sickening ads in newspapers, featuring photos of children up for adoption, with captions like “They’d Like to Be Your Christmas Gift.” She also created a baby catalog to send to prospective adoptive parents.

    Ads Georgia Tann placed in a local newspaper.

    Years later, victims reported they had simply been playing in their front yards when Tann’s sleek black sedan pulled up and she got out, picked up the children, and simply put them in her car. They never saw their birth parents again. Tann ran the society for 21 years and made more than $1 million dollars from the taking and selling of children who were not supposed to be up for adoption.

    It wasn’t until 1950 that a local attorney, at the request of a newly-elected governor, began an in-depth investigation into the Children’s Home Society and Tann. It took him more than a year to compile his 240-page report, in which he was horrified by what he uncovered. In September of 1950, the governor held a press conference where he revealed what Tann had been doing for two decades. Unfortunately, no one was ever prosecuted for their role in the child trafficking. Tann, who had been battling uterine cancer, died just a few days after the press conference.  Judge Camille Kelley resigned in November 1950.

    It’s estimated more than 5,000 were stolen by Georgia Tann. Some of have been reunited with their families, but for many others, they will be unable to find answers on where they came from.

  • True Crime

    True Crime Wednesday: Lesley Eugene Warren

    He was incredibly young and he had the face to match. But underneath his youthful demeanor lay  the heart of a killer.

    Lesley Eugene Warren murdered four women in three different states before finally being apprehended in July 1990. Although this all took place in my home state of North Carolina, I somehow had never heard of the man until recently. His case was the basis for an episode of the Investigation Discovery series titled “Handsome Devils” in 2014.

    Warren was born in Candler, N.C. and grew up in an abusive household. He only attended high school for a few months before dropping out. He eventually earned his GED, enlisted in the United States Army and was stationed in Fort Drum in New York State in 1987. Through a fellow soldier, he became acquainted with a 20-year-old young woman named Patsy Vineyard. Her husband reported her missing on May 21, 1987 after he returned home from being out of town and couldn’t find her. Vineyard’s body was later found in Lake Ontario near her home in Sackett’s Harbor, N.Y. She had been strangled to death. Warren was one of 150 soldiers who were questioned in her disappearance, but was not charged at the time of her death.

    Warren was dishonorably discharged from the Army, returning back to North Carolina and becoming a truck driver. In August 1989, the body of Velma Faye Gray from Travelers Rest, S.C. was found in Lake Bowen not far from her home. It appeared she had wrecked her car earlier that evening before she went missing.

    Jayme Denise Hurley was 39 years old when she went missing from her home in Asheville, N.C. on May 25, 1990. She had met Warren in the early 1980s when he was sent to the local Juvenile Education Center in Swannanoa. According to co-workers. Hurley grew to care about Warren over the years, considering him a bright young man and bringing him books she thought he would enjoy reading. She encouraged him to keep in touch with her even after she left the center in 1988.

    Just a few months after Hurley went missing, a young college student named Katherine Johnson, who was visiting her home in High Point, N.C. went missing after attending a party in July 1990.

    Each of the missing and murdered women had ties in some way to Lesley Eugene Warren. Investigators were already zeroing in on Warren as a suspect in Hurley’s disappearance when Johnson went missing. They eventually captured him in High Point, N.C. and questioned him about the two missing North Carolina women. Hurley’s body was eventually found in a shallow grave near Asheville. Johnson’s body was found in the trunk of her car in a parking garage in High Point. Warren was later tied to the deaths of Vineyard and Gray—both crimes appeared to be motives of opportunity. Vineyard was with Warren at a bar the night she was murdered and Gray had wrecked her car around the time Warren drove by the scene of the accident in his tractor trailer. Hurley had been a friend and mentor to Warren from his teenage years, and Johnson had met Warren at a party right before her murder.

    Lesley Eugene Warren was sentenced to death in North Carolina for the murders of Jayme Denise Hurley and Katherine Johnson and is currently on death row.

    Further Reading:

    https://greensboro.com/confessed-killer-made-others-care/article_245b3b80-25a3-5bd8-a715-c8dd5a759922.html

    https://greensboro.com/news/serial-killer-connected-to-high-point-slaying-subject-of-documentary/article_c63ff176-224d-11e4-a7a5-0017a43b2370.html

    https://greensboro.com/killers-lawyers-say-slaying-wasnt-planned/article_aa0f4717-d33f-5107-8088-337becada14b.html

    https://apnews.com/d551e72feb568f721f6f956c5e32eb8e

    https://www.goupstate.com/article/NC/19900721/News/605195321/SJ

  • True Crime

    True Crime Wednesday: The Unsolved Murder of Virginia Olson in North Carolina

    Virginia Olson

    The University of North Carolina at Asheville will always have a special place in my heart, because it was at that small college that I came into my own as a journalist. The small class sizes afforded me the ability to work closely with other students and talented professors who wanted me to succeed. For three years I worked on the campus newspaper, The Blue Banner, honing my reporting skills, interviewing students and administrators, working late nights at the office with only my jumbled notes and a miniature coffee pot to keep me company. I eventually became the features editor and then the news editor, assigning stories to reporters and perfecting my copy editing and computer software skills.

    UNC-Asheville, courtesy of ExploreAsheville.com

    But I have a confession to make. During that entire time I worked for the campus newspaper, and took courses in the mass communication and women’s studies departments, I had no idea that the specter of an unsolved murder of a female student from the 1970s loomed over the university. I only recently discovered this as I was researching missing persons cases for my podcast.

    From The Blue Banner archives

    Her name was Virginia “Ginger” Olson, and she was a 19-year-old dramatics major at the college. She was described as quiet, and friendly. On Sunday, April 15, 1973, she left her room at the Craig Dormitory to spend time studying just off campus. She walked through the Asheville-Biltmore Botanical Gardens (now known as The Botanical Gardens at Asheville) and up a hill to a spot where you could see both the gardens and a view of the campus.

    The Botanical Gardens at Asheville, Courtesy of Flickr

    The chancellor’s home, called the UNC-Asheville Pisgah House, now sits on that location.

    The Pisgah House

    None of Olson’s classmates were alarmed when she didn’t return to campus for lunch. Not everyone ate in the dining hall on the weekends. They only learned something terrible had happened to Olson when investigators arrived on campus later that evening. That afternoon, two local high school students discovered Olson’s body. Her t-shirt had been ripped to shreds and used to bind her hands and feet. The rest of her clothes lay scattered nearby. She had died by stab wounds to the heart and neck from a pocket knife that was still there. Olson was also sexually assaulted.

    Unfortunately, she died around the same time that the Watergate scandal broke so that story overshadowed any headlines Olson’s murder may have received. It sounds like a cold case squad in Asheville still has evidence in their archives (including Olson’s clothing) so there is still a chance the murder could be solved. The only real information I could get about this case came from articles published in the last few years from The Blue Banner staff (they did an excellent job of reporting the story!) I read in one of the articles that there were persistent rumors that a local patient from the nearby psychiatric facility Highland Hospital was responsible for the murder, but the alleged suspect was also the child of a prominent Asheville family and there may have been a cover-up. I couldn’t find any solid evidence to back that up, though.

    Either way, this is a sad story all around and I hope that one day, justice can be served for Virginia Olson. In 2013 a university groundskeeper and professor worked to erect a memorial garden in her honor, complete with three plaques and three benches. It’s a fitting tribute, and a way to soften the blow of what Olson’s last moments in a quiet and tranquil study spot must have been like.  

  • podcasts,  True Crime

    True Crime Wednesday: Intriguing Podcast Episodes to Check Out

    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:

    Unsolved Murders

    Hazel & Nancy Frome Pt. 1 and 2

    Hazel and Nancy Frome

    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.

    Listen here:

    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/unsolved-murders-true-crime-stories/id1122804248?i=1000474323554

    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/unsolved-murders-true-crime-stories/id1122804248?i=1000475060520

    More information on this story:

    https://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/unsolved-crimes/

    The Vanished

    Episode: Jason Dies

    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.  

    Listen here:

    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-vanished-podcast/id1081124929?i=1000477989934

    Radio Rental

    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.”

    Listen here:

    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/radio-rental/id1483289230?i=1000455640579

    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/radio-rental/id1483289230?i=1000456600641

    The Minds of Madness

    Episode 78: The Whitaker Family

    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.

    Listen here:

    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/episode-78-the-whitaker-family/id1191274361?i=1000477231458

    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.

    Listen here:

    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-charleston-affair/id1464919521?i=1000477540643

    Check them out and let me know what you think!

  • Creative Writing,  podcasts,  True Crime

    How I Started a Podcast

    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.

  • True Crime

    True Crime Wednesday: How Did Irina Yarmolenko Die?

    Courtesy of The Charlotte Observer

    I recently purchased the book, Charlotte True Crime Stories, penned by Charlotte author Cathy Pickens. It’s a great read, full of a varied assortment of stories from Charlotte’s collective past, from cases of fraud, murder, serial killers and missing people. One story that stood out to me was the mysterious case of Irina Yarmolenko. I’m still not quite sure what to think of it.

    I remember hearing the story on the news when it first happened back in May 2008. Irina had emigrated to the United States from Ukraine with her family when she was a child. At the time of her death, she was a young 20-year-old college student at UNC Charlotte who was planning to move a few hours away to Chapel Hill to transfer to school there. Her friends called her “Ira.” According to reports, she started her day visiting a bank, dropping off a bag of donations at a nearby Goodwill, and visiting a local coffee shop she had worked at to say goodbye to her coworkers. From there, it appears she drove about 12 miles away to the Catawba River in nearby Belmont. Video surveillance from the local YMCA showed Irina’s blue car passing by around 11:09 a.m., but due to grainy footage you couldn’t tell if she was the only one in the car at that point.

    Speculation at the time was that Ira loved the outdoors and may have been heading out there to take some photographs. She accessed the riverfront on a small dirt road located next to a YMCA. Less than two hours later, her lifeless body would be found on the bank of the river.

    That same morning, two men, cousins Mark Carver and Neal Cassada were fishing just around the bend from where Ira was found. The men were locals who had been fishing at Catawba their entire lives. Both Carver and Cassada had four children, were former millworkers and neither were working due to disabilities. Cassada had heart problems and couldn’t walk long distances due to shortness of breath, and Carver couldn’t grasp items very well due to numerous surgeries for carpal tunnel syndrome. They enjoyed fishing as a reprieve.

    At around 1 p.m., two people on jet skis noticed what looked like a car almost submerged in the water, crunched against a tree stump. The driver’s side door was open and a young woman lay on her back nearby, cords knotted around her neck. It was Ira Yarmolenko. The couple on jet skis were stunned and called 911, while Carver and Cassada continued fishing about a football field length away, unaware of the commotion on the banks of the river. They had been there since around 11:30 that morning.

    Ira had died of ligature strangulation, and two of the cords on her neck came from items found in her car—a cord found in her hoodie and a ribbon that came from a tote bag that was tied in a bow around her neck. There was also a bungee cord included in the knots. Investigators concluded she had not been robbed. They talked to everyone in the area of the riverbank that day, including Cassada and Carver. Both men said they hadn’t heard or seen anything unusual. They offered up their fishing licenses to the police during the conversation. The men eventually went to the police station for interviews, and continued denying involvement in the murder. However, seven months after Irina’s death, the two men were arrested. Authorities claimed their DNA had been found on the outside of Irina’s car. They continued to proclaim their innocence.

    The men were eventually released to house arrest to await trial. Cassada never made it. He passed away from a heart attack the day before his trial was to start. Carver’s trial began in March 2011. He was convicted of Ira’s murder on March 21, 2011.

    This case is baffling to me. Based on the evidence of “touch” DNA of the men being found on the car, I tend to think there could have been some type of transference involved. What motive would the two men have had to kill Irina, and were they even physically capable of doing so? There is also a suicide theory floating around. People think Ira tied the ligatures around her own neck and then put her car into neutral in an attempt to plunge it into the river. But for some reason she ended up on her back in the mud on the riverbank. There was also DNA found on one of the cords on her neck that has never been identified.

    Based on some of the questionable evidence, an attorney with the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence lobbied to get Carver a new trial. He was granted one and had his conviction overturned in June 2011.

    This is a case that kept the media riveted. NBC’s Deadline produced an episode titled “Mystery on the Catawba,” and The Charlotte Observer also did a deep dive into the case in a six-part series titled “Death By the River.”

    Do I think Carver and Cassada were guilty? I think it’s highly unlikely. But I also think there may be a murderer out there who has yet to be punished for this crime.

  • True Crime

    True Crime Wednesday: Blanche Taylor Moore

    I only realized recently that North Carolina’s oldest death row inmate is an 87-year-old woman named Blanche Taylor Moore. I came upon this realization after watching the Oxygen network’s true-crime show, “Snapped,” a few nights ago, having been intrigued by a promo that it was featuring southern cases.

    I remember there being a pretty creepy made-for-TV movie starring actress Elizabeth Montgomery back in the 1990s that told the story of a southern black widow, but I had no idea how much evil permeated from Blanche until I digged a little further into her backstory.

    Blanche Kiser Taylor Moore was born in Concord, N.C. and married a young man named James Taylor in 1952. They had two children together, and she began a life-long career working as a cashier at the Kroger chain of grocery stores. Apparently she began an affair with a man named Raymond Reid, the manager of the store she worked at. In 1973, her husband James passed away at age 45 from what doctors thought was a heart attack. Blanche and Reid took their relationship public after her husband died, but it had numerous ups and downs. In 1985, Moore supposedly began a relationship with another Kroger manager, Kevin Denton, but eventually she filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him and Kroger. She settled out of court with Kroger for $275,000 a few years later.

    Moore seemed to present two different sides of herself to the public. Her co-workers at Kroger later described her as crass and lewd, and it’s no secret the head cashier liked to pass the time with male co-workers at the store. But she also cultivated a sweet “church lady” persona, attending regular church services around town and always being willing to serve up pie, banana pudding and sweetened iced tea.

    Especially banana pudding.

    In April of 1985, while she was still casually dating Raymond Reid, Blanche met Rev. Dwight Moore at a local church. He was pretty quickly smitten with her and clearly had no idea of her troubled past. At the end of May, Reid was admitted to a hospital in Greensboro for severe nausea and vomiting. His condition worsened and he had to be transported across one town over to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem. By September, he began recovering, and Blanche talked him into making her the executor of his estate. Not long after, nurses observed Moore bringing Reid treats like milkshakes and banana pudding and feeding them to him. He died in October of 1986, the origins of his illness remaining a mystery to the doctors. Within a month, Blanche had an engagement ring from the Rev. Moore (I have to wonder—did he even know she was visiting a sick lover in the hospital while they were dating?) Wedding plans were put on hold when Rev. Moore became hospitalized with nausea and vomiting. He overcame his bout of illness and the two were eventually married in April 1987. Rev. Moore was back in the hospital before the honeymoon was even over. Blanche continued to visit him in the hospital and bring him food. His organs began failing, and doctors had an idea to test his blood for heavy metals, because he had recently done some gardening and used insecticides.

    The test came back positive for arsenic—Rev. Moore had 100 times the normal amount in his body.

    Thus began the unraveling of a most curious web of a black widow. Rev. Moore mentioned to investigators that Blanche had a boyfriend who had died of an unknown illness. Five different bodies were exhumed—those of Raymond Reid, Blanche’s father, her mother-in-law, her first husband, and a co-worker. The male co-worker didn’t have any arsenic in his body, but everyone else did. Reid’s arsenic levels were 30 times higher than the normal limit.

    On July 18, 1989, Blanche Taylor Moore was arrested and charged with the death of Raymond Reid and assault with a deadly weapon in the case of Rev. Moore.

    Photo courtesy of Winston-Salem Journal Now.

    During the trial, Blanche made sure to dress demurely and wear a pair of oversized glasses. Her defense was to “deny, deny, deny.” She denied about having ever brought Reid or Rev. Moore food in the hospital. She denied every knowing what the bug poison “Anti-Ant,” was, although witnesses had seen her buy it in hardware stores and she even asked Rev. Moore to buy it for her (he had no clue she’d turn around and poison him with it).

    Blanche was convicted to death but had her sentence commuted to life in prison in 2010.

    I had a hard time trying to figure out exactly why Blanche poisoned so many people. Was it her way of exacting revenge? I guess she could have received life insurance in the case of her first husband but couldn’t find any evidence of that. She did receive part of Reid’s estate, and oddly enough, his sons were fine with her receiving it at the time. They had no idea that she had murdered their father. And she began poisoning Rev. Moore before they were even married. What was the point of that? Part of me wonders if she had an illness where she enjoyed the attention she received when caring for ill loved ones (similar to Munchausen by Proxy). Or maybe she was just plain evil.

    Author  Jim Shultze wrote a book about Blanche Taylor Moore titled “Preacher’s Girl: The Life and Crimes of Blanche Taylor Moore.” I may have to check it out and see if I can dig deeper into the origins of this case that took place in my home state.

  • True Crime

    True Crime Wednesday: The Story Behind “Death of a Cheerleader”

    There was a time when I ate, slept and breathed movies on the Lifetime Channel. These days, I’m more apt to binge shows on Investigation Discovery Channel or the Oxygen Network (they are really stepping up their true crime game!) I think it was Lifetime where I first watched the made for television movie “Death of a Cheerleader,” (originally titled “A Friend to Die For), which starred Tori Spelling and Kellie Martin from one of my all-time favorite shows, “Life Goes On.”

    When I was scrolling through the available titles on Amazon Prime a few weeks ago, I discovered this gem. Because I’m always happy to procrastinate with a streaming service, I heated up a cup of coffee and plopped down on the couch to stroll down memory lane with “Death of a Cheerleader.” As I watched the opening credits, another name stood out to me—Kathryn Morris. Any “Cold Case” fans out there? Yeah, she was cast in the role of a misunderstood “goth girl” and I wouldn’t have recognized her right away.

    “Death of a Cheerleader” begins with Tori Spelling’s character, Stacy, knocking on the door of a stranger’s house, saying her friend “went all weird on her” and asking for a ride home. You can see a shadowy figure nearby through the trees pacing in front of a car. Once she is dropped at home, she is viciously attacked by the person who had followed her home. The movie then proceeds to flash back to a year earlier.

    The movie tells the story of a young impressionable student named Angela who is desperate to finally become noticed by her classmates, and determined to do whatever it takes to fit in with “the cool crowd.” That cool crowd includes Stacy Lockwood, a peppy and vivacious cheerleader who also derives great joy in making those around her cower in fear, most of all, her female classmates, and this includes driving the once-meek Angela to violence.

    Noticing that the movie was “based on true events,” I pulled out my phone and googled the details as I watched the first part of the movie. The plot for the movie was inspired by the murder of 15-year-old California native Kirsten Costas back in 1984. Her classmate Bernadette Protti was eventually convicted of stabbing Costas to death. The two girls had been classmates at Miramonte High School and according to some, rivals. Protti had endured disappointment after disappointment at school, not making the cheerleading team or the yearbook staff. She felt like people like Costas sailed through life getting everything they wanted based on looks and how much money their families had. She told police she feared Costas was going to start telling people “she was weird,” and that she would become an outcast.

    Kirsten Costas

    Protti served seven years behind bars and was released from prison in in 1992 at the age of 23. She moved away and eventually changed her name.

    Bernadette Protti

    In my opinion, “Death of a Cheerleader” did a great job of showcasing the pressure kids put on themselves to be perfect in how school and how bullying and the disintegration of friendships can drive people to unimaginable violence.

    By the way, if you want to watch an updated version of the film, it looks like Lifetime is remaking the 1994 version of “Death of a Cheerleader.”

  • True Crime

    True Crime Wednesday: Cults and Extreme Belief Docuseries

    Even though I’m not always crazy about the interface for Amazon Prime Video, I’ll admit I’ve found plenty of TV shows and movies to keep me content during this quarantine. Since cults are a subject that never cease to amaze me, I binged a docuseries I found there called “Cults and Extreme Belief” a few months ago, but decided to share my thoughts on it in case anyone is looking for something new to watch.

    Reporter/anchor Elizabeth Vargas hosts the series and conducts interviews with a number of people who spent time in cults and are still processing the emotional and physical scars from doing so. Each episode is about 45 minutes long and the series is rated TV-14. The first episode focuses on NXIVM, led by Keith Raniere and the subject of many news headlines over the past few years. The group was billed as self-help group, but it quickly spiraled into much more than that, even subjecting various female members with a brand bearing the leader’s initials. Other episodes focus on Jehovah’s Witnesses, Children of God, Twelve Tribes, World Peace Unification Sanctuary and FLDS.

    I think the one that affected me the most was the episode on the U.N.O.I, or the United Nation of Islam. In this organization, parents are encouraged to send their young children off to work in various businesses owned by the leader, Royall Jenkins. And when I say send their children off to work, I mean their children are loaded into the back of a tractor trailer and carried across the country from their parents in many cases. Jenkins has made his money opening cafes and restaurants all over the United States, and these children and teens are forced to work in these businesses for free.

    It doesn’t take you long in the episode to realize this is a human trafficking organization, and if the children try to tell their parents what is happening, the parents are forced to choose between their children and the church. They don’t usually make the choice you hope they would, either. The Twelve Tribes are organized in a similar fashion, using their members for free labor, and subjecting them to physical abuse if they complain.

    The last two episodes focus on more of a roundtable discussion amongst the survivors. These episodes are a little unbalanced, because there are a few survivors who more talkative than others so you may not hear from as many people as you’d like. I think this is an interesting and important series, though, because you see how survivors are often pulled into these organizations based on the beliefs of their parents and family members (NXVIM is an exception to this, though), and when they leave, it’s heartbreaking when they endure the shunning that goes along with “betraying” a cult.

  • podcasts,  True Crime

    True Crime Wednesday: Why I Liked the “Joe Exotic: Tiger King” podcast over the Netflix Docuseries

    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.