All The Times Popular Crime Podcasts Helped Reopen A Cold Case
True crime feeds audiences' appetites for the grim, the dramatic, and the unsolved. From Truman Capote's In Cold Blood to The People v. OJ Simpson, true crime stories can draw substantial audiences. Investigative journalism is at a crossroads, especially with newspapers slowly fading away and readers having to choose among hundreds of online sources. Podcasts fill a unique space by integrating both information and entertainment.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of true crime podcasts is their ability to reach a wide audience. Before the internet, newspapers had a limited distribution range. From social media to websites, the news is now available at any time and continuously updated in small pieces, often obscuring the full picture.
True crime podcasts dissect one particular piece of crime-related news and relay as many facts as possible to their listeners, allowing them also to become detectives. Sometimes, people who hear these podcasts come forward with new information to help the case. Authorities have also reopened cold cases because of podcasts, which prove when done well, they're more than a simple story - many have had real-life implications.
- Photo: The Teacher's Pet/The Australian / Fair Use
'The Teacher's Pet' Interviewed Witnesses That Helped Lead To The Arrest Of Lyn Dawson's Murderer
On January 9, 1982, 33-year-old Lyn Dawson disappeared from her home in Sydney, Australia, leaving behind two daughters and her husband, physical education teacher Chris Dawson. Chris alleged that Lyn abandoned the family for a religious cult. However, on the day she mysteriously vanished, Joanne Curtis - a student of Chris's - moved into the home. Police later came to the conclusion that she was likely murdered, but they were unable to retrieve a body or gather enough evidence to arrest a suspect.
In May 2018, Australian journalist Hedley Thomas started a podcast titled The Teacher's Pet that delved into Lyn's sudden disappearance. The investigative podcast uncovered details surrounding the Dawson's tumultuous marriage, Chris's relationship with his student Joanne, and the shortcomings of the initial police investigation.
On December 4, 2018, police arrested Chris for the murder of Lyn. New South Wales police commissioner Mick Fuller said that "additional evidence" - including two pieces unearthed by the podcast - "helped [them] tie the pieces of the puzzle together."
- Photo: Up and Vanished
Police Arrested Two Men For A 2005 Murder After 'Up And Vanished' Kept The Case Alive
When high school history teacher Tara Grinstead didn't come to work on October 22, 2005, the school alerted Ocilla, GA, police. Authorities found the door to the former beauty queen's house locked with her car parked outside. Grinstead was missing, as were her keys and purse. Left with only one real clue - a single latex glove discovered in the front yard - police offered rewards for information regarding her disappearance. They put up a website, formed search parties, and hired private investigators.
The 48 Hours 2008 special report, "Stolen Beauty," stated authorities considered numerous men associated with Grinstead as suspects, but all had alibis. They found a fingerprint on the glove, but couldn't match it to anyone. In 2010, a judge legally declared Grinstead deceased.
Atlanta filmmaker Payne Lindsey heard Grinstead's story while seeking a case for a true crime podcast. He read through the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's online cold case file on Grinstead, and after posting his thoughts on a forum, a private investigator who spent 10 years on the case asked for Lindsey's help.
Lindsey visited Ocilla to talk to the locals firsthand. He debuted Up and Vanished in 2016, and as the podcast progressed, people felt more comfortable talking to Lindsey about Grinstead's disappearance.
After the podcast had circulated for six months, police arrested Grinstead's former student, Ryan Duke, and a few weeks later, Duke's former classmate, Bo Dukes, as well. According to 48 Hours, Dukes's girlfriend reported his involvement in the murder to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Dukes allegedly helped Duke bury Grinstead's body on a pecan farm after Duke told him he killed her.
Though they didn't mention Up and Vanished by name, authorities thanked the public for keeping the investigation alive. Without their help, it's possible Duke would have never faced charges for concealing a death, burglary, assault, and murder; and Dukes would have evaded justice after helping to hide the body. Judges lifted a gag order on the case in March 2018, allowing officials associated with the case to discuss it. Both Duke and Dukes await trial. Investigators have yet to find Grinstead's body.
'Someone Knows Something' Found A Supposedly Dead Suspect In The Case Of Two Men Murdered By The KKK
Believing Black militants were allegedly transporting guns into the US, the Ku Klux Klan set their sights on 19-year old Henry Dee. Dee and Charles Moore hitchhiked on a highway near Meadville, MS, on May 2, 1964. A car pulled up alongside them and demanded they get in the vehicle.
Several Klan members took the men to the Homochitto National Forest, where they interrogated and beat them before placing them in the trunk of their car. The men then drove them to Louisiana, weighed them down, and left them to drown into the Mississippi River. Several months later, a team searching for three missing civil rights workers discovered the bodies of Dee and Moore.
The FBI got involved, leading to the arrest of Klansmen Charles Marcus Edwards and James Ford Seale in November 1964. The FBI allegedly convinced Edwards to admit to the kidnapping and beating, but he claimed he didn't kill the men.
After questioning Edwards and Seale extensively, the FBI turned the case over to Mississippi's district attorney, who dismissed the charges in January 1965. The FBI continued to investigate, but many Mississippi police officers refused to talk due to their ties with the KKK. Their main suspect, Seale, supposedly passed away.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's David Ridgen learned about Dee and Moore's murder while researching another story. Interested in learning more, he spent 10 months searching for Thomas Moore, Charles's brother. They traveled together to Mississippi in 2005 and began putting the pieces together for what later became Season 3 of Ridgen's podcast, Someone Knows Something. In talking to locals, Ridgen and Moore discovered Seale was still alive. They used the information to persuade officials to reopen the case.
Convicted of conspiracy and kidnapping in 2007 by a grand jury , Seale received a sentence of three life terms. The judge granted Edwards immunity in 2006. Ridgen appreciates how his podcast and film documentary on the subject, Mississippi Cold Case, could bring so many pieces and people together to obtain justice for Moore and Dee. The series also highlighted the KKK's heavy influence on some areas of the South and its law enforcement community.
- Photo: Trace/ABC
'Trace' Brought New Information About An Unsolved Murder To Light, Prompting Australian Courts To Consider Reopening The Case
Maria James was on the phone with her ex-spouse, John James, on June 17, 1980. She asked him to hold because she was in the kitchen with someone. John heard a yelp and what sounded like a one-sided conversation. Maria never returned to the phone.
He drove to her Melbourne home and bookstore out of concern and discovered Maria's body in her bedroom with 68 stab wounds. Australian police believed the killer was someone Maria knew.
In their search for suspects, they contacted Father Anthony Bongiorno to ask if he'd heard anything during his confession. Though authorities weren't accusing him, the priest became defensive and refused to help detectives. Police came up with prospective suspects, but all had alibis, or DNA testing precluded them.
In 2013, Bongiorno's sexual abuse of Maria's son, Adam, came to light. Adam's Tourette syndrome and cerebral palsy made communication difficult, but the 11-year-old boy could communicate the abuse to his mother. Adam claimed he told Maria the day before her murder, and believed that her wanting to confront Bongiorno over the matter is why she became a target.
Police had ruled out Bongiorno as a suspect because his DNA didn't appear on a bloody pillowcase considered a critical piece of evidence in the case. Two years after the fact, however, authorities realized the pillowcase wasn't from Maria's murder - it was evidence in a different case that police mistakenly mixed into Maria's files.
In 2016, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation released a podcast called Trace, which investigated the case. Thanks to their efforts, witness interviews brought forth new information.
In addition to publicly revealing the DNA mix-up and sexual assault allegations against Bongiorno, Trace interviewed an electrician who claims he witnessed the priest covered in blood that day; he claimed he cut himself on a fence and disappeared when the electrician went to get a first aid kit. The next day, he learned about a woman's murder near the church, but didn't put two and two together. Maria's home was less than 50 meters from Bongiorno's church where the electrician was working.
Maria's son Mark used this information to ask for a new inquest into the case. In January 2018, a coroner reviewed the evidence in hopes of reopening the case. As of March 2018, the Victoria Supreme Court was in the process of making their decision. Though Bongiorno is no longer alive, he remains the primary suspect.
- Photo: Serial
'Serial' Helped Adnan Syed Ultimately Helped Overturn Adnan Syed's Murder Conviction
Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed met in Baltimore, MD, while attending Woodlawn High School and dated briefly in 1998. Because they came from different cultures and religions, the couple kept their relationship a secret, but broke up in the fall of that year.
On January 13, 1999, Lee left school at 3 pm to pick up her niece before reporting to work at LensCrafters. It was the last time anyone saw Lee alive. A man walking in Leakin Park a few weeks later discovered her strangled body partially buried. Lee's then-boyfriend Don Clinedinst had an alibi, and suspicion soon turned to Syed.
Authorities arrested 17-year-old Syed and charged him with first-degree murder. The prosecution reasoned he was angry at Lee for dating someone else and took revenge. A former classmate of Syed's, Jay Wilds, testified Syed told him he was planning to murder Lee and had asked him to help bury the body.
Evidence against Syed also includes his inability to remember where he was at the time of the murder, as well as selections from Lee's diary alleging Syed was aggressive toward her. In June 2000, a jury sentenced Syed to life in prison.
Syed's family friend, Rabia Chaudry, brought the case to the attention of This American Life producer Sarah Koenig, who turned Syed's case into the first season of her podcast, Serial, in 2014. Combining first-person storytelling and investigative journalism, Koenig broke the story into 12 episodes, examining documentation and interviewing everyone possibly adjacent to the case.
In addition to breaking new ground for investigative true crime podcasts, the series won a Peabody Award and boasts more than 175 million downloads. Through Serial, Koenig found and contacted Asia McClain. McClain attests Syed was with her at the library at the time of Lee's murder, giving him an alibi. McClain was never brought as a witness during Syed's trial, which the judge took into account when reexamining the case after Serial aired.
Thanks to this and Chaudry for pointing out the cell phone records - which allegedly traced Syed to the park where the killer dumped Lee's body - were unreliable, a judge claimed Syed received ineffective counsel and granted him a retrial in 2018.
In September 2022, Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Melissa Phann vacated Syed's conviction “in the interests of justice and fairness,” finding that prosecutors failed to share evidence of Syed's innocence. He was released from prison after 23 years, serving out home detention during a 30-day window in which prosecutors may decide to pursue a new trial.
However, he's not entirely out of the weeds yet. Barely half a year later in March of 2023, his conviction and sentence were reinstated by a Maryland appeals court. According to them, Lee's family was not given proper notice of that 2022 hearing to vacate, and thus had their rights violated.
Syed has not returned to prison, but on paper, his conviction remains, and yet another hearing on the motion to vacate must take place. This time with Lee's family fully in the loop.
- Photo: The Minds of Madness
Thanks To One Mother's Insistence, 'Minds Of Madness' Helped The Tanner Barton Case Reach A Conclusion
While visiting a friend's family for an overnight stay on April 21, 2012, 19-year-old Tanner Barton allegedly collapsed or fell asleep on the floor during the night. The family discovered Barton dead the next morning.
When police arrived at the home in Kokomo, IN, they noted no injuries or signs of trauma. A full toxicology report showed the presence of cannabis and alcohol in Barton's system. Tests for ketamine were negative. Despite Barton's mother, Michele, insisting something wasn't right, coroners determined Barton's cause of death as positional asphyxia due to obesity, meaning he fatally suffocated while being in a position that cut off his breathing.
Michele refused to believe the coroner's results, claiming Barton was healthy and couldn't have died unexpectedly. She publicized her son's death and tried to gather support to keep his case alive. Michele appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and the podcast Crime Stories with Nancy Grace, bringing more attention to the case. A new coroner took over the matter in 2016 and discovered Barton had an enlarged heart, possibly another cause for his death.
Bek and Tyler Allen started their podcast The Minds of Madness in 2017 to examine true crime stories and give voices to those largely silenced. Michele reached out to the Allens, who agreed there were still many unanswered questions.
The Allens spent four months examining Barton's case. It was one of their most popular in the series and led detectives to reinvestigate Barton's death. Authorities interviewed witnesses again, including a few excluded from the original investigation, and completed a forensic analysis on Barton's phone for the first time.
Upon viewing Barton's texts, detectives discovered he took Adderall and hadn't slept in over 30 hours. The Howard County Sheriff’s Department officially closed the case in April 2018, ruling positional asphyxia as the accidental cause of death. Michele insists she will continue to look for answers.