The Power of Podcasts: The True Crime Shows That Sparked New Investigations

It was the groundbreaking Serial podcast investigation into the case of Adnan Syed, whose conviction in 2000 for the murder of his high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, that transformed us all into armchair detectives. Thanks to the popularity of the show and mass media attention a new podcast appeared, Undisclosed. Launched in April 2015, it’s aim was the reexamination of Adnan Syed’s situation in more serious detail. With show hosts, Rabia Chaudry, Susan Simpson, and Colin Miller and their backgrounds in criminal law, they were able to dig up previously unheard evidence that eventually led to a successful post-conviction hearing for Syed and the potential of a brand new trial, while again highlighting the untapped power of this brand new genre format.

This relatively new medium has transformed crime investigations, shedding much-needed light on a host of cold cases. And Serial is far from a solo act. With numerous casts popping up, bringing their own takes on unsolved investigations.

But why this unrelenting obsession with true crime? One reason being offered up for the fascination by psychologists is that it gives us a glimpse into the deviant parts of the human psyche. That we’re drawn to these stories because we want to understand the motivation behind such gruesome, bizarre, senseless acts of violence. We can listen and indeed watch these shows from the comfort of our home and face our fears in complete safety. Another theory could be the survival element. When we soak in all this information we learn more about the criminal mind and therefore are more prepared in case a similar situation arises. Or indeed it could just be because many of us love ot see a bad guy or girl brought to justice.

Here we examine some of the many true crime podcasts that have made major impacts on investigations. We must warn you this article DOES contain spoilers.

Atlanta based documentary filmmaker Payne Lindsey was searching for a subject for a new project when he came across an unsolved missing persons case and decided to turn his own investigations into the podcast Up and Vanished. In 2005 Tara Grinstead, a Georgia high school history teacher, went missing, last seen attending a Saturday barbeque and failing to turn up to her school for work on the Monday. At her home there were no signs of forced entry, her phone was being charged and the clothes she’d been seen wearing to the BBQ were in a pile on her bedroom floor, but Tara Grinstead had essentially vanished.

Tara Grinstead

Amateur sleuth Lindsey decided to delve into the local case, pouring over old news articles and speaking to residents. Initially, they were unsurprisingly tight-lipped, but once the podcast started airing, momentum gathered and new information came to light. Six months after Up and Vanished first hit iTunes, a man was arrested in connection with the case. Two months later, that man was indicted on six charges including murder and aggravated assault. The case had turned from that of a missing person to a murder investigation. Four months after the initial arrest, another man was indicted on charges including concealing the death of another.

CBC News set up their podcast Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo in an effort to help the family of Cleo Semaganis Nicotine, who had been adopted out of the Saskatchewan First Nations community. She was last seen in 1974 in rural Saskatchewan when Cleo was allowed to say goodbye to one of her brothers before she was taken to her new adoptive family. Cleo was just nine-years-old at the time and was one of the thousands of Indigenous children caught up in what is now known as the Sixties Scoop. There’s no happy resolution of such here as you might well expect but it did spark plenty of interest for further investigation into similar cases surrounding the Sixties Scoop.

Cleo Semaganis Nicotine. Credit: CBC

It was the success of Serial that led then Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Amber Hunt to create her own podcast, Accused. Centred around the unsolved 1978 murder of Ohio woman Elizabeth Andes. Alongside Amanda Ross, the pair looked into the murder of a psychiatric nurse and prison minister killed in her Kentucky apartment. William Virgil was convicted for the murder, but thirty years later the conviction was overturned leaving an unsolved case and question marks over whether Virgil should ever have been behind bars at all. An in-depth exploration followed with the Accused team bringing vital evidence to light on the seemingly wrongful jail sentence served by Virgil.

The Teacher’s Pet podcast produced by The Australian newspaper re-examines the mysterious, or not so, missing person case of housewife Lyn Dawson, who vanished 36 years ago from the home she shared with her all-star ex-rugby league professional Chris and their two young daughters. The podcast goes onto detail the affair Chris began with a local schoolgirl whom he taught and furthermore brought into the family home as a babysitter. Chris claims that loving mother and resolute matriarch Lyn had randomly left him, and the couple’s daughters to join a religious cult.

Lyn Dawson & daughters

Journalist Hedley Thomas is the man who brought this astonishing case out of the vault, a case that was essentially already cut and dry after two separate coroners in 2001 and 2003 found that Lyn was murdered by Chris and when added to accusations from numerous friends and family members that Chris had abused Lyn, it’s remarkable that he was a free man. However, no charges were ever brought and no body ever found. But thanks to the new public interest in the case due to the podcast and new damning allegations having been revealed, that Chris was in fact, part of a teachers’ sex ring, things look set to change as a new probe has been launched by local police, who have recently searched the family home and are determined to finally bring the seemingly guilty Dawson to trial.

Without the recent advent of the true crime podcast many if not all of these cases would remain untouched, or at best sit in a file under lock and key as ongoing but distinctly cold cases? Indeed many of these amateur sleuths, through their sheer will and determination have managed to create local and national interest that in turn has inspired people to come forward with new evidence. In many instances, the passing of time and in some cases a guilty conscious has driven people to finally present crucial insight into areas of investigations that were simply missing a piece of the puzzle.

Although that’s not to say that exploration into these matters is a wholly positive thing. For all the podcasts that do spark new enquiries, there are plenty that can be extremely damaging, making accusations against innocent parties, tarring people with the guilty brush through their own makeshift kangaroo court. It’s somewhat of an irony that these shows highlighting potential police negligence leading to wrongful accusations and convictions are mirroring the same behaviour. It’s one worrying trend that you’d think would only get worse with more and more people scrambling to get on the true crime bandwagon. We certainly hope it doesn’t.

Few would have thought the genre would continue to sustain itself for so long and that the bubble would simply burst, however, thanks to huge interest in shows such as Making a Murderer and The Staircase, the public’s voracious appetite for more unsolved crime only elevates. All these shows provide genuine topics of watercooler conversation around as with any good whodunnit we become fascinated by the protagonists of each story, yet here the stakes are raised as these are real incidents that have affected real lives. The genre continues to evolve and there certainly won’t be a shortage of new podcasts springing up that’s for sure.

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