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2017 was the year of the binge-worthy true crime podcast, but fear not: reporters, investigators and regular folks everywhere are still dishing dirt on the darker side of humanity. Whether you’re into serial murders or small-town kidnappings, these seven podcasts are just the ticket.
1. “Atlanta Monster”
The 1980 disappearance of Darron Glass from his foster home caused a media circus. What’s more disturbing: he was one of over two dozen young black children who were never seen alive again. Eventually, a suspect was arrested, tried and convicted, but the mystery was far from solved. Is Wayne Williams, an intelligent freelance photographer who is still in prison, guilty or innocent? In “Atlanta Monster,” the producers of “HowStuffWorks” and “Up and Vanished” expose the hidden truths behind one of Atlanta’s darkest secrets. “Up and Vanished”’s Payne Lindsey also hosts “Atlanta Monster,” his signature probing questions and friendly voice along for the ride.
2. “Martinis & Murder”
Dive into the fascinating world of true crime with the help of a delicious drink! “Martinis & Murder” hosts Daryn Carp and John Thrasher swill themed alcoholic beverages while tackling cases on everyone from JonBenet Ramsey to the Zodiac Killer. Expect to hear dirty details, conspiracy theories and bartender/producer Matt’s creepy vocoder like you hear on “Dateline." Nothing is off-limits in this funny, fearless look at true crime. And speaking of “Dateline,” the January 11 episode featured an interview with everyone’s favorite host, the golden-voiced Keith Morrison. Full disclosure: "Martinis & Murder" is produced by Oxygen.
Jim Jones enticed thousands of followers to drink poisoned Flavor-Aid (not Kool-Aid!). Charles Manson goaded his female lackeys into multiple murderous home invasions. In “Cults,” Greg Polcyn and Vanessa Richardson (also co-hosts of “Serial Killers”) recount these stories and more, conducting extensive psychological research to answer the questions: what makes a cult leader? How do ordinary people end up committing horrible crimes in the name of spiritual enlightenment? “Cults”’ latest two-parter chronicles the Sect of Nazocari, who from 2009-2012 performed human sacrifice in Mexico while hoping for wealth and prosperity.
4. “In The Dark”
In 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling, his brother and a friend set out on their bikes. Half an hour later, Jacob was abducted at gunpoint as the other two terrified boys huddled in a ditch. Despite copious efforts and national press, Jacob was never seen again. 2016’s “In the Dark” journeyed to small-town Minnesota to find out what went wrong with the search for Jacob. “In the Dark” struck an excellent balance between thorough investigative reporting and sensitivity to Jacob’s family, who gave extensive interviews. And when a major break in the case surfaced just before the podcast’s premiere, host Madeleine Baran and company stopped the presses and incorporated updates with utmost skill.
“In the Dark” will be back this spring with a fresh case, and Baran promises via newsletter that it “will expose long-hidden actions by powerful people that have caused great harm.” Sign me up!
5. “Dear Franklin Jones”
Franklin Jones, otherwise known as Adi Da, Bubba Free John and a bevy of other monikers, founded the religious movement Adidam in the 1970s. A decade later, former followers accused Jones of everything from physical and sexual abuse to false imprisonment to tax fraud. But what did Jones’ reign of terror look like from a survivor’s point of view? In the brand-new “Dear Franklin Jones,” producer and host Jonathan Hirsch — who left Adidam at age 16 — provides unique insights from the perspective of a boy whose spiritually confused parents sought the meaning of life, and ended up in a dangerous cult.
6. “VANISHED: The Tara Calico Investigation”
On September 20, 1988, college student Tara Calico disappeared from her New Mexico hometown while on a bike ride. Several months later, an incredibly disturbing Polaroid of two bound and gagged young people surfaced in a Florida parking lot. (Google “Tara Calico photograph” at your own risk.) Tara’s mom swears it was her, but Tara was never located, and the identity of the kids in the Polaroid was never confirmed. In “VANISHED,” Tara’s former high school classmate, filmmaker Melinda Esquibel, does a deep dive into court records and police and witness interviews to find out what really happened to Tara Calico, and why she disappeared that hot, dry day.
7. “Trace Evidence”
The National Institute of Justice defines “trace evidence” as evidence that can potentially link a suspect and victim to a mutual location, such as fibers, hair or gunshot residue. The podcast “Trace Evidence” explores everything from unsolved murders to the unexplained, with a focus on justice for the victims’ families. Host Steven Pacheco is both thorough and suspenseful, and my personal favorite is episode 33, “The Disappearance of Heather Elvis.” It involves a young woman, a small-town love triangle, and handcuffs on a bed, in a way that’s far more sinister than “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
8. “Empire on Blood”
Editor's Note: We're excited to add Panoply's upcoming "Empire on Blood" to our roster of fresh podcasts! It's so fresh it's not even out yet: stay tuned for its Wednesday, March 28 release. UnionDocs, hallowed center of documentary art, hosted a sneak preview and conversation just last Friday.
"Empire on Blood" takes us back to the Bronx, following the early-'90s story of a "double homicide, a betrayal, and a drug kingpin's journey to overturn his life sentence." Created by the team behind the acclaimed "Revisionist History" and hosted by Steve Fishman, we're sure entire legions of true crime fans are holding their breath for Wednesday morning.
(Photo: Martinis & Murder, Oxygen)