True crime has burst into popular culture. People have always had a morbid fascination for the macabre, but tales of murder and fear had generally been confined to a smaller audience. Now, true crime is out in the open, and so are its fans. Its popularity can be partly explained by the arrival of the podcast. A portmanteau of “iPod” and “broadcast,” podcasts are audio downloads in episode form. The flexibility of podcasts means you can travel to work or the gym as you listen to bloody tales of murder with adverts for home hair color. True crime has gone mainstream.
Fans’ interests have evolved from notorious serial killers to lesser-known crimes with a twist, and podcasters have seized this niche in the market with headline-grabbing results. Critics are uncomfortable with the ghoulish aspect of these podcasts, but fans claim they are a positive way to bring attention to forgotten victims and highlight personal safety. Here are ten of the most popular podcasts whose storytelling lit up the Internet.
Adea Shabani was a young actress living in Los Angeles who disappeared in February 2018. Adea was last seen on CCTV leaving her apartment with boyfriend Chris Spotz. She texted a friend to ask where to buy red candles and was never heard from again. Her family hired private detective Jayden Brant, who then contacted Rolling Stone journalist Neil Strauss in an attempt to gain publicity for the case. Strauss began recording the investigation in real time, three weeks after Adea vanished. A year later, the podcast was released.
In the first episode, we learn that Spotz is armed and on the run from police. A story unfolds of a violent relationship, deception, and the Albanian mafia. In another episode, the men learn that Spotz has shot himself after a police chase. Finally, Adea’s body is discovered, and the cause of death is found to be blunt force trauma. The LAPD are satisfied that Spotz is Adea’s killer, but Strauss and Brant gain access to his Google accounts. They now believe he did not act alone. The podcast had 15 million downloads, and the producers are reviewing new information.
In 1972, Adrien McNaughton, aged five, vanished on a fishing trip to Holmes Lake, Eastern Ontario. Filmmaker David Ridgen grew up in the same town as Adrien and made the podcast for CBC Radio in 2016. Along with the family, he went back over witness reports and psychic readings from the time. He used cadaver dogs to search around Holmes Lake and asked a forensic artist to make a sketch of how Adrien might look today. He also followed up a sighting of a Dodge car and visited the remote town of Clyde Forks for clues.
When the podcast ended, a search of Holmes Lake produced a small piece of rubber—possibly from a child’s shoe. A more thorough dive found what appeared to be a human tooth. Police took the samples and agreed to look into the Dodge car. Tests found that the tooth was not human, and the rubber could not be identified. Adrien’s family are planning a further search of the lake with David’s support.
Christopher Duntsch was a respected neurosurgeon. He had excelled in medical school and was practicing at the Dallas Medical Center in the early 2010s. But Duntsch was also living a carefully crafted secret life of drug and alcohol abuse. The truth emerged when Dr. Robert Henderson, a spinal surgeon, was asked to perform corrective surgery on two of Duntsch’s patients. An investigation found that of the 38 patients he had operated on in a two-year period, 31 were left paralyzed or severely injured, and two died from complications caused by the surgery.
Laura Beil, a medical journalist, followed the story and made the podcast Dr. Death. In it, she talks to Duntsch’s former patients and describes in shocking detail the pain and destruction caused by his botched surgeries. Dr. Death was launched in 2018 and hit Number 1 on iTunes. The real Dr. Death was arrested in 2015 and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2017, one of the first prison sentences ever given for medical malpractice.
Maura Murray was a 21-year-old nursing student. In February 2004, she packed her belongings and e-mailed her professor to say she was leaving town due to a death in the family. That night, she was spotted on a snowy road in Woodsville, New Hampshire, after crashing her car on a bend. Witnesses say she refused all offers of help, but when the police arrived, she had vanished. The surrounding woods were searched, but there was no sign of Maura.
No one knew where she was going, and she had lied to her college about the family death. Months went by with no leads, and the case became cold.
In 2015, writers Tim Pilleri and Lance Reenstierna used their research into the case to make a podcast. Over many episodes, they untangled Maura’s troubled life of theft charges, drunk driving, and doomed love affairs in an attempt to discover what happened to her. They went onto produce a film in which they traveled to Canada to follow up on reported sightings.
There are many websites and forums full of theories about the case. In April 2019, the basement of an empty house near the crash site was searched, but no evidence was found in relation to Maura, and her family now believes she is dead.
In 1996, a gunman entered the Tardy Furniture store in Winona, Mississippi, and shot four workers dead. The quiet town was stunned by the murders, and soon after, local man Curtis Flowers was arrested. Flowers had worked at the store for a short time but left after a disagreement. He was tried for murder in 1997 and a further five times after that. At his sixth trial in 2010, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Investigator Madeleine Baran began to look into the unusual case. At the six trials, the juries were comprised mostly or entirely of white jurors. Curtis Flowers is African American. Baran began to look at District Attorney Doug Evans, a white man. Her team found that Evans had a history of removing black jurors from trials. Further research into Flowers’s case revealed false accounts of confessions and missing evidence. Their findings became the subject of Season 2 of the hit podcast In the Dark.
Baran had spent a year researching the case, and Flowers’ lawyers used the new evidence they uncovered. In November 2018, the US Supreme Court agreed to an appeal. Ironically, if the conviction is overturned, Flowers could face a record seventh trial by DA Doug Evans.
When Debra Newell met John Meehan on a dating website, he seemed like the perfect guy. Their relationship moved quickly, much to the disapproval of Debra’s daughters. John claimed to be a doctor but never seemed to have any money. The pair moved in together, but John refused to have his name on the lease. He exploded in rage at Debra’s family when they raised concerns. Debra’s nephew Shad began to unravel John’s shady past. He had served time in prison on drug charges and had lied about being an anesthesiologist. The family went onto discover his life as a con man with a history of blackmail and stalking. Three women had restraining orders against him, and there were countless warnings about him on dating websites.
Debra cut off all contact with John, but he followed her daughter Terra and attacked her. John was killed in the struggle. The story hit the local news and caught the attention of LA Times journalist Christopher Goffard. He took the tale of Dirty John (a nickname from college) and made it into a six-part podcast in October 2017. Audiences were hooked on the story of the charming fraudster, and it has received over ten million downloads. Dirty John has now become the subject of a TV drama, documentary, and a book.
In 2012, Brian Reed, a producer of podcast This American Life, received a series of e-mails from Alabama native John B. McLemore. He invited Brian to visit his hometown of Woodstock, which he referred to as “Sh– Town,” to investigate an unsolved murder. Intrigued, Brian went to meet John, and his story became the podcast S-Town.
John was a reclusive figure, highly intelligent and an expert in horology—the study of the measurement of time. He lived in a ramshackle home with his 88-year-old mother Mary Grace and had crafted a complex maze in the backyard with his friend Tyler. Brian soon realizes that there was no murder but continues to be drawn into John’s small-town world of conspiracy theories and local rumor.
In a shocking twist, John commits suicide, and in the aftermath, Brian hears rumors of a secret stash of gold that Tyler believes is rightfully his.
The podcast was launched in 2017 and gained ten million downloads in four days. Woodstock has seen a steady stream of visitors hoping to see the famous maze John left behind. His relatives have filed a lawsuit against the makers of S-Town. They claim the podcast violated John’s privacy and that no consent was given. Tyler is awaiting trial for trespass and theft.
Atlanta filmmaker Payne Lindsey was looking for an unsolved crime to feature in a documentary. He found the story of Tara Grinstead, a teacher and former beauty queen who had vanished in 2005. Over the years, no arrests had been made, and there was no sign of Tara. Lindsey traveled to Ocilla, Georgia, to look deeper into the mystery. He turned his investigation into a podcast in August 2016. The show went on to gain 240 million downloads, and its popularity led to the arrest and trial of two suspects.
In the first episode, Lindsey reports from Tara’s home, where the police had found no signs of forced entry. The only clues to go on were a broken necklace and a single latex glove. Lindsey set out to talk to local people, most of whom were reluctant at first. He attempted to dissect years of town gossip to get to the truth. This drew police’s attention back to the case, and in February 2017, one of Tara’s former students, Ryan Duke, was arrested for her murder.  His friend, Bo Dukes, was later arrested for attempting to conceal her death and found guilty in March 2019. Ryan Duke’s murder trial is ongoing.
Lynette Dawson was a 33-year-old mother from Sydney, Australia. She vanished without trace in January 1982, leaving behind her two young children and schoolteacher husband Chris. Theirs was a troubled marriage; Chris had been having an affair with former pupil Joanne Curtis, who swiftly moved into the family home. Lynette was not reported missing for six weeks, and Chris claimed she had joined a cult.
In 2001 and 2003, coroners declared Lynette dead—probably murdered by a “known person”—but no arrests were made.
Australian journalist Hedley Thomas revisited the cold case in May 2018 with his investigative podcast The Teacher’s Pet. His research uncovered a history of grooming and underage sex with pupils in the Northern Sydney schools that Chris Dawson had worked in. Family members and new witnesses came forward with their concerns for Lynette, and millions of listeners were instantly hooked. The podcast was downloaded more than 28 million times.
As a result of the podcast, police received new witness statements, and Chris Dawson was arrested in December 2018 and is due to stand trial for the murder of Lynette. The Australian newspaper, the publisher of the podcast, has now removed all 16 episodes in a bid to keep potential jurors unbiased. Despite forensic examinations of Lynette’s former home and swimming pool, no trace has ever been found of the woman now known to millions of listeners.
Hae Min Lee was a high school student found brutally murdered in Baltimore in 1999. When her former boyfriend Adnan Syed was arrested and jailed for her murder, that might have been the end of the story. Family friend Rabia Chaudry had been campaigning for Adnan’s release and contacted journalist Sarah Koenig. Koenig agreed to look into the case. What she found was a complicated riddle of conflicting time lines, cell phone data, teenage witnesses, and long-forgotten high school friendships.
A strong cast of characters emerged—including the Best Buy parking lot. The gripping story line caught the public imagination, and Serial has had hundreds of millions of downloads. Furious debate over who killed Hae continues on multiple Internet forums. In March 2019, Adnan was denied a new trial. Koenig remains undecided as to who she thinks killed Hae Min Lee.
I am a true crime enthusiast and lover of words.