Bay-Area PI and ex-journalist Mike Spencer reports on his favorite true-crime podcasts to binge.
When I started listening to podcasts about four years ago, I just wanted entertainment. I quickly gravitated to true crime, starting with the great “Casefile.”
I’ve put enough time into evaluating true crime podcasts that I can now tell the treasure from the dreck. (“Casefile” is in its own category because it doesn’t do witness or subject interviews. It features the deadpan Australian narrator telling dark stories, with an opening five minutes that always expertly sets the hook.) Like with any long form journalism or storytelling, astute listeners can tell which pods have done their homework.
I recently binged two stellar podcasts: “Your Own Backyard” and “The Spectator.” I also enjoyed “Detective Trapp,” about an Orange County, California police detective who solves the killings of several prostitutes. More on Detective Trapp in a bit.
What I Listen For
I evaluate podcasts using several criteria: I listen for the story’s power, the investigation quality and caliber of the journalism, how hard was it to get the interviews, the narrator’s presence, pacing, and production value — with aspects like how it uses music or unique sound aspects. Any podcast that hooks me with about eight hours of material, like “Your Own Backyard” and “The Spectator,” is a hell of an accomplishment and effort. I’m fussy about my pods because I have a background in both journalism and investigations. Now that I’m getting into podcasts more, I’m more familiar with how the sausage is made. (I will be attempting my own true crime podcast this year.)
These days I listen to true crime podcasts mostly with an ear for what I can learn as a private investigator. The great crime podcasts remind me to be thorough, resourceful, and fair.
“Your Own Backyard”
“Your Own Backyard” is a study in how to cultivate witnesses. Chris Lambert narrates the series. He does not have a background as an investigator, but rather as a freelance journalist, recording engineer, and musician.
Lambert, a native of Santa Maria near the central California coast, was eight years old when reports of a missing college student flooded the news. Kristin Smart disappeared around Memorial Day Weekend, after attending a party at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.
Lambert didn’t think much about the Kristin Smart case until decades later, when he spotted her face on a faded billboard, which offered a $75,000 reward. (Over the years, on trips to the Central Coast, I too had seen these billboards, showing the pretty 19-year-old under the headline “Missing.”)
Lambert’s voice is calming and peaceful, the kind of voice a lot of people might expect a mellow California millennial to have. But don’t sleep on him! In every episode, he drops investigative bombs, as he travels throughout the state finding witnesses who either knew Kristin Smart or who know the prime suspect, fellow Cal Poly student Paul Flores. I like how Lambert occasionally injects his opinions after summarizing developments in the case or countering a rumor or falsehood.
Lambert makes a critical defining statement early in the podcast: For him, the Kristin Smart mystery is really not a whodunit; it’s about proving how Paul Flores, the last person with her that night, killed her and who conspired with him to hide the body. Lambert digs deep into Flores’s violent past and his history of stalking and creeping out not just women but most of the people he ever met. The amount of evidence against him is staggering, and it seems that his parents likely helped him dispose of the body — or at least, they probably know more than they are saying about what happened.
It quickly becomes obvious that Lambert has a great touch with witnesses. As private investigators, we know that diplomacy and rapport cannot be faked. He bonds with Kristin Smart’s parents and former classmates, witnesses he finds via his Central Coast connections, strangers who accidentally uncovered evidence.
The case spans 23 years, and it seems that Lambert has reported extensively on it for at least two years. Along the way there were three or four amateur sleuths who probed the case or who turned to public activism to try to provoke Flores or prod sheriff’s investigators into action. Lambert has audio interviews of all the bit players through the years.
The podcast has been so successful that sheriff’s investigators are praising it for generating new leads.
Lambert made it clear that in many ways sheriff’s investigators and campus police botched early parts of the case, being slow to treat the disappearance as a criminal matter. The lesson from all of this is that you can get good results, even in a cold case, if you keep digging and treat witnesses and sources with respect.
Whereas “Your Own Backyard” is a case connected to the present, “The Spectator” podcast takes us back to Joliet, Illinois, in 1957, telling the story of crusading newspaper journalist Molly Zelko’s unsolved disappearance. Zelko and her politically connected newspaper, The Spectator, had targeted local gambling rackets. As the podcast explains, her disappearance occurred at a time when the mob was in transition between old-schoolers, who would never harm a reporter, and the bolder and more brutal new generation.
What makes “The Spectator” such a joy is not just the great organization and structure of the narrative, but the sound quality and lush aural landscape. Each episode opens and closes with Johnny Matthis’s classic, “Chances Are.” Those last haunting notes just hang in the air, setting the mood.
The podcast is a joint project of the Joliet Area Historical Museum and the Joliet Public Library. Museum director Greg Peerbolte worked on the podcast for two years and has assembled numerous jailhouse interviews, archival radio shows and other sounds, music and interviews that transport listeners back to 1957.
“The Spectator” transcends most crime podcasts because of its scope, ambition, and connection to national organized crime. At first I thought it was just going to be a rehashing of a forgotten local case in a sleepy Midwestern city. But apparently, it was a huge deal: even Robert Kennedy — then a federal prosecutor — became involved in searching for Zelko’s body.
Zelko was modern and complex, an independent woman in a time of conformity. She made enemies, apparently shaking down story subjects to advertise in the paper in exchange for the paper not reporting negative news about their businesses. Each episode advances the story. I had never heard about the case but now feel like I learned something about not just the mystery but about the history of organized crime in America.
Finally, I recommend “Detective Trapp,” by the Los Angeles Times and Wondery, written and hosted by Christopher Goffard (the creator of “Dirty John”).
“Detective Trapp” profiles bulldog Anaheim Police Detective Julissa Trapp and her hunt for the serial killers of female prostitutes. It’s heavy on Trapp’s background and personal life, which helps explain her connection to the cases and to the victim’s mothers.
This podcast taught me a lot about police investigation, and especially about interrogation. At one point, Detective Julissa Trapp acknowledges she will role play or manipulate suspects if it helps her get a confession. She’s incredibly perceptive about psychology, and it works for her. She does not like to have a partner in her interrogations because she is more successful on her own.
The story itself is compelling. It has garbage dump searches and successful needle-in-a-haystack finds. Even crazier, the two prime suspects were both on monitoring devices for prior sex offenses at the time of the crimes. Authorities had failed to monitor them, and detectives learned of the connection when they plotted locations of the murders with GPS locations of known sex offenders.
While “Your Own Backyard” and “The Spectator” feel organic and from the heart, “Detective Trapp” comes across as a more polished and commercial podcast. At times, it seems almost like PR for the Anaheim Police Department, because it’s so glowing towards Detective Trapp. But I’m nitpicking. It’s a great story about an investigator who never gives up and who brings justice for victims who are forgotten.
About the author:
Mike Spencer owns Spencer Legal Investigations in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also the author of Private Eye Confidential, Stories From A Real P.I. (published by 99: The Press). He’s on on Twitter at @SpencerPI.