10 Best True Crime Podcast of 2021 - Rolling Stone
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The 10 Best Crime Podcasts of 2021

From an arsonist author to a professed killer on an anonymous call line to an investigation of racism in the Mississippi justice system, we sifted through the deluge so you don’t have to

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Wally Skalij/Pool/AP; Matt Bush/The Hattiesburg American/AP; Everett Collection; Lorenzo Galassi

The true crime podcast genre reached the point of parody this year, with Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building depicting obsessive listeners who bungle their way through an ill-advised amateur murder investigation. As demand for the genre continues to boom, it seems like every day brings a new “investigation” promising to crack a cold case. We sifted through the deluge so you don’t have to, and found plenty of worthwhile storytelling to take in, too much even to include on this brief list. Some frightening and cautionary, others eye-opening and informative, still others fighting to change a justice system that repeatedly fails BIPOC crime victims and their families, these 10 selections are our picks for the best podcasts covering crime this year.

Firebug

In the Eighties and Nineties, an arsonist used a unique incendiary device made with a coin, a cigarette, and a book of matches to set dozens of fires in Southern California, some in the dry brush of the mountains, others in grocery store aisles and fabric retailers populated by shoppers. Sometimes he ignited several in the same day. One man was eventually arrested and convicted of serial arson and murder — stemming from a deadly blaze in a hardware store that killed four people. He got caught, in part, because he was toting around a book manuscript for a novel that detailed his real-life fire-settings, complete with descriptions of the erotic thrill he got from watching “his” fire burn. In this 10-part series from Truth Media, Host Kary Antholis tells the stories of the devastating fires and the people who escaped them — or who tragically did not. He interviews investigators and includes readings from the arsonist’s novel, Points of Origin. He also speaks with the arsonist, who is serving a life sentence in prison, to try to get a feel for whether he really belongs there. Suspected of setting more than 2,000 fires, he’s the last type of person you’d expect to do it; and the way the podcast unfolds, the reveal of the flame-loving criminal’s identity sneaks up on listeners just like it shocked authorities at the time. – Andrea Marks

Through the Cracks

On Through the Cracks, WAMU reporter Jonquilyn Hill tells the story of Relisha Rudd, who disappeared from a Washington, D.C. homeless shelter in 2014 when she was just eight years old. Hill’s compassionate reporting reveals generations of poverty and trauma in Relisha’s family: housing instability, sexual abuse, murdered family members, and childhoods spent in the foster care system. Over eight episodes, she speaks with Relisha’s family members, like her grandmother who still buys Relisha gifts for her birthday and Christmas, in case she comes home. She looks at how Relisha wound up in a homeless shelter in a city reputed to be particularly “tenant-friendly.” She also reports on the janitor at the homeless shelter, who was the last person seen with Relisha and who was wanted for the murder of his wife when he was found dead by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Ultimately, she investigates why the city said there was nothing more its agencies could have done to prevent her disappearance. Looking at the blame Relisha’s mother has received for her daughter’s disappearance, Hill examines how warranted it really is, when Black girls like Relisha are repeatedly allowed to fall through the cracks. – AM

Crimes of the Centuries

In these days of the constantly changing new cycle, it’s easy to forget that in decades past, one story might have taken up the entire national consciousness for weeks on end. Journalist Amber Hunt is here to make sure that we remember those cases that captured the nation. In the Obsessed Network’s weekly Crimes of the Centuries (which technically came out in late 2020, but who’s counting), Hunt picks major crime stories like the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, H.H. Holmes’ murder mansion, or Fatty Arbuckle’s rape case, which might not be common knowledge today, but went the pre-internet equivalent of viral. Hunt reexamines them in ways that both put them in historical context, but also looks at the fallout we might still see today. – Elisabeth Garber-Paul

Stolen: The Search for Jermain

Connie Walker is the host of Stolen: The Search for Jermain from Gimlet Media and has been making podcasts about missing and murdered indigenous women for years. A Cree from Saskatchewan, Canada, Walker grew up on a reserve, like many of her subjects, giving her intimate insight into the women whose stories she tells. The eight-part Search for Jermain finds the podcaster digging into a more recent case: the 2018 disappearance of a young mother who went missing after leaving a bar in Missoula, Montana. Through extensive interviews with Jermaine Charlo’s friends and loved one, Walker gives us not only a glimpse into the life of one woman and mother, but also the difficulties that indigenous women in particular, and those communities at large, face today. – Brenna Erlich

Dr. Death Season 3: Miracle Man

Dr. Paolo Macchiarini is a charismatic Italian surgeon who innovates a synthetic trachea transplant in the early 2010s that, it turns out, doesn’t exactly work. People start dying after his operations, in at least one case after he performs several additional experimental and increasingly debilitating surgeries to correct his initial error. This doesn’t stop him, however. In addition to rooting for the non-criminal surgeons struggling to get Macchiarini kicked out of the profession, one of the more enthralling facets of this seven-part tale of medical nightmares and narcissism run wild is witnessing this dangerous doctor deceive a seasoned television producer and pull her totally off her professional game. It starts when Benita Alexander is traveling by plane with Macchiarini to shoot a segment for NBC News and he invites her to confide in him about her personal troubles. The next thing you know, she’s zipping along the Illinois River on a motorcycle with him, looking for a scenic place to mourn the passing of her ex-husband. Shut it down, Benita, shut it down!  But that’s only the beginning. – AM

Reveal: Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe

In 2008, 17-year-old football star Billey Joe Johnson, Jr., who was Black, was killed by a shotgun blast to the head during a traffic stop by a white police officer in Luceville, Mississippi. Authorities initially ruled the death a suicide, but a grand jury later deemed it an accidental shooting. In this seven-part series — the latest from Reveal, an investigative show and podcast from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX — host Al Letson and co-reporter Jonathan Jones excavate the case, seeking answers in a death that, for many people, has never added up. Interviewing investigators on the case and loved ones of Johnson’s, and going through police reports, Johnson’s autopsy report, and 911 recordings, they uncover flaws in the investigation while at the same time exploring issues of race, identity, and policing in the South. They find an all too familiar disparity along racial lines in how the public views the case: Johnson’s family and other Black residents in the area have never believed the official story, while one white investigator the reporters speak with insists racism in Mississippi is ancient history. Along the way, Letson reflects on his own experiences reporting on the case as a Black man alongside a white colleague, showing how racism continues to pervade daily life. – AM

Los Feliz Murder Mansion

It all started with a Los Angeles urban legend. There was a house, the story went, up in the hills of Los Feliz. A man had murdered his entire family there decades ago, around Christmas, and the house had gone unchanged since — you could still see the presents under the tree. Of course, there was more to the story — and filmmaker Stacy Astenius, whose day job is editing HGTV fixer-upper shows, spent seven years uncovering it. Over seven episodes from Cloudy Day Pictures, listeners learn how what started as a documentary about a mysterious house turned into a deep dive into the neighborhood, the families who owned the home, and how stories spin out of control. – EGP

The Apology Line

When conceptual artist Allan Bridge sets up an answering machine in 1980 for New Yorkers to record anonymous apologies, callers flood the line asking forgiveness for misdeeds from damaging a stranger’s property to wounding a lover to — you guessed it — murder. As a repeat caller describes his drive to kill young men in chilling detail, Bridge becomes increasingly drawn into his world. Podcast host Marissa Bridge, Alan’s widow, paints a picture of a man whose obsession with the purported serial killer takes up most of the tape on the answering machine and begins to encroach on their marriage, as Allan tries to plumb the caller’s psyche for the real differences between good and evil. Wondery’s Apology Line is a seven-part study on how desperate we can be for answers to the big questions, even when our sources are untrustworthy. – AM

Counter Clock Season 3: The Pelley Family Massacre

In bingeable 20-minute episodes, this 20-part series from Audiochuck covers the brutal 1989 shooting murder of four members of the Pelley family in their home near South Bend, Indiana. Broadcast journalist turned investigative podcaster Delia D’Ambra takes a procedural approach to the story: she interviews law enforcement but doesn’t take their word for it. Instead, she pores over case files herself, listens to suspect interviews, and drives around the neighborhood where it happened, recreating witness timelines from thirty years ago. More than once, she turns up clues detectives overlooked and calls out bungled operations that may have compromised evidence. The product of a year-long investigation, the podcast calls into question the conviction of the family’s 17-year-old son for the cold-blooded killings of his parents and siblings. – AM

In God We Lust

In 2020, Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the most famous Evangelical in the world and heir to his Liberty University, was caught in a very un-Evangelical situation: a young man had come forward claiming that Falwell, Jr. and his wife, Becki Tilley, had pulled him into a sexually exploitative relationship. He’d said he’d been sleeping with Tilley, and letting Jerry Jr. watch, for years. (Falwell denied the psychosexual elements and claimed Tilley had simply had an affair; lawsuits ensued.) A seven-episode standalone spinoff from Wondery’s flagship pod Even the Rich, In God We Lush brings their trademark immersive approach to the salacious story — the background of Liberty U., Jerry and Becki’s marriage, the alleged affair and it’s messy legal aftermath. It’s like having your two gossipiest friends thoroughly report the story then explain it to you over tea. With background music. For almost seven hours. – EGP

In This Article: Podcasts, true crime

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