It would be an understatement to say that 2018 was a good year for true-crime podcasting — in fact, there’s a bit of a glut in the crime market these days. The soaring popularity of shows like My Favorite Murder, Casefile and Up and Vanished has fired up the imaginations of thousands of podcasting newbies around the world who are, apparently, eager to dissect cold cases. Do we really need another podcast from a group of girlfriends discussing crime scenes while chugging Merlot? Sure, sure we do.
To help ease the overwhelm and simplify your end-of-year listening, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite true-crime podcasts of 2018, in no particular order.
This 12-part podcast from How Stuff Works follows Melissa Moore, a writer from Washington State who also happens to be the daughter of Canadian-born serial killer Keith Hunter Jesperson, a.k.a. the Happy Face Killer.
Jesperson, a six-foot-six truck driver who spent much of his life on the road, murdered at least eight women over a five-year span in the early 1990s. (He claims to have killed many more.) Now serving a life sentence, Jesperson earned his nickname from the gloating, smiley-face-laden notes he sent to police after his kills.
Happy Face stands out because of Moore’s intimate tie to the criminal in question. But its biggest strength is the way it focuses on the more potent personal impact of Jesperson’s crimes — not only on the victims, but on his long-suffering family. Moore, who was a teenager when she learned about her father’s double life, uses her painful upbringing to explore deeper questions about family grief and the splintering effects of trauma.
Uncover: Escaping NXIVM
Since last year, Rolling Stone has been tracking the bizarre story of NXIVM, a secretive alleged sex cult founded by multi-level marketing guru Keith Raniere in Albany, New York. This investigative podcast from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation looks at the case from the inside perspective of actor Sarah Edmondson, a high-ranking NXIVM member who alleged to the New York Times that she was branded as part of the group’s side sect, DOS.
A twist that lends the podcast a noteworthy touch: Escaping NXIVM is reported by Josh Bloch, a producer and childhood friend of Edmondson’s. Bloch touches on his own dismay at seeing his friend’s life unravel under the influence of Raniere.
Edmondson rose within the group’s ranks for more than a decade, finally deciding to flee the group and blow the whistle on what she experienced there. The publication of 2017’s blockbuster New York Times story — which alleged that women in DOS were forcibly branded, held as slaves and compelled to recruit additional slaves for their “masters” — helped set the group’s downfall in motion.
Raniere is currently awaiting trial in Brooklyn after pleading not guilty to sex trafficking, sex trafficking conspiracy, attempted sex trafficking, forced labor conspiracy, racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy and conspiracy to commit identity theft.
Also charged, among others, were Hollywood actress Allison Mack (“Smallville”) and Seagrams heiress Clare Bronfman. Mack has pleaded not guilty to sex trafficking and conspiracy to commit forced labor. Bronfman’s lawyer, Susan Necheles, denied the charges of money laundering and identity theft against her client.
Serial: Season Three
In its latest season, the true-crime mainstay Serial mixed things up. Instead of focusing on just one case, a precedent set in its first-season deep-dive into the murder of Baltimore high-schooler Hae Min Lee, the show took a new approach. For a year, producers embedded in a single Cleveland courthouse that allowed them to record everywhere, from courtrooms to hallways to judges’ chambers.
The resulting nine-episode series is both more mundane and, in some ways, more discomfiting than Serial’s first two seasons. Each episode focuses on a different crime, from felonies to assaults and drug possessions, and tracks them through the justice system. Unsurprisingly, these journeys are not always fair, or does it feel like justice is being served. As host/producer Sarah Koenig told Mashable, “I’ve had this urgent feeling of wanting to kind of hold open the courthouse door, and wave people inside. Because things are happening — shocking things, fascinating things — in plain sight.”
This isn’t the first episodic true-crime podcast of its kind, but it’s earned five stars from almost 10,000 listeners for a reason. Every Monday, Indianapolis-based hosts Ashley Flowers and Brit Prawat examine a new case, often one that’s unsolved or underreported. The women’s rapport — they’ve been close friends since childhood — helps make the show a reliably good listen, as does their refusal to waste time veering into distracting side conversations. They keep each episode tightly focused on the matter at hand: a compelling crime story.
Flowers, a member of the board of directors for Crime Stoppers of Central Indiana, is an engaging storyteller who shows empathy when dissecting heinous crimes; the show never moves into exploitative territory. Though it tends to look at crimes that have not been widely covered, many of which occurred in the women’s Midwestern homeland, Flowers is at her best when dissecting complicated cases that stink of larger cover-ups and corruption. For example, the “Dalkon Shield” episode is a must-listen for its terrifying recollections of a 1970s-era IUD that killed approximately twenty women and hurt at least 90,000 others.
And the “Women in the U.S. Military” episode brings an illuminating back-story to the heartbreaking case of LaVena Johnson, 19, a Private First Class in the U.S. Army. Originally from Missouri, Johnson died in Iraq in 2005. Her death was ruled a suicide, but many of the specifics appear questionable, leading many to believe that she was actually raped and murdered.
From where we sit, Dr. Death resoundingly wins the award for most disturbing podcast of 2018. Produced by Wondery, the network behind Dirty John, this gripping series manages to make an extreme case of medical malpractice addictively compelling. Hosted and reported by science journalist Laura Beil, Dr. Death tells the story of Dr. Christopher Duntsch, a now-47-year-old neurosurgeon whose brutally botched back surgeries killed various patients under his care and gravely injured dozens of others. In a two-year span, he operated on 38 patients, leaving 2 dead and 31 either paralyzed or gravely injured. (Duntsch is now serving out a sentence of life imprisonment.)
The 10-part podcast explores Duntsch’s crimes from every angle, untangling his life story, his medical training, his drug abuse and the reckless overconfidence that led him to proclaim himself the best back surgeon in Dallas — despite the growing number of grievous injuries piling up in his wake. It also examines the powerful impact his misdeeds had on acquaintances and colleagues, the psychology that led him to tell a friend he wanted to become a serial killer, and Duntsch’s tragically long road to justice.
Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo
Many existing crime podcasts center on white, female, middle- or upper-class victims, ignoring a vast population of victims of color (black women, for example, disproportionately experience all kinds of violence). CBC’s investigative podcast Finding Cleo is a powerful departure from that norm, using the story of a little girl named Cleopatra Semaganis Nicotine, who disappeared from her Saskatchewan First Nations community, to shed light on the plight of indigenous girls and women everywhere.
Reported by veteran Canadian journalist Connie Walker, who is indigenous herself, the show interviews members of Nicotine’s family to piece together what happened to Cleo, who was seized by social services in 1974. She and her siblings were adopted into different white families across Canada as part of the “Sixties Scoop,” but Cleo’s biological family had never officially learned what became of her. They’d heard rumors that she was murdered while hitchhiking in Arkansas, but for decades their quest for answers went nowhere — until the launch of Walker’s fascinating investigative podcast.
Jennifer and Sarah Hart, 38, were a married pair of crunchy white liberals who, by all outside appearances, seemed like dedicated mothers to their six adopted black children: Markis, Hannah, Abigail, Devonte, Jeremiah and Ciera. They moved around the country with their home-schooled brood, but in 2017 they settled — for good — in Woodland, Washington.
Jen and Sarah schlepped their kids to music festivals, posting glowy photos and gushy, too-good-to-be-true status updates all over Facebook. So why, in March of 2018, did a drunk Jen Hart drive the family’s SUV off a rocky California cliff at 90 miles per hour, annihilating her entire family? (The bodies of Devonte and Hannah Hart have not yet been recovered.)
Broken Harts, produced by Glamour magazine and How Stuff Works, investigates every angle of this multi-faceted tragedy, attempting to answer some of the countless questions attached to the case. And the true story of the Hart family, plus what went on behind its idyllic veneer, is beyond heart-wrenching. The children were not only documented, repeated victims of Jen and Sarah’s physical abuse, but they were failed by a racist Texas adoption and foster care system that could have protected them from this murderous outcome — and didn’t.