This piece originally appeared as part of Rolling Stone’s annual Hot List, in the July/August issue of the magazine.
Catherine Townsend’s career — dating columnist, private investigator, true-crime podcast host — is straight out of a hard-boiled detective novel. But, as she notes, the jobs do intersect. “I think there’s no better training than being out on tons of first dates with tons of people from all different cultures all over the world,” she tells Rolling Stone. “It just teaches you a lot about reading people.”
Townsend is the host of iHeartMedia’s Hell and Gone, which digs into cold cases, and Audiochuck’s Red Collar, a look into modern-day American Psychos. The Arkansas native has been obsessed with true crime since she was a kid, spying on neighbors with her trusty toy basset hound and magnifying glass in tow. The fascination only increased when she heard about the 2004 unsolved murder of 22-year-old college student, Rebekah Gould, who was a few years her junior. “Rebekah reminded me so much of myself and a lot of my friends,” Townsend says. “Someone actually told me she was a high-risk victim because she was dating different guys. Come on.’”
Townsend returned to the case after working for New York Magazine and writing a dating column called “Dating Around” for the U.K.’s Independent — and training to become a private investigator in 2010, a process that lasted about three years. After honing her skills on cheating husbands, missing people, and some murder cases, she traveled back to Arkansas in 2017 to record the first season of Hell and Gone; she intended to stay two weeks but spent six months unraveling Gould’s story, a highly local crime where everyone seemed to have an opinion about what happened, but no answers. “There was just so much pain and trauma around it and I thought maybe I could do something to potentially help or at least tell the story,” she says.
Two years after the show premiered, William Miller — Gould’s boyfriend Casey McCullough’s cousin — was arrested for the 2004 murder; his trial is set for August 2021. “I think our investigation definitely helped reopen interest in the case,” Townsend says. “Dust was collecting on the case files; it just seemed like there was no forward progress being made. But shortly after the podcast came out, a new investigator named Mike McNeil got put in charge and he seemed very open to receiving information.”
Heading into season four of Hell and Gone, Townsend speculates that she might be returning to Arkansas for the trial at some point in the future. “I’m definitely not an armchair detective,” she says. “When I went to investigate Rebekah’s case, I thought I was just going to report on it and it became obvious really fast: Nope, I got to get a lot more involved in the story.’”