If there’s anything true crime fans love more than stories about unsolved murders and serial killers, it’s speculating wildly about serial killers and unsolved murders. Playing armchair sleuth has become something of a sport in itself, and entire podcasts are devoted to little more than gossamer theories about who may have been behind which crimes. It’s gotten to the point that there are even true crime parody podcasts that mock the genre, featuring hosts with wildly irrational or unfounded conspiracy theories sandwiched between inappropriately timed commercials for smart toothbrushes and boxed mattresses.
The Clearing, a new podcast premiering on July 18th from Pineapple Street Media in association with Gimlet, is not one of those podcasts — or at least, it’s trying its damnedest not to be. Hosted by veteran journalist Josh Dean, The Clearing is similar to other podcasts of its ilk in that it tells the story of serial killer Edward Edwards, who was arrested for a 1980 double murder of teenagers Tim Hack and Kelly Drew nearly 30 years after it occurred. Although Edwards was interviewed by police shortly after the teens went missing, police reinterviewed him after receiving a tip urging them to reconsider him as a suspect; they took a DNA sample from him, which turned out to match evidence left at the scene of the crime. Edwards was given two consecutive life sentences in 2010, when he was 77 years old; he later confessed to a slew of other unsolved crimes. (Edwards died in prison in 2011.)
But what makes The Clearing unique is the fact that a family member of the accused was directly involved with the development of the podcast: specifically, Edwards’ daughter, April Balascio (who was also the one who called in the tip reporting him). In an interview with Rolling Stone, Dean says he reached out to Balascio a few years ago while working on a New York Times Magazine story about internet conspiracy theories tying Edwards to other unsolved murders, including the death of JonBenet Ramsey and Laci Peterson; while he knew such theories were unfounded, he suspected Edwards may have been guilty of other crimes, and contacted Balascio to learn more. What resulted was what Dean describes as a “friendship slash partnership” with Balascio, the culmination of which is The Clearing.
“We went on this journey to figure out the true story of her father’s life, to the extent that it was possible to tell that, and also sort of fix the narrative: what’s true and what’s not, and what could he have done, versus what he could definitely not do,” Dean says.
Balascio’s involvement in the podcast differentiates it from other true crime podcasts, in more ways than one: from a reporter’s perspective, Dean says, Balascio was invaluable, helping him gain access to police department officials and hundreds of hours of personal (and frankly, very weird) recordings made by her father, who she remembers as slickly charming and abusive. “April is a subject and a partner and also a victim in a way,” says Dean. “[You] can imagine the ways this would not have gone well for her, growing up in that environment. So part of what we’re doing is following a woman who’s coming to grips with that her father is a monster, and what that did to her.” (April’s mother and Edwards’ wife Kay, who has professed to not have had any knowledge of his crimes, declined to participate in the podcast, as did April’s siblings, says Dean.)
While Balascio did not have creative control over the production of the podcast, Dean says her involvement makes the show distinct from other true crime podcasts, which have been accused of exploiting real-life murder victims and their families and treating them as characters rather than real, grieving people. “It’s very much her story, so it just felt different and richer than a lot of the true crime stuff,” says Dean. Because The Clearing also focuses on debunking many of the myths surrounding Edwards’ criminal career, it is, in some ways, a true crime podcast that doubles as a critique on true crime podcasts, a tension the show’s creators explicitly acknowledge in the first episode. “What we’re trying to do is put the conspiracy on one side and say this stuff is not helpful, it’s bad for us, and it’s bad for the world of crime-solving,” says Dean.
That’s not to say, however, that The Clearing does not engage with true crime podcast tropes. In the first of two episodes , for instance, The Clearing frames Balascio’s decision to call in the tip on her father as little more than a hunch, combined with clever Googling (she discovers his potential link to the 1980 double murder after searching for cold cases in cities where the family lived).
It’s not immediately clear from the first two episodes what may have led Balascio to suspect her father of murder in the first place: while Edwards had a criminal history (he served time for arson and robbery), was apparently prone to moving the family around at odd times, and was obsessed with learning the details of grisly tabloid murders — though the same could likely be said of any number of people. The Clearing‘s decision not to probe her thought process too deeply apparently rests on the assumption that the listener is well-versed in true crime tropes, chief among them being that anyone is capable of anything at any time. (Dean says Balascio was motivated by a combination of gut instinct and dumb luck, as the 1980 double murder had received renewed media coverage at the time her suspicions about her father first arose.)
Dean is careful to note, both in our interview and at the start of the podcast, that he makes no promises that the podcast will solve any cold cases: “We in the media, fairly or unfairly, put forth this idea that we can go out and solve the cases that cops didn’t. I certainly would never make that claim that I could do it, so I felt like I had to say that at the beginning: ‘I don’t think we’re gonna solve murders, that’s not the idea here. We’ll do what we can to help,'” he says. But Dean says Balascio was extremely motivated to identify other possible crimes her father may have committed, even befriending some of his suspected victims’ families in the process. “April’s need to do something is very authentic and legitimate…I think she had expectations for what’s possible when it was not.”
If nothing else, Dean hopes that The Clearing will provide renewed attention to the cold cases that have been lingering in police departments’ file drawers for decades — and if that can help bring victims’ loved ones some closure, all the better. Despite the podcast’s emphasis on Edwards and his brutal crimes, and despite the inherent perversity of a genre that mines real families’ suffering for entertainment, “I hope at the end of the series you’re thinking about the victims, both for the crimes that have been solved and the ones that haven’t,” he says.