Play Next: What a true-crime podcast meant for a real-world investigation
Good morning. I’m Paige Hymson, a podcast producer here at The Times. Episode 5 of “Room 20” is out now. The series investigates why a man was left unconscious and unidentified for more than 15 years. Listen now, and subscribe here.
Reporters aren’t the only ones stepping into the podcast arena. One police department in California created a first-of-its-kind podcast to bring attention to a years-long fugitive case — and it actually helped. This week, I spoke with the Newport Beach Police Department’s Jennifer Manzella, who created and hosted it.
Policing and Podcasts
One outstanding case loomed over Newport police for years — that of Peter Chadwick, a fugitive millionaire on the U.S. Marshals’ most-wanted list. Chadwick had been accused of killing his wife in October 2012. After his initial arrest, he had properly attended court proceedings for a few years, until one day in 2015, he didn’t show. That’s where Manzella, the administrative assistant to the police chief, came in.
“It was inadvertently my idea,” Manzella said of her initial thought to create a podcast that would draw attention to the case. “It was the first true-crime podcast released by law enforcement.”
The six-part series “Countdown to Capture” was produced entirely by the Police Department. The idea was to get the word out about Chadwick in an innovative way.
“It was just over 10 months since the last episode aired when we caught him,” Manzella said.
Chadwick was captured and taken into custody in Mexico on Aug. 4 and returned to California a day later. When Manzella and her team began writing scripts for the podcast, Chadwick had been a fugitive for 3½ years.
“It’s really hard to get people’s attention nowadays,” Manzella said. “No one’s going to sit down and read a three-page press release. But if they’re going to pop their headphones in their ears while they’re mowing the lawn, why are we not an option?”
She makes a valid point. Many investigative podcasts have made similar efforts, and some have actually affected legal cases. Manzella and her team used “Countdown to Capture” to raise awareness in the U.S. and abroad.
“We’re not in any way drawing a direct correlation between the podcast and the fact that [Chadwick] was caught,” Manzella said. “But the Marshal Service really reiterated to us that anytime you can raise awareness about a case and make the fugitive feel like there’s pressure to keep moving, keep hiding, they have to spend more money, they have to move more frequently, they have to be more careful. And when they feel that pressure is when they mess up.”
When she first heard Chadwick had been captured, she told me she “immediately just grinned ear to ear.”
“I got so invested in the case through doing the project that personally it touched me to hear that we had him back,” Manzella said. “To go from seeing his face on TV to seeing his face in the hallways of our Police Department being escorted into our jail — it’s everything we hoped for when we started the project.”
Manzella isn’t sure whether her department will create more podcasts in the future. “With the amount of success we’ve had, it would be silly to say that, ‘No, we’ll never do one again,’” she said.
In another podcast you may have heard of, a case that was the subject of a popular true-crime series was eventually reviewed and overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Season two of American Public Media’s “In the Dark” explored how and why Curtis Flowers, a black man from Mississippi, was tried six times for the same crime.
“Ultimately, we just kind of wanted to explore the case and try to understand it,” said Rehman Tungekar, an associate producer on the podcast.
The Peabody Award-winning series sparked outrage and drew immense public attention to the case. In November, the Supreme Court agreed to review the case. And in June, it overturned Flowers’ conviction.
“We weren’t entirely sure what would happen,” said Tungekar. “We were pretty surprised by how it all turned out.”
After the news broke that the case was going to the Supreme Court, Tungekar said he and his team spoke with legal experts about a possible connection between the podcast and the latest legal proceedings. The experts’ verdict on that: “It wasn’t causative necessarily, but it might have played a role.”
Like “Countdown to Capture,” season two of “In the Dark” helped bring national interest to its subject. It exposed evidence in the Flowers case and uncovered potential corruption and bias in the Mississippi legal system.
“When I started out, I never anticipated that podcasts would have gotten so big and would have such a great reach into mainstream culture,” Tungekar said. “It’ll be interesting to see how podcasts are used in the future.”
Picks of the Week:
Each week, different Times staff members will share their personal podcast recommendations with you. Here’s what Claire Peters, senior UX and consumer researcher at The Times, is listening to now.
“Hidden Brain,” NPR: If you’re interested in science, art, human behavior, philosophy or ethics, this is the podcast for you. “Hidden Brain,” hosted by Shankar Vedantam, explores concepts from cognitive science, psychology, sociology, anthropology — basically all the -ologies! — and how these concepts are expressed in our lives. Although the show is described as being about “unconscious human behavior and biases that direct our relationships,” I think its most interesting facet is the way it connects scientific concepts to outcomes (positive and negative) for individuals, communities, society and the planet. There’s also an ethical dilemma at the heart of many episodes — a recent episode called “The Lazarus Drug” is a great example — sometimes explored explicitly, other times only implied.
“Welcome to LA,” KCRW: This podcast is a true expression of the spirit of Los Angeles, in both content and style. The first season ended in mid-2018, and although it doesn’t appear that a second season is coming anytime soon, I recommend it the same way I would a collection of L.A. icon Eve Babitz’s short stories. In each episode, host David Weinberg tells what I think of as a very Los Angeles story, one that’s wild and weird and evokes strong emotions. His storytelling style communicates a clear sense of place, and he deftly weaves poignant bits of tangentially related American history throughout. He has produced a number of other excellent podcasts for KCRW, including “Below the Ten,” which I also recommend.
“Spectacular Failures,” American Public Media and the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota: Host Lauren Ober tells tales of some of the most spectacular business implosions in American history, and she does it with sass, panache and compassion. Each story is a cautionary tale, articulating the consequences of greed, corruption, bad marketing, poor product development or misunderstandings of customer needs. If you’re into business, schadenfreude and the strong sense that you could have done it better, you will dig this.
Next time on “Room 20”: In its final episode, Faryon convinces a world expert on diagnosing consciousness to test Garage. She’s finally able to answer the question she had when she first met Garage: Is he still in there? Episode 6 is available Aug. 20.
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