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In the Dark: S1 E9 The Truth

Previously on In the Dark.

Today, October 12th, I'm five feet tall. My whole name is Jacob Erwin Wetterling.

911 Emergency.

Some of their boys went down to Tom Thumb to pick up a movie. And on their way back, someone stopped them.

What they called an abduction of a child. Well, my initial thought was you don't think that happens here.

When you ran, did you look back?

Yeah, once we get way down there.

What did you see?

Nothing. He wasn't there anymore.

It was just like, what do you say? What's going on? I was so confused.

Time's your biggest enemy in investigation. People have short memories. They don't remember everything correctly. You got to get out there, and talk to people, and find out what the hell is going on.

So, no one came and knocked on your door that night?

No.

And nobody came and searched your house that night?

No.

And nobody searched any of, as far as you know, the buildings, the farm buildings right around your house?

No.

I had expectation that this was hot, like, "My lead, this stuff in Paynesville, you can't ignore this, guys." I mean, I went in with that mentality.

Nobody's ever asked me a single question about this, other than you, guys. I've never been interviewed by police. I've never been talked to by any law enforcement ever. Not one person.

We haven't had a lot of luck in some of these big cases that we're working on. And sometimes, just good old fashioned police work and a little bit of luck go a long way.

Seven weeks ago, Jared Scheierl was sitting in a courtroom as Danny Heinrich was brought in. Jared had been waiting for this moment for 27 years, ever since a strange man forced him into a car off the side of the road in the town of Cold Spring when Jared was just 12, and drove him to a gravel road, sexually assaulted him, and then drove them back to town.

You know, this guy, he took a part of me that night that left me to try to understand a lot of things. And that's, I guess, as a victim, that would be … You know, I want to to hear him say it or have an opportunity to talk to him directly.

For years, Jared had done everything he could think of to try to find the man who had done this to him. He'd gone through lineups and told detectives over and over exactly what the man had done to him. As an adult, Jared had tried to find other victims of this man, and discovered a whole separate string of assaults in the town of Paynesville, and met all these other victims, other men like him, and realized that all of these crimes could have been done by the same man.

After all those years, the man who assaulted Jared had finally been caught. This was the moment when everyone would finally get to hear the truth about what happened to Jared and what had happened to Jacob Wetterling.

This is In the Dark, an investigative podcast from APM Reports. I'm Madeleine Baran. In this podcast, we're looking at what went wrong in the case of Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old boy who was kidnapped in a small town in Central Minnesota in 1989.

And in this final episode, we're going to take a closer look at the story Danny Heinrich told in court, and the story law enforcement told us about him, about why he was so hard to catch because those stories don't exactly hold up.

As part of the plea deal, Danny Heinrich had cut with prosecutors. He would not be charged with Jacob's murder, and prosecutors would drop all but one count of child pornography against him. Heinrich could be sent to prison for 17 to 20 years, and he would finally have to publicly admit what he'd done.

The confession that Heinrich made in the courtroom that day was graphic, and horrible, and detailed, much more detailed than people expected. Heinrich laid out a whole story with plot, action, second guessing, reflection, and much to the horror of everyone who listened, dialogue, lines he said Jacob told him, things he said he told Jacob just before he killed him. Jared was sitting just a few feet away listening to all this as Heinrich transfixed the courtroom with a story of what he did to Jacob.

I mean, for me, to listen to the details in court, you know, his life, his final minutes, you know, I could have been that child. I could have been Jacob.

Once Heinrich was done confessing to his crimes against Jacob, he got to what he had done to Jared. He laid out the story the same way, with all this detail and dialogue. And then, Heinrich started going into a part of the story that Jared had never heard before. Heinrich described in graphic detail a sex act he said he forced on Jared.

And then, he said that as he did it, he told Jared, "If you throw up, I'll kill you." The line was so specific. Jared told me that when he heard it, he started to feel sick to his stomach because as far as Jared remembered it, this line that Heinrich's said, with this really specific threat, it never happened. It just wasn't true. Jared was sure of it.

You can look at the dozens of other statements that I've given law enforcement. I never once stated this. And it may seem like a small detail in some people's eyes, but same time, to me, you know, it's putting truth on the table.

I've read all the public law enforcement documents relating to Jared's abduction and all the statements Jared gave at the time and in the years after. And I've talked with Jared for hours, and I'd never heard that phrase either. Jared told me that he just sat there in the courtroom as Heinrich went on and on, captivating everyone with this graphic story, and Jared started to get pretty angry.

I personally took it as a shot at me, you know, directly. It was kind of, you know, here's my account of what happened that night. And that's the moment where I just kind of want to stand and say, "You don't you have a right to tell your accounts. You know, I'll tell you my accounts."

Jared just had to sit there in silence and listen. After it was done, Jared went to the news conference, and sat in the front row. He listened as US Attorney Andy Luger addressed reporters.

Finally, we know. We know the truth. Danny Heinrich is no longer a person of interest. He is the confessed murderer of Jacob Wetterling.

And Jared delivered some remarks as well.

We're willing to create something positive out of all of this tragic news. And I promised Patty three years ago when I got involved that I was going to try to keep it positive.

But when I went out to see Jared at his home a few weeks after the press conference, he told me he couldn't stop thinking about what Heinrich had said, and that one line, in particular.

I keep going back to those details lately. And I know you can't understand the level of questions I have in my own head.

Jared said he'd started to think that maybe there was another reason that Heinrich said that line. Maybe, he thought, Heinrich got him mixed up with someone else. Maybe there was another kid.

Are there are other victims out there? You know, do we want to believe that there was no other victims after Jacob?

I also had that same question. Did Heinrich really stop with Jacob? The way US Attorney Andy Luger talked about it at the news conference after Heinrich confessed was as though this whole question of whether Heinrich harmed any other kids wasn't something we're saying much about.

You think there are any victims after Jacob?

We're not aware of any. Yes? We got somebody over here. Yes?

Just along those lines, is he being looked at as possible suspect in any other child disappearances?

Not that I'm aware of.

These were fair questions and kind of obvious ones to ask. Danny Heinrich had admitted to kidnapping and sexually assaulting not one but two boys, and is suspected of attacking several other boys in Paynesville before then.

And when authorities searched Heinrich's home in 2015, they didn't just find child pornography, they also found four bins of boys clothing in the basement and a set of handcuffs in a drawer in the kitchen next to a roll of duct tape. And they found hours and hours of videos spanning more than a decade. The US Attorney Andy Luger described the videos this way in a news conference last year.

Dozens of VHS tapes of young boys engaged in routine activities like delivering newspapers, playing on the playgrounds, and riding bicycles. The videos appear to have been filmed by the defendant, and some of them appear to have been shot from a hidden camera.

Some of the videos had a kind of elaborate setup. And several of them, Heinrich would drop a coin on a set of stairs in an apartment building, and secretly record as a paper boy would come up the stairs, see the coin, and then bend over to pick it up. Heinrich also recorded a video that's kind of an informal tour of his home. In the video, at one point, Heinrich opens the door of a safe and focuses in on a loaded pistol.

So, I went looking for other unsolved cases of strange men trying to kidnap children. We sent a researcher and an intern to the State History Center to go through microfilm of old newspapers from the Paynesville area, and we found something.

In February of 1991, about a year and a half after Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped, a notice appeared in the Paynesville press. "Be on the alert," it said. It warned that in the past three weeks, there had been three calls to police about a suspicious man spotted by school children in the Paynesville area watching them and trying to approach them. A man described as medium sized, a man who drove a blue car.

And then, about a month later, the Paynesville Police called the Stearns County Sheriff's Office because they'd been getting reports of a car following paper boys on their morning routes. An officer from the sheriff's office showed up, and found the car. It was following a paper boy. He ran the plates, and realized the man was Danny Heinrich. But Heinrich wasn't breaking any traffic laws, so the officer didn't pull him over.

There are other reports like this in small town papers all across Minnesota in the years after Jacob was kidnapped, reports of suspicious men in cars following around kids or even trying to kidnap them. Whether any of those men was Heinrich or whether Heinrich actually did kidnap and murder anyone else, we may never know because as part of the plea deal, law enforcement agreed to only ask Danny Heinrich about Jacob and Jared. They agreed not to ask Heinrich about any other crimes.

So, how did law enforcement get to this point, to this point of accepting a plea deal with Heinrich, a deal that meant they couldn't ask about any other crimes, a deal that meant that Heinrich would never be charged with the abduction and murder of Jacob Wetterling, and would get out of prison in 17 to 20 years? The prosecutor who agreed to the deal, US Attorney Andy Luger, told me they agreed to it because they just didn't have a better option.

We had belief but not evidence before he told us. So, my job is under all of these awful circumstances with no really great choices was to do two things: Put him behind bars for a long time and get the answers that this family and the State of Minnesota have been looking for for almost 27 years.

So, it's the best deal that could have been made?

In my view, it's the best deal that was available.

And to hear law enforcement talk about it in interviews with reporters in the days and weeks after, the reason they didn't have any options wasn't because of anything the investigators did or didn't do. It was because Danny Heinrich was just uncatchable. He was that rarest of rare criminals, the kind of murderer who hides the body in a place so remote and so random that no one would ever find it, the kind of killer who didn't have any friends, who never talked to anyone, not about his crime, and not about anything really.

So, it was almost impossible to find out what kind of person Heinrich was, how he made decisions, where he liked to go for fun, the little things that can help investigators piece together what a person might have done, and how they might have done it. Here's Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall.

One person did this. One person never told anyone else. And it literally took this long, following up absolutely every lead they had.

You know, we didn't have the proof in the case. When you're a lone actor and you never tell anybody what happened, and we have no reason to believe that he ever told anyone, you're making a deal with the devil here. There is evil in the world.

And Stearns County Chief Deputy Bruce Bechtold.

That's the bogeyman, the monster that your parents warned you about growing up.

The way they talked about it, it was like Heinrich was the perfect criminal who had committed the perfect crime.

Over the past seven weeks, we spent some time looking into this picture that law enforcement had painted of Danny Heinrich. And we started by trying to find out more about who Danny Heinrich was. One of the people we found was a trucker named Roger Fyle who knew Heinrich from his early days in Paynesville.

Oh man. We were in Mr. Snyder's third grade class. He and I were both in the same class then already, so, you know, I've known him that long, you know.

And Roger said that even though he, now, knows that Danny Heinrich is a rapist and child murderer, he still looks back fondly on their childhood together.

No, I do cherish the times that we did have because we had a lot of, you know. A lot of laughs. We laughed a lot together. But I don't want to know if he's fucking just, you know, got the dick, you know.

Roger remembered Heinrich as a kind of nervous and shaky kid, indecisive.

He would think about something for a long time before doing it, meditate on it. Is this is the right thing to do? Is that the right thing to do? Should I ride my bike or should I walk? You know, these simple things. These simple things in life, he had trouble with.

Roger says Heinrich was so indecisive that he wasn't surprised when he heard that Heinrich had gone back to the burial site a year later and moved Jacob's remains.

He never could make decisions, you know. Had a hard time making decisions.

Growing up, Roger and Heinrich would just run around town a lot, mostly at night. As for what they did-

I really don't want to say it. Yeah, we were naughty little boys, you know. There's some good-looking girls out there, you know. And they were probably in their house, you know, and we were running out the backyard. But I got to see a few of them.

Basically they would go around at night looking in girls' windows. As Roger put it, peeping tom stuff.

They were 18-year olds, you know. We we're like, "Wow, I got to go." "Hey, she is over." Go a little bit over there, so we'd run over there and over here. He were curious, you know. He's always Curious George.

Roger remembers Heinrich is not the most popular guy by any stretch but not a recluse either. He said, as an adult, Heinrich was the kind of guy who you'd go out for beers with. Roger ran into Heinrich in Paynesville in the early '90s, a few years after Jacob had been kidnapped. Heinrich was working for a granite company at the time.

I saw him getting out of his pickup. So, I hollered at him, "Heiny." We called him Heiny. And we chatted for a while. He invited me inside. We had a beer.

The scene Roger described was oddly domestic, Roger said Heinrich's apartment was very clean, and that Heinrich even gave him a gift, something he had lying around from his job at the granite company.

I asked him if I could get a piece of granite for one of my table tops. The glass had broke, and he said, "Sure." He gave me one, and that's the last time I saw him. We never got together again after that.

Over time, Heinrich settled into a job as a laborer at a company called Buffalo Veneer And Plywood. He started working there about 11 years ago and was still working there at the time of his arrest last year.

I was his direct supervisor for quite a while, so I worked closely with him, you know.

Heinrich's boss, Derrick Bloom, said Heinrich didn't really stand out

Pretty much a standard paid employee. You know, he'd come to work, did his job, and it didn't really have a whole lot of problems with him.

Pretty average, except for one little thing.

You know, like I say, when he was here, he's pretty normal person, other than the fact that he did openly talk about being investigated.

Being investigated for the Jacob Wetterling case.

He openly talked about being investigated on that abduction the whole time he worked here. I ,mean it started probably the day, or, you know, shortly after the day he started, he openly talked about being investigated on it. So, I got …. You know, I don't know that it was real, real big shock to anybody that, you know, there may have been more to it.

Heinrich was not exactly a loner. He had other friends besides Roger. He had a drinking buddy. He had co-workers. He even liked to talk about the Wetterling case. But it's not clear whether law enforcement knew any of this because when we asked all these people – the people who said they knew Heinrich pretty well, his friends, his boss – whether they had ever been contacted by law enforcement, they all said the same thing, "No, not back in 1989 right after Jacob was kidnapped. Not in 1990 when authorities brought in Heinrich for questioning. And not even in the past year when Heinrich was sitting in jail on child porn charges." And authorities were hoping he would confess to the Jacob Wetterling kidnapping.

So, Danny Heinrich wasn't exactly hiding out. He talked to his neighbors, talked to his friends. invite people over. He lived with his brother. As best they can tell, he was kind of a chatty guy, awkward but chatty.

Still, there was one group of people that was expecting Heinrich, the guy who'd gotten away with the most notorious crime in Minnesota, would really not want to talk to. A group of people it would be downright reckless to talk to, law enforcement. But when we requested records from small town police departments and sheriff's offices in Central Minnesota, we found out that actually Heinrich called the cops for all kinds of things.

In 2008, he called about some drunk guys who were being annoying. In 2005, he called police twice, once for his car window getting smashed, another time to complain about some kids who were yelling and fighting outside near his house.

In 2003, he called police in the small town of Benson, where he was living at the time, to report a burglary at his house. When the officer showed up to investigate, Heinrich invited him in. And as the officer looked around, he didn't find much evidence of a burglary. As he put it in his report, "Mr. Heinrich had many items of value located on both levels of his home including televisions, VCR, DVD players, computers, collectibles, including Diecast model cars, knives, swords, and an extensive collection of DVDs and VHS tapes, all of which was easily accessible and not taken."

This man whose home the Wetterling investigators had wanted to get into for years had actually invited a police officer inside, himself, voluntarily to look around to see what was there. But as far as we can tell from the police report, the officer had no idea that Heinrich was one of the top suspects in the Wetterling case because the officer just treated it like any other call.

I want to tell you about another person Danny Heinrich's spent time with growing up, a man named Duane Hart. Heinrich was just a kid when he met Hart for the first time. Everyone I talked to described Duane Hart or Dewey, as he was known, as a kind of psychopath, someone who would talk about setting people on fire and tying people to trees without using any rope.

Roger, Danny Heinrich's childhood friend, said the kinds of things that Dewey Hart would talk about really freaked them out.

But I remember him telling Danny stories when he was 12 years old about things he did and did not, you know. I mean, it's so scary that you couldn't sleep at night. But when he came around, there was something that came with him. There was a darkness that came with him and you could feel that. Yeah, you could feel the darkness.

Hart would buy alcohol for some of the boys in town, including Danny Heinrich. And he always seemed to have a group of boys around him, a lot of them drunk or high. I talked to another person who knew Hart as a kid, a guy named Brad Froelich. And Brad told me that Hart sexually abused him and lots of other kids. For Brad, it started when he was about nine.

When it first started, you know, he'd offer us money, a $50 bill. You know, a $50 bill, I've never seen one of them probably in my life. But he started with the money, and then it was the booze, and then it was pot, you know, getting us high, you know, drinking when we're nine years old. And then, you know, you're a little kid, so you think, "Wow, I'm getting high. I'm getting drunk. I mean, this is what we're meant to do." He had us all twisted and confused, you know. We didn't know what was right and what was wrong.

In 1990, Brad came forward and reported hard to police. Hart pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting four boys. He's now being held at a secure sex offender treatment facility. He's there because he was committed as a sexual psychopath. He didn't respond to my request for an interview, but I did talk to someone a few months ago who'd spent a fair amount of time talking to Dewey Hart.

My name is Larry Peart. I'm a licensed private investigator in the State of Minnesota. License number is 549.

Larry Peart served in Vietnam. He says he was exposed to Agent Orange while he was serving there.

And that's why my voice sounds this way.

Back in 1990, Larry was hired by a defense attorney to go talk to one of his clients, a guy named Dewey Hart, who had been charged with sexually assaulting Brad and several other boys. The attorney was concerned because he knew Hart was on a short list of suspects in the Jacob Wetterling case. So, he wanted Larry to go talk to Hart to get a sense of how concerned he should be. Larry told me he talked to Hart for 60 hours or so, and he came away convinced that Hart wasn't the one who took Jacob.

Mr. Hart was not that type of pedophile. He was for the want of a six pack of beer or a couple of joints of marijuana. He had all the sex he could handle, okay.

And, in fact, Larry told me that Hart had even tried to come up with some names of people he knew who he thought could have been capable of kidnapping Jacob.

He was providing me with a lot of information on his known pedophile acquaintances, so to speak, up there.

Larry took notes and all the people Hart mentioned. I have a copy of his notes, and they run for 25 pages.

He was trying to give names of everybody that possibly could be involved. And Dan Heinrich was the most notable one that he provided.

He was even known as the most notable one back then?

Yeah.

So notable that Larry even drew a circle around Heinrich's name, and put an asterisks by it. Larry can't remember exactly why he thought Heinrich was such a good suspect, but his best guess now is that it probably had to do with certain things Hart was telling him about Heinrich, things that matched pretty exactly what law enforcement had told the public about the person who kidnapped Jacob and Jared. This is how Hart described Heinrich.

This guy has a raspy voice when he's excited or angry. And he wore military fatigues. He has all the scanners in the car and drove that kind of car.

Larry said, Hart also told him he would party with Heinrich and other boys, and that he even had sex with Heinrich at some point.

And here's the really interesting thing about Dewey Hart, he had a spot he liked to go to, a place where Brad Froelick has said Hart would take him and other boys to get them drunk and sexually abuse them; a spot where you think the investigators on the Wetterling case would have searched, especially because both Hart and Heinrich were top suspects in the Wetterling case; a little place out by a field near a gravel pit just outside of downtown Paynesville right off the main road into town; a place where Roger Fyle, Heinrich's childhood friend, said Hart and Heinrich's older brother Dave would go to party. Roger said Danny Heinrich could have been brought there by his older brother.

Oh yeah. It was a hangout place for some of the older kids. Dewey spent a lot of time down there and some of their friends. Yeah, you go down there and smoke weed, you know, a drink beer, foxfire, party.

They had a name for this place.

They used to call it The Big Valley.

The Big Valley.

One day in late August of this year, investigators went and got Danny Heinrich out of jail. They put him in handcuffs and loaded him into a car, and Heinrich brought them to the area near where he'd taken Jacob Wetterling, on the night of October 22nd 1989, sexually assaulted him, killed him, and buried his body.

The way the Sheriff of Stearns County, John Sanner, later talked about this area where Heinrich brought them was as if it was miles away from anything.

This specific area, I'm not sure if it was ever searched. It was on private property. It was very remote.

Someplace so remote that it would have been impossible to find if Heinrich hadn't shown them the way; a place that had no connection to anything. But no one in law enforcement would say exactly where the spot was. All he knew was the general description that Heinrich gave when he confessed to the crime in court. So, I asked a reporter I worked with, Curtis Gilbert, to try to find it. Curtis pieced it together by looking at old property records, plot maps, and by talking to people in the area. He showed it to me on a map.

Okay. So, I can show you. So, Okay, if we look here. So, this is 1991 aerial photography. This is 23. This is 33 coming up north.

Okay.

This is the grove of trees that used to be a state gravel pit right there.

Last week, I drove out to the site with Natalie Jablonski, a producer on this podcast. We pulled over to the side of the road, next to a field lined with trees.

It's like this is just off the main road that leads into the town where Heinrich lives. It's like right there.

The site where Danny Heinrich killed Jacob Wetterling was just outside of downtown Paynesville, right off the main road into town, out in a field, near a gravel pit, not a random location, not a remote area. This was a spot Danny Heinrich knew well, a place he'd almost certainly been to before, a place that investigators might have searched on their own if they had talked to Heinrich's friends from back then, a place they should have paid attention to because this place had a name. It was called The Big Valley.

We tried to find out who owned The Big Valley back when Jacob was kidnapped. In 1989, the land was in the process of being sold because the elderly couple who owned it had died. We found the person who bought it, but we weren't able to reach him. So, Curtis found someone else, a guy named Bob Meyer, who bought some land right next to the Big Valley in 1997, eight years after Jacob was kidnapped.

Can you show me?

You know, just go here from the gravel.

And Bob told Curtis that he would sometimes go wandering around on to his neighbor's property, right in the area that we now know is where Heinrich killed Jacob; an area that Bob said, back then, was almost entirely covered by grass, trees, and brush. But Bob said there was one small section that stood out, a little patch of dirt that always struck him as strange.

There was a hole in an area that just looked out of place and just had my curiosity up for many years that I looked at it from a distance and until one time I looked at it closer, but nothing really registered other than it was out of place with everything else because it was a rocky bowl, and everything else was overthrown by grass, or trees, or brush. But this place just stood out as a rocky bowl.

How big was it? What did it look like?

Probably four foot in diameter or something, and little oblong-shaped with nothing but good sized stones in there with one big rock just off the center.

Bob told Curtis he wishes someone would have come and asked him back then if he'd seen anything strange because, now, he wonders whether this hole was where Jacob was buried. That would have been nice to let the people that owned the property in the area that kind of keep an eye out on. And if they see anything that stands out, maybe this thing could have gotten brought out a lot sooner or a lot better.

As far as we know, investigators still haven't dug up the Big Valley, the site where Heinrich says he sexually assaulted and murdered Jacob Wetterling, the main crime scene. Instead they focused on another site, the place across the street where Heinrich said he took Jacob's remains about a year later and buried them in a hole about a foot or two deep.

A few weeks ago authorities showed up with shovels to excavate the site. Today, it's a cow pasture owned by a farmer named Doug Voss.

Throughout the day, then, we made sure that the cattle weren't interfering with their work, and keeping them occupied, and seeing to it they could do what they needed to do.

The investigators plan was to use a metal detector to try to get a reading on the metal buttons from Jacob's red jacket that he'd worn that night. Jacob's red jacket was the most recognizable detail that people had been told to look for. Everyone in this part of Minnesota knew what the jacket looked like because after the kidnapping, the sheriff had a replica made of the jacket, and a lieutenant held it up to the cameras, and told everyone to be on the lookout for it.

He was last seen wearing a jacket identical to this one.

So, this red jacket would be the most obvious sign of Jacob. It was what everyone had been looking for for nearly 27 years. And out in the pasture that day, as they got closer, an investigator noticed something poking out of the dirt, a piece of red fabric. It was the jacket right there sticking out of the mud in Doug Voss' cow pasture, right across from the Big Valley, just out there for anyone to see.

Danny Heinrich was not the perfect criminal, and he didn't commit the perfect crime. He just got lucky, lucky that he committed his crime iin a place with the sheriff's office with a bad track record when it comes to solving crime, lucky that the investigators assigned to handle the case didn't canvass the neighborhood that night, didn't talk to all the people who knew him, didn't stay focused on the most likely suspects, and didn't listen to what the kids were telling them.

And, in fact, this whole notion of the perfect crime, all these TV shows, books, and movies about impossible cases, cold cases, unsolved mysteries, people who vanished without a trace, all that is turned our attention away from the actions of law enforcement, away from asking tough questions of the people who are supposed to be solving these crimes.

The perfect crime is just an excuse for the failures of law enforcement, and we buy it. But really there are no perfect crimes. There are only failed investigations. And the truth is there will always be people like Danny Heinrich. The question is, what kind of law enforcement will we have to catch them?

In the Dark is produced by Samara Freemark. The associate producer is Natalie Jablonski. In the Dark is edited by Catherine Winter, with help from Hans Buetow. Significant additional reporting for this episode by Curtis Gilbert, Tom Scheck, Jennifer Vogel, Emily Haavik, and Jackie Renzetti. The editor in chief of APM Reports is Chris Worthington. Web editors are Dave Peters and Andy Kruse. The videographer is Jeff Thompson. Our theme music is composed by Gary Meister. This episode was mixed by Corey Schreppel. Thanks also to Will Craft, Stephen Smith, Johnny Vince Evans, Cameron Wiley, Steve Griffith, Eric Skramstad, Sasha Aslanian, Brita Green, and Molly Bloom.

Go to InTheDarkPodcast.org to learn more about Danny Heinrich, about what his life was really like, the jobs he held, the police reports, the places he lived, and to sign up for our e-mail list, so we can let you know when we decide on our next project.

In the Dark is made possible in part, thanks to our listeners. You can support more independent journalism like this at InTheDarkPodcast.org/donate.

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Popular Transcripts Full Transcript: In the Dark S1 E7 – This Quiet Place

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In the Dark: S1 E7 This Quiet Place

Previously on In the Dark.

It's a case that defied logic then and now.

On the outskirts of his hometown of St. Joseph, a young boy's mysterious disappearance.

What they called the abduction of a child. Well, my initial thought was you don't think that happens here.

People of all ages and walks of life came out to keep the hope alive, hope that 11-year-old Jacob will return home safely.

I don't know. I know we reached the point after the investigation there, we had really nothing. At that point, we let Heinrich go.

They had all of that. None of it was new. None of it is new. Stearns County, the FBI, they've all had all of this. None of this was new.

Just like, "What? We lived here the whole time. He's just down the damn road all those years," you know. And it's like, "What?"

The people that worked on that case gave truly 110% every day they were there. And I don't know. I don't know that there's anything we could have done differently.

In December 1978, in a farmhouse in a remote part of Stearns County, the same county where Jacob Wetterling was later kidnapped, a woman named Alice Huling was getting ready for the holidays. Alice was divorced, and she lived with her four kids: Susie, Patti, Wayne, and Billy. Susie was the oldest. She was 16, and she worked part time as a waitress at the cozy cafe in a nearby town.

On the night of December 14th 1978, Alice and her four kids went to bed. Alice's bedroom was on the first floor. The kids slept upstairs. Sometime late at night, a man entered the Huling house. He cut the phone line, and then he went into Alice's bedroom, and attacked her. He hit her with some kind of heavy object, maybe a metal club, and shot her.

And then, the man headed upstairs. He shot and killed three of Alice's four children in their beds. And then, the man approached 11-year-old Billy who was hiding under his covers, trying to stay as still as possible. The man fired two shots in Billy's direction. Both hit the pillow, just inches from Billy's head. Billy kept still, hoping the man would think he was dead. Then, the man left.

The murders shocked the rural Stearns County community where the Hulings lived, and left State Crime Bureau investigators and sheriffs puzzled searching for some fragment of reason behind the slayings. No arrest had been made, and officials would say nothing about suspects.

The case was still unsolved 11 years later when Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped in the same county.

This is In the Dark, an investigative podcast from APM Reports. I'm Madeleine Baran. In this podcast, we're looking at what went wrong in the case of Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old boy who was kidnapped in a small town in Central Minnesota in 1989.

After Jacob was kidnapped, everyone, the media, law enforcement, neighbors, talked about how surprising it was that a crime like that could happen here in this quiet rural place.

The kind of place where you don't expect a child to be kidnapped at gunpoint.

Considered to be America's quiet and safe heartland has-

One night, one awful event has robbed this town of its innocence.

The implication was that the agency in charge of investigating Jacob's disappearance, the Stearns County Sheriff's Office, had never worked a case like this before, a case so mysterious and terrifying. But that wasn't true. Jacob's kidnapping wasn't the first big case the Stearns County Sheriff's Office had dealt with. And it wasn't the first big case they'd failed to solve. The Jacob Wetterling case was just one in a long line of failed investigations.

After the killer left the Huling house, the boy who survived, 11-year-old Billy Huling, ran through the snow to a neighbor's house. He told them his family had been shot. Jim Kostreba was the first officer called to the scene.

I can still remember driving up to the house how cold it was and how bright the moon was shining. It was a beautiful evening, a beautiful night. And I think what I remember most about stepping inside the door was the smell of the gunshot powder. Then, I knew that something terrible have happened at that house.

Kostreba peered into the bedrooms.

And I can remember seeing those three children dead in their beds along with their mother. The four homicides at the house was a little unnerving to say the least.

Kostreba would go on to work on the Jacob Wetterling case. He even became the sheriff of Stearns County two years after Jacob was kidnapped, and held that job until Sheriff John Sanner took over in 2003. But back then, Kostreba was just a patrol deputy, not an investigator. So, he secured the scene until the investigators could get there.

Meanwhile, a young EMT named Steve Mund arrived at the Huling house. Mund later got a job as a deputy in the sheriff's office, and he worked on the Wetterling case too. But that morning, Mund was there to take the bodies to the coroner.

Obviously, this is a huge deal in the same quiet area in 1978. I mean, homicides are normally one person. You don't have an entire family killed or nearly entire family killed except for Billy.

Mund watched as the investigators arrive to collect evidence. They took photos of the inside of the house. In some of the pictures, you can see the kids' toy cars scattered around. I'd read a statement Mund gave later about seeing investigators at the scene do a few things that seemed pretty questionable. That statement later ended up in court.

And in it, Mund said that he saw a state investigator pick up a phone in the Huling house before he dusted it for fingerprints, and that a captain from the Stearns County Sheriff's Office realized the mistake and, "Said something like, 'Oh well.'" Mund wrote that at that point, he turned to his co-worker, and said, "Maybe we should wait outside until the sheriff's office is done."

While they waited, Mund said he saw the sheriff come out of the house holding what looked like the flashlight he'd seen on the Huling's kitchen table. The sheriff used it to search the woods for any sign of footprints. But that flashlight, it might not have belonged to the Huling's. It might have been the killer's. When I reached Steve Mund, he didn't want to talk about any of that.

From 1978 to now, police training and education, and crime scene processing techniques have improved a thousandfold. So, there's no doubt in my mind that people there did the best they thought they were doing at the time. And looking back, maybe they could have done better. But I think, at that time, they've done the best that they think they're doing, so.

The murder of the Huling family terrified people in Stearns County. Newspapers reported on how parents were arming the children with shotguns, and men were taking time off work to stay home with their wives and children. People sat facing their front doors with guns ready. One man told a reporter, "All I can say is I would hate to run out of gas at 2:00 in the morning and have to knock on any of my neighbor's doors."

I was talking to a woman in Stearns County named Jen Kulzer about the panic in the community back then.

When we moved out here in '72, he would never lock that door, never ever. We never locked the door. But all at once, we're locking doors because we live back here on the end of the road. Somebody could come in here, and nobody would ever know it. Actually, he started having a gun in the house, a pistol.

Wow. Because you're thinking like, "If this happens, I want to be…"

They're not getting in.

Jen told me a policeman actually gave her some advice on what to do.

If you have to shoot somebody outside, drag him in because he had to be in your house.

Okay, to be legal?

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Okay.

And it would be a good idea to shoot a warning shot in the wall, so they could check.

The sheriff of Stearns County at the time seemed just as baffled as everyone else when he spoke to a TV reporter shortly after the murders.

Biggest question in my mind is how could this type of crime happen in this somewhat remote area of our county. And this one has to take a close look at determining a motive for this type of crime because it certainly is unusual.

Four days after the Huling murders, in the next county over, Wright County, a man named Joseph Ture stopped by a truck stop for something to eat.

I'm in there having breakfast, and I'm trying to get a couple of dates with a couple of the waitresses and all that. And, you know, that's how I get most my dates is with waitress because I eat out a lot. Everywhere I eat, just eat out, you know.

I talked with Ture on the phone, and he told me he used to go to that restaurant all the time. It was a popular place. Alice Huling used to go there sometimes for coffee. Ture was a regular. He'd been living in his car. And in the weeks leading up to the Huling murders, some of the waitresses had started complaining to their boss that Ture had been harassing them, and that, sometimes, he even followed them in his car when they drove home after their shifts late at night.

So, I guess, they called the cops and said that this guy was harassing them or something.

So, a deputy from the Wright County Sheriff's Office stopped by.

So, he comes in there, and he … I guess, he went around the parking lot, and my car was sitting right out there. And then, he comes in, and he says, "I got to talk to you outside for a minute."

The deputy thought the car Ture was driving might be stolen. So, he arrested him. It would later turn out that the car wasn't actually stolen. But what caught the officer's attention was what was inside the car, a small brown diary with a list of the names of waitresses, their addresses, and their license plate numbers, a metal club, and a little toy car, a Batmobile car, to be exact.

Immediately, the chief deputy of the Wright County Sheriff's Office connected it to the murder of the Huling family that had happened just four days earlier, and he contacted the Stearns County Sheriff's Office. He told them he had a possible suspect they should interview, a man named Joseph Ture.

Now, let the records show that we're at the Wright County Sheriff's Office. The time is 2:40. And Officer Kostreba and I are talking to Joseph Donald Ture. Date of birth is 2/7/51.

I got this recording from the archives at the Stearns County Courthouse. In the interview, two officers from the Stearns County Sheriff's Office are interrogating Joseph Ture. One of the officers is a detective named Ross Baker. He died a year later. The other is Jim Kostreba, the first officer called to the scene of the Huling murders.

In that 1978 interrogation, the officers sat down with Joseph Ture. And out of nowhere, Ture starts saying he didn't rape anyone. "Look," he says "just because I have this diary with a list of waitresses doesn't mean I took these women out and killed them." The officers put some items from Ture's car on the table in front of him, the toy Batmobile, the metal club. Detective Baker asked Ture about the metal club.

Did you make that?

No, I found that.

And where did you find it, and we're talking about that.

Well, what difference did we get from-

Well, just … I don't know.

That evening, well, they had another kind, a gun or a shotgun.

I don't know. No, I don't know. I don't think it's illegal to have it, but it might make a policeman a little unhappy if you step out of the car and have this thing in your hand.

And they asked Ture about the toy Batmobile.

And there was a little toy there, a little thing with Batman. Was that in the car when you got it too?

That's mine. I have grandkids.

Ture was just 27 years old. So, what he's saying here that the toy Batmobile was for his grandkids didn't make a whole lot of sense.

Oh, you have grandkids?

My daughter does. I'm uncle or …

Well, if your daughter had children, well, then, you'd be grandfather.

Yeah.

How old are you?

No. I mean, my sister.

Oh your …

Uncle, yeah, uncle.

Ture changes his story, and says, "Okay. So, no, no, I'm not a grandfather. I'm an uncle or whatever."

Well, what does a difference that a couple toys make?

Well, it might make a lot of difference.

The officers tried to ask Ture more detailed questions about the toy Batmobile. But Ture, he wasn't having it.

You'd sink in a ship.

Well, bury me once you dig a hole and throw me into some ditch.

Oh, that's because this is the first time I've ever even talked to you, you know, and everything was proceeding real nicely. And we mentioned this toy, and you get a take about the toy. If the toy was in the car, it belonged to your sister's child, there's nothing to get upset about really there.

The officers left. Ture stayed in jail. And over the next few days, the officers did some investigating. They had the seats and door panels torn out of Ture's car looking for a gun, but they didn't find one. They went to the place where Ture had worked as a mechanic and looked at his time card. It didn't give Ture an alibi for the night of the Huling murders.

They went back and questioned Ture again and brought up the Huling murders directly. Ture responded by asking them all kinds of questions about what kind of evidence they had, whether they'd found the gun, and whether anyone had identified him as the murderer, but there was one thing the officers didn't do.

They didn't take a closer look at that toy Batmobile that they'd found in Ture's car. They didn't bring it to Billy Huling, the boy who survived. They didn't ask Billy if he owned a toy Batmobile like this one, and then check the house to see if it was missing. The officers didn't do any of that. A week or so later, without any evidence to hold him, a judge let Joseph Ture go.

Once Ture got out, he went on a murdering and raping spree that's so complicated, I had to create a timeline just to keep track of it. He kidnapped a waitress from the side of a road in West St. Paul, drove her to a secluded area, sexually assaulted her, and killed her. He broke into a house and killed a teenage girl who was home alone.

He started driving around Minneapolis late at night looking for women outside. He grabbed, at least, two women off the street and raped them. And he kidnapped and raped a 13-year-old girl. He also tried to kidnap, at least, two other women, but they got away. One of them escaped by smashing a lit cigarette in his face.

Ture's crime spree didn't come to an end until 1980. And it wasn't the Stearns County Sheriff's Office that put an end to it, it was the Minneapolis Police. They arrested Terry for several rapes. And while Ture was in custody, he was charged with murdering the waitress from West St. Paul.

And then, everything broke loose, you know. All the shit hits the fan, you know.

You have one minute remaining.

Damn.

Ture received a life sentence for killing the waitress, and he's been in prison ever since. The Huling case remained unsolved until about two decades after the murders, an agency from outside Stearns County got involved, a cold case unit from the State of Minnesota. The State Cold Case Unit took a look at the case. They went to find Billy Huling, the boy who survived the murders. He was, by that point, grown up with a family of his own.

One of the people involved with the case told Billy there was some evidence they wanted him to look at, some evidence that might help solve the case. And Billy replied, out of nowhere, "Did you guys find my Batmobile?"

From there, the State Cold Case Unit investigators quickly built a case based not on high-tech DNA testing or advancements in police technology, but on the exact same evidence that the Stearns County Sheriff's Office had known about since 1978, the metal bar and the toy Batmobile. 21 years after Ture had killed four members of the Huling family; and after he'd gone on to kill, at least, two more people; and sexually assaulted, at least, three more. A jury finally convicted him of the Huling murders.

We still don't know exactly how many people Joseph Ture raped or killed. He's suspected of killing another girl in Stearns County in 1979, but he hasn't been charged with that crime.

I talked to a woman who told me she was attacked by Ture five years before the Huling murders. Lavonne Engesether was working as a waitress in Hudson, Wisconsin back then. And one night, she served a customer who just didn't seem right, a kind of greasy looking guy. And at the end of her shift, she left and started walking home.

He jumped out of some lilac bushes, and had a 12-pack in his hand, and he just swung it up, and hit me across the side of my head, and knocked me out into the street.

Oh my gosh.

And then, the next thing I knew, he was on top of me. I knew it was the customer guy. And he's on top of me and all. I don't know what he was doing, but I just realized that no cars were coming down Main Street, and nobody was going to save me, and I had to wrestle away.

Yeah.

And I just somehow threw him off of me, and I threw him off, and I ran.

Lavonne told me she reported it right away to the local cops in Wisconsin, but she said they didn't take it seriously. Lavonne got married and moved away. And she didn't think much about the attack until two decades later when she was watching a TV show about an unsolved murder. And all of a sudden, the face of the guy who tried to attack her was on the screen. And she learned his name, Joseph Ture.

The only sad part is that we couldn't have found this out sooner, and made sure, you know, other girls didn't have that happen to them. And, I guess, I would really stress to police, you know, pay attention, and just … And go after these guys.

I talked to Lavonne about the Huling case too.

What gets me, I guess, about it is that they didn't go and ask Billy-

If he had a Batmobile toy, I know. I think about that too that they could have caught him. And it just took too long.

I called Jim Kostreba, the officer who questioned Ture in 1978, and I asked him about this.

Why didn't you go to check with Billy Huling to see if he had a toy Batmobile?

That's a question that comes up in my mind many, many times. It's something that I think about quite a bit because it's something that should have been done, and it wasn't. And in retrospect, it should have been.

Over the past year, I've talked to a lot of law enforcement officers. Kostreba was the only one who acknowledged he'd made some mistakes.

I don't think it's unusual to look back and see what could have been done differently, or what was missed, or not done properly. And certainly, in this case, because of what he did over the years, certainly, makes it much more difficult, yes. I think experience is very, very important. And you learn from every case you do. And if you aren't willing to do that, then you shouldn't be an investigator.

But Kostreba said, as far as he knows, there were no changes made at the sheriff's office to prevent this kind of mistake from happening again. In fact, as best I can tell, there was never any formal training or review at the sheriff's office about how to learn from the Huling case.

This kind of looking back is something we're used to in other professions, even if it's not always perfect. Hospitals conduct postmortems when patients die unexpectedly. Companies do a review when a new product fails. Farmers reassess after a bad year. And the reason for doing this is to try to find out what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again.

And it's not as though this was a one-time problem in Stearns County, having a case they couldn't seem to solve. One day, I went to the archive of the Stearns County History Museum to do some research on the Jacob Wetterling case. I was there to copy flyers from the early days of the search for Jacob, and to read old news clippings about the case.

But I got distracted, and I noticed a filing cabinet with a bottom drawer labeled "crime." I opened it and discovered file after file of unsolved murders from the 1970s and '80s, the years leading up to Jacob Wetterling's kidnapping, all of them in Stearns County.

There is a file about a bomb that had exploded in a small town post office in 1976. The blast had killed the assistant postmaster, and the case was never solved. There is a file about a murder of an elderly woman named Myrtle Cole in 1981, and how investigators had failed to take prints from her hands. So, they had to exhume the body. That case was never solved either.

There was one file in particular that caught my attention. It was labeled,"Murder, Reker, St. Cloud." It was about the disappearance of two girls, Mary and Susanne Reker in 1974, 15 years before Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped. I went to meet up with the mother of Mary and Susanne. Her name is Rita Reker.

It has happened so many years ago. In some ways, it's like yesterday. But most of the time, it's like 41 years has gone by, and it's still unsolved.

We sat on the couch at Rita's neat two-story house in St. Cloud, just a few miles from St. Joseph where the Wetterlings live. Rita has lived in this house for more than 40 years. It's where she raised six children. And one day, in September of 1974, two of Rita's daughters, Mary and Susanne, went out to buy school supplies. They never came back.

My husband and I went down to the police department, and we asked if there was … I forget what the term is, but a murderer squad or something. And the police department, like, they should have people there who would investigate murders and-

Well, shouldn't they?

And they just looked at me and said, "Lady, you watch too much TV." You know, that was … Yeah that's that. But yeah, I assume that if something serious happened to our kids that somebody would be there to investigate.

Right. So, what was the reaction instead?

That we were just imagining too much. We should go home and wait. And when they got hungry enough, they'd be back.

No one from law enforcement was looking for the girls. So, Rita and her family just started searching on their own.

Everywhere that we could think of, yeah. My husband took off work. And there were days we kept the kids home from school and just looked wherever we thought, you know. I mean, there's all kinds of … There's ditches, and water, and that sort of thing right in St. Cloud itself, you know. And how would we even know where to look? Yeah, yeah.

Rita and her family didn't find anything.

26 days after the girls went missing, two teenage boys were walking in a quarry on the outskirts of town, and they noticed something in the brush. It was the body of Susanne Reker lying face down, covered in leaves. Officers arrived, and they found Susanne's sister, Mary. Both girls had been stabbed to death.

Because the bodies of Mary and Susanne had been found outside the city limits, the case passed into the hands of the Stearns County Sheriff's Office.

And, I guess, we expected a big time investigation to start from there on. But our case could not have happened at a worse time in history for an investigation. If you read the details over, I'm sure you'd know a little bit. You don't know too much about that?

No. What was that?

Rita told me that her girls' bodies were found five weeks before the sheriff's election in November.

So, some of those deputies on the sheriff's force were running for the office of sheriff, which was not a time for them to do a big investigation. They were busy with the elections and all, you know, before they could really get serious about an investigation.

The Reker case got really tangled up in the politics of the sheriff's office. The lead investigator seemed to want to have the case, so that he could use the solving of it to get elected as sheriff. When that didn't happen, he refused to let the sheriff even look at the case file.

And when the sheriff finally managed to pry the case away from his lead investigator four years later, the investigator held on to some evidence, a pair of eyeglasses that had been found at the crime scene. He kept them in his desk drawer. No one found them until he died nine years after the Reker girls were killed.

One year, opponents of the sheriff tried to spread a rumor that the sheriff was looking to arrest someone, anyone, right before Election Day to gain political points. A man running against the sheriff leaked a strange story to the local media about a possible suspect, a goateed sketch artist who'd used a knife to sharpen pencils in a taxi in a suspicious manner. That lead didn't pan out, but it did damage the sheriff. He lost the election. The case was a mess.

Meanwhile, Rita Reker kept waiting to find out what had happened to her girls. 42 years later, she's still waiting.

It's such a mystery to me. It's just that there are questions unsolved. All those little details about your child are important. Those are the last things that took place in their life. And, I guess, it's because you want to identify with your child till the last minute of their life. And somehow, you wish you could have been there to save them. Even now.

So, there were a lot of questionable things going on in the Stearns County Sheriff's Office, but it was hard for anyone to do much about it. There just wasn't much accountability for the sheriff. And I think part of the reason why has to do with the Office of the Sheriff itself. We talked to a former Stearns County sheriff's detective named Lou Leland. He worked on a lot of the big cases back then. And Lou said the sheriff back then and now just has too much power.

And they can't fire him. You know, unlike the chief of police, he works at the pleasure of the city council. They can fire him any day they want, and they don't even need a good reason. But, you know, the sheriff is … Oh god.

The thing about sheriffs is, for the most part, no one's in charge of them. And there are around 3000 sheriffs in the United States, and almost every one of them is elected. Sheriffs only answer to the people once every few years, when they come up for re-election. That's different from how it works for a lot of other law enforcement agencies. Most police chiefs are appointed, usually by the local mayor or the city council. If the chief messes up, the mayor can fire them. Sheriffs are the exception, and that exception has given them tremendous power.

Just look at Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona. He's a sheriff who set up a tent city outside in a hundred-plus degree heat for inmates of his jail. He's reinstated chain gangs, and forced inmates to wear pink underwear. And although Sheriff Arpaio has been sued, and subjected to court orders, and criticized by human rights groups, he's still in office because he keeps winning elections. As he put it in an interview I found on YouTube-

I can get elected on pink underwear.

And sheriffs are especially powerful outside of big cities. If you live in a rural county, it's usually the sheriff who's responsible for solving major crimes, not the police department. So, I wondered, had anyone ever, at any point, tried to do something about this, like tried to put a check on the sheriff's power in Stearns County to try to change the way sheriffs work?

And then we came across an old bill that had been introduced in the Minnesota Legislature in 1979, five years after the Reker girls were killed, and one year after the Huling family was murdered. It was written by a state lawmaker for the Stearns County area, a guy named Al Patton, that proposed getting rid of elections for Sheriff. Al Patton's been retired for a while. Our producer, Samara, called him up to see if he'd be willing to talk a bit about his bill.

What's on your mind, kid?

I was calling you because we came across a bill that you put forward about sheriff election.

Framing, it takes a while. Geez, after almost 40 years, we're going to stir up this cat again. Okay. Let's see what we can stir up. Where do you want to meet?

Samara and I drove out to meet Al at a coffee shop near his house.

How are you doing?

I'm doing fantastic. If you keep up with me, we're doing business.

Right.

Al told us that in the 1970s, he started hearing about problems in the Stearns County Sheriff's Office, problems with evidence handling, infighting among deputies, a lack of training, failed investigations.

Crimes are being committed that were unsolvable for the education and background of the individuals holding the position of sheriff.

And the way Al Patton saw it, the public wasn't doing a very good job of scrutinizing the sheriff before deciding whether or not to vote for him. There's just not that much information that comes out in the media during a campaign for sheriff.

The newspaper interviews, everybody, four or five candidates on the same page. Well, that page gets flipped over. No one's going to read that. And so, they'd read a couple of campaign ads, and that's how you elect your sheriff.

So, Al Patton came up with a possible solution.

It got to a point that I'm going to introduce a bill. We're going to try and flush these people out. You know, there's a bill to abolish the sheriff's department.

That is like a bold move.

Yeah.

The bill wouldn't have actually abolished sheriff's offices, but it would have gotten rid of elections for sheriffs, and turned the job into an appointed position. Sheriffs would be appointed by a county board. That would be a huge change. So, it's not a surprise what happened to Al Patton's bill in the Minnesota legislature.

Actually, the legislation that I introduced was not with mixed feelings, I'll tell you. It was very straightforward. It was resisted.

Al told me that lobbyists from the State Sheriffs Association came to pay him a visit pretty quickly.

I was met with severe backlash from the Sheriffs Association.

I tried to find someone from the Sheriffs Association who remembered this, and they said no one's around anymore from back then. But I did talk to the general counsel for the Sheriffs Association, and he told me they've always opposed any effort to get rid of elections for sheriff. He said switching to a system of appointed sheriffs wouldn't make the process any less political. And he said elections are good because that way, it's the public who gets to decide, and they can hold the sheriff accountable directly.

Al Patton told me the lobbyist back then made a similar argument. They turned it into a question about democracy and the will of the people.

"You don't want to take the power to vote away from the people do you, Al?"

Did they tell you, like, withdraw this bill or?

No, they're very … You need to understand lobbying. There's no threats available. They're just very nice, polite suggestions.

So, what did they suggest then?

Oh, yes, definitely, they'll look into it, and deal with it. "We'll do that for you. We'll do that right away." Yup, they dealt with it, all right. Next question.

They squished it, he said. The bill never even came up for a vote. Patton's effort had failed.

What has changed in those 40 years? Nothing has changed. So, the problems that were back 40 years ago and beyond are still with us today. But there has to be an element in there to have accountability. And when accountability is not there, disastrous things happen.

And this whole long history of the failed investigations, the murder of the Huling family, how they let a serial killer go, the murder of the Reker girls, the politicization of police work, the failed efforts to fix things, all of that had been more or less forgotten by the time Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped in 1989. When Jacob was kidnapped, it was like none of that had ever happened.

I've read and watched all the old news coverage I could find, hundreds of articles, and many hours of TV reporting. And as best I could tell, no one was writing stories about how the sheriff's office had a bad track record when it came to solving big crimes.

There are no editorials in the papers saying, "We should be concerned that the sheriff's office is the one in charge of this case. Just look at all these other cases, all those mysterious, violent, high-profile, unsolved crimes." No one mentioned any of that. Instead, they said what people always say about a place like Stearns County, "What a quiet, peaceful place. These small town cops had no idea what hit them. How could this happen here?"

Next time on In the Dark.

Headed for Cold Spring, 200 Main Street, behind Winners Bar, I'll get there in a minute. It looks like shots are fired, officer down.

Stearns County Sheriff's Office has quite a reputation for horrendous investigations, false accusations, leaving families in the dark.

How does Stearns County compare to the rest of Minnesota and the rest of the country?

And what's going on down there? Why can't anybody solve crime? I mean, why is everything such a secret?

You know, what you don't see on this are all the crimes we do solve. And I'm not trying to make excuses. I consider this unacceptable too.

In the Dark is produced by Samara Freemark. The associate producer is Natalie Jablonski. In the Dark is edited by Catherine Winter, with help from Hans Buetow. The editor in chief of APM Reports is Chris Worthington. Web editors are Dave Peters and Andy Kruse. The videographer is Jeff Thompson. Our theme music is composed by Gary Meister. This episode was mixed by Johnny Vince Evans.

Go to InTheDarkPodcast.org for a closer look at convicted killer, Joseph Ture, and to listen to audio from that interrogation in 1978, and to watch a video of Rita Reker talking about how she tried to get help with the search for her daughters.

In the Dark is made possible in part, thanks to our listeners. You could support more independent journalism like this at InTheDarkPodcast.org/donate.

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In the Dark: S1 E8 What's Going on Down There

Before we get started, I just wanted to let you know that we'd planned to have this be our last episode, but we're adding one more, and that's next week.

Previously on In the Dark.

This question in my mind is, you know, how could this type of crime happen in this somewhat remote area of our county?

The kind of place where you don't expect a child to be kidnapped at gunpoint.

The only sad part is that we couldn't have found this out sooner. And, I guess, I would really stress to police, you know, pay attention and just go after these guys.

I assume that if something serious happened to our kids, that somebody would be there to investigate.

I've been in doing major cases. I think, experience is very, very important. And you learn from every case you do. And if you aren't willing to do that, then you shouldn't be an investigator.

Over the past year, as I talked to law enforcement officers about the Jacob Wetterling case, there was one thing I heard all the time, "Things were different back then," they'd say, "Nowadays, we have all this new technology, new training. If a big crime happened in Stearns County these days, it would probably be solved right away."

But I had a reason to be skeptical about that claim that times had changed. And that reason had to do with the crime I'd been assigned to cover in Stearns County a few years before I started reporting on the Wetterling case, a type of crime that is almost always solved, the murder of a police officer.

I covered shootings of officers in Minnesota before, so I knew that most of the time, if someone kills a police officer, one of two things is going to happen pretty quickly. Either that person is going to be arrested, or they're going to be killed. But that's not what happened in this case.

This is In the Dark, an investigative podcast from APM Reports. I'm Madeleine Baran. In this podcast, we're trying to find out what went wrong in the case of Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old boy who was kidnapped in a small town in Central Minnesota in 1989.

And today, we're going to look into whether the problems in Stearns County stopped with Jacob. We're going to do something that seems like it would be pretty straightforward. We're going to look at the agency responsible for investigating Jacob's kidnapping, the Stearns County Sheriff's Office. And we're going to try to answer one simple question, how good are they really at solving major crimes?

The first person in our newsroom assigned to cover the police shooting was a reporter I worked with named Conrad Wilson.

Here's what happened. So, I got a call really early from the morning news editor, and she said, "Can you go to Cold Spring? There's been a cop shooting." I get there, and it was a strange scene to cover.

And then, it's just like … It seemed like it just kept getting weirder.

Right.

Here's what we know from law enforcement accounts. On the night of November 29th 2012, law enforcement in Stearns County got a call from a woman asking them to go check on her son. He lived in an apartment above a bar called Winners in the town of Cold Spring.

Around 10:35 at night, an officer named Greg Reiter drove over. And when he got there, he called another officer for backup, a 31-year-old policeman named Tom Decker. When he arrived, Officer Decker got out of his squad car; while Officer Reiter stayed in his. And then, with no warning, and from out of nowhere, someone shot Officer Decker in the head and killed him.

After the murder, the Stearns County Sheriff's Office didn't say a whole lot about what happened next. But Conrad and I found some of the details in a leaked document from inside the sheriff's office.

So, I remember getting that document. I got it from a source. And I remember reading it, and it was stunning. I mean, it was this account of what just seemed like police ineptitude.

Once Officer Decker was shot, the other officer, Greg Reiter, didn't get out of his car and try to chase down the shooter. He didn't run out and try to see if Officer Decker was okay. Instead, Officer Reiter stayed in his squad car. And then, he put his car in reverse, and watched as the suspect walked away.

I mean, it's like-

It's crazy.

It makes no sense. And I even talked to like some … I talked to like a retired police chief in this tiny town in Minnesota. He had like four officers. I mean, it was a small town. And he was just … He couldn't believe it, you know. I remember when we're talking, he's like, "That's not what you do." Like, "You go towards the suspect. You pursue." And-

Yeah. I mean, we were like asking people these ridiculous questions like, "Is this normal when a police officer's shot?" And they're like, "No. No, it's not normal. How stupid are you, reporter?"

The first person to find Officer Decker was a woman at the bar who went outside and spotted him on the ground. Then, she ran back inside, and someone from the bar called 911.

Shots fired. Officer down. Headed for Cold Spring, 200 meters-

Deputies from the Stearns County Sheriff's Office raced to the scene. And right away, people told police they'd seen a black van with a loud muffler leaving the parking lot right around the time of the murder. While all this was happening, the man who lived above the bar, the man who Decker and Reiter had arrived to check on was fast asleep.

I was awoke to people screaming, "Police."

His name is Ryan Larson.

I've seen the flashlights bouncing around on the crack of my doors, my bedroom door. The door flew open, a bunch guys came in with assault rifles and flashlights. And they handcuffed me, opened up the backdoor, and led me outside. I mean, there are hundreds of squad cars, two or three helicopters. I said, "What is going on? This is crazy."

A few months ago, I started talking to someone who worked in the Stearns County Sheriff's Office back then. He asked that we not use his name and that we distort his voice because he's worried the Sheriff's Office might retaliate against him.

You know, I still live in Stearns County, so I don't need them following me around looking for anything and everything to harass me and retaliate against me.

This person told me that the night Officer Decker was killed, the lead investigators were convinced they had the right guy, that Ryan Larson was the one who did it, but that other officers who'd responded to the call weren't so sure.

There were other people on scene that were saying, "Hey, I think we should … You know, why don't we get the dog, and track, and do this, that, the next thing?" That's investigation 101. We're going to follow up on leads, and check all avenues, make sure everything checks out. And they said, "Absolutely no. We have the right person. Why would we go any further? Why would we do any more?"

The officers brought Ryan Larson down to the Stearns County Sheriff's Office, and put him in an interview room. Ryan said two investigators came to interrogate him, Stearns County Sheriff's Captain Pam Jensen and State Investigator Kenneth McDonald, the same team that had interrogated Dan Rassier about the Jacob Wetterling case a few years earlier.

Captain Jensen has came in and asked me, you know, why I did it. I'm like, "Why did I do what?" You know, I had no clue what they're talking about. "Why did you shoot the officer?" I'm like, "What? Excuse me." "Just admit it. Tell us why you did it. It's okay. You know, sometimes, some people snap." "No, I didn't do it."

Ryan Larson stayed in jail while investigators tried to build a case against him. I ended up finding out about this part of the investigation from that document that was leaked to us back then. The document was a two-page written statement from the Stearns County sheriff's Office signed by two officers. And it was created to get permission to hold Ryan in jail for a little while longer.

The document includes Officer Greg Reiter's accounts of what he saw that night. It's not clear from the document whether Reiter actually saw Officer Decker get shot. What it says is that Reiter heard two loud bangs, and then saw a man standing near Officer Decker's squad car holding a weapon, and that it was a handgun.

And that detail about the weapon was a big deal because when officers stormed into Ryan's apartment above the bar, right away, they saw a handgun next to him. But it turned out that wasn't the gun that was used to kill Officer Decker because Officer Decker wasn't killed with a handgun. He was killed with a 20-gauge shotgun.

And after five days, investigators still couldn't find any other evidence against Ryan that would have allowed them to charge him.

All of a sudden, on Tuesday, one of the jailers asked me what size shoes I wear and what size pants I wear. And, you know, I told my I wear a size 11 shoe and 34 pants. And he comes back, and he said, "All I can find is size 10 shoes, and a 38 pants, and this shirt." And I said, "Well, what's this for?" And he said, "Well, you're going home." And I said, "All right then. That'll work." I probably would have left there naked if I had to.

So, Ryan got out of jail. And, at some point, officers got a tip about a different guy, a 31-year-old man named Eric Thomes, a man who owned a dark van that matched the description of the van that people reported seeing that night. They went out and questioned him a few times.

And then one day, a little more than a month after the murder, investigators went to Eric's house to question him again. But this time, Eric fled and ran into a metal outbuilding close by. He refused to come out. And after a few hours, officers finally decided to go inside and found Eric dead. He had hanged himself.

Authorities held a news conference to explain what had happened. They said that after Eric killed himself, they found a gun on a property that Eric had access to, a 20-gauge shotgun. They tested it, and said they believed it was a gun used to kill Officer Decker. Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner said a few words, mostly just praise for the investigation.

This was a real good example of how the community and law enforcement worked together to get to the point that we're at today. We had a tipster call in based on the information that we were asking for. It actually couldn't have worked even better. Thank you.

A few months later in August of 2013, a spokesperson for the State Crime Bureau told reporters that if Eric hadn't killed himself, he would have been arrested for the murder, and that Ryan Larson was no longer a suspect in the case. But it wasn't the State Crime Bureau that was in charge of the case, it was a Stearns County Sheriff's Office. And the Sheriff, John Sanner, has decided to keep the case open. When I went to see Sheriff Sanner a few months ago, I asked him why.

Because we're still hopeful that new information will come in. I have considered closing the case if it stays inactive for a period of time. If no new information comes in, that certainly is something we would consider.

Keeping the case open means the public can't look at the files. It means that none of us can see exactly what happened in the investigation into Officer Decker's shooting. And it means that the sheriff doesn't have to clear Ryan Larson even three years after the State Crime Bureau, known as the BCA, ruled Ryan out as a suspect.

I don't know if he was involved or not. I can't say that.

So, you're not prepared to say like, "He definitely didn't do it."

Oh, absolutely not.

Oh okay because the BCA has said that. Like the spokesperson, at least, said he's no longer a suspect.

Okay.

At this point, Sanner shrugged, and he provided no evidence that Ryan Larson had anything to do with the shooting.

Ryan Larson used to trust law enforcement. Growing up, he lived just a few blocks from Jacob Wetterling, right off the dead-end road. Ryan was the same age as Jacob. Their birthdays were just three months apart. Ryan still remembers the night Jacob was kidnapped.

I was woke up just before midnight by search lights in my bedroom window. I got up just to see police vehicles, helicopters all over the place.

Investigators even came in to Ryan's house that night and looked around.

Checking closets. I believe they went through the kitchen, youk know, bathrooms, tubs, anywhere there could have been a child hidden, I guess.

And as an 11-year-old kid, Ryan was impressed by all the searching for Jacob. And it was what he expected from the cops because growing up, Ryan really looked up to law enforcement. By the time I met Ryan, that trust he'd felt in law enforcement was gone.

When I went over to his basement apartment a few months ago, Ryan showed me his laptop. The screen was filled with files from his own investigation of the Stearns County Sheriff's Office. Ryan told me he tried to figure out what really happened the night Officer Decker was killed. He'd even called up Greg Reiter, he left the force after the murder, and asked him what he saw.

Ryan said there was one thing in particular that really didn't make any sense to him. And that was how Greg Reiter could have seen a handgun, the same kind of gun Ryan had, when really the crime was committed with a very different kind of gun, a shotgun. It was a difference that should be obvious to anyone with any experience with guns, and especially to a cop.

And Ryan said Greg Reiter told him that despite what was written in the statement that was used to hold Ryan in jail, he actually didn't see much at all that night. And that matches what I heard from my law enforcement source who told me that inside the sheriff's office, investigators were saying pretty much the same thing.

But when Ryan tried to get Greg Reiter to come forward and tell the public what he really saw or didn't see that night, Greg Reiter hesitated. Ryan showed me texts they exchanged, including one he said was Greg Reiter's last message to him, sent on July 1st 2013, about seven months after the murder.

It said, "I talked with my attorney and Captain Jensen last week. I did give them, again, the details that you and I talked about. They, then, told me that if I said anything that I would be interfering with the investigation, and would be sued and/or charged. They also said that we are not to have any more communication."

Ryan said he hasn't heard from Greg Reiter since. I couldn't reach Reiter either. I tried to ask Sheriff Sanner about this and Captain Pam Jensen, who since left the sheriff's office, but they didn't respond.

All of this has really damaged Ryan Larson's life. He said even today, four years after the murder, people still look at him differently.

You know, law enforcement kind of baited the hook, and threw my name out there for the media. But the public, the people, you know, that I walk amongst, you know, every day, some of the comments they were saying suggesting to build the gallows and all back, bring back public executions, you know, get the lynch mob ready.

Did anyone at the sheriff's office ever apologize?

No. No. And that's, you know, probably the things I have the biggest problem with. I mean, you publicly accuse somebody of one of the most heinous crimes that a person could be accused of, you know, and it doesn't matter. It's not going to go away. It will always be there.

Ryan started seeing a therapist. He was diagnosed with PTSD.

I haven't actually gone out with my friends since 2012. I spent a lot of time at home.

Ryan dropped out of school for a while and almost stopped leaving his apartment entirely. He started spending hours and hours late at night reading about other cases the Stearns County Sheriff's Office had failed to solve.

It's more than me that have a similar story to tell. The Stearns Sheriff's Office has quite a reputation for horrendous investigations, false accusations, leaving families in the dark. I mean, why can't anybody solve crimes? I mean, why is everything such a secret? I mean, what's going on down there? People of Stearns County just need to realize that something needs to change. You know, it might not affect them right now, but it's going to someday if something doesn't change now.

Ryan Larson had become a part of a kind of sad fraternity, a loose brotherhood of people who felt wronged by the Stearns County Sheriff's Office, people like Dan Rassier, the man who was named a person of interest in the Jacob Wetterling case, and the boys in Paynesville who were attacked by a strange man in the '80s, people without a lot of money or community support, people who are just out there on their own trying to figure out what happened, trying to solve their own crimes, or clear their own names.

And out of all of these people I talked to, no one seemed more alone than a man named Brian Guimond, whose son, Josh, had gone missing in 2002, 13 years after Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped. I went to meet up with Brian Guimond at his house. He's a landscaper and lives alone. He has boxes full of his own research into his son's disappearance.

All kinds of stuff in here. I haven't looked at these forever.

Like what's in this notebook?

Whatever happened that particular time.

Notebooks, each one numbered. Some of them had a copy of a missing person's flyer for Josh taped to the front. And inside were all his notes about phone calls with detectives, interviews with the media, and possible leads to check out.

It's the only way you can remember. There's a lot of things I got in here and times, you know.

In November of 2002, Brian's son, Josh, was a 20-year-old student at St. John's University in Stearns County. And one night, Josh was at a small party at a friend's apartment on campus. His friends said there was a little drinking but not much.

And at some point, Josh left. He was never seen again. Authorities found his car still on campus. None of his stuff had been disturbed. He didn't leave any kind of note behind. He just vanished. Brian said, right away, the Stearns County Sheriff's Office had a theory about what had happened to his son.

Right off the bat, we are told he's in Stump Lake. Pretty much, that was the end of the story as far as the Sheriff Department is concerned.

Stump Lake is right on campus. Josh would have passed it if he'd walked back to his dorm room that night. A dog that investigators brought in the next day appeared to track Josh's scent to an area near the lake or maybe to the bridge that crosses it.

Investigators did search the lake. And the family even paid for a separate search by a private company that specializes in this kind of thing. But none of them found any sign of Josh. Brian said investigators came up with an explanation for why Josh could still be in the area but not be found. That explanation, quicksand.

Okay. I went and got a hold of the soil and water guy for Stearns County. No, we don't have any quicksand around here. So, that's impossible. I got papers on it from him proving no, this can't happen.

Brian showed me the letter from the government soil expert.

I got that letter right here.

Oh, this is the letter.

And no. As far as the soil expert knows, there's no such thing as quicksand just lying out there in Stearns County. Brian told the sheriff's office about the letter. He says that investigators came up with a new reason why Josh's body wasn't found.

Turtles ate him.

Snapping turtles.

That was just one of their excuses. Now, he's in that swampy area, you know. And, now, you can't find anything. Well, let's see. They ain't going to eat the skull. They ain't going to eat the clothes.

We checked this out and talked to not one but two experts in snapping turtles. Both of them told us the same thing. No, a snapping turtle won't eat a whole human being like that. I brought these two theories, the quicksand and the turtles, to Sheriff, John Sanner. Sanner became the sheriff a few months after Josh disappeared. And Sheriff Sanner told me he still does think it's possible that Josh was sucked into some kind of mud and ended up completely submerged in it.

Did he have too much to drink maybe and wander off into an area that's very boggy and swampy? And then, of course, if you lay down, and become tired, or else, you get stuck. And you simply pass out because of the amount of alcohol you've consumed. These are just theories and possibilities.

And then, I got to the turtles.

And then, the other explanation he said that he got from the sheriff's office was that perhaps, like, Josh's body was consumed by turtles, snapping turtles.

I can't imagine. I can't imagine that happening.

Okay.

That didn't come from me.

Have you heard that before? Because that's what he's saying he heard from the sheriff's office.

I have. I think that was published in the St. Cloud Times years ago.

Okay.

Did it come from somebody in law enforcement? Possibly.

I asked Sheriff Sanner if he ever tried to figure out whether anyone in his office was the one who told Josh's dad that snapping turtles could have eaten his son.

What does it matter at this point?

Josh Gimound is still missing. The case hasn't been solved. You can probably find one or two stories like this of unsolved cases in any sheriff's office in the country. So, the question is, does the Stearns County Sheriff's Office have more than just these few cases? Do they have a bigger problem when it comes to solving crime? And to help me figure that out, I brought in Will Craft, our data reporter.

Hi Will.

Hello.

Will started out by looking at one number in particular.

So, there's this thing called the clearance rate.

Clearance rates aren't quite what you might think.

So, a clearance rate is not actually a measurement of how many crimes are solved. A crime is cleared when an agency arrests someone for a crime and charges them for the crime. There are a few strange things such as if they find out who committed a crime, but that person is dead, or they're overseas and can't be extradited. But, in general, a crime is cleared when an agency makes an arrest and charges them.

So, they don't actually have to convict the person?

No.

Wow. Okay. So, all right. Is there another … something else we can use then? Like, is there a solved rate?

No. Even though clearance rates are problematic, they're the best thing we have for measuring how effective an agency is.

So, Will want to look at the clearance rates for Stearns county. He found them in an office at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, also known as the BCA.

I had to go to the BCA.

So, that's a state agency.

Yeah. So, the state agency, they only keep one copy of these crime reports.

What? Like an actual one copy?

Yes, they have one copy.

But, so, do they hand it to you? Do they bring it to you and say like, "No water"?

Well, I did have to sit in a room with another person while they watch me read through these crime reports and take scans with my phone of all the relevant pages.

Okay.

So, I had to go, and I had to scan each page. So, I took my scans. I brought them back, and I copied them into a computer by hand. I sat down for a week and just transcribed crime reports.

Will is looking at one group of crimes, the major crimes, also known as Part 1 crimes.

In technical terminology, these are Part 1 crimes. And they are murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson.

So, we're not looking at like DWI, or my mailbox has been vandalized, or there's graffiti at the school?

No.

Will looked at more than 40 years worth of clearance rates for these Part 1 crimes in Stearns County.

So, I looked from 1971 to 2014.

Okay.

So-

And you've got a graph there of all this?

Yes, I have graph.

Will showed me the graph he made. It's just one line. It goes from 1971 to 2014. And it's the percentage of Part 1 crimes the Stearns County Sheriff's Office has cleared. The line goes up and down a lot. It starts out in the 1970s. Well, some years, barely above single digits. And then, it starts to go up in the 1980s. It reaches its highest point in 1984, five years before Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped.

In 1984, the Stearns County Sheriff's Office cleared 38% of Part 1 crimes. They haven't had a better year since. Under the current sheriff in the past 10 years or so, the line mostly bounces around in the teens. And for some years, the clearance rates are so low, the line is almost touching zero.

In the year 2000, the Part 1 clearance rate was only 8%.

8%?

It was 8%. And the second lowest was in 1978 when they only cleared 9% of their Part 1 crimes.

What could explain this?

I have no idea.

In 2014, Stearns County cleared 16% of its Part 1 crimes. And I want you to think about that for a moment because what it means is that if you were the victim of a major crime that year in Stearns County, it's way more likely than not that your crime wouldn't be solved.

I wanted to know how that number, 16%, compared with the rest of the sheriff's offices in Minnesota that year. So, I asked Will to figure that out. And he found that there was a wide range of clearance rates from 98% all the way to 0%. But Stearns County's rate was definitely low. It was in the bottom third for the entire state.

I wanted to run these numbers by an expert, so I called the researcher in Pennsylvania named Gary Cordner. He spent a lot of time looking at rural crime, in particular.

Way back in the day, I was a police officer and a police chief in two different departments. I'm actually retired from about 30 plus years of teaching at two different universities.

I told Gary Cordner what we'd found out about clearance rates in the Stearns County Sheriff's Office.

So, in the '70s, in the mid '70s, it dropped as low as 9%.

Wow.

Yeah, which is remarkably low. I mean-

It is.

Gary Cordner was especially surprised by how low these numbers were because Stearns County is a mostly rural place.

In general, police departments in non-urban areas solve a higher percentage of crimes than in cities.

What Gary Cordner is saying here that rural areas are usually better than big cities when it comes to solving major crimes, I think that's the opposite of what a lot of people assume. When you think about our culture, we have these two main images of law enforcement, and we see them all the time on TV shows and in movies. There's a small town bumbling cop who has no clue what he's doing. And then, there's the big city detective with all the fancy CSI gear who could solve almost anything. So, why would it be the opposite? Why are rural areas usually better at solving crime?

Since my background is in small and somewhat rural policing, I'd like to say, you know, it's because of, you know, the smarter and more savvy police that we have out there, but-

Right.

But I don't think that's actually the main reason. I think police departments in more rural areas, first of all, all-in-all, are less busy. So, they might actually spend more time investigating crimes.

Okay.

That's one reason, but I don't think that's the whole story either. I think, in general, solving crimes is easier in rural areas, in small towns than it is in cities. If you got to witness, the witness would be more likely to have literally recognized the person, maybe even know their name, you know, tell you where they live, which is not as likely to be true in a city.

Right.

And then, you know, if it's a burglary, let's say, in a small town or a rural area, police are right away going to have several suspects in mind. You know, it may be even just one suspect just because of the local knowledge that you tend to have an in a more rural area.

Right. You know, like a short list of, like, this kind of crime, that's either like John, Steve, or Joe. That's like a classic Steve crime.

Exactly.

But these are all just guesses. The reality is there's just not that much research on why one place does a better or worse job than another when it comes to solving crime. We just don't know. In fact, there's a whole lot we don't know about law enforcement. The federal government doesn't even know how many police departments there are in this country.

One expert I talked to said the best estimate is somewhere between 12,000 and 18,000. The whole system is so decentralized, split between police departments, sheriffs offices, state crime bureaus, each with their own data and their own procedures. But even getting the most basic facts can be really difficult.

And this is surprising when you think about it. In this country, we're obsessed with crime rates. It seems we always want to know whether crime is going up or down. But once the crimes happen, plenty of us don't seem to be all that interested in whether or not law enforcement actually solves them.

I was talking about this with a guy named Thomas Hargrove. He used to be an investigative reporter. Now, he runs a nonprofit called the Murder Accountability Project. The group collects information on murder clearance rates from across the country, and posts it on its website, so the public can be better informed. And one of the most striking things about Hargrove's website is just how wide the range is. Some places clear almost every murder. Other places clear almost none.

We were a little concerned about making this data available because if you wanted to kill someone, you would be well advised to go to our site. You'd find the many cities in America quite easily where it is statistically unlikely that you'll get caught for murder.

So, you actually … You have that as a legitimate concern like, "I'm providing the data to…

Yeah. Yeah. In the end, we decided the only way that we were going to make improvements on murder clearances was to make this information very available. The people have the right to know this. I mean, they simply do, and they should be holding politicians accountable.

And Thomas Hargrove told me something else I found interesting.

In the case of a well-performing department, you ask the police chief what his clearance rate is, he knows to the decimal point and can cite those statistics year after year. He's watching very carefully. In those underperforming police departments, it's common for the chief to say, "I don't know." And he genuinely may not know. After all, why would you want to study things that don't make you look good? So, they don't.

So, I went to the sheriff of Stearns County, Sheriff John Sanner, and I asked him Hargrove's question, "Do you know what the clearance rate is?".

Right now, today, not off the top of my head.

Okay.

You obviously know what it is.

I do. So, I can just jump to that.

I showed the sheriff the graph that Will had made, the graph that showed the clearance rates in Stearns County for major crimes, the ones known as Part 1 crimes.

Okay. So, we looked at Part 1 crimes. And we went back from 1971 to 2014. It was the last year that we had. This is our diagram.

Sheriff Sanner took the sheet of paper in his hands, and stared at it.

So, this is the percentages of the clearance rate. So, highest in the '80s, 38% in '84. And then, kind of 20s, 30s. And then, as low in 2000 as 8%. And then, 16% in 2014. These seem very low to me. Like, is this an acceptable clearance rate?

I don't think anything under under 100% is. I want to clear everything that we get involved in.

Sure, but you're not going to be able to clear 100%. So, it's like-

No, but I would-

… what's the threshold of, you know? Is there a bar that's, you know, every year, let's aim to clear 60% or let's aim to-

Actually, the bar is we aim to clear them all.

So, then, why is there such a gap then between like-

I don't know. I have no idea why there is. And again, I'm not satisfied unless it's 100%. I shouldn't be satisfied unless it's 100%.

Given the clearance rates though, I mean, how can people in Stearns County trust that law enforcement will solve crimes?

You know, what you don't see on this are all the crimes we do solve. And I'm not trying to make excuses here. I'm just telling you that I consider this unacceptable too.

I ask Sheriff Sanner what he thought could be done to improve his office's clearance rate.

I suppose what you're thinking about in answering that question is more training, that type of thing.

I actually don't know.

Sheriff Sanner told me a lot of crime solving comes down to one key factor.

I guess, the one factor that is kind of out there in any investigation is you have to factor in a certain amount of luck.

Luck, and Sanner said, sometimes, you get lucky, and sometimes you don't.

We haven't had a lot of luck in some of these big cases that we're working on; although, it doesn't deter us from continuing to work as hard as we possibly can and do everything we possibly can to get them resolved.

But if you're looking at specifics as to how do we improve this, the first thing that would pop into somebody's head is we need to do a better job of training our investigative staff or we maybe need to do a better job of collecting and preserving evidence, so it can be used. Those are the easy things. It's the intangibles, that luck thing I'm talking about, that's hard to gauge. And sometimes, just good old fashioned police work and a little bit of luck go a long way.

About two months after I talked with Sheriff Sanner, as we were putting this episode together, the State of Minnesota released the latest Part 1 clearance rates, the ones for 2015. The Stearns County Sheriff's Office rate had dropped from 16% to 12%.

I also wanted to ask Sheriff Sanner about what he thinks of the investigation of the Jacob Wetterling case. At the time I talked to him, it was still a few weeks before Danny Heinrich confessed to the crime and led officers to Jacob's remains.

When I first started looking to this case, it was always described as like this giant mystery that, you know, Jacob just vanished, it's dark, and there is like nothing that could have been done differently to solve it.

But then, when I started looking into it, the way that I looked at it has changed, and especially some of the failures of the policing 101 stuff, like not knocking on all the doors that night, not searching nonstop, you know, calling off the search in the middle of the night. And then, you know, the decision to name Dan Rassier as a person of interest. Like all of these things strike me as mistakes of the investigation or things that could have potentially negatively affected the investigation. And I just want to give you a chance to respond to that.

Of course, if things weren't done in the right order, if things weren't done at all early on, looking backwards more than 25 years ago, I can't do anything to change that. No. So, I'm not going to get wrapped around the axle about things that law enforcement did or didn't do. Do I wish some things would have been done differently? Sure. Can I talk about that in this particular case? No.

I just wonder about like to the people in Stearns County whether it would make sense to say, "You know what, we really messed up some things in this. And we're going to tell you that we're … This is what we did that we wouldn't do again." Is there some accountability to the public that's needed?

You know, I guess, I've never really looked at it like that. When I've looked back and looked at things that, "Boy, I wish we would have done this," or "I wish this would have been done," again, that's all we can do is wish about that, but I can't go backwards and change time. Nobody can.

So, this is what we settled on in this country as the best way to handle solving major crimes, to leave it up to people like Sheriff John Sanner, sheriffs who don't know their clearance rates, have no clear plan about how to improve them, and who refuse to look back and see what they could have done differently.

And Stearns County isn't the only place with a crime solving problem. There are all kinds of places all across the country with Part 1 clearance rates in the single digits or not much higher. Farmington, New Mexico, your average clearance rate from 2005 to 2014 is 13%. Chicago, Indiana, your clearance rate is 9%. Honolulu, your clearance rate is 6%. Assumption Parish, Louisiana, your clearance rate is 12%. King County, Washington, your clearance rate is 5%.

The way our country handles law enforcement with complete local control and no oversight means that you could live in a place that hasn't solved a single crime in 50 years and nothing would happen. Your sheriff's office could have a zero percent clearance rate, and no one from the government will step in and say, "That's unacceptable. Here's what has to happen," or even just ask the question, 'What's going on down there?"

And what this all means is that you are stuck with the law enforcement you've got. If you or someone in your family is murdered, you just have to hope that the place where you live has a law enforcement agency with a good track record of solving crime. And if your case is never solved, nothing will happen. No one will come in and take over the investigation. And eventually, your name will be forgotten. Thomas Hargrove put it to me this way.

You essentially disappear from the radar. Your name is not recorded in any central authority. There is really no one out there who is assigned to review what happened to your case, and whether more needs to be done, or even who you were. You know, you become anonymous. Nobody can put together a list of the names of those 216,000 Americans who perished in unsolved murders. And that really is kind of a national tragedy.

And in Stearns County, what this means is that no one can intervene when the sheriff's office took nearly 27 years to find out that Jacob Wetterling had been killed and buried about a mile from the home of a man they all suspected had abducted a kid before, a man whose car a witness saw that night, a man whose name had been in the Wetterling case file since almost the beginning, a man who investigators had sat face-to-face with, a man named Danny Hiner. Everyone just had to wait and hope that somehow the Stearns County Sheriff's Office would managed to solve the Wetterling case.

So, this is where the story was supposed to end with the sheriff's office that doesn't get held accountable in a case that took nearly 27 years to solve. This was supposed to be the last episode of In the Dark, but over the past six weeks, as we've been airing this podcast, we've kept reporting, and we found out some things about the Jacob Wetterling case and about Danny Heinrich, the man who confessed to Jacob's kidnapping, that we want to tell you about. And so, we're releasing one more episode. That's next week on In the Dark.

In the Dark is produced by Samara Freemark. The associate producer is Natalie Jablonski. Significant additional reporting for this episode by Will Craft. In the Dark is edited by Catherine Winter, with help from Hans Buetow. The editor in chief of APM Reports is Chris Worthington, Web editors are Dave Peters and Andy Kruse. The videographer is Jeff Thompson. Our theme music is composed by Gary Meister. This episode was mixed by Johnny Vince Evans.

Go to InTheDarkPodcast.org to learn more about the case of Officer Tom Decker and the case of Josh Guimond, and to learn more about clearance rates, and for a link to find out the murder clearance rate where you live.

In the Dark is made possible in part, thanks to our listeners. You can support more independent journalism like this at InTheDarkPodcast.org/donate.

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Review Should I go to Podcast Movement? -> A quick review of Podcast Movement

Attendees are bullish on the future of podcasting

We just finished up Podcast Movement in Philadelphia. An event where podcasters, podcast producers, and radio folks convene to talk and learn about everything related to podcasts. We loved meeting face to face with many of our customers and meeting a bunch of new people too. There are so many great stories being told and so many interesting projects among this community. For many attendees podcasting is their livelihood. For others, it was another ‘must-have’ marketing medium for their brand or a place to learn how to start a podcast. One thing was incredibly consistent: everyone was bullish on the future of podcasting.

            

 

What’s the structure of Podcast Movement?

Much of what you’d expect happened at Podcast Movement including keynotes by industry influencers like Pay Flynn, Jarl Mohn, and Terri Gross. Google made an appearance to talk about their new foray into podcasting. There were break-out sessions every day on topics ranging from marketing to production to monetization to ‘how to create a podcast’. But what we found made the conference great was the hallway conversations. So great to meet loads of geniunely great people with passion and interesting stories.

 

    

 

Things outside the event
Philadelphia treated us well. The Reading Terminal is an awesome place to grab lunch; it’s filled with every kind of food you could imagine strewn with stalls from end to end of the iconic building. We lucked out with our dinner choices too. Talula’s Garden was our favorite. If you’re going to Philly make a reservation. It won’t disappoint.

 

Should I attend Podcast Movement in 2019?
Every individual and company is different. We base our decisions on a mix of ROI and exposure. We found it a good use of our time and plan on going in 2019. See you there!

 

Popular Transcripts The Cloud Accounting Podcast: Supreme Court sales tax ruling is a windfall for Avalara

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The Cloud Accounting Podcast: Supreme Court sales tax ruling is a windfall for Avalara

Welcome to the Cloud Accounting Podcast, a show for accountants using technology to make their jobs more strategic, and impactful. I'm Blake Oliver-

-and I'm David Leary.

So, David, I hear that you were at Scaling New Heights this week. How did that go?

Yes. I'm still in Atlanta, actually. I'm hanging out for a couple more days. I have a honey-do list to do at my mother-in-law's house, so I'm still hanging out here. Scaling New Heights was really, to be honest … It was pleasantly, surprisingly great, if that makes sense.

I don't know how many people followed, but maybe about eight weeks ago – feels like maybe 10 weeks ago – there was just a lot of, let's say, drama around Scaling New Heights. Whether it'd had a bankruptcy; they changed venues; people's hotel rooms were getting canceled. There was just a lot of uncertainty that this conference was even gonna happen.

You could feel like it was scaled back a little bit, but it was scaled back in that more of a grassroots way. Once the community was there, it was just … It was great. I've talked to everyone … The app vendors … Everybody who was there had a really good time at the conference. There was deep conversations. We had a really great time. We brought our App Showdown finalist. It was, like I said, surprisingly, surprisingly, surprisingly refreshing. Did you travel this week, too?

Yes. On Monday, I was in Indianapolis, at the IMA Conference, and then, on Tuesday, I was in Minneapolis, at the Minnesota Society of CPA's conference. Busy travel week for me, but did it all very compressed, and I'm glad to be back.

Yeah, one thing I like about these conferences are sometimes these travel weeks like this. I was just so … You get in the conference, and that's the only thing you're living, and breathing, and touching for 48 hours or 72 hours. I admit, it was kind of refreshing. All this drama that was going on in the outside world …

It's like going down into a nuclear bunker, and then, you come out, and the world is changed.

Exactly, exactly. It was nice not to be distracted by that, or kind of, in a way, I'm encouraged now. I think maybe two or three days a month, I might just not pay attention to anything outside of my own world. It's kind of a refreshing break, actually.

Well, fortunately, we had come out of our caves of conferences by the time the biggest news broke, this week, which is the Supreme Court has overturned Quill v. North Dakota, which was the decision that governs sales tax in this country, for many, many years – decades.

Now, according to this new decision, South Dakota, and any other state, can leverage, or require sales taxes to be collected by out-of-state retailers. Previously, if you were out of the state, if you didn't have what's called Nexus, which means, typically, an employee in the state, or inventory in the state, or some sort of physical presence in the state, you didn't have to collect those sales taxes, when you shipped into those states.

Those states have been losing out on a lot of revenue – big ones and small ones. South Dakota, it was something like $50 million a year in revenue that wasn't being collected. It was a big problem for brick-and-mortar retailers, because if you had a physical presence in the state, like a store, you'd have to collect those sales taxes, but if your customers went online, and bought from somewhere out-of-state, then they didn't have to pay sales taxes. They were required to do so on their personal tax returns, but, effectively, nobody does that, so, basically, they were getting to buy stuff free of sales tax.

Huge implications for this decision; potentially, lots of compliance requirements, now, on small businesses that do e-commerce, because, where they may have only had to collect sales tax in one state, now, they may have to do it in many states, and some really big benefits for some of the sales-tax-automation-software developers, right, David?

Yeah, I think there's so many takes. I think I have an article that's an argument about why this is so bad for small business. I have another article we'll get shared that … Why Amazon wins in this. I think, really, the big winner has to be Avalara. I think it went public on Monday morning, or was it last Friday?

It was very recently.

They go public. Their IPO goes up like 57 percent, or something, and then, three days later, the Supreme Court makes this ruling. Then Avalara stock goes up another 30 percent. Avalara's definitely the winner in all this, for sure. Yeah, congratulations to all those Avalara friends that I have.

It's almost like they timed it perfectly.

Yes, yes, yes. It's actually amazing that all this happened in the same week – their IPO, and the decision that finally came out.

Yeah. It's interesting, because the Supreme Court … I've been digging into this a little bit more, over the last day, since this just happened yesterday morning. The Supreme Court didn't actually get rid of nexus, they just redefined it. Now, nexus can include having a … I'm not sure what the actual wording is, but they changed the substantial-presence definition, so, now, that can include shipping packages into the state.

In the case with South Dakota, they have set a threshold of a hundred thousand dollars a year, in annual sales, into the state, or two hundred items being shipped into the state. I've just been thinking about this, going around in my head, and if you ship a lot of volume, but low-cost products, you could very easily meet that 200-quantity threshold, even though you're nowhere near a hundred thousand dollars in sales.

This could really hit some smaller mom-and-pop-type e-commerce retailers. If you're selling 200 $10 items into South Dakota, now, you'd meet the threshold. You're only making $2,000 gross, and perhaps, your profit margin is less than $200 a year. It may cost you that much, far more than that, just to file all of these forms that you've gotta file, now.

I think that's the argument Steve Forbes is making, this like … The average small-business entrepreneur is now gonna have this burden that is … It's a very expensive burden to track this, comply to, for 50 states, essentially. It's gonna be tough for small businesses, for sure. They're the ones that are gonna feel the pain from this, first.

I think the hardest part is just going to be staying on top of all the different sales-tax legislation that gets passed in all of these states, now. There are a group of states that have come up with standardized rules, but most of them, especially the big ones, have not. Congress has the opportunity, now, to step in and do some national sales-tax legislation. I think they should set up a centralized system for collecting, and remitting sales tax, and all the states can then divvy it up amongst themselves, that sorta thing. That would be ideal, if you ask me, but, given how paralyzed Congress has been about many, many issues, I really doubt they're gonna do anything.

Yeah, that seems a little dreamy, I think, but I do … What's your take? Do you feel like a bunch of states, now, that have kind of kicked around this, somebody's proposed it … They probably have things like this, proposals that have came through, on the shelf, right?

Yeah.

There's just gonna be like … In the next six to eight weeks, every single state's gonna be like, "Great, we want our piece. Here's our sales-tax rules." Just like boom. We're just gonna see this every week, five states come out with new sales-tax rules.

Yeah-

You need to pay here …

They can't lose, because it's the state legislatures passing legislation that affects people that aren't in the states, or that are not in that state. It's basically a taxation without representation. It's a no-brainer for them.

I've been reading this L.A. Times article, this morning, about the states that would gain the most from expanded e-commerce-tax collection. California, actually, is the biggest one. Could gain anywhere from 1 to 1.75 billion dollars in additional revenue by collecting from out-of-state retailers. That makes sense, because we have very high sales taxes in California.

People try to avoid those sales taxes by purchasing from out-of-state retailers on, say, eBay, or Amazon Marketplace, where they don't collect the sales tax, so it's a no-brainer for California to pass legislation. Texas is next. They've got about a billion dollars that they could be collecting. Then New York, Florida, Illinois, Washington, Ohio, Tennessee, and Georgia. I would be expecting to see legislation in the next few months from all of those states.

Wow. I think a related article … This is about Amazon's gonna win, because Amazon … They kinda have two plays on this. One is they're already set up to do this, as well, but Amazon's really good at punting. They get to play that, "We're a marketplace," and they can punt this down to the third-party sellers on Amazon, cuz there's millions and millions of third-party sellers on Amazon. Versus somebody like a Wayfair, or Overstock, where they basically are the retailer.

Right. Yeah, Wayfair is really screwed. One of the big perks of buying from them is that if they don't have a presence, it's that you don't pay the sales tax, and you get that free shipping, so you're willing to put up with the hassle of not really being able to return these giant items, because you're getting such a huge discount. That's going away.

One thing that's great, right, we do live in America. Entrepreneurs always figure out a way. I think there's a … I'll try and find it. There was a podcast I listened to about the duty-free stores at the airports. People shop at those, cuz you don't pay sales tax. I guess there's duty-free areas on the ports. Could there be some interesting … Could entrepreneurs start figuring out how to … Somebody might spin up some sort of distribution center in the ports of certain cities, or maybe at certain areas of airports. I could see, somebody's gonna figure out ways around this, and very creative, creative ways. That's what makes America great.

Something that has not been discussed widely in the press, but that will potentially impact accountants, and bookkeepers, and software developers, dramatically, is that this ruling not only applies to hard goods, to products, it also potentially applies to services.

South Dakota, if they wanted, they could tax services delivered from out-of-state to residents of their state. That might mean tax work. That might mean accounting work. I would be very surprised if we didn't see some states start taxing services delivered from out-of-state to in-state.

I know that state of Arizona, on our ballot, this year, there's gonna be an initiative that will write it in to our constitution that doesn't let the legislature ever pass a sales-tax law to tax services-.

Hmm, interesting.

It's funny that you brought that up, because I think it's actively a table discussion in probably state legislatures everywhere, right now, like taxing services. You're right, for our impact, these cloud accountants … Because we've been telling people, "Hey, if you go cloud, you can take on clients in any states in America." Now, you, as the cloud accountant, if you have 45 clients, now, you gotta deal with nexus in 45 states, that you didn't have to do before.

Yeah.

This is a huge ripple effect of this, and I think we'll be talking about it next week, and the week after, and the week after. This is not anything done, anytime soon.

No, this is gonna be a big-impact ruling that has consequences for years, and it's gonna change how people do business, I think. We're gonna see some retailers choose not to ship to certain states. We're going to see some retailers choose not to do online, and we'll … If the services component expands for taxation, we're going to see some of these cloud firms probably choose not to do business with certain states, or be selective.

It was already a challenge with my cloud firm, because whenever we had an employee in a state, we then had an income-tax obligation, there, and then, you have to apportion your income. That gets very complicated, so, I know how that goes.

I feel like Amazon, early on in the e-commerce game, so this is probably going a dozen years ago … I feel like one of the states wanted to tax everything they shipped, and I think Amazon played hardball, and said, "Fine, we won't ship to your state." I think that kinda killed it, but, we were in a whole different game about this.

Now, the other interesting thing is the … People have to understand, in the grand scheme of retail, I think e-commerce, even as big as Amazon is, I think e-commerce is still barely eight percent, or just broke eight percent. In the whole grand scheme of everything, most states are not getting … They're not getting a ton of revenue from e-commerce- [crosstalk 00:13:16]

No, but if you look at the trends, and you see … You look at how it's growing, more and more people are getting comfortable with buying online. I'm an early adopter, and I buy as much as possible … Anything that I can buy that I'm comfortable buying online, I do, cuz I hate going to the store.

My wife is the opposite of me, so, she's a good case study for the rest of America. She hates technology. She always resists adopting it, but even she has gotten much, much more comfortable with buying on Amazon, and buying … Especially like clothes for our son, we buy all of that stuff online, because it's so much easier than trying to go to the store with him. If she's comfortable, getting comfortable, with it, then I think it's just gonna explode. That's why this ruling was very timely. If they hadn't addressed this, if the Supreme Court hadn't addressed this it, would've just ballooned outta control.

I think we're still all comprehending it, but I … This is one of the biggest things to come down in a long time. I can tie it back to the election. I heard an argument somebody made that when you go to vote, this year, at the polls, you should just vote for only people that understand technology, because decisions like this that are gonna keep coming down the pipe, there's gonna be more and more.

Regardless of your political stances, only vote for candidates that understand technology, because if they don't, it doesn't matter where they stand on the other issues, they'll just make wrong decisions about technology, and it's just gonna affect us even worse than any of their political stances.

I can get on board with that. Hey, before we go, I've got one more fun story that's a little less intense than this whole sales-tax issue-

Oh, yeah, that's good.

-I'd like to share that. This has to do with artificial intelligence machine learning. It's a story in the MIT Technology Review, from June 15. The headline: A Machine has Figured Out Rubik's Cube All by Itself. That caught my attention, because I've always played with Rubik's Cubes on and off. I've never actually owned one, but I've always been really impressed by the people who could solve them very quickly, and I've always [crosstalk].

You really have never owned a Rubik's Cube? We have to stop right here for a second. You've never owned a Rubik's Cube?

I've never owned a Rubik's Cube. Maybe I'm a little bit intimidated, but I've never gone online, and learned how to solve it. I know there's YouTube videos that will show you how to do that, but I've always … It's sort of been like on my bucket list of I wanna get a Rubik's Cube, and I wanna figure out how to do it, on my own, without anyone teaching me.

Well, it looks like the machines have beat me to it, because an artificial intelligence, or, it's actually called a deep-learning machine, has figured out how to solve a Rubik's Cube, all by itself. In the past, we've, of course, had computers, and programs that we've taught how to solve Rubik's Cubes, but that's because we have given it clues, and given it an algorithm, or whatnot.

In this case, a computer was given the Rubik's Cube, and was not given any clues. It had to learn how to do it, itself. It's interesting, the way they did it was they had the computer go backwards. They had it learn how to solve the Rubik's Cube by starting from a solved Rubik's Cube, and then messing it up. Then, once it had learned how all that worked, it was able to put it back.

That's an interesting approach, because that's how, actually, it works in real life is you envision the completed product. You envision what you wanna create, or what you wanna accomplish. Then, often, you will work backward from the completed state to your current state, to figure out a path to the solution. The computer did it the same way.

Interesting. There's this independent hacker that … He's creating a self-driving car, and his self-driving car is just almost as good as Tesla's. He did it from that way, like he just has it pay attention to how he drives, and it just learns from proper driving, instead of trying to program every … Like distance to stop signs, and program, "This is a stop sign. This is not a stop sign. This is a yield sign." It just learned from watching him drive, essentially.

That's how human beings learn, so, you think it would work with computers, and it does. The thing that's kind of scary about this algorithm is that it is able to solve 100 percent of randomly scrambled Cubes, while achieving a median solve length of 30 moves, which is less than or equal to solvers that employ human-domain knowledge, and is way, way faster than almost anybody can do, except people who are really, really good at Rubik's Cubes.

Yeah, I don't know … My boys, for a while … Last summer, that was the thing, Rubik's Cubes, and I think he got it down to 1:06, or something, that he could do a Rubik's Cube in. I'm telling you, though, Blake, I know you're a little younger than me … If you're gonna do this, you gotta do it now, because it's hard to memorize these algorithms when you cross 40. It's very, very hard. You better buy your Rubik's Cube, get online, pay the sales tax, order it, and get your Rubik's Cube as soon as you can.

All right. I'm gonna do that. Unfortunately, I missed the … I think I missed the boat for getting it tax-free. You know, we'll have to leave it at that. I've got to do some work today, and I know you're a busy guy. I'll look forward to seeing you next Friday.

Yeah, absolutely. Wow, everybody go research about sales tax.

Yep, and connect with us online to continue the conversation. I'm @BlakeTOliver, on Twitter.

I'm on Twitter, @DavidLeary.

We'll look forward to hearing from you, and thanks for listening.

Later, Blake.

Bye.

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Mic bleed is less problematic when you record speakers in different rooms or locations. It used to be a logistical challenge to capture each participant on their own audio track, but with all the great communication apps, it’s no longer a problem. If you are using Skype, Zoom, or some other tool to capture the audio, each speaker is using a different microphone input. This helps reduce mic bleed.

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Popular Transcripts Full Transcript: Up and Vanished – S1 E2 – White Rabbits

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Full Transcript: Up and Vanished – S1 E2 – White Rabbits

When I would talk to people, they will say, "They're never gonna find her because she's in some swamp or she's in some well." And those people were right because 10 years now and I mean, you always have hope that she'll be found and at this point, I'm really doubtful she ever will be found. I mean because this is basically swampland.

I can tell you, if you wanna solve this, that would be your ideal ending I'm sure. Unless this gets shook up and it's approached in a different way, it's not gonna, nothing's ever gonna happen and that's probably gonna be really hard to do.

Ten years ago today marked the last time anybody reported seeing or talking to Tara Grinstead.

Officially, police are calling this a missing person's case.

GBI officials are saying investigators …

Latex glove found in…

An $80,000 reward is being offered …

Where is Tara Grinstead?

From Tenderfoot TV in Atlanta, you are listening to Up and Vanished, the investigation of Tara Grinstead. I'm your host, Payne Lindsey.

The person talking in the first segment is Dusty Vassey, the lead reporter for the local newspaper called the Ocilla Star. He reached out to me and offered his help.

We're in.

He took me to an old office in downtown Ocilla. The door had no markings or signage and we entered a huge dim lit room. There were buckets on the ground full of water, catching the leaks from the ceiling. You could tell it was a place that didn't have very many guests. On the back wall was a shell full of hardbound newspaper archives. He was looking for 2005.

We keep them in these bound volumes.

You're still on the paper system?

Yeah, 2005, read that. Sweet Potato Festival missing. Wednesday.

Tara was reported missing at 8:50 a.m. on Monday, October 24th and by that Wednesday, she was already in the paper.

You could tell that people really were worried, people that worked with her and stuff. Like, there's a teacher that I knew that, I mean you could tell she was very concerned that this, it was more than just concern. It was like …

Yeah.

At that point, they realized something bad's happened, you know, and just she's gone off or whatever.

Dusty went to his desk for a minute and left me alone with the archives. As I was flipping through, I noticed a small piece of paper wedged between two pages. It looked like a makeshift bookmark.

When I pulled it out, I realized it was actually a piece of Tara's missing poster that had been cut into fours and the print date on the bottom was October 24th, the day she was reported missing. All the sudden I felt like I was in a movie scene and I had found some big clue. I was almost positive it was nothing but I called Dusty over anyways. What is that?

That says Tara's name on it. Probably nothing nefarious.

No.

It's chopped up.

Right.

Yeah.

Probably nothing nefarious. But then we found a whole bunch of them, like a lot more.

Oh my goodness, there's all sorts of those.

It's kind of weird, right?

It is. It is. I'm a little, I mean cause I've looked through this before that … I mean they probably were here and I didn't pay any attention to it. The hairs on the back of your neck … what's going on?

Who are the people that could have done this?

My predecessor who … Kristy who used to … was the reporter. She's the Kristy Pruitt, something …

Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

On all these stories.

He called Kristy and it wasn't her.

My boss.

I mean it was probably nothing but still who would expect to find chopped up pieces of Tara's missing poster scattered throughout the 2005 archive. Kind of weird, right? We both agreed. Before I left, Dusty said he has a surprise for me.

Oh, front page. There's me. The podcast had made the front page of the latest paper. It's kind of weird actually seeing my name and Tara Grinstead's name on the front page of the Ocilla Star.

At this point, I can understand why.

Yeah, like I'm part of the narrative now or something.

The word was getting out and people were finally talking.

An investigative podcast about the disappearance of an Ocilla teacher is set to premiere Monday titled Up and Vanished. The story details the findings of Atlanta filmmaker, Payne Lindsey, as he makes a documentary on Tara Grinstead. The podcast will be released every other week as Lindsey works on the documentary. He says …

Let's pick up from the last episode. So my grandma's friend Melba told her that Tara went to her former student's house in Fitzgerald before going back to the barbecue that night in Ocilla. If this is true, it's a major discrepancy in Tara's timeline. Is there another person that we've just never known about? I wrote some questions down and I gave Melba a call.

My grandma said that you saw Tara that Saturday at the beauty pageant, correct?

I did. For several years, I emceed all the beauty pageants and I don't do that anymore. But I was directing the pageant, the afternoon that she disappeared that night but she always helped. She taught school and she always helped the girls in the pageants with their make up, their hair and choosing gowns and that sort of thing.

And as I was leaving, she and all the girls were there at the back as I was leaving. It was about 6 o'çlock in the afternoon because I had a dinner date and I was leaving. And I stopped and spoke with them just a few minutes, just, you know, "How are you?" and that sort of thing. So I was really, really surprised when I heard the news on Monday that she was missing.

What did you guys talk about? When you talked to her, what did you guys say?

Just pass, you know, "How are you today? It's good to see you." And I didn't stay there more than five minutes I guess because I was on my way. And I certainly would have stayed long and talked more if I had known what was going to happen but nobody knew that, you know.

Where did she go after the pageant?

One of the students that she had taught in times past now lives in Fitzgerald. And my understand is she went to his house for just a short while just to visit and then left there and came to one of the principal's houses which is a couple of blocks from me for a cookout they were doing.

And I understand she left there probably around 10:30, 11 o'clock that night. And it was evident that she got home. Her car was there and I believe she had taken off some of her clothing and so forth.

So from all the stuff that I've read and from people I talked to, I had never heard that she went to a student's house in between the pageant and the barbecue.

I've heard that in the talk around town that she went to the friend's house for just a short time.

Is there any way to find out who that student was?

I'm trying to think what his name was, one she had taught. Good gracious. That's been 10 years or more ago and I really don't recall who it was. In the meantime, I'll try to arrive at who she visited in Fitzgerald but right offhand, I don't recall.

Okay. If you think of it, please let me know.

His name will probably come to me but right offhand, I don't remember. But like I say, Payne, I hope you can can get some new information or come up with something cause I know her parents and I know how devastated they were and how devastated they still are.

We have no idea what happened to her. It's just one of the strangest things. You know, we always hear there's no perfect crime but evidently, this one is perfect so far because there's no indication of who it could be.

I wasn't really sure what to make of that. Melba seemed to think that Tara's visit to a student's house was just common knowledge but I couldn't find it anywhere. She said she heard it in the talk around town. Not the most reliable sounding source. Really, other than Melba just saying she heard this happened, I don't really have anything at all. It was time for a second opinion.

Well, when I first heard it, I just couldn't find any basis for the information at all. I guess you would call it chasing one of those white rabbits.

So you know that was a term I was about to get very familiar with.

Well, white rabbit is leads or information that in a criminal investigation that leads you down rabbit hole to nowhere. And I mean I'm not saying it was true and it still may be true but we just don't have any information to take that any further than it is right now.

Right.

So really you just have to set it aside and let it go because otherwise it'd just be a waste of time. Until you can get further information to say it's legitimate, you just have to refute it. But it would be very useful if it was true and we would have to know the name of the individual.

So pretty much without that name, I had nothing. Maurice also brought up another good point. If you remember Tara did make one more stop before the barbecue that was confirmed. She met her landlord's son, Rhett Roberts at the curb of the road only for about 15 minutes before heading over to the barbecue. Was Melba confusing this with some student in Fitzgerald?

It's very possible that she's talking about Rhett Roberts but he's not a former student.

Okay. So Rhett was not a former student of Tara's?

No, they were about the same age.

And she got to Rhett's around what time?

I would say around 20 minutes to eight, quarter to eight.

So you're saying that the time gap is pretty small for that to happen?

Yeah. In fact the whole timeline of this entire case is pretty narrow.

What's the earliest Tara could have left the pageant you think?

I would say 7:15.

So does Tara stopping at a student's house for a minute sound farfetched for the timeline or is it still possible?

Well in an unknown case, unsolved case as this, with the twists and turns in it? It's possible. Is it probable? No.

So really I was back to square one. Until I had that name, there was really no further way to verify this ever actually happened. And even if I could prove it was true, would it lead me to what happened to Tara? The term white rabbit was bouncing around my head for a couple days. And just like clockwork, white rabbits were falling in my lap.

I have been … it's really … it's regarding the revelations were made. I'm not gonna throw God at you, you know, shove God down your throat but there is a lot that's been going on. Her remains is within the park here in Ocilla, Cumbee Park. I have absolutely no doubt. It's called Cumbee Park.

The park was never searched 10 years ago. It was in such an obvious place. Everybody overlooked it. Nobody even thought nothing about it, not even I. I was shocked. I took all the information, like I said, to GBI. It all come about with me March of last year. I'm boldly, bravely, 100 percent. Like I said, God gave me a job to do and I'm going to do it. None of them gonna back me down, sit me down or shut me up.

I knew the investigator's first impression was that the whole student thing was probably a white rabbit. And as much as I believed them, the rookie investigative mind of mine just couldn't let it go. Besides the fact that we didn't have a name for this guy, he also said the timeline was really narrow for Tara to have gone anywhere else that night.

But before I just completely ruled it out, I had to test it myself. I decided to time the route that Tara most likely took that night. Either way, I figured it would be useful information. I started at the theater in Fitzgerald where Tara left the pageant from. I left the theater and started driving towards Ocilla.

Starting route to Ocilla.

My first stop was Rhett Roberts house which I found out was only a couple blocks from the barbecue. I actually had to drive past the house where the barbecue was held to get to Rhett's house.

The destination is on your right.

So Tara didn't just see Rhett at the curb of the road. It's likely that they had planned to meet there. It took 13 minutes and 7 seconds to get to Rhett's house from the theater, 1 minute and 22 seconds to get back to the barbecue.

All of this stuff was just a lot closer than I thought it was. So if Tara left the pageant at 7:15, drove straight to Rhett's house, stayed for 15 minutes then went to the barbecue, she would have easily arrived before 7:45.

Assuming that all accounts of her time are true, she would have at least 15 minutes to spare. Was it enough time for Tara to go somewhere else real quick? I think so. Was it likely? I don't know.

I decided to give the whole student theory a rest for now. There were some other prominent figures in this case that I really needed to focus on.

It's now been two weeks since a former beauty queen disappeared in Georgia. Thirty-year-old high school teacher Tara Grinstead was last seen at a dinner party with friends. Anita Gattis joins this morning. She's Tara's sister. Good morning.

Good morning, Hannah.

Anita, I'm sure this is just a terrible time for you and your family. Can you fill us in a bit on this story? Maybe our viewers will be able to help you out. The last time your sister was seen was about 11 p.m. on October 24th. What did police find when they went to her home?

Well, they didn't find a lot. The house was locked. Her cell phone was back in the charger. She always takes her cell phone with her everywhere she goes. Her purse and her keys were missing. The car was home but it was unlocked which is very unusual. Tara always kept her car locked.

Is there any chance she might have left under her own free will with someone that she knew?

I think that's how it started out and then something went very wrong after that. I don't know if it started out to be an abduction and she was just lured out of her home or she went with somebody and then something happened. I'm just not sure but I really do feel like it is an abduction at this point.

Authorities are really frustrated because they say they haven't come close yet to calling anyone a suspect but they have questioned a couple of key people, one of them being a former boyfriend of your sister. What can you tell us about him.

They broke up approximately nine months ago. He has been questioned many times at length. He has obtained an attorney. They had had a very bad argument. I've just found out several days before she went missing concerning an 18-year-old that he was dating.

And my sister did not think that her parents would approve of a 30-year-old dating an 18-year-old. I was told that she threatened to tell the parents and they had a very heated argument over this.

Shortly after Tara went missing, the first major person of interest in this case was her ex-boyfriend, Marcus Harper. To get you up to speed on Marcus, I'll have my friend Rob detail his background.

Marcus Harper was Tara's long term boyfriend of five years. They met in 1999 through a mutual friend named John David Anderson. Around that time, Marcus was an officer at the Ocilla Police Department.

Marcus joined the Army after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. He went on to become an Army Ranger and served in Iraq. In September of 2005, Marcus was still serving overseas but in October he returned home to Ocilla for three weeks. Marcus and Tara's relationship had become pretty rocky at that point.

And when Marcus arrived back home, he didn't tell Tara he was there. It was during those three weeks back at home in Ocilla that Tara disappeared. Marcus told Fox News commentator Greta Van Susteren that Tara had ended their relationship well before she went missing. He said he felt a little rejected at first but that we continued to be friends.

Harper and the televised interview with Fox described his relationship with Tara as a commitment. "We did not date other people", he said. "But I was honest with her when I said I had no intentions of marriage." After they broke up, Marcus said in the interview, that she was very irrational and she told me that if she found out I was dating someone, she would commit suicide.

Atlanta Georgia, 1979.

Are you scared?

Yes, sir.

One by one kids are going missing with no explanation.

A black 15-year-old male who lived in the same area where three other children have disappeared …

There was a real life monster on the loose and the city of Atlanta demanded answers.

In a city kids get killed, unfortunately nobody cares.

By 1981, the FBI was involved in one of the largest manhunts in U.S. history and eventually they put one man behind bars. But nearly 40 years later, this case has left more questions than answers in what may be the Atlanta's darkest secret.

I don't know today whether he's innocent or guilty.

From the producers of Up and Vanished and HowStuffWorks, we present an all new podcast, Atlanta Monster. Subscribe to Atlanta Monster right now on Apple podcast and be the first to hear it on January 5th.

Right away, Marcus didn't look very good but despite everyone's suspicions, he was very open and cooperative with the investigation. He also did several nationally televised interviews. The biggest thing to me was the timing. He was gone overseas for several months. Then when he comes home to Ocilla for three weeks, Tara coincidentally disappears.

Marcus did have an alibi however. It checked out pretty flawlessly. But before we get into that, there was one more person that really struck the interest of investigators.

Also questioned is a man who apparently stalked your sister and was arrested a year ago. Is that right?

Well, actually I think it was more like four to six months ago. She had taught him when he was in the ninth grade. He had just recently graduated. I think maybe after her and the boyfriend broke up, he kinda saw a window of opportunity, although Tara would never ever date a former student. And he was arrested attempting to break in her house and she was at home at the time.

A former student that was stalking her, then arrested for trying to break in her house. Red flags were everywhere. This person's name is Anthony Vickers. He was the second person police were highly interested in. The whole student thing had me from the get go and I started researching as much as I could. To fill you in on his background, here's Rob again.

Anthony Vickers was a former student of Tara's who was engaged in some sort of relationship with her in the months prior to her disappearance. Shortly after Tara disappeared, Anthony was featured briefly on the Nancy Grace and discussed their relationship over the phone. This was the only interview Anthony has ever done.

He said, "Very few people knew about our relationship. There's probably only three or four people that actually knew and we knew that they would not talk at all. When we would see each other. I would usually go over to her house would be the easiest thing to do. She would pick me up and we would go over there and just hang out, you know, watch a movie or something. That's kind of how we did it. I would like to help but, you know, if you try to help a lot of times you just get scrutinized against.

On March 30th, 2005, about six months before Tara went missing, Ocilla police officers were dispatched to Tara's house for a disturbance call. They received a report that someone was trying to break down the owner's door. The individual was Anthony Vickers.

Based on the incident report, Anthony was very agitated. He started cussing and shouting at some of the neighbors who were watching. Vickers yelled so loud that the neighbor outside doing yard work about two blocks from Tara's house could hear him shouting. The officers asked Anthony to keep quiet but he refused to cooperate. He was then handcuffed and arrested and taken to the Irwin County Detention Center.

I made an open records request with the Ocilla police department to obtain a copy of Anthony's arrest report. With all the rumors flying around this town, I had to verify this incident myself. Chief Billy Hancock with the Ocilla PD was very helpful in getting this information.

In the report, Tara had made a handwritten statement to police. Some of which said this, Anthony's behavior was abnormal. He was very aggressive on this day. I was very scared for my well-being, as well as scared about Anthony. Anthony invaded my privacy in my home while doing so in a raging and out of control manner.

Anthony's written statement seemed to tell a different story. He claimed that he was actually getting in his car to leave when the police arrived and they screamed at him to step away from his vehicle. He also stated that an officer ran towards him and just bumped him, almost knocking him over and that he never once tried to resist arrest.

According to Tara's friends and family, Anthony's relationship with her was some sort of delusion or fantasy but I wondered if maybe there was some truth to it. I've reached out several times to Anthony for an interview but no luck. And the same for Marcus Harper, Tara's ex-boyfriend. These two are very tight lipped about this case and honestly I could totally see why.

In the meantime, I was able to get a hold of somebody. His name is Noah Griffin. He knew Tara for several years and worked very closely with her in all the pageants. I was just thankful somebody close to her was willing to talk to me.

Well, to sum it up, Tara was driven. She was very determined to succeed at whatever she's set out to do. I knew for a fact that she would never leave. Everybody's just, "Oh, she's gone. She's just run out. Da, da, da, da." And I said no, she wouldn't do that. I want to say … and I'm not good with time …

Right.

But I want to say like six months had passed before I was ever questioned by the GBI. I told the GBI and I said, "You know, I could have went to her house at 2 o'clock in the morning and knocked on her door and she'd have opened the door for me.".

Yeah.

You know, and why was I not a suspect from the get go? When the GBI talked to me, they wanted to know if anybody had videotaped that pageant that night. Somebody at the party that night that she went to, that cookout, said when she left that she was going home to watch the video of the pageant. And I still to this day don't know if there was a video or if that, you know. And it's just like one night it just hit me that a distant cousin of mine's stepdaughter was in the pageant and he was to the left of us up against the wall with a video camera.

Could this be the pageant tape that Tara was talking about? And if it is, does it actually help us at all? Regardless, if he still has it, I want a copy.

This is the sad thing, there has been so much small town gossip and lies told that the truth will never be known. I'm just … I've just been constantly racking my brain. There's not a day goes by that she doesn't run across my mind and I don't try to relive that day and that time and what could have happened to her. You know, there was a side of Tara that I didn't know.

Yes.

Was very we'll hidden if it was in fact true. I try not to believe that it was. You know, I know how people talk and how they gossip. I've heard people say they've seen this and they've seen that. Well, I didn't see it. So if I didn't see it, I don't know it. You know what I'm saying?

What side are you talking about?

Very free with men and one of them was a student, Vickers, Anthony Vickers. I heard his mother casually say in a crowd one time that she caught her climbing out his bedroom window one night.

Hello.

Hey. Is Anthony there?

Yeah, this is him.

Thank you guys for listening to episode 2 of Up and Vanished. The response from episode 1 was really awesome. I just want to thank everybody out there who's listening. As for my grandma's cowboy cookie contest, I'll be announcing the winner of that on my website, upandvanish.com. Just go to the site and click on the page called discussions on the top right.

And please if you haven't already, rate this podcast on iTunes and leave a review. It really helps a lot. And I would like to ask again that anybody who knows anything at all about Tara's disappearance to please come forward. Thank you and see you next time.

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