Serial killers, brutal murder and the rise of the podcast detectives

The true crime landscape is now populated with citizen detectives, who go to great lengths to solve horrific slayings, such as those of American serial killer Israel Keyes, then relay them to their followers. Are they a good thing? Clémence Michallon investigates

Friday 11 December 2020 15:10 GMT
Citizen detectives investigate crimes such as unsolved murders and disappearances
Citizen detectives investigate crimes such as unsolved murders and disappearances

Josh Hallmark had promised his partner he’d be back before nightfall. He was in the town of Brattleboro, Vermont, investigating the crimes of a serial killer. The podcast host and producer was travelling by himself. The stop was part of a series of trips in recent months that involved spending time on country roads, checking out boat launches and other secluded locations. It seemed prudent to be back before dark.

But on 15 October, Hallmark got “carried away” with his investigation. By the time he realised the sun was setting, he was exhausted. He started driving back and took a wrong turn. Google Maps sent him on the shortest route home, “three miles of dirt road through the woods”. Soon, it was dark. Hallmark did not have service on his phone. That’s when he spotted them: two headlights, right behind his rented Toyota Camry.

The serial killer Hallmark had spent the past seven years investigating most likely stalked potential victims on highways, attempting to run them off the road. He was also dead, so it was definitely not him behind Hallmark’s car. But, as anyone who has ever watched a horror film can attest, getting tailgated on a deserted road never feels like good news.

Hallmark knew he should have pulled over, but he had spent the past 60 hours immersed in tales of a killer abducting people off roads. He picked up the pace. The car behind him drew so close that its headlights vanished. “I start speeding and I’m going 55 [miles per hour] on a dirt road,” he recounts. “The car behind me is on my ass the whole time. And I’m just white-knuckling it for – it felt like 20 minutes, but it was probably five.”

Hallmark got home safe that night, with a spooky story to tell and the certainty that his boyfriend would never let him drive alone again. A month after the dirt road incident, he’s self-deprecating, aware of his own paranoia. He views the anecdote as a cautionary tale: for citizen detectives like him, who spend most of their waking hours immersed in a criminal case, “everything is something”.

“I can find something that feels really mundane, but I can give it a lot of value,” Hallmark says. “And this is an offshoot of that, where everything weird that happens is definitely someone trying to kill you.”

Serial Killer Israel Keyes murdered at least 11 people prior to his death in December 2012

The man who lives rent-free in Hallmark’s brain is named Israel Keyes. He was arrested in March 2012 after abducting and murdering Samantha Koenig, an 18-year-old barista, in Anchorage, Alaska. In conversations with the FBI, Keyes described himself as a serial killer who had been “two people” for most of his adult life. By the age of 34, Keyes had served in the US Army, sustained two long-term relationships, raised a daughter, and built a business as an independent contractor. In that same time, Keyes also killed at least 11 people. (That number is disputed; Hallmark believes it's significantly higher).

Keyes died by suicide in December 2012 after nine months of incarceration. His conversations with the FBI had been protracted, often fruitless. At the time of his death, just three of his victims had been named with certainty. According to Keyes, most of his other victims were still classified as missing. This is where Hallmark comes in.

His podcast True Crime Bullsh** launched in December 2018. Since then, Hallmark has dedicated 37 episodes – more than 25 hours of content – to Keyes, over three seasons. (He deep-dived another case during season three of the show, before coming back to Keyes for a fourth instalment). What was once an office-based endeavour turned into a real-life search earlier this year. Keyes was a traveller, with crimes spanning multiple states. As Hallmark tried to put names and faces to Keyes’s remaining murder victims, he, too, hit the road.

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“I started renting cars and taking day trips,” he narrates in the season four premiere, “Obsession”. “Those day trips turned into weekend trips, and then eventually week-long road trips ... I found myself trudging through the woods, along rivers and cemeteries, breaking into boarded-up outhouses, lingering in obscure parking lots, and essentially stalking any abandoned building I passed on any rural or remote highway.”

Later in the episode, his anguish becomes more pronounced: “I’ve tracked down old Keyes tipsters, including his friends and family. I’ve climbed into ravines, walked through streams, toed an international border – twice, stood in Israel Keyes’s property, and even tried to buy it ... I need to solve this case. I need resolution.”

Citizen detectives were born out of the collision of two forces: fascination and need. The serial killer became a familiar figure in American living rooms during Ted Bundy’s criminal trial, which aired on TV across the nation in 1979. America couldn’t look away. Bundy once described himself as “both fascinated with and angry at myself” – feelings the public still reciprocates. In archive news footage, a girl who doesn’t look older than 15, all plump cheeks and windswept hair, tells a reporter outside the courtroom: “It scares me to be in the same room with [Bundy], but I know there’s other people in there.” The reporter shoots back: “Why do you do it?” With a self-deprecating laugh, the girl offers the only answer she can think of: “I don’t know.”

OJ Simpson’s 1995 murder trial, another media blitz, made it clear that America had an itch to scratch when it came to crime stories, and that the way to scratch that itch was, apparently, through entertainment. The Investigation Discovery channel, a true crime network, was created in 1996. Oxygen, one of its competitors, followed in 2000.

So the fascination was there. Then came the system, with shortcomings and failures that carved a de facto need for citizen detectives. In 2014, Serial, the 12-episode podcast examining the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, changed the modern true-crime landscape. Suddenly, the genre was high-brow. Sarah Koenig’s investigation into the 2000 conviction of Adnan Syed, Lee’s ex-boyfriend, was the furthest thing from tabloid media. It was an exercise in fact-checking, and at times a meta project in which Koenig weighed her own hunches and biases.

That doubts remained about Syed’s culpability gave the project a criminal justice angle too. After the podcast aired, calls to grant Syed a new trial were invigorated. The case made its way up the lower courts until the Maryland Court of Appeals reinstated Syed’s conviction. In November last year, the US Supreme Court refused to hear Syed’s appeal, leaving his defence team with few legal avenues to exhaust.

“I think [citizen detectives] arise out of real failures – of law enforcement, of the criminal justice system, and of the media,” Rachel Monroe, the author of the acclaimed true crime book Savage Appetites, says. “If those institutions are not doing their job ... that opens up a real sense that we don't have the full story, that the case has been solved incorrectly or hasn’t been solved yet.”

A missing person poster for Samantha Koenig is displayed on the window of the coffee shop from which Keyes abducted her in Alaska

When Keyes died in 2012, he effectively ended his case. The FBI collected tips and pursued leads after his death, and the case officially remains open. But the Bureau runs on tax dollars. Once all solid leads have been exhausted, and without a suspect to prosecute, it wouldn’t make sense to pour vast amounts of resources into the case.

Bobby Chacon will never forget Keyes’s final known victim. A former FBI agent, he helped establish the bureau’s underwater unit. Chacon and his team were the ones who retrieved Samantha Koenig’s remains from Matanuska Lake, Alaska, about 40 miles from the abduction site in Anchorage back in 2012.

Chacon’s career in law enforcement began in New York. The son of an NYPD officer, he went to Hofstra Law School, then enrolled at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He’s as classically trained as an officer can be. He could be sceptical of the work of citizen detectives – independent sleuths attempting to solve cases that eluded even top investigators. But he endorses citizen detectives in general, and Hallmark in particular.

“Our job is to put killers in jail,” he says. “If that person is in the grave, our job is done there. Those mysteries will remain unsolved from a law enforcement point of view, because we don’t have the resources. We have to move on to the next case ... That makes it really right for citizen detectives to step up and fill that void.”

Chacon’s enthusiasm is backed up by his own credentials in the true crime world. Six years into retirement, he has appeared in several documentaries and is a frequent guest on podcasts. Chacon, who spends most of his time a couple of miles out of Los Angeles, has even dipped his toes in fiction, serving as an adviser on the CBS crime drama Criminal Minds. “Ghosts”, an episode he co-wrote with former FBI agent Jim Clemente, aired in January this year.

His support for citizen detectives comes with few caveats, but the ones he raises have crucial practical implications. Browsing files online – an activity that citizen detectives can devote hundreds of hours to – is usually unproblematic. But field work, especially surveillance, door knocks, and interviews, is off-limits in his view. Some activities are best left to trained professionals.

Hallmark is no stranger to investigative research, having recorded more than a full day’s worth of content about Keyes’s case. Now a full-time podcaster, he first heard about Keyes when he still had an office job. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, he was exposed to the true-crime pop culture of that time. One of his co-workers shared this inclination; together, they would “chat over the cubicle” about various cases. It was that co-worker who, one day, leaned over and asked if he’d heard about a serial killer named Israel Keyes.

By now, Hallmark is known among followers of the Keyes case. He receives six to seven tips a day – some solid, some flimsy. True Crime Bullsh** gets around 600,000 downloads a month. It’s a source of income for Hallmark, by way of ads and the subscription platform Patreon, where fans can access early/bonus content. Episodes focus on aspects of Keyes’s crimes, his life, and his possible victims.

The audio frequently toggles between Hallmark’s rich voice and Keyes’s flat affect in FBI interviews. The production is pared-down. Hallmark prefers to invest in content rather than equipment – though as an avid music consumer, he spends part of his budget on licensing fees for songs that inspire him. His guiding light throughout season one was Laura Gibson’s “I Don’t Want Your Voice to Move Me”, a folksy ballad whose lyrics (“I don't want your voice to move me/ I don't want to be cracked open”) take on special meaning in the context of his work on the Keyes case. One episode in which Keyes can be heard referencing plans to become a travelling contractor in hurricane-struck areas included Heather Nova’s cover of Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane”.

The Common Grounds coffee shop from which Keyes abducted Koenig in February 2012 – she is Keyes’s final known victim

On the wall of Hallmark’s home office in the Berkshires, Massachusetts, is a map of the United States marked with relevant Keyes locations. There’s also a “crazy spreadsheet” on which Hallmark has gathered a plethora of information, from Keyes’s locations through time to the makes of his cars. Along the way, Hallmark has received support from experts. There was praise from Bobby Chacon. In season one of the show, Hallmark interviewed forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland, getting her analysis of Keyes’s psyche. He has also relied on a prosecutor who listens to the show and has guided him through ethical and practical dilemmas.

By poring over travel and financial records, police files, FBI documents, and cross-referencing every bit of information he came across, Hallmark has deconstructed the “mythology” of Keyes. For a while, the story went that Keyes struck at random, with no victim profile, which is why he went undetected for so long. But Hallmark has spotted patterns in Keyes’s behaviour. He has built up his own profile of Keyes, which he uses to weigh the credibility of every theory.

Citizen detectives have a wealth of information at their disposal. In the US, the Freedom of Information Act signed into law by President Lyndon B Johnson in 1966 enables anyone to request government documents. There are limits to the standards of disclosure imposed on government agencies, and documents obtained through that process are often censored. But even a redaction can become a clue in the context of an investigation: as Keyes’s aloof conversations with the FBI show, what someone doesn’t want to share is often the most telling. Listening to the FBI recordings, you learn almost as much from the questions Keyes doesn’t want to answer as the ones he’s willing to engage with. A silence doesn’t reveal its truths, but it usually signals that there is something there – a potential victim, information about his MO, or a meaningful detail.

Keyes’s FBI file was published in full in July this year on the Bureau’s Vault platform, an online library containing more than 6,000 documents for public browsing. Individual requests are no longer necessary. Anyone can access the Keyes file – all 3,598 pages of it – and find out everything from what he liked to bake (pies and fudge) to how many hairs were plucked from the suspect’s head for DNA purposes (40).

Having so much material to sift through can make it hard to keep perspective. Self-criticism is key: each theory has to be weighed, tested, and attacked by the very person who formulated it. Hallmark describes his work as a mix of hubris and humility: hubris, because you must conduct your own investigation with confidence; humility, because your work benefits from a healthy amount of self-doubt. Citizen detectives work on their own. They are, in the vast majority of cases, self-trained. No one is there to wave a red flag when their instincts take them in the wrong direction – unless they actively seek out that advice. Their industry is at the mercy of each person’s sense of auto-regulation.

To evaluate the credibility of a lead, Hallmark has a process. Say he’s heard about a missing person case and wants to weigh whether Keyes is a likely suspect in the disappearance. Does it line up with Keyes’s timeline? Does the MO look like his? Does the victim profile fit his type? Even if all those boxes are ticked, Hallmark lets things marinate for a while. He files a FOIA request and combs the resulting documents for anything that might disqualify Keyes as a suspect or strengthen the case against him.

The documents then go into a filing box. After a bit more time goes by, Hallmark returns to them and checks whether his initial impressions hold up. With the help of his research documents, he considers several factors: was Keyes travelling at the time of the disappearance? What car was he driving? Did he rent a vehicle? What do his financial records look like? Was his phone off? Were there any tips placing Keyes in the relevant location? Hallmark, of course, is also in the habit of rating tips' credibility thanks to a one-to-five-asterisk system. Are multiple people placing Keyes in the same region at the same time? Do they describe him in similar ways? Did they see him with the same vehicle? If several of these questions can be answered affirmatively, then the tips are deemed credible – and into a spreadsheet they go.  

For Bobby Chacon, this aspect of the work of a citizen detective – the scepticism, the spreadsheets, the ability to both hoard and challenge information – is key. “I've listened to a lot of podcasts where [the hosts] home in on something. They get hyper-focused, and they don't want to be challenged,” he says. “They get very myopic in their views and they can be very set in their ways. That's not a good thing in an investigation.”

The true crime genre is preoccupied with its own methods. At the same time as people consume crime stories, they often think of how to tell those stories, and how to discuss them. Citizen detectives exist at two uncomfortable intersections: between crime and entertainment, and between content and real life. The things they say – the theories they share, the information they uncover – can have an impact on those whose lives were touched by crime, be they the families of victims or the loved ones of a perpetrator.

Tim Pilleri and Lance Reenstierna launched their podcast about the disappearance of Maura Murray in 2015. Murray went missing on 9 February 2004 aged 21, after her car crashed in rural New Hampshire. Her disappearance remains unsolved and the corresponding case is still open.

When Missing Maura Murray was in its infancy, Pilleri and Reenstierna viewed the podcast as a means to generate interest for a documentary they were working on about the same case. Five years and 134 episodes later, Missing Maura Murray is ongoing. Pilleri and Reenstierna have examined a number of leads and helped maintain public interest in the case. They have also developed a rapport with Murray’s family, and openly discussed the growing pains they have experienced along the way.

On the podcast’s website sits a permanent apology from Pilleri and Reenstierna, which reads: “As we prepare to enter year four of this podcast, we realise we were not adequately prepared for what it would become. To be transparent, itʼs embarrassing for us to reflect on the fact that we never consulted the family about even the title of the podcast. That’s just one example of our naivety. Looking back at the early episodes are especially cringeworthy.

“We would like to issue a formal apology to [Murray’s father] Fred Murray and his entire family for anything we said due to our initial ignorance. Our parents raised us better than to have behaved in such a manner.”

Maura Murray went missing in February 2004 – the case remains unsolved and open

On a Zoom call, Reenstierna says revisiting early episodes of the show is a “very cringy” experience – enough to leave the two men wondering whether they should pull them altogether. They decided against it, hoping others would learn from their experience. “This whole case is like an arc. You can’t jump in without going through a process,” he says. “So we kind of went through the process for everybody.”

When Hallmark and I talk, on two separate occasions in November, he’s caught in a particularly high-stakes conundrum. Keyes is dead; those who shared his life, for the most part, aren’t. Hallmark has come across new information that could impact at least two people whose lives intertwined with Keyes’s. The responsibility weighs on him. Citizen detectives are often depicted in works of fiction as exceedingly self-assured, valuing their own intuition above all else (think Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, who proved so appealing that he spearheaded an entire generation of Tumblr fan art). The ones I speak to are prone to vacillation, willing to question their purpose and methods.

“Something I've been wrestling with,” Reenstierna muses, “is we keep saying that the more attention [we bring to Murray’s case], the better. But maybe that's not the case. Maybe whoever did something to Maura is looking at all the attention and it just keeps reminding them to keep their mouth shut. Maybe with less attention, they might’ve slipped up. I don't know.”

A ribbon hangs at the site where Murray was last seen after a car crash in rural New Hampshire

Citizen detectives don’t exist outside of the sphere of violence. They’re people in the world, informed by their own traumas. When Hallmark was a child, several relatives on his father’s side of the family were attacked. Two people were murdered, one was shot and survived. True crime was already a part of Hallmark’s culture by then. Knowing and feeling that his family had been touched, in a very direct way, by an act of violence, changed his approach to the genre, first as a consumer, and later as a producer.

“That happened, and it was like, ‘Oh, I need to be more thoughtful about how I consume this,’” he says. And even now, “I think about them. I think if someone was telling their story, how would they react to it? What would they want? What wouldn't they want? What would upset them? What wouldn't?”

Through his investigation of Keyes’s crimes, Hallmark has taken pains to depict Keyes as a human being. The podcast spends time exploring his various identities – as a father, a son, a boyfriend, a brother, a veteran, a small business owner, a co-worker, a murderer, a rapist, a bank robber, an arsonist, an abductor. As a listener, holding the full picture of Keyes in your brain is a challenge. The exercise can be so frustrating that you’re tempted to punch the metaphorical mirror and shatter Keyes’s reflection into more manageable pieces. But Hallmark is unwavering in his commitment to the full picture.

When asked to explain how his own experiences with violence have shaped his understanding of true crime, he points to another event in his past. Hallmark, now 39, was raped when he was 25. “The way that I dealt with it in my healthiest of moments was that I needed to forgive my attacker,” he says. “In order to do that, he needed to be a human being to me. I think that is fundamental to how I approach Keyes. He needs to be a human being. That, I think, is what makes the podcast what it is: I give him the agency to be a person, and not just a rapist and a murderer. And that comes from a sense of me needing to give my rapist the agency to be a human being.”

There is a social justice aspect to Hallmark’s approach too. Because true crime constantly interacts with the concepts of justice, crime, and punishment, it is by essence political. Dehumanising rhetoric is used beyond the true crime world to push tough-on-crime policies that broaden the scope of what can be done to people in the criminal justice system. Most states in the US restrict felons’ voting rights, for example – sometimes permanently or with significant hurdles to restoration.

Acknowledging a violent criminal’s humanity is still considered taboo by some people, inside and outside true-crime circles. There’s a tendency to believe that doing so takes away from the victims and comes at the expense of acknowledging the profound injustice that was done to them. Samantha Koenig was only 18 when Keyes ended her life. According to an obituary published in the Anchorage Daily News, she “loved animals, friends, fishing with Papa, playing music, photography, writing music and poetry, camping and playing Call of Duty with [her boyfriend].” She had plans to work with animals, or to enlist in the Navy and become a nurse. She was on the cusp of adulthood, finding her place in the world.

Keyes’s other two verified victims, Bill and Lorraine Currier, were a middle-aged couple living a quiet life in Essex, Vermont, when he abducted them from their home and murdered them. Lorraine, 55, worked at a medical centre while Bill, 49, was an animal care technician at the University of Vermont. The pair went missing on 8 June 2011. Their disappearance remained unsolved until Keyes confessed to the double murder while in custody the following year. The crime as he described it was brutal, senseless. It’s impossible to think about the Curriers, or about Koenig, without feeling the weight of their losses.

The memory of Keyes’s victims tends to be an integral part of any investigation into the case. A sharp reminder of this fact comes during this writer’s conversation with Bobby Chacon about – as I refer to it – “the Keyes case”.

“Even as you were asking a question, I was like, ‘Please stop calling it the Israel Keyes case.’ It’s the Samantha Koenig case,” he tells me. In another part of our exchange, he’s clearly haunted, still, by the memory of that day on Matanuska Lake, when he and his team went to search for Koenig’s dismembered body.

“I remember the face of every child I've recovered,” he says. “And having held Samantha’s head in my hands, and seeing her eyes ... I'm holding a human head in my hands, of a young girl who died weeks earlier in a horrible way, and seeing the frozen fear on her face, literally.”

As a serial killer, Keyes was a statistical anomaly. The vast majority of crime in the US doesn't look anything like his: according to the FBI, serial murderers account for less than one percent of all murders committed in any given year. But the way his story gets told is rife with meaning. The way his story gets told matters. Being able to say his victims’ names matters.

This, to Hallmark, is the most interesting aspect of the narrative he’s built: divorcing himself from the mystique of the methodical serial killer and replacing it with a tale that is at once more quotidian, more nuanced, and more truthful.

“It's a challenging story,” Hallmark says. “There's humanity to him. We will never know what his capacity to care or love was, but we can see in his actions things that were demonstrative of love and care. And he had this really messed-up childhood. Do we give him space to be a product of his childhood instead of having this binary notion of ‘he's a monster, he has no humanity, he is at fault for what he's done’? ... I get to analyse this down to something so much simpler than it’s been sold to us as.”

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