As I have mentioned previously, I am a fan of the true crime genre. I’m obviously not alone in this; not only have the shows Making a Murderer and The Jinx been wildly popular, but there is an entire network devoted to this stuff in Investigation Discovery. Podcasts like Serial and Undisclosed have also been watercooler fodder, though I admit the second seasons of both have not quite grasped my attention the same way their respective first seasons have. I’m always on the hunt for compelling items from this genre; currently sitting on my coffee table is Shake the Devil Off: A True Story of the Murder that Rocked New Orleans by Ethan Brown. When done right, true crime can be a fascinating examination of our judicial system and how police build a case – for good and for ill.
In my search for new content, I found the podcast In The Dark; it was mentioned on a recent episode of Undisclosed and piqued my interest because unlike a lot of what’s currently popular in the true crime universe, this podcast wasn’t interested in shining a light on a potentially wrongly convicted person or in trying to solve a cold case. The case at the center of In the Dark has been solved and there is no ambiguity that they have the right person. Rather, the podcast focuses on why it took so long to solve this case and what went wrong along the way. As a person that is always fascinated with process and ways to improve it, In the Dark is right up my alley and has resulted in a fascinating listen.
At the center of the podcast is the abduction and murder of 11 year old Jacob Wetterling, who went missing in St. Joseph, Minnesota in 1989. His body wasn’t found until earlier this year, when the man that assaulted and murdered Jacob confessed and led authorities to his body after being caught for another crime. In the Dark examines why it took 27 years for this case to be solved; what could have been done differently to lead to an earlier conviction of the man who was underneath their noses the entire time? The podcast also examines how this case affected some of the people who were wrongly identified as “people of interest” in the case and the impact of the national registry for sex offenders that was put into place as a result of Jacob’s disappearance. They also put the failure to solve Jacob’s case in a timely manner in the context of other major crimes in the county to see if there is a systemic problem.
It’s been a fascinating listen so far and it has raised some pretty big issues not only about how the Stearns County sheriff’s office conducted their investigation, but about their disinterest or unwillingness to revisit what they could have done better in this case to improve their procedures going forward. Perhaps because of my personality and because part of my day job is to constantly re-evaluate how we do things at my office and how we can improve, I was surprised by the lack of self-reflection and the “we can’t change the past so why think about it attitude” that seemingly pervades the organization. It’s heartbreaking to see how close they were to solving this case – and others – and how failure to follow policing 101 or tunnel vision on one particular suspect handicapped them every step of the way. Combine that with the lack of oversight for the Sheriff – they can only be removed by losing an election – and it doesn’t instill a lot of confidence. It’s also heartbreaking to hear from the man who was deemed a “person of interest” in the case and the devastation that association has had on his life.
In the Dark is great investigative journalism and I’m sorry that there are only nine episodes of the podcast planned (the first eight have already been released). While they may have exhausted all that they can examine in the Jacob Wetterling case, I hope this podcast serves as a model for others; even in a case that is ostensibly solved, there are still issues to be examined. The focus doesn’t always have to be on potential exoneration of an innocent person (though that, of course, is important too). Nothing can bring Jacob Wetterling back or spare his family the pain that they have endured, but hopefully In the Dark will lead to some changes that will honor his memory and help others. If you dig criminal justice, true crime, Serial, or Making a Murderer, In the Dark is worth a listen.