In early October, I prepared to drive to Tennessee to bury a body in the woods.
My father, who passed away the previous fall, spent his last years in a small town outside Knoxville and loved to hike in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. In lieu of a funeral, his wish was to have his ashes scattered amid the trees and streams that had given him a new appreciation for nature late in life. So my siblings and I made plans to gather there and honor his request, despite our strong suspicion that doing so would be against the law.
I’d never downloaded a podcast before (although I’ve uploaded numerous podcasts The Bollard co-produced with Maine Digital Press a couple years back). I’m a late adopter of new technologies and formats, but the need to fill 36 hours of solo drive time prodded me to venture out from beneath my rock and give podcasts a try.
I’d heard of Serial, a spinoff of the popular public-radio program This American Life that’s been downloaded over 100 million times since its release in October 2014. The first season explores the circumstances surrounding the murder of Hae Min Lee, a high school student in Baltimore whose body was discovered in a wooded urban park in 1999. Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of the crime and is still in prison, but as Serial’s investigation has shown, his guilt is far from certain.
I downloaded all 12 episodes onto my phone and binged on them until the season was over, by which time I was in Virginia. I was enthralled by the way Serial delved into the details of this case, revealing troubling discrepancies in the state’s version of events and intriguing anecdotes about the witnesses, lawyers and cops involved in Syed’s prosecution. Syed’s conviction seemed more unjust with each episode, though Serial host Sarah Koenig was still undecided regarding his guilt by the season’s end.
When I got to Tennessee, I told my sister Brooke about Serial. A law school graduate, she also loved the podcast and recommended I check out one of its spinoffs, Undisclosed: The State vs. Adnan Syed, which she said was just as good, if not better than Serial.
She was right. I downloaded every episode of Undisclosed available at the time, as well as each addendum released between episodes, and binged on those all the way home to Maine. Co-hosted and produced by attorney Rabia Chaudry, who’d brought Syed’s case to Koenig’s attention, Undisclosed thoroughly schools Serial by delving even deeper into the details of the case and proving well beyond any doubt that Syed should not be behind bars (his appeals are ongoing).
A few days after my return, the Maine Warden Service announced that the remains of Appalachian Trail hiker Geraldine Largay, a retired nurse from Tennessee who vanished in 2013, had finally been discovered.
The Bollard published a story about the Largay case last July, in which we disclosed the existence of a secretive and controversial Navy training facility (known as a SERE School) that borders the section of trail from which Largay disappeared. As I noted in this column on Oct. 22, details the wardens disclosed about the discovery during their Oct. 16 press conference raised more questions than they answered — including, most notably, the cause of her death — though investigators (and my colleagues in the media) were quick to conclude that the discovery brought the case to “closure.”
Two weeks later, on Oct. 30, the Warden Service announced that, working in conjunction with the state medical examiner’s office, they had determined Largay died of thirst, starvation and exposure to the elements. Once again, the attitude of authorities and the media who serve their interests was “case closed,” “nothing to see here,” “move along, people.”
Well, suffice to say I will not be moving along. Inspired by Serial and, especially, Undisclosed, I’ve launched a series in the pages of The Bollard that continues the investigation of the Largay case begun last summer, when freelance investigator Hutch Brown and I wrote “M.I.A. on the A.T.”
The first installment of what I informally refer to as our “SERE-ial” appears in the December issue of the magazine and is already causing a stir. Subtitled “Survival,” it presents evidence that seems to contradict the state’s claim that Largay died of thirst, hunger and cold — in woods crisscrossed with freshwater streams, while carrying at least two days’ worth of food, in the middle of summer, when she had warm clothing and rain gear and the means to build a fire.
The next installment, “Evasion,” slated for next month’s issue, will examine what the wardens knew, what they’ve revealed about what they know, and why they’re withholding some key details from the public. If interest in our investigation continues to grow, who knows — maybe we’ll make it a podcast, too.