Episode 61-A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Missing in the Carolinas

When I first started this podcast, I did not anticipate the ways in which it would evolve, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the content I’ve been able to create and tie back into Missing in the Carolinas. This week, I went back through my research notes for the past year and wanted to share a behind the scenes look at how I found stories to share and a few other things I’ve learned while working on this podcast. Enjoy!

First, I want to talk about falling into true crime rabbit holes, something that’s an occupational hazard when you work on a podcast like this one.This has happened to me several times while researching possible topics for this podcast. There have been times when I’ve caught myself collecting archived newspaper articles on one case, and then I get distracted by a round-up of cold cases or missing people in one area. When that happens, I try to save the article and make a note in the journal for this podcast where I can circle back. But other times, these rabbit holes turn a podcast episode meant for one or two cases into a longer, more in-depth script. A good example of this is Episode 48: Across State Lines. I first got the idea for the episode, where murder victims from other states were discovered in North or South Carolina, while listening to an episode of “Cold Case Files.” That’s when I learned about a woman named Patty Jo Pulley, a pastor’s wife who went missing from Philadelphia in 1997 Virginia in May of 1999. She wasn’t found until 2002, across the state line in North Carolina, and spoiler alert if you haven’t listened to the episode, but someone in her family was convicted of her murder. I wrote her name down as a case to explore for a future episode. I did some creative Google searching, where I discovered the deceased body of a young man named Josue Calderon from Rhode Island had been found on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Blowing Rock, North Carolina in 2021. This was news to me. So I went down that rabbit hole and made notes.

While I was thinking about Patty Jo Pulley and Josue Calderon, I remembered an unusual case I’d seen on “Unsolved Mysteries” about a woman named Judy Smith who went missing from Philadelphia in 1997 and was found deceased outside of Asheville, North Carolina a few months later. I dug deeper the North Carolina newspaper archives while looking up Judith Smith’s case and made a few more discoveries. A man named Steven Wade Boyer, who lived in Georgia, was lured to North Carolina in 1984 under false pretenses and murdered. Then the perpetrator tried to hide the man’s identification by mutilating his body. I also learned there are still two unsolved murders from Asheville, and they involved a husband and wife named Wesley and Bonnie Mahaffey who had traveled to the area from Ohio. They were shot to death one evening while visiting a popular overlook.

Once I had all these cases lined up, I went down even more rabbit holes. Judith Smith’s death has never been solved. And neither has the disappearance of a young college student named Jason Knapp, who went missing from a South Carolina State Park in 1998. I covered his case in Episode 8: Missing College Students in the Carolinas. I began exploring a possible link between Judith Smith, whose autopsy showed stab wounds to her body, and the disappearance of Jason Knapp. Judith was murdered and discovered in an area known to be popular with hikers. Jason was allegedly hiking when he went missing. A serial killer named Gary Hilton found victims in Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina, usually in areas popular with hikers. The murders he was convicted of took place in 2007 and 2008, and Judith Smith and Jason Knapp went missing in 1997 and 1998, so I don’t know if there is a direct link to Gary Hilton. But since the man was convicted of murdering hikers while he was in his 60s, I mentioned in the podcast that it wouldn’t be a leap to assume he could have murdered people before then and just not been caught. And that is just one example of how a true crime rabbit hole or two led to a full podcast episode.

I now have a confession to make. It was while studying the crimes of another serial killer in North Carolina that I became convinced he must be responsible for an unsolved missing persons case. I mentioned this in Episode 26: Missing Moms in North Carolina, but I’ll go over it again to refresh your memory. A man named Terry Hyatt confessed to the kidnapping and murders of three different women in North Carolina between the years of 1979 and 1987. He also sexually assaulted another woman and attempted to murder her in 1979, but she survived. These murders took place in Charlotte and Asheville. But there was another young woman, a 19-year-old named Frankie Horsley, who went missing from Fayetteville, North Carolina in the middle of the night in March 1983. I became convinced Terry Hyatt must have had something to do with her death. I even had all my post-it notes with the victims on the wall with arrows pointing to his name, and Frankie’s was underneath it with a large question mark. I almost called the tipline in Frankie’s case to give them Terry’s name. But then I stopped myself. This is the problem with armchair detectives and podcasters such as myself. I had no physical evidence to tie Terry Hyatt to Frankie’s disappearance. All I had were that she disappeared under similar circumstances as one of his other victims, Harriet Simmons, and she went missing from North Carolina in the middle of the night when she went to a drugstore to get medicine for her toddler. So I decided to mention the possible tie-in on the podcast episode, but I didn’t take it any further, especially since Frankie Horsley was never found, although her car was discovered in South Carolina, and there is no physical evidence in her case to explore.

Next I want to talk about the decision to cover controversial cases and topics on this podcast. I always try to be as ethical as I can and not run with stories that could appear to be clickbait or speak without supporting evidence.Because of this, even though a missing persons case was occurring in the town 10 minutes up the street from me, I held off on reporting on Madalina Cojocari when news first broke late last fall that her parents had failed to report her missing. I kept seeing news articles with the same two or three pieces of information shared and reshared all over social media. I knew that I would have nothing else to add to reporting so I didn’t include her on the podcast right away. But, I began thinking about Erica Parsons and Zahra Baker, two other young girls who had gone missing under similar circumstances, and their caregivers were eventually charged in their disappearances.

Deep down, I know a lot of us in our community feel that either one or both of Madalina’s parents are responsible for her disappearance. I began researching, realizing the point of difference in the three cases were that Madalina had been attending a local public elementary school, and the staff there were the ones who insisted on talking to her parents about why she’d been absent. Erica Parsons and Zahra Baker were not enrolled in public school when they went missing. I knew the three cases would tie in well for one podcast episode. But I was hesitant. The details in the Baker and Parsons case were traumatizing and horrifying. I couldn’t sleep for days after hearing about them when their parents were on trial several years ago. Would listeners accuse me of exploiting Madalina Cojocari if I shared her case with the other two? Or would they see the natural connection and understand? I was very fearful of backlash, and I’m always sensitive to criticism, so I held my breath and released the episode.

Do you know what happened? I didn’t receive one ounce of criticism over the episode, and people nothing but their concern about Madalina Cojocari on the related social media posts. I had spent a lot of time worrying over nothing, and I hoped that all the research I did in sharing the details of all three cases helped alleviate any accusations people could have made on exploiting the facts. My goal was for listeners to draw their own conclusions, and I think that’s what happened. Unfortunately, we still don’t have any other details about Madalina, but I have no doubt that law enforcement and the FBI are quietly working behind the scenes to continue collecting evidence.

Another thing working on this podcast has done is expose me to cases I’ve never heard of before. I think it goes without saying that working on this podcast has led me to many missing persons and true crime cases in North and South Carolina that I’d never been exposed to, and I’ve lived here for twenty plus years. I think it’s also helped strengthened my true crime writing and research skills. Here are a few things I discovered over the course of working on the podcast:

I did not know there had been a murder on a Christmas tree farm on the border of North Carolina and Virginia. Christmas trees are big business in our state, and I along with many others often drive to the mountains each fall to purchase our Christmas tree. In fact, this year I’m pretty sure we picked out a tree at a farm very close to where the Hudler tree farm murders took place in 2008. I talked about this case on Episode 51: The Darker Side of the Holidays. I also did not know a family annihilation had taken place in North Carolina in 1929, and that it had inspired a murder ballad that has been covered by musician Doc Watson. I also covered that in Episode 51.

I had no idea there was an unsolved murder from 1937 that occurred during the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway. (See Episode 33 for more information). I had never heard of the mysterious disappearances of Bobby Dunbar and Kenneth Beasley from the early 1900s (See Episode 42). Some of these stories I learned about from the newspaper archives and others from nonfiction true crime books I read while looking for ideas. I hope that many of these stories are new to you, too, and I appreciate any leads listeners continue to send my way.

I’ve produced a lot of episodes in the past year that tie into trending true crime documentaries that feature high profile cases in the Carolinas. It seems like every other day there are new documentaries released, along with true crime shows like Dateline and 20/20. I found an article on the DigitalTrends.com website written by Christine Persaud that explores our country’s obsession with true crime.

With the true crime genre more popular than ever, it has us wondering: Why are we so taken with such a dark and disturbing genre? The answer leans to part escapism, part morbid curiosity. Ironically, while true crime is rooted in fact, watching these terrible tales about events that took place decades or even just a few years ago offers a strange sense of satisfaction that maybe things are and will be OK, because, well, they could be worse. 

The article also stated:

That these stories are rooted in fact can be an alarming realization. But psychotherapist Kathleen Check, who spoke with Barth for her article, posits that watching true crime shows, particularly those about killers, provides viewers with a sense of being able to see inside the mind of a killer, “thus creating a psychological protective barrier.” In other words, understanding how evil people think and operate provides a better chance of knowing how to protect yourself.

For me personally, the documentary, “The Confession Killer,” which focused on the numerous false confessions of Henry Lee Lucas, fascinated me because it showed a systemic-wide issue of closing murder cases simply because one man confessed to them. Watching all the archival footage, it became apparent to me that the special accommodations, meals, and elevation to an almost voyeuristic celebrity status in the state of Texas was the spark that inspired Lucas to confess to hundreds of murders he didn’t commit. I remember when I first discovered an article titled “Odyssey of Murder” that ran in an August 19, 1984 edition of “The Charlotte Observer,” I was intrigued. The article claimed Lucas was confessing to involvement with at least 10 crimes in North Carolina, including several murders that were eventually linked to other perpetrators through DNA evidence. And this was before the documentary “The Confession Killer” was released. I was motivated to watch it to explore the personality of a person who was clearly a pathological liar and as a journalist, I respected the ones who quickly caught onto the hoax and fought to have it exposed.

Another true crime case I discussed in podcast episodes 43 and 44 was the death of Durham, North Carolina resident Kathleen Peterson. Kathleen Peterson died at the couple’s home in December of 2001, and Michael Peterson went on trial for her murder two years later. I had not followed the case closely at the time but when I started seeing the owl theories floating around on the internet a few years ago I’ll admit I laughed at first. When HBO Max (now just called Max) released their scripted series based on the case, I watched it, then felt like I needed to watch the original true crime documentary “The Staircase” in order to separate fact from fiction and discuss here on the podcast. I truly felt like I had an emotional hangover after watching that documentary. I can now say I still don’t know if Kathleen Peterson died of an accidental fall or was murdered, but the owl theory doesn’t seem so far fetched now. Michael Peterson was released from prison in 2017 after taking an Alford plea and in an article that ran last summer in Entertainment Weekly, shared his anger over the scripted series.

To recap, the 2004 documentary, “The Staircase,” was produced by French filmmaker Jean Xavier de Lestrade with Michael Peterson’s cooperation and consent. What Michael Peterson says he did not consent to, was for de Lestrade to then sell the rights so the documentary could be used as inspiration for a fictional series. To put it bluntly, Michael accused the showrunner of HBO Max’s “The Staircase,” Antonio Campos, of “pimping out his life.”

The article from Entertainment Weekly read in part:

Peterson granted de Lestrade and his camera crew access to him and his family while he awaited trial, but now feels betrayed by the filmmaker, accusing him of earning a hefty payday for selling the rights to his materials to Campos, something which de Lestrade disputes.

“We didn’t sell our story to Campos — were never even consulted or informed that Jean had done this,” Peterson wrote. “We are the ones who were betrayed, falsely depicted as fighting among ourselves (which NEVER happened), and with made up story lines that denigrate all of us in the eyes of millions.”

De Lestrade maintains that he informed the Peterson family in 2008 that Campos wanted to make a feature film about the docuseries, but can’t remember if he let them know about the HBO Max series. “If I didn’t, I should have,” de Lestrade told Variety.

If I were Michael Peterson, I have to say I’d be angry to at the turn of events. For one thing, the documentary and the scripted series both had the exact same title, which I imagine would be confusing to viewers. Because of that, I imagine there were plenty of people who watched the scripted series who had no idea what was truth and what was fiction. Michael Peterson is now a private citizen trying to return to normal life and then this series is released? There are many ethical lines that have been blurred by both the documentary filmmaker and the showrunner of the scripted series. I’d be curious to hear listener thoughts on this.

Another true crime case I discussed on the podcast this past year involved the Murdaugh family out of South Carolina. Again, I think this story has intrigued people all over the country because it involved a powerful family who influenced a small town for many decades, until that power came crashing down in a horrific way. I’m sure there are many of us who saw Alex Murdaugh’s many indictments for financial crimes and murder of his wife and son as the ultimate schadenfreude. It can be frustrating to watch a family living with wealth, power, and prestige, present themselves with the attitude that they are above the law because of a family name. Many thought Paul Murdaugh would get away with his role in Mallory Beach’s death in the 2019 boating accident because of who his father was. Once he and his mother were murdered on June 7, 2021, though, law enforcement couldn’t turn a blind eye anymore as to who Alex Murdaugh was and what crimes he orchestrated. I think in the next two years, a lot more information about suspicious deaths tied to the Murdaugh family is going to come out and it will be interesting to see what that is.

And finally, I want to share a news story that was shared in the Charlotte-area media this past week The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has discovered the identities of three previously unidentified John Does from the area using DNA Technology.

On February 9, 1988, the body of a deceased male was discovered in an empty elevator shaft on North Tryon Street. The building eventually became The Dunhill Hotel, but it had been abandoned since 1981 before the hotel purchased the property. The CMPD tried unsuccessfully for years to try and identify the victim. In June of 2022, the department contacted the North Carolina Unidentified Project. Using advanced DNA testing, the victim’s DNA was loaded into a genealogy database. A geneaologist gave detectives a potential name, and they approached a close family member and requested DNA. The victim was identified as World War II veteran Oliver Doc Mundy, who was from Mooresville but had been known to live on the streets of Charlotte.

Another deceased male victim was found on June 26, 2021, near Graham Street and Interstate 85. Police found no evidence of trauma. They also asked the North Carolian Unidentified Project to help identify the victim, and DNA was loaded into the database. The victim was postiviely identified as Cody Ray Herrell. He had originally been from South Carolina but was known to live on the streets of Charlotte as well.

The remains of a murdered male that were discovered on December 24, 2008 in the woods near Dixie River Road in Charlotte. The DNA Doe Project gathered a DNA profile of the victim, loading it into two different databases. In September 2022, geneaologists zeroed in on a possible victim’s name. The remains belonged to a man named Jose Elder Espinoza, and he had been reported missing in May of 2003. Jose’s case is still under investigation, and anyone with information can call 704-432-TIPS and ask to speak with a detective. The CMPD Cold Case Unit is working to identify at least eight other victims dating back to 1975.

Listen to the full episode here.

Show Notes: