true crime podcasts

This Week in True-Crime Podcasts: A Stem Cell Scandal

Photo: Vulture

The true-crime-podcast universe is ever expanding. We’re here to make it a bit smaller and a bit more manageable. There are a lot of great shows, and each has a lot of great episodes, so we want to highlight the noteworthy and the exceptional. Each week, our crack team of podcast enthusiasts and specialists will pick their favorites.

Murder in Oregon: “The Murder”

Don’t let the humdrum title fool you: Murder in Oregon is an absorbing new podcast examining the complicated case of Michael Francke, a former director of Oregon’s Department of Corrections who was stabbed to death just outside of his Salem, Oregon, office building in 1989. Oh, and did we mention the murder took place just hours before he was supposed to discuss, before the legislature, alleged corruption within his own department? (Yeah, nothing fishy about that at all!) While police maintained that the murder was simply a “burglary gone bad,” many suspected it was a hit. Small-time drug dealer Frank Gable was tried and convicted for the crime in 1991, but his guilt has since been called into question, and an Oregon judge actually overturned the verdict earlier this year. So who did kill Francke? Here’s hoping Murder in Oregon can find out. —Amy Wilkinson

The First Degree: “Jesse ‘LJ’ Matthew”

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During the fall of 2014, I was obsessed with the disappearance of Hannah Graham, the University of Virginia sophomore who vanished after a night out. Hannah’s body was found on October 18, 2014, and her murder was soon linked to a former Charlottesville cab driver and repeat sex offender Jesse “LJ” Matthew, who also murdered Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington in 2009. On this episode of The First Degree (a crossover with Jensen and Holes: The Murder Squad, which covered Matthew’s crimes and those that might be linked to him in their latest two episodes), hosts Jac Vanek, Alexis Linkletter, and Billy Jensen examine Matthew’s past. They speak with a friend of Matthew’s from high school (the “first degree” element of the podcast), who initially was shocked by the murders and assaults Matthew committed, but then admits that he had a record of disregarding physical boundaries. The timeline of Hannah’s kidnapping and murder reveals more about Matthew and his predatory behavior, as well as the opportunities for bystanders to have intervened, and the lack of action by college officials to stop Matthew after he committed rape at multiple universities. Listen for a deep, unsettling dive — it’s well worth it. —Chanel Dubofsky

The Guardian Audio Long Reads: “Girl in the Box: The Mysterious Crime That Shocked Germany”

The Guardian’s stand-alone episode “Girl in the Box” is based on a piece of long-form journalism by Xan Rice. Read by Andrew McGregor, the engaging narrative has the feel of a fictional mystery as it recalls the kidnapping and death of 10-year-old Ursula Herrmann. Ursula was supposed to be biking home from her cousin’s house on the first day of school in 1981, but she never arrived. Her family and police searched frantically for Ursula, but there was no sign of her. Her family later received several strange phone calls that played a radio jingle, followed by a ransom note. They cobbled together the money, but no more calls or letters came. Ursula was already dead. Her body was eventually discovered in an underground box, buried in a Bavarian forest. It appeared to have been set up to keep her alive, but the air vents failed, and she had suffocated. It wasn’t until 2008 that an arrest was made in Ursula’s death, which had become one of Germany’s best known and most contentious postwar cases. But even after a conviction, an unlikely player in the case still wonders if justice was really done. —Lara Bricker

Bad Batch: “Pure”

Bad Batch, the latest podcast from Wondery, is about a different sort of true crime. Laura Beil (host and reporter on Dr. Death, another Wondery project) looks at what happened to a group of people in Texas who sought out stem cells as a treatment for injuries and chronic conditions and ended up gravely ill. It turns out that stem-cell therapy is barely regulated, and in this episode, Beil examines the source of these particular stem cells — a company called Liveyon that later recalled the batch that was making people sick. But how did these stem cells make it to patients? Was it a physician error? It turns out that a lot of things over at Liveyon were not awesome — there were many safety violations in the lab, the cells didn’t come from quality tissues, the FDA had warned them to get their act together, and the company rushed to make the product available so that they could make money, in spite of its quality. Are you mad at capitalism yet? If not, I might not be able to help you, but even if you are, listen to all six episodes of Bad Batch. —Chanel Dubofsky

This Week in True-Crime Podcasts: A Stem Cell Scandal