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.
The Grand Scheme: Snatching Sinatra, “Chapter 1: God on the Radio” and “Chapter 2: A Plan of Operation”
I’m no kidnapping expert (and if I were, I surely wouldn’t reveal that here!), but I’ve never heard of a case that involved an actual pen-to-paper “business plan,” complete with profit projections and investment opportunities, stuffed into a three-ring binder and used as recruitment materials. It’s just one of the many idiosyncrasies of the man behind the plan to snatch Frank Sinatra Jr. — son of the legendary crooner — in 1963. That man’s name is Barry Keenan, and in this new podcast from Wondery, he gives a firsthand account of his crime to host John Stamos. (Stamos briefly explains his personal connection to Keenan at the top of the cast.) Keenan’s story is a sprawling one that starts with his Catholic upbringing in Southern California, where he suffered early bouts of depression. The point is made several times that if adequate mental health services had been available in the ’40s and ’50s, perhaps Keenan wouldn’t have resorted to the kidnapping at all. (The podcast takes care not to exploit or make light of Keenan’s issues.) While the veracity of everything coming out of Keenan’s mouth remains to be seen, he sure is one hell of a storyteller. From these first two episodes, it’s easy to see how Keenan convinced two of his high-school friends to be his accomplices — and do it his way. —Amy Wilkinson
The Fall Line, “The Disappearance of Victor Greenwood, Part 2: The Crossroads”
How do you disappear in a small town? In January 2002, 36-year-old Victor Greenwood vanished from the town of Atoka, Oklahoma (population 2,973). Diagnosed with Leber hereditary optic neuropathy, an inherited form of vision loss, Greenwood traversed Atoka exclusively on foot, yet many of those questioned about his disappearance can’t remember (or were reluctant to say) the last time they saw him, adding to the pile of inconsistencies, rumors, questions, and nonanswers about where he could be and what happened to him. In this second episode of a two-parter, writer, researcher, and host Laurah Norton examines the circumstances surrounding Victor’s disappearance. Did he have suicidal ideation? Was he intent on moving to another state? Did he have an altercation that led to his death? How does one sift through all the misinformation to get to something resembling a fact? While the police still don’t have a person of interest in the case, there is some promising news, but you’ll have to listen to find out. —Chanel Dubofsky
Convicted: Across Borders, “Hostage in Havana”
What would it be like to be convicted of a crime in a foreign nation? That question thumps at the heart of the new drama Stillwater, in which Matt Damon plays an American dad, desperate to exonerate his incarcerated daughter. Though the film is fictional, Focus Features and L.A. Times Studios have teamed up for a tie-in miniseries that unfolds five true-crime stories of Americans who have been locked up abroad. As host, nationally recognized prosecutor Marcia Clark weaves together narratives with interviews from experts, officials, the imprisoned, and the family and friends who fought for them. In this first episode, former government contractor Alan Gross recounts how his visit to Cuba in 2009 was supposed to be a simple business trip. However, once he was detained on suspicion of spying, his stay was extended indefinitely. With a warm chuckle and an incorrigible sense of humor, he and his wife, Judith Gross, share not only their struggles in fighting for justice across borders, but also what they learned about the power of love, perseverance, and laughter. Few true-crime podcast eps are this feel-good. –Kristy Puchko
Criminal Broads, “The Massie Affair”
This twisty tale of obnoxious, pedigreed white people running amok in Hawaii (no, not that one) is a must-listen, not just because Tori Telfer is so good at bringing everyone to life but also because it’s a slice of American history and colonialism that people don’t learn enough about. In short, Thalia Massie was a loathsome person whose equally awful husband, Tommie, was stationed at Pearl Harbor, and they were sad, miserable people together and apart. Telfer’s terrific descriptions of Thalia, Tommie, and Thalia’s mom, Grace Fortescue (more on her to come), make them sound like an unholy combination of Grey Gardens and some inverted Wes Anderson hellworld — all moneyed people with New England lockjaw and hair-raising “quirks.”
One night in 1931, she claimed to have been attacked on her way home from a party, and once the police got involved, five young men were set up to take the fall — two native Hawaiian men, two men of Japanese descent, and one man of Chinese and native Hawaiian descent. Telfer paints a vivid picture of the increasingly volatile environment between white interlopers and self-made oligarchs and native Hawaiians, which led to the murder of Joseph Kahahawai at the hands of Grace, Tommie, and two other men, who were later defended by none other than a very broke Clarence Darrow.
This episode is on the slightly longer side for Criminal Broads, but that’s not a complaint by any means. I appreciated the historical context Telfer gives to this story, which is crucial to our ongoing understanding of American colonial history and its effects that are still being felt today in Hawaii, as is Joseph Kahahawai’s legacy. —Jenni Miller
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