This is part 1 of a two-part series on APM Reports’ In the Dark. This post will follow my normal review format and the second part will be an interview of Madeleine Baran.
Jacob Wetterling was abducted while out riding his bike with two other boys in rural Stearns County, Minnesota, on October 22, 1989 at the age of 11. I was a 9 year old girl then living in the Twin Cities suburbs, having just moved to a new house. I don’t know exactly how to explain this to someone who didn’t live there at this time, but there was a perceived shift in whether we felt safe. Parents started talking to their kids a lot more about stranger danger, people left porch lights on for Jacob, and there was this underlying fear that a guy could snatch a kid. That kid could be you. Me.
So when I heard that there would be a podcast about Jacob’s disappearance, I was very excited to hear what the investigative team at APM had uncovered. I’ll save you the suspense – I absolutely love this show. It is an example of tremendous investigative journalism, told in a serial format, with a sub-narrative as part of a larger story. Believe it or not, Jacob’s abduction is actually the sub-narrative. For as big of a story as this was in my youth in Minnesota, it is almost unbelievable to me that there was a bigger story to tell. And I won’t spoil all the details of that larger story, but I will tell you why this show is terrific and worth listening to – though it’s too much for one sitting.
Each of the episodes of In the Dark, which is hosted by Madeleine Baran, is 30-45 minutes long – a perfect length for investigative journalism podcasts, with enough time to get into details, but not too long to overwhelm the listener and provide too much that could be forgotten by the next installment. The show, which debuted in September 2016 and finished in November, starts out describing the crime: who were the witnesses, what actually happened, where was Jacob, and why was he out riding his bike? Then Baran moves into how the Wetterling family reacted and the immediate aftermath of the crime, and what steps police took to solve the crime. This is where the larger story begins to take shape.
Baran told me in an interview (which is part two of this post) that she pitched this story in 2015 to APM Reports, a new division of APM/MPR, because she started researching why it after 26 years (at that time) the crime was unsolved. No one was ever arrested, there were only “persons of interest” named in the investigation. What happened with law enforcement in Stearns County that never led to any arrests, when there were witnesses, valid leads, and a tremendous level of resources on the case? Jacob’s disappearance was talked about on national TV and many volunteers and law enforcement helped look for him. Over the years thousands of tips poured in. But all along, the man who took Jacob never really left Stearns County, and as it turns out, neither did Jacob.
In early September, Danny Heinrich confessed to kidnapping, molesting, and killing Jacob, and led police to Jacob’s body. As this new piece of the story changed the narrative, the APM Reports team quickly rearranged a few pieces of their still in-progress podcast, and released the first two episodes of In the Dark, detailing the crime. Baran told me it was their duty to share the information they had, if they could do so responsibly. So they put it out and continued to investigate.
One of the most striking episodes is number 4 – The Circus, where Jacob’s parents, Jerry and Patty Wetterling, describe how a tip line was installed in their home – seriously. The episode includes actual tape of calls on the tip line – from the people genuinely trying to help to the crazies needing attention or calling based on their visions and dreams. Can you imagine your child being missing, and having to answer this tip line day and night, realizing it was probably not a valid tip, but knowing you couldn’t ignore any one call? That could be the call with real information. I cannot believe this happened to these grieving, frustrated parents. The Wetterlings also discuss their marriage in this episode, and I love this piece of tape because it is so raw and honest:
Baran mentioned this when I spoke with her: it is impossible to know what it is like to be in this situation, with your child missing and this massive investigation going nowhere … and there is a real toll on the lives of those closest to the victim, something rarely talked about beyond that it’s horrible and sad. In the Dark lets the listener in to Jerry and Patty’s hearts – both the hope and the pain.
Around halfway into the nine-part series, there is a shift away from the description of what happened and how the family was impacted to what was going on in law enforcement. There had been other abductions and molestations in the area a few years before Jacob was taken, with each child describing a similar looking and sounding man. Heinrich’s DNA was in fact found on the clothing of one of the victims, Jared Scheierl, who was brave enough to come forward (although the statute of limitations had expired on the crime against him). Baran spends the last few episodes building a fantastic case against the Stearns County sheriff’s office and what it didn’t do for the victims of these crimes (and others). The show culminates with damning data about the extremely low crime clearance rates in the county – as well as other counties around the U.S. If you think this can’t happen where you live, you’re wrong.
In the Dark recently released an update episode after Danny Heinrich’s sentencing hearing. He agreed to a plea deal of 17-20 years in prison for child pornography charges in exchange for his confession about his role in Jacob’s death and for him leading authorities to Jacob’s body. As you’ll read in my interview with Baran, this was a chance for the people in Jacob’s life to tell Heinrich what Jacob meant to them, and to express their anger. The update episode was fantastic and almost an emotional release for the entire arc of the show.
This podcast was extremely hard for me to listen to at first. I cried in the first two episodes. I’m sure part of that was just remembering how important this was in my growing up, but I also have kids of my own now and to think of someone taking my children from me and hurting them just makes me ill, and angry. I know so many people who cried the day that law enforcement announced that Jacob was found, and the monster that is Danny Heinrich said in his confession that Jacob asked him, “What did I do wrong?” In the Dark told this story so well. The sound was fantastic (I loved the theme song), it was so thoughtfully produced, I loved the interviews and I truly loved Baran as a host. She remained objective without sounding cold. In the update episode she even showed some emotion as she talked about Heinrich’s passiveness at the sentencing hearing. I credit her inquisitive nature and respectful approach as a major reason for the success of the show. Credit is also due to the producers, Samara Freemark (producer) and Natalie Jablonski (associate producer) for piecing together an intricate story with as good of a climax as a bestselling novel.
This show is hands down the best podcast of 2016, and I hope you’ll listen to it. I don’t recommend binge listening to the entire show in one day – I think it’s too heavy for that and deserves some thoughtful reflection after the first few episodes – but it is definitely worth your time if you think investigative reporting is important. I love that APM has created this team (APM Reports) and given the journalists significant time and room to investigate a story, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with next.
Part 2 of this review will be my interview with Madeleine Baran.
What do you think of this podcast? Leave a comment below and let’s discuss! Also subscribe to my twice-monthly newsletter!
Audible Feast Ratings
Educational Value (5 / 5)
Pop Culture Value (5 / 5)
Host Listen-ability (5 / 5)
Flow & Production Value (5 / 5)
The production quality is phenomenal and the use of music and sound is brilliant. The opening theme music, which surfaces regularly and appropriately throughout the show, is brilliant and perfect for the content.
Humor (1 / 5)
Investigation (5 / 5)
Storytelling (5 / 5)
I can’t say enough about how I felt this was a book I couldn’t put down – I eagerly looked for the newest episode to be released each week and listened to it immediately. It was so captivating.
Makes Me a Better Person (5 / 5)
Bonus Stars (1 / 5)
I had the privilege of meeting Madeleine Baran in person – her granting me an interview is worth 100 bonus stars 🙂
Overall Audible Feast Rating: (5 / 5)
Start with These Episodes:
You’ve gotta do this one in order to appreciate the arc of the story – start with episode 1: The Crime.
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In the Dark