From finding Bob Crane's killer to nabbing the Phoenix freeway shooter, the Valley is awash in unsolved mysteries primed for Serial-liked resolutions. Could crowdsourcing investigations on the web deliver new answers to Arizona's most baffling cold cases?

Podcast P.I.s

Written by Jimmy Magahern Category: People Issue: January 2017
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For the past few months, Ottavia Zappala has spent many of her off hours trying to figure out where a teenage girl disappeared to after the last day of her junior year at Paradise Valley High School in 2001.

“Where I work, true crime stories are all we talk about during lunch time,” says Zappala, an intern in the special investigations unit at the office of Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich. “And this one captured my interest.”

The story of the disappearance of Alissa Turney dominated the Phoenix evening newscasts for the usual cycle after the girl – 17 years old, with blond hair, hazel eyes and a small scar on her chin – went missing from her home near Bell Road and 34th Street after school.

Police first listed her as a runaway, but later began to suspect foul play on the part of the girl’s stepfather, Michael Turney, an electrician who worked for a brief period at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. Some of Alissa’s friends characterized the stepfather as very controlling and possibly abusive. Investigators conducted a search of the home and found surveillance cameras, a voice recorder hooked up to the telephone landline and, most damning, an arsenal of weapons, including 19 high-caliber assault rifles, two handmade silencers, a van filled with gasoline cans and 26 handmade pipe bombs.

Michael Turney was arrested on charges of explosives possession and is currently serving a 10-year sentence in the Federal Correctional Institution in Loretto, Pennsylvania. But Zappala and some others, including Phoenix police detective Will Andersen, who’s been following the case for the department’s Missing Persons Unit, believe Turney should be further investigated in connection with the disappearance of his stepdaughter, who remains missing to this day.

Zappala would like to reintroduce Alissa Turney’s story in a different way: as a podcast, serialized over several weeks, in the hope that some listeners may put together a solution to the 16-year-old cold case. The timing is critical, she says. “The stepfather is scheduled to be released from prison in 2017,” she says. “And I believe this is a dangerous man.”

If Zappala’s idea for re-opening the cold case as a series of iTunes downloads sounds just a little similar to Serial, the Peabody Award-winning spin-off of the public radio program This American Life that revitalized both old-fashioned gumshoe investigative journalism and the podcasting medium (over 80 million downloads in its first 16 months), that’s no accident. Zappala is a major fan of the program, which wrapped its second season last spring, that tells, through the intimately personal voice of reporter Sarah Koenig, a single crime story over multiple episodes, much like serialized television. And Koenig’s success has inspired Zappala to put to work her own insights, gleaned from her experience inside the city’s special investigations unit, in the new medium.

“I listen to Serial and Accused, the investigative podcast produced by The Cincinnati Enquirer,” Zappala says. “And I really studied the model they follow, because they do follow a certain narrative.”

In the first season of Serial, Koenig painstakingly details, over the course of 12 episodes and 8 1/2 hours, the story of Hae Min Lee, a popular Baltimore high school senior who disappeared after school one day in 1999. Six weeks later, detectives arrested Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, for her murder. The series centered on Koenig’s search for someone who could provide the alibi that Syed, who maintained he was innocent, couldn’t produce on his own. Accused follows the story of 23-year-old Elizabeth Andes, who was found dead in her Oxford, Ohio, apartment just days after her 1978 college graduation. Andes’ boyfriend, Robert Young, confessed to the murder but recanted and was exonerated, twice. Later, her family began to question Young’s guilt.

“The cases they chose are not random,” says Zappala. “For instance, both of them chose cases involving a young, attractive female victim. Both stories chosen have an unsolved element, or if there was a conviction, they present a doubt about whether the conviction was valid. This story has both of those things, plus an urgency to get the story out.”

Zappala, an Italian immigrant, says she’s always had an affinity for a good crime story. “I think it’s because of my upbringing. I come from Sicily and my grandfather was a judge, and growing up, I was exposed to a lot of Mafia-related terrorist attacks.”

While earning her master’s degree in criminology from the Université libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, Zappala says she chose to write her thesis on missing persons cases. “I had to interview a lot of families of missing people, and I realized I really liked telling their stories,” she recalls. “But journalism really wasn’t for me. When I first listened to Serial, though, I knew I’d found the right medium to tell my stories. It’s a lot more intimate than reading, because you’re hearing the person’s voice and you feel that you get to know the person telling the story. Plus, by not having visual elements to look at, you’re kind of forced to use your imagination more.”

To tell the story in a professional manner, Zappala enlisted the help of friend Shanna Hogan, a Phoenix journalist and author of three nonfiction crime books, including Picture Perfect: The Jodi Arias Story, a detailed profile of the young woman convicted of the violent murder of her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander, which landed on The New York Times bestseller list upon its release in September 2013. Hogan, it turned out, was also a fan of the new true crime podcasts, and had been considering making the leap to that style of storytelling herself.

“Lately the book sales have been kind of waning in this genre, and people are turning to mediums like podcasts and documentary series such as The Jinx and Making a Murderer,” she says, referring to, respectively, the HBO miniseries which examined the alleged three murders millionaire Robert Durst was suspected of committing, but was never convicted of, and the Netflix 10-episode series that followed the trial of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who had wrongly been accused of rape and was later arrested on suspicion of the murder of another woman. The series made a strong case for Avery’s innocence, and a petition to seek a presidential pardon for Avery garnered more than 500,000 signatures.

Hogan is excited by the groundswell of public interest such programs have generated. “It’s a revival of interest in true crime stories, and it’s created a whole new atmosphere for people who are into this stuff.”

During her extensive research for the Arias book, Hogan got to know a lot of people she affectionately calls “true crime junkies.” “They’re the kind of people who go to trials on their vacations,” she says with a laugh. The popular podcasts and documentary series have had the effect of mainstreaming their admittedly peculiar obsession.

“There was kind of a stigma for a while around admitting to be a true crime junkie,” Hogan says. “Because to a lot of people, it seems dark and weird. But now that stigma is going away and people have really embraced following crime cases and soaking up the details. It’s not that strange anymore.”

Perhaps these stories are gaining popularity due to the new way they’re being told. In a recent interview on the digital publishing hub INDEPTH, Australian political journalist and Serial fan Annabel Crabb noted how the podcast mimicked the immediacy and on-the-fly revisionism that social media brings to developing news stories. In one episode Crabb offered as an example, Koenig interviewed a juror who described a key witness in the case. “He would be that friend if you were in trouble you would call,” the juror said. “Because we all have someone in our life like that.” Koenig followed up the quote with a typically off-the-cuff aside: “You know when you just said that, I did a quick scan of all my contacts and my family and I can’t think of one person. They’re all so useless!”

“Koenig is so terrific at telling the story in a conversational way that includes the listener,” Crabb noted. “Typically these days we use social media to include the listener so they can be active participants . But Koenig manages to do this with just her delivery.”

To be sure, the Phoenix Police Department’s cold case stockpile is rife with unsolved mysteries just aching for Serial-style treatment. This past November, Fox 10 news anchor John Hook dredged up the unsolved murder of Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane, who was found clubbed to death with a camera tripod in his Scottsdale apartment in 1978. Prosecutors in the case had always held that his ex-friend John Carpenter, a video equipment salesman who fed Crane’s kinky habit of videotaping his sexual encounters with women, had been responsible for the murder, after finding several blood smears in Carpenter’s rental car that matched Crane’s blood type. But DNA testing was not yet available, and Carpenter was acquitted in a 1994 trial for lack of evidence.

Hook’s update submitted the decades-old blood sample to new, state-of-the-art DNA testing technology and determined that it wasn’t Crane’s after all, effectively clearing the now-deceased Carpenter, but leaving the question of who killed Bob Crane as one of Hollywood’s biggest unsolved mysteries.

More recently, there’s been the ongoing case of the Phoenix “freeway shooter,” a phantom gunman responsible for a string of 11 random shootings on Interstate 10 that took place in August and September of 2015. A 22-year-old suspect, Leslie Merritt Jr., was jailed for seven months but his case was dismissed after a ballistics expert challenged the evidence surrounding his arrest (although Merritt was jailed again four months later for violating a protection order and making threats). The case remains unsolved.

Meanwhile, 2016 saw the ongoing search for Maryvale’s “serial street shooter,” a man believed to be in his early 20s responsible for nine shootings resulting in seven murders. With a $75,000 reward for information leading to his arrest on the table, the suspect, at press time, continues to remain at large.

But even a high-profile cold case still needs one key ingredient to turn its telling into a potboiling podcast: an obsessed narrator personally invested in the story and willing to take the listeners along on her journey – whether or not the investigation ever leads to a resolution.
As fan theorists have pointed out, Serial’s first season in 2014 made for a riveting listening experience even though narrator Koenig turned up no new evidence, no new suspects and no new theories in the then 15-year-old cold case. What was new? Koenig’s personal obsession with the story and her conversational delivery, which some say gave listeners “surrogate ownership” of the story. (Conversely, critics have assailed the second season’s story, which tells a bigger, geopolitical story of a U.S. military soldier captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan, for lacking that strong first-person narrative.)

“We feel these moments of suspense in a way that is impossible to capture by describing them afterwards,” essayed Philip Connor Finn, a book editor for the London-based crowdfunded publishing company Unbound, calling Serial’s first season a compelling listen despite the fact that Koenig never actually cracks the case. “The reason we are so caught up in the story, despite the eventual failure, is that throughout we are unaware of that failure. Unaware in a way that would be impossible to hide if you were writing about it retrospectively. Serial gives us unrivaled access into a story and how that story comes together. We are in the journalist’s shoes, and get access to moments that are usually off-limits, hidden behind the eventual finished product of a story.”

If there’s one true crime story in Phoenix attached to such a personally obsessed narrator, it’s the 29-year-old murder of Cindy Monkman – a story that Monkman’s sister, Kathy, continues to discuss and re-examine.

On Christmas Eve of 1988, Cindy Monkman was found beaten, stabbed and nearly decapitated at the foot of the Superstition Mountains, her body discovered by a small boy who was out four-wheeling with his dad. Less than two months earlier, the 30-year-old registered dietitian had gotten married in Las Vegas to a handsome 25-year-old German immigrant named Michael Apelt, whom she had met only three weeks prior at Bobby McGee’s restaurant in Mesa.

Police quickly surmised that Apelt and his brother, Rudi, had been responsible for the killing after they learned that Michael and his new wife had purchased two $400,000 life insurance policies just 10 days after their wedding, each naming the other as sole beneficiary.

Michael’s ex-girlfriend, a German woman named Anke Dorn, told police that the brothers had come to the United States with a plan to marry American women and kill them for their life insurance. Cindy Monkman was their first and last victim, although several other women later came forward, believing they were also being conned by the brothers and were being set up to be next in line.

Having gone through the horrors of the Apelt brothers’ murder trials, Cindy’s sister Kathy became a fervent follower of grisly murder cases, at one point becoming a weekly commentator on True Crime Radio, a program carried on the iHeartRadio Internet radio platform. She’s also become a regular participant on the Internet forum Websleuths.com, run by True Crime Radio founder Tricia Griffith, which encourages crowdsourcing to gather witnesses and evidence on unsolved crime cases.

“During the Jodi Arias trial, I sat in the courtroom almost every single day and took meticulous notes – almost a color commentary of the jury and things that people couldn’t see on TV,” Monkman says. “And then I would go on that radio show every Sunday and tell these strange little anecdotes. Because I wasn’t a journalist, I could say whatever the hell I wanted to, with no filter. And I gained quite a following, I must say!”

Monkman admits many people still find it incomprehensible that she could emerge from her sister’s horrific murder trial as an ardent fan of true crime stories.

“To come out of that and start following trials, it really doesn’t add up,” she says. “I don’t even have clarity on it myself, and I bounce back and forth between thinking I am doing some good – offering support to others who are going through difficult times – and doing something that’s really self-abusive.

“But it’s not uncommon for people like me, who have lost a loved one and have been through the system, to be on the message boards like WebSleuths,” she adds. “They’re filled with people like me. And I’ve actually made a lot of friends of other murder victims’ families who are drawn to that world because of what they’ve been through. There’s a satisfaction in seeing justice served, I know that’s part of it. If you’ve been through a trial, it’s sort of an interesting process as well, to witness the theater of that whole thing. But it’s more than that. I think it’s natural for people like myself to want to feel like some sense of purpose is coming out of our own tragedy. On the other hand, I rip my own guts out on a daily basis. It’s a mixed bag.”

Monkman says Griffith’s WebSleuths site, which first emerged in the midst of the much-publicized investigation into the murder of 6-year-old Boulder, Colo., beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey on December 25, 1996, has been effective in crowdsourcing crucial leads in some cases. “Tricia tries to get people to be amateur sleuths, and some real stuff has come out of that. There’s a local attorney I’m friends with who found some significant evidence in the Caylee Anthony case on WebSleuths. And there’s some serious people on these forums. Law enforcement combs through them because they can find evidence on there, and they can often find witnesses. WebSleuths has thousands of members.”

Monkman, who says she’s also binge-listened to the Serial podcasts, says she’s now writing a book on her sister’s murder and has considered doing it as a podcast, too. But since her case was quickly solved by police, it lacks the unsolved mystery angle, crucial in involving listeners to try coming up with their own theories.

“I’ve thought about doing a podcast, although our case is different than most that are given that treatment, because obviously there was a clear outcome to it.”

There is one wrinkle to her sister’s case. Michael Apelt, who was sent to death row in 1990, tried and failed in 2007 to convince a judge that he was intellectually disabled, in an effort to reduce his sentence. His brother Rudi – the one Kathy claims slit her sister’s throat – fared better with the same plea, and has already been released from death row, currently serving life with a possibility of parole.

“We’re still in the appeals process on that,” Monkman says, dourly. “So in that respect, the story goes on.”

One Arizona case that has inspired a surprising number of obsessive followers is the curious case of Captain Craig Button.

When the 32-year-old Air Force captain left on his first live bomb test mission out of Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base on April 2, 1997, he was piloting an A-10 jet carrying four 500-pound bombs, headed for a testing range near Gila Bend where he was instructed to drop the bombs on simulated enemy targets. But shortly after entering the range, Button stealthily dropped out of the three-pilot “V” formation he was trailing and ventured 800 miles off course, finally crashing his aircraft into Gold Dust Peak near Eagle, Colo., in what Air Force officials eventually ruled a suicide.

To this day, no one knows exactly what made Button snap. Following the incident, the Air Force conducted an eight-month investigation including a “psychological autopsy” that, among other things, turned up rumors of a gay romance with another Davis-Monthan pilot that had supposedly gone sour.

As a possible result of those allegations – these were still the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” days – the Air Force’s terse final report on the case pretty much washed the military’s hands of Button’s actions. “Captain Craig Button deliberately flew his A-10 Thunderbolt 800 miles off course and crashed into a Colorado mountain,” it read. “He had full control of the plane and had made passes at some airfields; he left formation and flew for three hours in radio silence before the crash.”

But for some followers of this Arizona cold case, the more paramount mystery is, “Whatever happened to those bombs?” Button’s unexplained crash left behind 21,500 pounds of aircraft debris, much of which was found strewn across the north slope of Gold Dust Peak, along with his remains. But the four quarter-ton Mark 82 bombs he was instructed to drop over the Barry M. Goldwater bombing range between Tucson and Yuma have to this day never been recovered.

That concerns Mitch Utterback, a retired Army Special Forces colonel who accompanied the Colorado National Guard’s pararescue jumpers on their cleanup mission three months after the 1997 crash and recently returned to the scene on his own to have yet another look on the occasion of the event’s 20th anniversary.

“The code name for a lost [bomb] is a ‘broken arrow,’” Utterback says. “And there are four broken arrows still out there somewhere. A future homesteader digging a foundation for their property or a miner or hunter could strike an unexploded ordnance, and that’s serious stuff. Worst case scenario is someone finds one of these and sells it to the wrong people, and then some domestic terrorists have access to some very high-grade explosives that can be used to make multiple bombs, multiple suicide vests – you name it.”

Utterback would like to see the Department of Defense take another look over the flight path and employ today’s advanced technology to find the sleeping giants. “You know, if we can send satellites to Mars and do spectral analysis of Martian rock and water while in orbit, come on, man! Let’s see if we can find 2,000 pounds worth of iron shaped like torpedoes laying around this 495-mile flight path in the Southwestern United States!”

As of yet, no one has attempted a multi-episode podcast or Netflix documentary series on the Button case. But a Tucson band called the Hawg Jawkys has produced something even more unique: a song about the mystery, titled “A-10 Thunderbolt (The Ballad of Capt. Craig D. Button).”

Available on the band’s Facebook page, the earnestly sung folk rock song casts the doomed pilot as a winsome renegade rogue (“He took the whole U.S. Air Force on his own game of hide and go seek,” goes one verse), and even gives his wild wig-out a kind of Top Gun pluck. “Captain Button’s in the cockpit, really getting it done/Wahoo, yeah! Look at Captain Button run!”

“For some reason, I felt he was reaching out to me to clear his name,” explains songwriter Neil Brandon, who says he had been intrigued by the scant newspaper reports he’d read about the crash and has continued to seek out information on it. “I almost felt like Captain Button was channeling me. At first I thought, ‘Why me? I’m just a songwriter.’ But then I thought, ‘He needs his story to get out there, and he wanted a song.’”

Brandon believes Button was made a convenient scapegoat for an incident that may have involved error on more than just his part.

“He was a brave officer who, one way or the other, gave his life for his country, and the military branded him as some idiot that slammed his plane into the side of a mountain because his gay lover jilted him,” he says. “And there’s no proof that he was even gay. That was the same story the military gave when a gun turret blew up on the USS Iowa in 1989, and they said it was sabotaged by a sailor who’d been jilted by a gay lover. At the time, the military didn’t want gays in the service anyway.”

“A-10 Thunderbolt” is not exactly another Serial, and the four-minute ditty probably won’t generate the groundswell of pardon petitions the audience of Making a Murderer wound up circulating for its story’s accused. But by recording the song, Brandon feels he’s at least personally gotten the case out of his system – which for devotees of unsolved mysteries can truly be freeing, and may, in fact, be the common motivator behind some of today’s most driven podcast P.I.s.

“The main thing that pushed me was the thought, ‘I got to get this guy out of my head!’” Brandon says. “So when I finally wrote the song and posted it online, I did feel better. He doesn’t haunt me like he used to.”

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