The nine lives of the Yorkshire Ripper

Cats supposedly have nine lives, as the phrase goes, and so too did Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, who died in November last year from COVID aged 74, whilst serving  20 life terms at Frankland prison in County Durham.

I’ve just finishing watching the excellent four-part Netflix documentary ‘The Ripper’ which examines the series of horrifying murders committed by Sutcliffe, and the bungled attempts by the West Yorkshire police to capture him.

Incredibly, Sutcliffe, a married lorry driver from Bradford, was interviewed nine times by detectives, after his name came up in various lines of inquiry as a possible suspect. However, he was let go each time, despite some lower-ranking detectives and police officers reporting their suspicions.

A tragedy: many of these women may still be alive today had the police done their jobs properly

So often did police show up at his place of work to question him, that Sutcliffe earned the nickname ‘The Ripper’ among his truck-driving colleagues at Clark Transport – an irony, that would have seemed unbelievable were it included in the plotline of a crime novel.

As explained by Joan Smith, one of the few female journalists to report on the case, the all male senior detectives leading the investigation, blinded by their own sexist attitudes and sucked in by a hoax audio tape, dismissed Sutcliffe because he was recently married, had the wrong accent to the Geordie accent on the hoax tape and did not fit the supposed picture of a modern day Jack The Ripper maniac hunting down and slaying prostitutes.

As a result police also neglected to investigate other attacks on young woman at the time because they were not prostitutes or women of “loose morals”, and who because they survived these assaults, could have provided valuable information about their attacker and led to Sutcliffe’s capture many years earlier, saving the lives of many who later crossed his path.

Recalled retired West Yorkshire detective Andrew Laptew, one of the “stars” of the documentary with quiet fury: “I got the report typed up [about boots belonging to Sutcliffe that appeared to match footprints left at one of the crime scenes] and explained all the things that were bugging me. And the most startling thing was the Marilyn Moore photofit [based on an accurate description by Marilyn Moore who survived an attack by Sutcliffe]. It was a dead ringer for him

“Is he a Georgie,” Laptew was asked by his superior officer. “I said no. He’s from Bradford. But it’s an uncanny resemblance.

“Does he have a Geordie accent [to match the one on the audio tape]? I said no. He started effing and geffing. He said anyone who mentions effing photofits to me again will be doing traffic for the rest of their service.”

In the end it was only by sheer luck – Sutcliffe was arrested in January 1981 because he was driving a car that did not match its number plate – that led to his capture, confession and life imprisonment.

As with so many great true crime documentaries created by the streaming giants – ‘The Ripper’ was commissioned by Netflix – it takes viewers back in time through grainy, archival footage to Leeds, Manchester and Bradford of the mid-1970s where unemployment was rising as the great big factories were shut down, and as Margaret Thatcher became the first female British prime minister.

This footage is contrasted with crisp, present day interviews of families of victims, the now grey haired detectives who were on The Ripper taskforce and journalists like Joan Smith, as they look back on those terrible times, when an unknown killer terrorised the streets.

I found it compulsive viewing, so fascinating, seeing how a serial killer investigation back then relied on thousands of hand written index cards – so many in fact that the floor of the taskforce headquarters had to be reinforced to prevent it from collapsing – to create a database of suspects and evidence.

And yet for all the information gathering, and the many clues that should have pointed the way to a much earlier solving of the mystery, it was the bungling alpha male chief inspectors and their bureaucratic overlords, who made the key wrong assumptions about the case, that had the Ripper laughing in their faces for many years.

John Humble, who sent police the hoax letters claiming to be the Ripper (Humble mimicked phrases used in letters supposedly written to police in the 1880s by Jack the Ripper) and an infamous hoax audio tape was unmasked in 2005 and jailed in 2006 for perverting the course of justice.

“I remember listening to it and being incredibly puzzled because there was nothing on the tape that actually suggested it was genuine,” said Smith in November 2020, when Peter Sutcliffe died.

Julie Bindel, a feminist campaigner who was 18 and living in Leeds when Sutcliffe killed his 13th and final victim- Jacqueline Hill, a 20-year-old student – recalled how police denigrated the victims, some of whom were prostitutes, as being “fair game” despite many of them only doing what they did to support their families.

Bindel told The Guardian last year she remembered George Oldfield, who led the investigation, addressed the murderer on TV in 1979 saying: “There may be more pawns in this war before I catch you, but I will catch you.”

“That’s what women were to these detectives, said Bindel: disposable pawns.

But, says Smith, the Ripper investigation did force woman, who felt unsafe, to realise it was up to them to look after themselves, “because the police weren’t actually going to do it for us”.

“That was the beginning of women pushing back and say, No. Why shouldn’t we walk around at night at 2am without worrying that someone will attack us? So I think it changed women’s perception of how we live in this culture and it had a incredible radicalising effect on a whole generation of women.” Smith says.

The 13 women Sutcliffe was convicted of murdering were:

Wilma McCann, 28, from Chapeltown, Leeds, who was killed in October 1975.

Emily Jackson, 42, from Morley, Leeds. Killed on 20 January 1976.

Irene Richardson, 28, from Chapeltown, Leeds. Killed on 6 February 1977.

Patricia Atkinson, 32, from Manningham, Bradford. Killed on 24 April 1977.

Jayne MacDonald, 16, from Leeds. Killed on 26 June 1977.

Jean Jordan, 21, from Manchester, who died between 30 September and 11 October 1977.

Yvonne Pearson, 22, from Bradford. Killed between 20 January and 26 March 1978.

Helen Rytka, 18, from Huddersfield. Killed on 31 January 1978.

Vera Millward, 40, from Manchester. Killed on 16 May 1978.

Josephine Whitaker, 19, from Halifax. Killed on 4 April 1979.

Barbara Leach, 20. Killed while walking in Bradford on 1 September 1979.

Marguerite Walls, 47, from Leeds. Killed on 20 August 1980.

Jacqueline Hill, 20. Killed at Headingley on 16 November 1980.

Ann Rule, Kate Summerscale: two masters of the art of true crime writing

The last two books I read were both in the true crime genre, and brilliant examples of writers at the top of their craft.

First I read Ann Rule’s Don’t Look Behind You and Other True Cases, a collection of mostly cold case investigations that take place around the Seattle area on America’s west coast,

After finishing it, I then stepped back 160-odd years and into an entirely different landscape, of Victorian England and the ghastly murder of a three-year old boy in a large manor house in the countryside and the London detective recruited to solve it in Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.

Ann Rule, who died in 2015 aged 83, started her career as a law enforcement officer for the Seattle Police Department, wrote for True Detective magazine under a pen name and then established herself as the Queen of American true crime writing with a long career of best sellers. She is most famous for The Stranger Beside Me published in 1980, her sensational account of her charming, handsome friend Ted, whom she met while working at a Seattle suicide crisis hotline, who turned out to be serial killer Ted Bundy.

Ann Rule’s books are motivated by a strong desire for justice for the victims and their families, especially those heart-wrenching cases that are never solved.

Don’t Look Behind You and Other True Cases is dedicated to “everyone who has lost someone they love, never to find them – or learn the reasons they vanished”.

Rule goes onto explain, in a brief introduction to the first story in the book “North to Alaska” that when she chooses which cases to write about, they are almost always selected from the Cold Case departments of homicide divisions.

“There is something infinitely satisfying about finding killers long after they have become confident that they have walked away free,” Rule writes.

The two long stories in Don’t Look Behind You – “North to Alaska” and “Too Late for the Fair” both track cold case investigations: the former about the disappearance of charismatic meat salesman Joe Tarricone, and the second about Joanne Hansen, a young mother locked in an abusive marriage who vanished one day, never to be seen or heard from again.

Rule is a master of plot, narrative and pace: she is a natural and gifted storyteller. While her stories are rich with procedural detail – the collection of evidence, investigating leads – and the small steps taken by investigators to unravel decades old crimes, they never becoming boring or plodding.

It’s not hard to see why she became a best selling popular writer of true crime: stories are told in an uncomplicated, linear way with plenty of direct dialogue. She brings characters to life on the page, both the perpetrators and the victims, the latter for whom she displays the greatest of empathy.

She once said of her motivation to write about true crime: “I wanted to know why some kids grew up to be criminals and why other people didn’t. That is still the main thrust behind my books: I want to know why these things happen, and so do my readers,”

Apart from these two books – The Stranger Beside Me and Don’t Look Behind You – I have also read Rule’s Lust Killer, about the shoe fetishist and necrophiliac serial killer Jerome Brudos.

I highly recommend all of them if you enjoy reading, listening to or watching true crime stories. They’re an easy read, but also engrossing and thought-provoking.

Kate Summerscale is cut from a far more literary cloth than Rule, but none the less entertaining a writer.

In the case of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – the only book of hers I have read – Summerscale writes from a much broader historical and social perspective, producing in the words of the great spy novelist John le Carre called “a classic of the finest documentary writing”.

Born in London in 1965, but brought up also in Japan and Chile, Summerscale attended Oxford University and then California’s Stanford University, where she obtained a masters in journalism. She worked at a number of English newspapers including the Daily Telegraph and Independent, whilst establishing herself as a writer with an award-winning biography about eccentric speedboat racer Marion Barbara ‘Joe’ Carstairs.

She then wrote The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which won The Samuel Johnson Prize (since renamed the Baillie Gifford Prize), Britain’s top book award for non-fiction writing. It was also made into an ITV television series, which unfortunately seems very hard to track down.

I’ve actually read the book twice, but enjoyed it just as much the second time round.

It’s not as easy a book to read as the pacier novels of Ann Rule, but if your penchant is for slowly unravelling, procedural crime shows like Inspector Morse, Prime Suspect or Unforgotten I think you’ll immensely enjoy reading The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.

The “Mr Whicher” refers to Jonathan or “Jack” Whicher, one of the first eight police detectives who joined a newly created branch of the London Metropolitan Police, at Scotland Yard in 1842. Whicher was sent from London to the village of Rode, near Trowbridge in the county of Wiltshire to solve the most famous crime of the era, the murder of three-year-old Francis Saville Kent in a stately country home called Road Hill House.

Summerscale does not just tell the story of the Kent family and the terrible events of the night of Friday 29th of June 1860 at Road Hill House, when the young boy’s body was discovered shoved down a privy (outside toilet), his throat cut, and the efforts of Whicher, the most brilliant detective of his day, to solve the baffling crime.

She captures the whole zeitgeist of that time – the public’s fascination with the crime (especially since it occurred in the country home of a wealthy, upper class family) fueled by a legion of city and country daily newspapers that reported on its every detail, theory and rumour.

“While the press and the public condemned Whicher’s prurient, impertinent speculations, they freely made their own,” Summerscale writes, capturing the fascination with the case that gripped the country from the big cities to farming villages, and its distrust of the new class of detectives.

As Summerscale explains in her wonderfully researched book, the crime was the first “whoddunit” set in a quintessential country home, in which all the suspects were inside the house: circumstances which created the template for hundreds of fictional detective stories, movies and TV shows including Agatha Christie and Midsomer Murders.

Not surprisingly, the case influenced many subsequent Victorian novels, captured the attention of the greatest writer of the times Charles Dickens, a friend and admirer of Jack Whicher. Dickens, like everyone else had his own (wrong) theories about who the murderer was.

There are so many fascinating aspects to this book, not least of which is the crime itself, there’s the story of the brilliant career of Jack Whicher, and how the immense pressure to solve the Road Hill House murder almost finished him off, the growing power of daily newspapers to shape public consciousness and the emerging art of crime detection.

Part true crime, part historical and social commentary, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is non-fiction writing at its finest and a must-read in my opinion.

What’s so obsessively interesting about the lives of serial killers?

Chances are, if I am at a loss as to what to watch or listen to, I’ll turn to some documentary, dramatised movie or podcast about a serial killer, psychopath or madman.

Just the other day, while my wife tuned out at the end of the day to episodes of The Nanny, I was racing through a new documentary series on Netflix investigating the Son of Sam murders which occurred in New York in the 1976 and 1977.

Narrated by Paul Giamatti, the show called The Sons of Sam (note the plural) focuses on the claim by obsessive investigative journalist Maury Terry who believed that convicted killer David Berkowitz did not act alone but was part of a satanic cult that committed the spree of murders that terrorised the city.

Then before that, I was gripped by an Australian true-crime documentary series on Stan called After the Night which looked into the series of killings that occurred in the affluent and until then quiet and safe suburbs of Perth in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The crimes were perpetrated by deranged family man Eric Edgar Cooke, the last person to be hanged in Western Australia.

David Berkowitz; Did he act alone or was he part of a satanic cult?

After the Night told the story not only of Cooke, but also of two other men who were wrongly convicted of some of his crimes, Darryl Beamish and John Button, and the lengths they and their supporters went to clear their names.  It also captured very well the easy-going, carefree life in the well-to-do suburbs of Cottesloe and Nedlands, and how that sense of security was shattered by a violent string of murders and rapes.

A big motivator to watch this show was reading and re-reading Robert Drewe’s wonderful Perth memoir The Shark Net which had as its backdrop the Cooke serial murders and Drewe’s start in journalism as a cadet reporter for the West Australian newspaper. (Read my review here).

Before that both my wife and I watched The Serpent on Netflix about conman and serial murderer Charles Sobhraj (also known as the Bikini Killer) who lured in hippy backpackers travelling around South East Asia in the 1970s with the promise of a place to stay and a luxurious lifestyle and then poisoned them, held them captive and then murdered them and stole their possessions.

Charming and sadistic: Ted Bundy is a fascinating study in evil

Then there was the documentary series The Night Stalker, about the satanic serial killer Richard Ramirez who broke into homes across Los Angeles in the mid-1980s to rape and murder in a vile spree that terrorised the city. The documentary focused on the detectives who tracked Ramirez down and some of the extraordinary stuff-ups that occurred along the way. It also delved into the cult-like rock star status Ramirez enjoyed and the perhaps even crazier women who threw themselves at him.

Prior to that there was Des about the London serial murderer Denis Nilsen who lured in young men into his shabby Muswell Hill flat. Here he smothered them, slept with their corpses and then dismembered and attempted to flush their remains away. ‘Des’ was played by the brilliant David Tennant (a key attraction for watching the series).

Killing for Company the classic true crime book about Nilsen by Brian Masters (who is played by the great character action Jason Watkins in the television series) that so fascinated me when I read it whilst visiting my London cousin stirred my interest in Nilsen at the time. It also happened that my London cousin lived and still lives in Muswell Hill, a short distance from Nilsen’s flat of horrors, one of the creepy reasons no doubt I chose to read the book at the time.

David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen in Des

I also watched the Netflix documentary series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes which re-examined one of America’s most notorious and charismatic serial killers, who also had his own female fan club. There was also the biographical crime drama about Bundy (starring Zac Ephron in the lead role) Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile that I watched maybe a year ago.

My fascination with Bundy began when I read Ann Rule’s classic of the true crime genre The Stranger Beside Me. Rule’s perspective was unlike any other in the history: she was a friend of Bundy.

There’s more for sure. And there are also shows I’ve yet to watch but will no doubt get to at some point. A new Netflix documentary about the Yorkshire Ripper looks intriguing.

Part of the fascination for me is the “how they caught them” aspect, the police and detective work, the clues that emerge and the trail that leads them to identify and capture the villain.

It’s probably then not surprising that my favourite detective shows are not the fast-paced glitzy stuff (I can’t stand shows like NCIS) but the slow-paced procedural dramas featuring believable investigators, my favourites being the dour and eternally grumpy Inspector Morse, Idris Elba’s rugged and damaged Luther and most recently, the renegade LA detective Harry Bosch in the Amazon series Bosch played by Titus Welliver (and based on the novels by Michael Connelly).

All these shows and the ones I have described above I highly recommend if that sort of thing intrigues you.

I do wonder why I am so drawn to these dark and disturbing shows, as are so many other people.

I like to think that I am not a secret psychopath with a penchant for blood and violence. Rather I think there is an innate human fascination with evil people or – if you don’t subscribe to that idea – to people who do evil things, especially those who do them over and over again.

After all these ‘monsters’ were soft, and cuddly babies once, not little devils with horns and a pitch fork.

I also think, that there is penchant in all of us – in the right (or wrong) circumstances to commit crimes of violence and descend into a kind of madness. Just think of all those seemingly ordinary Germans and other Europeans who became Hitler’s willing executioners during the holocaust. Might they have gone on living ordinary lives had a mad dictator not come to power?

Interestingly, on YouTube, a death row interview with serial killer Richard Ramirez has over 6 million views, while Ted Bundy interviews and documentaries online have racked up millions. Ditto Jeffery Dahmer and others.

Just like slowing down when we pass a car crash, it seems we can’t look away.

The anonymous Casefile host: the mystery solved?

casey

Incredibly, a year has passed since I first blogged about the identity of the Casefile host, after which he blocked me on Twitter.

During that time I have also blogged on the topic of doxxing, written about my favourite true crime podcasts (republished in the Financial Review) and most recently I provided those curious Casefile fans with a guide to solving the identity of the Casefile host for themselves.

Of course the reason WHY he chooses to remain the anonymous host of a hit podcast is an entirely different and perplexing mystery – but I think I might have finally solved it.

The reason I hadn’t worked it out earlier (it was staring me in the face a year ago) was that I did not realise the host (Brad) has a different surname to his father.

The host’s late father was a chief inspector in the NSW police.

I think the anonymous host may be sensitive about this connection given the content of his show, or perhaps his family is.

In addition it also explains his interest in true crime and why he chose to make a podcast about it.

The police connection could actually run a lot deeper – the host himself might have been a policeman at one time.

How do I know this?

At the funeral for his late dad, the host’s mother said Brad intended to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a police officer.

Whether he actually went on to become a policeman, I don’t know – but if it were the case, it would be another reason for his anonymity.

The police connection is certainly a more plausible explanation then the host just wanting to “stay out of the story and “let the facts speak for themselves”.

Case solved?

PS. An interesting aside, someone told me there’s a rather amusing Facebook post floating around about the Casefile host. To find it, simply log on to Facebook and search for “Casefile host”. 

Serial, The Teacher’s Pet, Dirty John and Phoebe’s Fall: reviewing the best True Crime podcasts

The recent arrest of Chris Dawson charged with the murder of his former wife Lyn in 1982, not only re-opened Australia’s most famous cold case, but shone the spotlight on arguably the most successful of the podcast genres: true crime.

Indeed were it not for the investigative podcast The Teacher’s Pet, written and narrated by The Australian journalist Hedley Thomas, the arrest of the former rugby league star nearly 38 years after his wife vanished from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, might never have happened.

Not only did the podcast re-open public interest in the case, but it also unearthed fresh evidence that helped the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions finally lay murder charges and pave the way for what may very well be the trial of the century, at least in Australia anyway, when it kicks off sometime in 2020.

Podcasts have certainly subverted the true crime genre, which had been dominated for decades by journalistic books, documentaries and movies.

For me, from my early twenties, it was true crime books that provided a way into the darkly fascinating minds of the criminally deranged.

I think this interest started with London’s Jack The Ripper (I read The Complete Jack The Ripper by Donald Rumbelow in about 1994 after going on Rumbelow’s grisly Whitechapel Tour), and then expanded into literary crime classics like 10 Rillington Place by Ludovic Kennedy (about the London serial killer John Christie), Killing for Company by Brian Masters (about London necrophile Dennis Nilsen), The Stranger Beside Me by Anne Rule (about her former friend, the American serial killer Ted Bundy) and of course, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, plus many, many more.

(This interest was supported by my reading of Detective Crime fiction including many Ian Rankin novels featuring his beer loving Edinburgh detective John Rebus.)

This is undoubtedly a gross generalisation, but I still think a well-written true crime book stands head and shoulders above any podcast.

But I have also found myself drawn to this new form of true crime storytelling, which when done well offers a potent and highly addictive mix of entertainment, storytelling, investigation and information.

Having recently finished listening to The Teacher’s Pet (I enjoyed a pleasing email exchange with Hedley Thomas), and having listened to a whole bunch of them, this is how I would rank them from best to least favourite:

  1. Dirty John

dirty-john-crime-podcastProduced by the LA Times and written and narrated by Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Christopher Goffard, Dirty John is the most polished, thrilling, insightful and entertaining true crime podcast (actually any genre) I have listened to so far.  To briefly summarise the plot, it investigates a charming, but violent con-artist called John Neeham who wormed himself into the life of a wealthy but lonely Los Angeles interior designer, Debra Newell posing as a successful surgeon. The script is punchy, the story of love, deception, denial and cunning beautifully told, the cast of characters fascinating and the ending shocking . Best of all, Dirty John runs to just six intense episodes of between 36 and 47 minutes so there’s no unnecessary waffling. Every minute is filled with intrigue.  Such has been the success of Dirty John that it was made into a TV series starring Hollywood star Eric Bana while Christopher Goffard has gone on a world tour about the podcast. I cannot recommend this podcast more highly.

Rating: 5 stars

2. Serial (Season 1)

serial podcastMuch of the foundations for the success of True Crime podcasts is owed to the first season of Serial, which aired in 2014. The first blockbuster true crime podcast, Serial examined the 1999 Baltimore murder of high school student Hae Min Lee and the conviction of her football jock boyfriend Adnan Syed. The podcast was created and hosted by Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder of This American Life, one of the most syndicated radio shows in the world. The Serial hosts interviewed the key people associated with the case (friends, witnesses, dodgy characters) and created plausible doubt regarding Syed’s conviction and helped win him a retrial. Koenig and Snyder are consummate story tellers and their passion for the case made it a hit. Season 2 of Serial was dreadfully boring (I didn’t even last one full episode) and the third season is apparently even worse. But the first season is among the best of the genre.

Rating: 4.5 stars

3. Phoebe’s Fall

phoebe-s-fallWritten and narrated by The Age journalists Richard Baker and Michael Bachelard, Phoebe’s Fall investigated the perplexing 2010 death of 24-year-old Melbourne woman Phoebe Handsjuk, whose body was found at the bottom of a garbage chute of a luxury apartment tower. Both Baker and Bachelard are renowned investigative journalists and they drew on all their experience to examine the circumstances of this bizarre and tragic case including whether it was even possible for someone to lower themselves into a narrow chute (the coroner ruled death by accident) and whether it was more likely Handsjuk was pushed. Apart from uncovering new evidence, Phoebe’s Fall is also extremely polished, yet also has a gonzo-style journalism feel to it as the hosts head out into the field to test out their theories. Each episode is as long as it needs to be and there’s no waffling on by the hosts.

Rating: 4 stars

4. The Teacher’s Pet

whooshkaa-podcast-imageReaders of this post may be surprised that I ranked The Teacher’s Pet below the other three given its huge global success (27 million or so downloads), the fact that it won the Gold Walkley, the most prestigious prize in Australian journalism and the heaps of new evidence it uncovered that led to the arrest recently of Chris Dawson, charged with the murder of his wife. Taken in its entirety, it is a brilliant investigation and deserves all the accolades it has received and I highly recommend it. But my biggest issue is its rambling nature and the lengthy episodes (some over 2 hours). There is far too much unnecessary stuff (pointless telephone conversations etc.) and I believe the podcast would have been even better with some severe editing. It felt like a bit of a marathon getting through it all especially the final few episodes, which for me took away some of its gloss and power.

Rating: 3.5 stars

5. Sword & Scale

sword and scaleThis bi-weekly American podcast is hugely popular, but suffers from a bombastic host (Mike Boudet) who has a tendency to sensationalize everything in an overly obvious attempt to keep listeners in suspense and who makes himself the star of the podcast rather than the cases themselves. The episodes are also overly long and unlike the aforementioned podcasts is not really an investigative show, but retells macabre and interesting cases. These criticism aside, it’s still a pretty entertaining podcast and well produced.

Rating: 3 stars

6. Casefile

casefileReaders of this blog will know my history with the anonymous (or not so anonymous) host of this Australian podcast, which has become a huge international hit.  Setting aside my own personal squabble, I’ve ranked Casefile at the bottom because it is not an investigative podcast in any real sense, but merely retells famous as well as more obscure true crime cases with a creepy voiced narrator and eerie ambient music. In my opinion the success of this podcast outweighs its content, which at times feels like nothing more than a reading out loud of a Wikipedia entry. No doubt millions of fans will disagree. Readers are better off reading a true crime book.

Rating: 2.5 stars

A note to readers: I would love to know of other true crime podcasts to listen to. Please send me your suggestions.

 

 

Doxxing, Journalism and the anonymous Casefile host

So it’s true. I doxxingbriefly “doxxed” the anonymous host of popular crime recital podcast Casefile.

I’d actually never heard of the curious word – ‘doxx ‘or ‘dox’ – until I wrote an article on this humble blog a few months ago revealing a few personal details about the mysterious “Brad” whose spooky Wikipedia-inspired retelling of famous crimes has turned him into a surprising, and apparently extremely reluctant podcast superstar.

Doxxing, according to the Merriam Webster online dictionary is:

slang : to publicly identify or publish private information about (someone) especially as a form of punishment or revenge  

My now deleted article included the host’s full name, age, the town where he lived and a few other bits of trivia about him. I also included a smiling photo sourced from social media.

It only took a couple of hours of digging to work out who he was – my motivation was neither malicious nor vengeful,  only pure curiosity. Anybody using a bit of lateral thinking could have found as much, if not more.

After removing the article as a favour, I wrote a fresh post about my interactions with the Casefile host and then another about his subsequent blocking of me on Twitter.

Among the many responses, came this from Laura: “I was also curious about who this fellow Aussie was, now after seeing his response to you doxxing him I agree his identity should remain completely anonymous”.

Digging around online I found that the fan-run Casefile Reddit page has a strict “zero tolerance Doxxing Rule” which it says applies “to victims” (strange, as Casefile podcasts are full of personal details of the victims of crimes) “but also to the host”.

“We will remove immediately any posts regarding the identity of the host unless they come from the Casefile Official Website. Period,” the Reddit page says.

It’s a curious kind of inverse vigilantism since unlike many infamous doxxing cases (like that of Brennan Gilmore, who tweeted the video of the car driven by a white supremacist madman that ploughed into anti-racism protestors in Charlottesville last year and was then doxxed by far right activists who posted the home address of his parents on online message boards) there appears to be no genuine reason for the host’s anonymity, apart from him not wanting anyone to know who he is.

Bear in mind,  I didn’t hack any databases or emails to find out who he was, nor did I post his home address or phone number. Every bit of information was publicly available at the time to anyone who cared to investigate.

I think it’s also worth considering the issue of doxxing from a journalistic point of view.

Journalists doxx all the time: we write about people who wish to remain anonymous in the interests of a good story.

As a property writer, it is part of my job to reveal who is buying and who is selling real estate even if those doing the buying or selling wish to remain anonymous.

In almost all cases the doxxing is justified in the interests of a transparent property market where millions of dollars are involved. Plus our readers want to know who is buying and who is selling. It’s that simple.

This is not to say that sometimes anonymity must be respected and protected, but the reason have to be compelling; no journalist wants to tell only half a story.

Even more important, often a supposed case of “doxxing” can reveal what is hiding in the shadows.

As a Melbourne judge recently remarked of a once anonymous property developer who illegally demolished a historic Melbourne pub and then dumped asbestos waste from the pub near homes and a childcare centre: “I hope everyone knows your name.”

Blocked on Twitter: A few thoughts on the “Anonymous host” of Casefile

casey This week I discovered I had been blocked on Twitter from accessing any tweets from @case_file and @casefilehost – the handles for popular crime podcast Casefile.

Fans of this blog may recall I wrote a now deleted post a few months back revealing the identity of the show’s anonymous host.

What followed was frantic messaging via Twitter from the “anonymous host” asking me to remove the post as revealing his identity would comprise the show and could bring about its early end.

This I agreed to do in modest exchange for an interview (anonymously) with “Brad” (He revealed his name in a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone magazine).

I took down my original post as he had asked, emailed him some interesting questions – but no responses were forthcoming.

Instead a rather blunt email followed over a week later suggesting that my follow-up post (which did not reveal his identity) was also not to his liking and when I declined to acquiesce to his demands to change it, our correspondence ended.

email-casefile

A short while later, he blocked me on Twitter, meaning I cannot view any Casefile tweets or interact with him – though I can still download his show.

I have also discovered that ‘Brad’ had removed all photos on social media of himself and other bits of identifiable information scattered on the internet in clear efforts to protect his anonymity.(That said, he can still be easily found if you know where to look).

(For top tips on how to work out his identity for yourself, read my follow-up blog here).

Clearly, ‘Brad’ is very keen to remain anonymous and – for reasons that no one appears to know, but many are curious about ( I get emails every week) – shuns the quasi celebrity status that other successful podcasters have enjoyed.

It of course begs the question, why? What does he have to hide?

With no responses to my questions from Brad, all I can do for now (until the mystery is inevitably solved) is speculate on plausible explanation for his overt shyness.

Perhaps the host of Casefile is a former or current police or law enforcement officer? Or perhaps he has served in the army or worked for one of those secretive government agencies?

Is it too fanciful to suggest that maybe he has some dark and dastardly secrets of his own?

The other possibility I think is that being anonymous protects him to a degree from being sued or attacked personally.

This I pondered after finding out that one Casefile episode, case 55 – the unsolved 2005 murder of Perth backpacker Simone Strobel – is no longer downloadable anywhere.

strobel

So why has it disappeared? Has someone complained?

In our exchanges the Casefile host said there was nothing “sinister” about his anonymity, but equally his other explanations (told in many online interviews) that he wants to stay out of the way of the story do not ring true.

I also wonder how ‘Brad’ feels at retelling these crimes in all their graphic detail, where the victims (some of whom are still alive) are not afforded the luxury of anonymity…while he so jealously guards his.

The identity of the Casefile host: why I deleted his dark secret

caseyOne of the most stunning podcast success stories in recent years, is Casefile, a true crime podcast started just over two years ago by a mystery Australian bloke “from a spare room in his house”.

(For a follow up on this post click here).

Narrated anonymously, his distinctive Australian drawl has added an element of creepiness to tales drenched in blood. Every week hundreds of thousands of listeners, indeed sometimes many millions, download or stream the latest Casefile podcast.

With this viral success, the podcast has quickly become a slick, commercial venture with advertising, a creepy soundtrack and professional production qualities.

A team of engineers, producers, composers and researchers have sprung up around the Casefile creator and host.

But his identity – like the perpetrators of the unsolved crimes retold on the podcast – remains a closely guarded secret.

In an interview with Vice.com in October 2016, the Casefile host said he wanted to remain anonymous so that he could “stay out of the story and “let the facts speak for themselves”.

“I’m just a random Aussie guy, in my spare bedroom, running a podcast,” he said modestly.

As a naturally curious journalist, I decided to take up the challenge and try to found out who the Casefile host was.

It wasn’t really hard – if you know where to look.

(For top tips on how to work out his identity, read my follow-up blog here).(For top tips on how to work out his identity, read my follow-up blog here).

Indeed, for someone who wanted to remain anonymous, he didn’t seem to be making much of an effort to hide his identity.

And so last week, I ran a story, briefly, on this blog revealing his identity.

If you were one of the 100 or so people who read the post, you would know who he is and would have seen his photograph.

Soon after it was published and Tweeted and Facebooked, the Casefile host contacted me and asked me not to reveal his identity and to remove the post and all my social media about it.

casefile tweet

I was bemused by his reaction, as I thought his anonymity was a “marketing gimmick” and that it if a blogger like me revealed it would not make any difference to the show or how it is presented.  Indeed many of his fans crave to know who he is.

But no, he told me, it had nothing to do with marketing but affected his “real world life”  and his “ability to do the show”.

casefile tweet 2

In the end I took it down.

He told me that if no damage had been done to his anonymity and the show could continue, he would consider doing an interview with me.

I’ve sent over a few thought-provoking questions…let’s see what happens.

Of course, I remain intrigued as to why his anonymity is so vital to the show’s viability. No other podcasts I know of has anonymous narrators.

In fact, most successful podcast creators, like the hosts of the ground breaking Serial have become famous in their own right.

And so while the Casefile host insists on not making his identity part of the murderous stories he tells,  for me, his identity has, ironically, become the story.

As, I think it always has been for many of his faithful listeners.

(For a follow up on this post click here).