At the end of August, a man named Danny Heinrich confessed to sexually assaulting and murdering Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old Minnesotan boy who had been missing since 1989.
Meanwhile, Madeleine Baran, a reporter for APM Reports, was working on an investigative podcast about the case, diving deep into one of the most notorious child abductions in history.
The resulting weekly podcast series, “In the Dark,” launched at the beginning of September. The Huffington Post spoke with Baran via email Friday to learn how and why she chose this story to investigate.
Talk to us about the seed of this story. What inspired you to take a deep dive into the Jacob Wetterling case, what essentially was a cold case?
I started reporting on the Jacob Wetterling case because I wanted to know why it hadn’t been solved, and I wanted to understand the consequences of the failure to solve it on Jacob’s family, the community and the nation.
There were things about the case that stood out to me right from the start of my reporting ― that Jacob was kidnapped on a dead-end road; there were witnesses; officers got there right away; the case had a massive amount of resources and investigators. All of those facts made me wonder why it hadn’t been solved.
I also wanted to better understand the impact of Jacob’s disappearance. Jacob’s kidnapping wasn’t just any child abduction. The case was one of the largest searches for any missing child in the history of the United States. It changed the lives of children and parents across the Midwest, and it contributed to the fears of “stranger danger.” It also led to a federal law that requires all states to maintain registries of sex offenders. So it was important to find out why the case hadn’t been solved.
When did you start reporting? How long did you report before you started scripting and editing episodes?
We started some initial reporting in September and October 2015, but we didn’t get started full time on it until around November 2015. We’ve been reporting, writing and producing full time since then. We started scripting and editing episodes over the summer.
We decided to do a several-part podcast because we think it was the most responsible way to tell this story. There are a lot of characters and the story unfolds over several decades. Given what we were finding out, there just wasn’t a way to tell the story fully in a traditional one-hour radio documentary, or even a shorter multipart series.
Did the success of “Serial” influence your decision?
Fortunately, because of “Serial” and “Making a Murderer,” we knew that people are craving this kind of in-depth storytelling and reporting. That’s good news for reporting in general, because a lot of investigative stories are going to be more in-depth, complex and nuanced.
The first couple of episodes of the podcast take on the familiar trajectory of a true crime story: here’s the crime, here are the suspects, let’s see if we can figure out who did it. But then comes the startling confession of Danny Heinrich in August. How did this change the podcast?
Our podcast was never going to be a whodunit. We weren’t trying to solve the case. We were trying to figure out why it hadn’t been solved, and the consequences of the failure to solve it.
So we didn’t need to rewrite the series after Danny Heinrich confessed. However, we did make some changes. Heinrich’s confession allowed us to make certain points more clearly, but the arc of the story remained the same.
The merits and pitfalls of power is a deep theme that runs throughout the series. What other themes of abuse of power did you come across as you reported this out?
There are several. For example, our reporting looked into the media coverage of the case over the past 27 years, and we got into some of the issues around sensationalism. The media has a tremendous amount of power to shape a narrative, and those stories can be destructive to people’s lives, whether intentionally or not.
The podcast has a fairly large cast of characters mostly from the Minnesota area. Perhaps it’s the accents, but it’s reminiscent of “Fargo” the movie. Did that occur to you? Did it influence your storytelling? Are you from the area?
I did wonder about that a bit, but I don’t think it influenced our storytelling. As far as my own background: I’m from the Midwest, Milwaukee, but I’ve lived in Minnesota for more than 10 years now, long enough to certainly feel at home here and feel like I can tell stories here. I also think, in some ways, having not shared the experience of growing up in Minnesota when Jacob was abducted has been helpful in some respects, because there were certain narratives about Jacob’s kidnapping and the law enforcement response to it that were so entrenched that if you lived through them, it could be hard on some level to get beyond them.
What were the biggest challenges in reporting this story?
Trying to peel back the layers of what is in some respects a gripping true crime narrative ― to get beyond that ― and to try instead to look at deeper issues of law enforcement accountability in a way that is sensitive while also being illuminating. We worked really hard to try to find a balance between not shying away from what actually happened and not sensationalizing it.
What surprised you the most?
I think I was most surprised by how, in the 27 years that Jacob’s case went unsolved, there was so little looking back or self-reflection on the part of law enforcement, and also on the part of the media. For 27 years, the same stories would get told over and over again, and they would go mostly unchallenged.
How many more episodes are left in the series? What’s next?
There will be a couple more episodes ― eight total. Episode 7 comes out next week. Episode 8 comes out the week after that.
Want to find out what happened in the Jacob Wetterling investigation? Listen to the podcast.
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