Spoilers ahead, I suppose.
Serial is back with a new podcast from The New York Times, which bought Serial, “The Coldest Case in Laramie.” The case, investigated for more than two years by NYT reporter Kim Barker follows the unsolved murder of Shelli Wiley in 1985, incidentally in Barker’s hometown of Laramie, Wyoming. If Laramie sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because Matthew Shepard, the gay student at the University of Wyoming, was killed near there in 1998. Barker steps into the “audio shadow” of Sarah Koenig, who kicked off Serial in 2014, primarily in the presentation (because, let’s be honest, there is no duplicating Koenig’s perfect podcast voice, even if Barker has a unique voice herself). That is, Barker brings us into how she investigated the murder, and what she’s thinking in real time talking to pivotal players in the case. It’s a rather bite-sized podcast at only eight episodes, with the episodes around 30 or so minutes.
Shelli, 22 at the time, was attacked in her own apartment, managed to escape, was re-captured, stabbed repeatedly, and dragged back to the apartment. The apartment was then lit on fire. Fred Lamb, who lived two doors down from Shelli, was a former police officer and National Guardsman. Because he was a former cop and intimately knew the other cops of the Laramie Police Department, Shelli’s family believes he didn’t get a proper look back in 1985. In any event, he would be charged with the crime in 2016, and soon thereafter, the charges were dropped by the prosecutor.
That’s where Barker picks up the crumbs of the story. Why hasn’t he been re-charged? What’s going on here in Laramie? If you listen to the first episode or two, you’re going to think right away that Fred is guilty because in a police interview from 2016, Fred speaks in the third person, saying he killed the girl (Shelli). But Barker is making a point by allowing us to hear that out-of-context snippet from the police interview.
“The Coldest Case in Laramie” isn’t about a murder, so much as it is about the fallibility and malleability of our memories. I mean, yes, Barker is interested in the question of who murdered Shelli, but in the course of investigating the murder, she comes to realize nobody quite remembers anything correctly about the case. Because of how tainted our memories can be, it shows the danger of trying to pin a murder on someone: it could be standing on the sands of time, easy to dissolve before our eyes. That brings into question what is justice, really? A manifestation of our best approximation of how the events of a crime unfurled? Is that good enough? When someone else’s life — in this case, Fred Lamb’s — hangs in the balance, too? Not to mention, if Fred isn’t guilty of the crime, but is convicted of it, the real killer evades justice.
I don’t think Fred did it. As the series goes on, we learn that, again, the interview with police was out of context, and in fact, Robert Terry, assistant police chief of the Laramie Police Department, through a seven-hour interview, walked Fred into that “confession.” Fred told Barker he went into that interview thinking he was going to be genuinely helpful to Terry. No. The police are not your friends. Get a lawyer. His wife, Linda, talks to Terry after learning Fred’s been arrested and charged with Shelli’s murder, and she talks herself into making Fred look even worse, telling Terry that Fred would have “episodes” where he was blackout violent due to his time in Vietnam. Again, don’t talk to the police without a lawyer. Goodness.
I, of course, have a fondness for Fred’s lawyer, Vaughn Neubauer, as that is my bias: defense attorneys are more heroic to me than prosecutors, and Howard’s disposition is skepticism of cops and anti-death penalty, so, again, he’s speaking my language. But he also convincingly cuts through the BS case against Fred. What I find interesting is that initially, Barker seemed more skeptical of him — because he’s a defense attorney for a suspect in a murder — than she was of Terry. Alas, she would come around to Vaughn’s favored suspect for the killing: Larry Montez, the local creep and sex offender, who later died in prison in 2019.
The police, naturally, do not cover themselves in glory with the 1985 investigation into Shelli’s murder. In addition to botching the physical evidence involved in the case, they are clearly motivated by racism and sexism in trying to track down black and Hispanic men who Shelli dated and/or had sex with, and seem to victim-blame Shelli for having had a sex life. Then, the incompetent police charged Jacob Wideman with Shelli’s murder after he confessed. But his confession was clearly the result of mental illness, and didn’t match what the police already knew. Another individual, Angelo Garcia, was then charged after being fingered by Wideman for the fire aspect. Again, incompetence. But for his part, Terry, who seems earnest, to be fair, is missing the boat of justice because he has tunnel vision when it comes to Fred.
Other examples of memory fallibility are Michelle, Shelli’s roommate, who distinctly remembers receiving a threatening card in the mail telling her to stay away with $100. Instead, as Barker uncovers, it was a Christmas card from someone she knew. Or that Fred’s bloody fingerprint was found on a matchbook. It wasn’t. Another witness misremembered what he thought he said and what police said to him in his police interview. Both were astonished when “confronted” by Barker with the correct information.
Finally, the realest example of fallibility is that Laramie isn’t the hateful, awful place of Barker’s memory told her it was. She finds the people she interacts with in the course of investigating the murder to be delightful people. But also, maybe the people in the 1980s were as bad as her memory attributes such malice to? It was a different time after all.
Real life is messy, fallible, and resistant to closure. Such is the case with, “The Coldest Case in Laramie,” but that’s why it’s a worthwhile listen. It’s truer than more representations of true crime. And remember, the police are not your friends; get a lawyer.