Unspeakable: a podcast

LIght green text 'Unspeakable' on a textured black background.Recently I listened to a 6-episode podcast called Unspeakable. It’s about child sexual abuse and unusually for a podcast, it was made by the Victorian police. Each episode covers a different aspect of reporting child sexual abuse – talking to the cops, what an investigation involves, choosing the right legal path for the situation.

What makes it interesting is Victoria has an innovative system which puts the victims’ needs first. They start with SOCITs, or Sexual Offenses and Child Abuse Investigation Teams. These are made up of people with specialist training in dealing with these crimes. There are also Multi-Disciplinary Centres which have plain clothes police, psychologists, and medical staff all in one discreet building which is nowhere near a police station. If you go to one, you don’t have to start out by making a police report – you can just chat to people to see how you feel about it before anything is decided.

Every episode begins with a gentle reminder to only listen if you’re in an emotionally safe place or have support with you. They encourage you to take breaks if you need them. And at the end of each episode there are contact details if you decide you want to report something. Given that the subject might bring up long-ignored memories, I think this is very thoughtful. I found some of the stories heartbreaking, I can only imagine how someone with personal experience of similar things might feel.

The Victorian Police made the podcast to encourage people who might be thinking of reporting a sexual assault, whether it was recent or from many years ago. They wanted the public to be able to find out about the SOCIT service in a low-pressure way, and to explain how their methods are different from how things used to be.

Anyone who reads about crime in the news will have heard some horror stories about police not taking sexual assault reports seriously. I’m sure Victoria has had its fair share of dismissive and paternalistic incidents. So its good that they’re not only improving but letting people know things have changed for the better. Unspeakable won a public relations award, so I think it must be doing a good job of getting the word out.

I hope Unspeakable gives victims of sexual assault in Victoria more confidence that they’ll be treated with the respect they deserve. But I also think it does a great job of explaining how all police organisations should be dealing with these crimes. I’d love to see police and victims’ advocacy groups in other parts of Australia learn from it and lift their standards too.

A quick search on reporting sexual abuse in other states showed that the rest of Australia directs you to your local police station, or Crimestoppers. That’s fine for a burglary or a bit of argy-bargy outside your local pub. But sexual abuse (particularly of children) needs specialist detectives, not just whover’s taking the shift on front desk that day.

If you or someone you know works with sexual assault victims elsewhere in Australia, I highly recommend giving Unspeakable a listen to see how a fully supportive police service could be organised. It’s available on Soundcloud and iTunes – I couldn’t find any transcripts but I hope they’re available soon.

Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes

I was going to write a review about Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, but Aja Romano has already summed up my thoughts at Vox:Netflix’s Conversations With a Killer willfully participates in Ted Bundy’s 3-ring circus

I liked Joe Berlinger’s work on Paradise Lost, and I didn’t know much about Bundy before so I feel like I learned the basics here. But there wasn’t enough time spent with Carol DaRonch or other victims, and there was too much time spent with TV hosts and smug arsehole Sheriff Ken Katsaris.

The Beehive

Who killed Juanita Nielsen? That’s the question asked by a non-linear, experimental documentary called The Beehive, commissioned by ACMI and showing there until 6th November. It’s free and running from 10 am to 5pm each day.

Juanita Nielsen was from a middle-class family. She was educated and well-travelled. In the 1960s she moved to Kings Cross for the bohemian lifestyle you could get there back then. But the real estate there was too valuable to be left to working-class employees and artists, and it had always been the headquarters of organised crime. Rich men bought up the cheap terrace homes and got their dodgy mates in crime and corrupt police to hassle the locals to move.

By 1975 things were getting tense. The builders union refused to work on the development and locals were protesting in every way they could. But key individuals were getting harassed and kidnapped, and warned off making trouble for the guys with money. Juanita was a journalist for a local paper as well as being involved in the protests, and used her platform and education to draw attention to the corruption. When she disappeared, everyone who knew her assumed she had been “gotten rid of” as a lesson to them all. No-one was ever convicted of her murder, and her body has never been found.

According to a review at The Guardian, the film is made up of about 20 sections, with a few of them selected randomly by computer to make a film-length documentary. Each screening is different because of this. In the one I saw, some sections are of the actresses playing Juanita, re-enacting scenes from her life. Others are the same actresses talking about what they have in common, or not, with her. One older lady plays a bee-keeper, a kind of ghost of Juanita haunting present-day Kings Cross. And there are interviews with people who knew her and were involved with the protests. It was an interesting way of showing the reality of any true crime story – that it is a mosaic with missing pieces and many points of view.

I misunderstood the details of the story, and so I went in to the screening thinking it was going to be about a nice white lady who opposed some development in her nice backyard, with not much controversy about who killed her even if there was no official answer. I should have trusted ACMI more! Nielsen was a tough lady in spite of appearances, and she was dedicated to using her bit of privilege in life to get a better deal for people who were worse off. She wanted to be a champion for people who were overloooked, and she knew it was dangerous to stick her neck out.

All film directors have to answer the question of “why should I care about this?” for the audience. Director Zanny Begg does a great job of connecting Nielsen’s story to issues still current today – misogyny, race and class. Affordable housing in Sydney is a way to bring all those threads together. This interview with Begg on YouTube (captions available) is really good at explaining what I liked about this film.

Sadly, the only mystery about who killed Juanita Nielsen is which one of the corrupt rich men affected by her power was responsible for hiring a thug to kill her. But finding the precise answer would shed a lot of light on how money controls the shape of a city. I’m not usually interested in Underbelly-style stories, but the more feminist and intersectional take on this case helped me get invested.

Two fictionalised versions of her story have been filmed – Heatwave (1981, directed by Philip Noyce with Judy Davis playing Juanita) and The Killing Of Angel Street (1981, no names I recognise but won some critics awards). If you’ve seen either one I’d be interested to know what you thought of it.

Curtain, the podcast

A silhouette of a man overlaid with an aerial view of Rockhampton
Curtain is a true crime podcast focused on the case of Kevin Henry, nicknamed Curtain, who has been wrongly imprisoned for 25 years in Queensland. He was falsely convicted of murdering a woman named Lynda (for cultural reasons her family name is not used) and has finished that sentence, but cannot get released. 

The podcast was recently named one of the top true crime podcasts by Vulture. It’s hosted by journalist Amy McQuire and lawyer Martin Hodgson. In the first episodes, they go through the details of the murder case and it’s botched investigation. I love the way they do this – Martin explains everything simply and clearly, and just I was wondering about something, Amy jumps in with the exact question I had with “Martin, how do we know that…?” and he explains that too. 

Amy travels to Rockhampton to look at the scene and interviews people who had some involvement in the case. They also interview experts in false confessions, cultural knowledge, and crocodiles! In more recent episodes they cover similar cases of injustice for Aboriginal people such as Ms Dhu, Mark Haynes and Derek Bromley. They also look into the situation (complete inaction) at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory.

If you are interested in how the Australia deals with issues with the professionalism and bias of our police, courts and prisons, I highly recommend Curtain. It’s been running for 2 years now (with breaks) and the episodes are short and punchy. I’ve learned a lot about recent history, and about the Rockhampton area of Queensland as well. I’m very grateful to folks on Twitter who both recommended it to me last year. 

Wild, Wild Country (Chaplain and Maclain Way)

Poster for the documentary showing a close-up of Bhagwan's face tinted orange.
This is a 6-episode documentary about the time a cult started a commune in rural Oregon, USA and five years later ended up with members in jail for wire-tapping and bio-terrorism charges. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh left his ashram in India and moved to Oregon in 1981, and brought with him thousands of followers, dozens of Rolls Royces and a very real disrespect for the law.

Wild, Wild Country depends heavily on contemporary news footage the directors heard about from an archivist. The Ways interviewed some of the key figures, including current and former members of the cult as well as some of the opposing townsfolk and law enforcement.

The great part is the way the archival footage is used to structure the story, and the interviews with Sheela Birnstien and Jane Stork. Sheela is funny and outspoken as she always was, but also cold and unrepentant. She’s a fascinating figure and always interesting to watch. Jane is more sympathetic – she explains how she came to join the cult and the effect it had on her with simplicity and honesty.

The less-great parts are the restricted focus and the reluctance to really question the interviewees when they are self-serving or evasive. There’s very little detail about the cult before or after this event. We only learn about the cult’s beliefs from sensational news clips (which are hard to take seriously with their exclamations about sex cults! and Satan!) or people who are still making money from the cult. And both Sheela and the cult’s lawyer are allowed to explain or avoid any topic they like. It’s not clear that one of the interviewees, Jayananda, was married to Sheela for some of the time in Oregon, or that she bigamously married another guy there too.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by documentary directors like Errol Morris who put their interview subjects under a microscope. But the “we’ll show both sides and let you figure it out” method seems lazy to me. I don’t have the access that the directors do, so I’m relying on them to find the truth and present it.

And since Netflix gave them 6 episodes to play with, I think there’s room to explore conflicting details without being biased. Shorter documentaries can take a point of view within a complex topic, but longer ones have a responsibility to do more than “he said, she said”.

Part of the entertainment for me is that Sheela once came to my part of the world and created her usual media spectacle here. Her infamous “tough titties” line was in response to being told that the rural town of Pemberton didn’t want her cult to move there. In the 1990s I saw Rajneeshees in Perth and Fremantle and was offered some pamphlets once. So I was interested to learn more about them.

Overall it’s a good documentary, well-paced and interesting. But true crime fans will want to know more about the cult activities and will need to look elsewhere. Here are a few links to get you started:

Killing For Pleasure, Debi Marshall

Cover of Killing For PleasureThis is probably the most comprehensive book about the bodies in the barrels murders. It won the Ned Kelly Award for True Crime in 2007, and rightly so. Marshall is a crime writer who has published other books and writes long-form pieces for national magazines as well. Here she digs into the possible causes of one of the worst, and definitely the strangest, serial killings in Australia.

She begins with Bunting’s ex-wife, getting a perspective often overlooked. She also contacts several other people who knew Bunting before he moved to the outer suburbs of Adelaide. It’s sort of revealing but Marshall makes sure we don’t lose track of the fact that Bunting lied easily and frequently. Even when people from his early years are being honest we can’t trust anything he told them. It’s probable that Bunting was raped as a child, but we will never know for sure. Based on her details, I find it hard to believe that Bunting could have ever become an upstanding member of society even if he hadn’t been traumatised. He truly seems like someone born to psychopathy.

She gradually introduces us to the other perpetrators and shares as much as she’s been able to find out about their past. They all have horrific abuse from their early years, which can be verified and other people knew of before they became Bunting’s accomplices.

Not that Marshall offers this as an excuse for their behaviour. She goes to a lot of trouble to show that other people involved, and many of the victims, also had traumatic pasts. They might not have been kind to each other, they might have been struggling to live better lives… but they didn’t do any of the disgusting things that Bunting’s crew did. We all react differently to trauma. Bunting deliberately picked the people most vulnerable to manipulation or brutalisation. He gradually tested their boundaries and pushed them further and further until they thought his actions were normal. Anyone who didn’t like his ranting was ruled out of his plans and excluded from his company.

Marshall got access to interviews of Christine Johnson (Vlassakis’ mum and Bunting’s sometime partner) before she died in 2001. The original interviewer didn’t want to write the story, and I can understand why as it’s particularly harrowing. I like that Marshall also interviews the friends or loved ones of the victims whenever possible – it’s a very harsh story so it benefits from some love and care, even if it’s paired with grief.

Finally Marshall traces how the police and courts dealt with this extraordinary case, having sat in on large parts of the trial. This is covered in other books but hearing how the jury and judge coped, and how Vlassakis turned state’s witness, is interesting.

It’s hard to escape the grim background to this story – it’s never far from the surface. Marshall speculates a bit on the social, economic and political factors that came together to make this depressing landscape, and asks how it could be prevented. Because the murders weren’t the only crimes: child abuse, rape, domestic violence and petty crimes are part of many lives here. Mental illness and physical disability are common, and only get the bare minimum of treatment. More people are unemployed than working. The outer suburbs of Adelaide were (are?) treated like a dumping ground for all the people it’s too hard for society to deal with, and Marshall wants us to confront that reality.

For that reason, Killing for Pleasure is one of the most draining true crime books I’ve ever read. I think it’s excellent, filled with detail and compassion and answering the questions any reader would have. But it’s difficult to recommend it to anyone without warning that it’ll leave them feeling pretty raw.

Snowtown, Jeremy Pudney

Cover of Snowtown by Jeremy PudneyJeremy Pudney is a journalist from Adelaide, who was a crime reporter for The Advertiser at the time the bodies in the barrels murders were discovered. He breaks the story into 3 sections: the police working to figure out why the same names kept popping up in missing persons investigations; the murders and the people behind them; and the court trials and appeals. It’s a quick read, especially if you skim quickly through the gruesome parts in the middle section. Pudney takes a just-the-facts approach, letting the details speak for themselves.

Adelaide has a bit of a reputation for weird crimes, but this must have completely taken over Pudney’s working life. I’d have liked to hear more from him about the issues on reporting something like this. It was an enormous story in terms of number of perpetrators and victims, in the amount of media interest including from overseas, and in the length of time covered. But he has the best account of the steps taken in the investigation that I’ve read anywhere, which I’m assuming comes from his long relationship with the Adelaide police. People who enjoy police procedurals will get the most from this book.

These days Pudney is news director at Channel 9 Adelaide. He hasn’t written any more books to date, and I hope this is because he hasn’t had to pay close attention to any more grim torture scenes. One case like this is enough for a lifetime I reckon.

Beyond Reasonable Doubt (BBC)

Beyond Reasonable Doubt is a 16-episode podcast series from the BBC about the Kathleen Peterson case. I went looking for it because I found The Staircase so unsatisfying, and several people on true-crime forums recommended it as a less biased alternative.

Title card for the podcastIt’s more professional and less biased for sure, because the host Chris Matthews and his team put in a lot of effort to speak to a variety of people in addition to Michael Peterson and his lawyer. Some of Kathleen’s family are interviewed, as well as then-District Attorney Jim Harding (now a judge), Judge Hudson and some jury members. Journalists and authors who covered the news of the case also contributed. Mike Peterson’s friend and neighbor Larry Pollard gets to explain his owl theory, and although Matthews doesn’t buy it he’s very respectful of Pollard. There are also some segments with questions from listeners.

My favourite episode was number 13, A Sister’s Story, because about half of it is Candace (Kathleen’s sister) sharing stories of what kind of person Kathleen was. Every time she spoke of Kathleen’s life her voice brightened and it was lovely to hear. I wish more true crime stories included this kind of thing.

Of course, Mike Peterson gets an unedited episode to himself too. Matthews invites him to rebut any details he disagreed with in previous episodes. I found him unconvincing since his answer to most questions was for listeners to check the trial transcript, which isn’t publicly available. And others he answered with irrelevant details before quickly changing the subject. I bet his lawyers weren’t happy he did the interview! But the man does love an audience.

As with any podcast adapted from a radio show, there are frequent station identification bits and long intro/outro sections. I learned to hit the skip-forward button for these as I don’t have a lot of listening time. But they weren’t annoying or intrusive, just the usual padding that commercial products do.

If you’re a true crime fan or want to know the complicated history of the trial through to the Alford plea, Beyond Reasonable Doubt is an excellent choice.

The Staircase (Jean-Xavier de Lestrade)

Promotional image for The Staircase, from NetflixI finished watching the documentary The Staircase on Netflix last night. It follows Michael Peterson and his defense team as he goes to trial for the murder of his wife Kathleen Peterson. The original 9 episodes were released in 2003 cover events up to his imprisonment. Another 3 episodes were commissioned and released in 2016 covering his appeal for a new trial, based on one of the prosecution’s key witnesses turning out to be a fraud. And a final episode was produced by Netflix to show the circumstances of him taking an Alford plea.

It’s a long documentary with a lot of padding – Peterson loves to hear himself talk, so there are lengthy scenes of him giving his opinion on Justice, Love and the Meaning of Life. The final 4 episodes are particularly flabby. I really didn’t need the photo montages, I would have preferred these to be two episodes at most.

It’s also a very one-sided documentary. The director, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, wanted to have one film crew follow Michael and the defense and another crew to follow the prosecution. But a few months in the prosecution decided they didn’t want to participate, so we lose that perspective.

But LeStrade should have made more of an effort to include information about the prosecution case. Even if he couldn’t film their meetings or work, he could have included the prosecution sections of the trial. There were 9 episodes to play with, he could have cut all the bits of Peterson smoking a pipe. As it is, the story fails to include key aspects such as the financial situation of the Petersons (in debt and reliant on Kathleen’s income during the end of the dot-com boom) and allegations of Peterson’s volatile temper. He got permission to film Kathleen’s sisters, but he didn’t interview them. It seems lazy to me.

In addition to giving a lot of time to Peterson’s (natural) self-interest, it ends up giving a lot of weight to the opinions of David Rudolf, Peterson’s lawyer. He’s the kind of guy who states opinions as facts, and doesn’t hesitate to make his client happy by joining in on trash talk of their opposition. Several times Rudolf convinced himself he knew how people would react, then was shocked when they didn’t behave as he predicted:

  • He felt the suggested murder weapon (a blowpoke, no I’d never heard of those before either) was central to the prosecution’s case. He looked genuinely surprised when no-one in the media seemed to care about it and were more interested in other evidence. And when he produced the blowpoke in court and no-one was impressed he was very put out. From the tiny bit of detail from the prosecution shown on-screen, and from reading elsewhere, it seems that the prosecution only suggested it as a possible murder weapon. It was never a key part of their case.
  • He’s shocked that the jury would think there were problems in the marriage because Mike was hiring hookers. All the friends and family he spoke to said it was a happy marriage! He says he doesn’t understand why it’s relevant.
  • He convinced Mike that the DA would offer an Alford plea deal because without Deaver the blood spatter expert there would be no case to answer. When the DA said no, they were going to go to trial, Rudolf blamed Candace for influencing him rather than admit he was mistaken. It also showed that having abandoned his fixation on the blowpoke, he had moved on to Deaver as the main cause of him losing the trial. But jury interviews afterwards showed they were more interested in the extent of the injuries and the inconsistencies in the 911 call than the blood spatter evidence. Those would still work in favour of the DA’s case even if other evidence was excluded.
  • He was also upset that the judge ordered a new trial after it was discovered that the evidence boxes hadn’t been stored properly. But as the prosecution pointed out, Mike’s claim of Kathleen dying from a fall did not rely on DNA evidence so the boxes of gear would not be relevant anyway. They still had the medical examiner’s evidence and the financial evidence even if Brad the hooker and the whole Ratliff death in Germany were excluded.

Which does raise the question of why Rudolf never tried an intruder theory on the jury? It would be easy to say that when Mike saw his wife’s body he immediately thought it was a fall but now the shock is over he wonders if it was an intruder after all. The obvious guess is that they knew there would not be any evidence of an intruder, only of Mike in the house.  But they can’t turn around 10 years later and complain that they can’t do tests on the evidence anymore. The time for that was in the immediate aftermath, not after an appeal.

Ultimately, Rudolf seems like the kind of guy who gets tunnel vision. And the film crew got drawn into that atmosphere of only looking at what they wanted to see.

Another potential source of bias is that Sophie Brunet, the editor, was romantically involved with Mike during some part of the filming. Lestrade says that didn’t affect the film but I really don’t see how it could be avoided.

I do agree with the defense team that the prosecution was hoping to trigger homophobia without directly calling for it. But they did extensive jury screening to prevent Mike’s bisexuality from being an issue, which seems fair to me. And honestly, there’s not a good way to convince people that someone making appointments with sex workers while his wife is at work is a good husband who cares about her feelings. That the sex workers were men is not as relevant as the dishonesty and selfishness. It’s lucky for Mike that Rudolf never puts his clients on the stand, because he sounded so unbelievable when he initially said “oh yeah, Kathleen knew, we had an arrangement”. And then in the final episode he admits that he never told her about even the bisexuality, let alone the infidelity.

On the positive side, the doco shows a lot of the process of a defense team, which I found really interesting. Preparing their arguments, discussing jury selection and traveling to Germany were all really interesting parts of the series and I’m glad to have seen them.

And another plus is that it doesn’t spend much time on the ridiculous owl theory. But Netflix has put a short clip on it up on their site, called The Owl Theory, if you want the LeStrade take on it.

Heaps of people have watched The Staircase and decided that Mike is innocent. I can’t agree with them, but what else are they supposed to think when Lestrade only presents the opinions of a small group of people and ignores anyone who contradicts them? If it’s meant to be a documentary about the failures of the American justice system, I would have expected to see  more about the standard processes, maybe some interviews with the SBI now that they’ve gotten rid of Deaver, and neutral legal experts.

Oh well. I’ll write up another post to explain why I think Peterson is guilty, and then maybe I’ll watch the Forensic Files episode on this case as well.

Update 10th July 2018

Just adding a few links to good articles I’ve read about this documentary: