For some of us, nothing fills up free time quite like crime stories. Thankfully, we’re in a golden era of true crime storytelling, especially in podcast form. The genre runs the gamut from investigative journalists reconsidering unsolved crimes to chatty rehashings of some of the most famous cases and trials of our time.
Still, it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff amid the proliferation of productions — not all true crime podcasts get the attention that’s lavished on S-Town or Serial. Independently produced podcasts or ones that focus on unheralded cases can easily fall under the radar. Here are five podcasts that have been generating lots of chatter among true crime aficionados.
The Orange Tree (The Drag)
In 2005, 21-year-old Jennifer Cave was shot, stabbed, and partially dismembered in her friend’s condo.
The brutal yet seemingly motiveless murder shocked the community, especially after that friend, University of Texas student Colton Pitonyak, fled to Mexico with a fellow student, Laura Hall, once Cave’s body was found. They were arrested, and Pitonyak was eventually tried for Cave’s murder, while Hall was prosecuted as an accomplice. Both were found guilty; at his trial, Pitonyak claimed he didn’t remember the killing, so what actually happened — and why — remains murky to this day.
In The Orange Tree, named after the condominium where the crime took place, two journalism students at UT, who found all the major players in the case, attempt to understand what led to Cave’s murder.
They interview Cave’s family to humanize her and give more context to her life and relationship with Pitonyak. They also talk to Pitonyak and his parents as they grapple with how a National Merit scholar could have committed such a heinous crime. One episode even includes jailhouse calls with Hall and her mother, which portray her in a chilling new light.
The seven-part investigation doesn’t answer all the questions surrounding the case, but it still provides a memorable journey into a story that resists easy conclusions.
Cousins by Blood (Independent)
Cousins by Blood is like a low-budget Serial with more twists. The podcast grew out of private investigator Matt Duff’s inquiry into the case of Ivan Cantu, a Latinx man from Texas who sits on death row for the execution-style murders of his then-27-year-old cousin and his cousin’s fiancé in 2000.
At the trial, the state argued that Cantu was motivated by greed and jealousy — but, as in Serial, most of the case was actually built around the incriminating testimony from an informant: Cantu’s then-partner.
The podcast is narrated by Duff, who uncovers potentially planted evidence, new information impeaching the testimony of Cantu’s girlfriend, and plenty of other suspects from the cousin’s shadowy underworld ties. In one episode, Duff even finds Cantu’s ex-girlfriend; through their interview, he gleans evidence of how she might have been coached by police.
In the 15 episodes released so far, some of the most compelling material is the family melodrama unleashed by the case, and listeners get a front-row seat to jailhouse calls between Cantu and his mom and aunt. Duff keeps adding episodes as he uncovers more information, and the storytelling is initially clunky — but it’s a riveting story that continues to pick up steam in newer episodes.
In summer 1997, Denise Johnson was killed in her home in the seaside North Carolina town of Kill Devil Hills. Then her apartment was set on fire. It seemed to be a crime of passion, but local police never solved the case. They initially zeroed in on just one suspect: a man who happened upon the flames.
In this 13-episode podcast, produced by Ashley Flowers of Crime Junkie fame, investigative journalist Delia D’Ambra revisits the case, interviewing former neighbors, police officers, and Johnson’s family members and friends, including a roommate who disappeared right after the killing. She uncovers new suspects, like Johnson’s former neighbor and occasional romantic partner who had a jealous girlfriend characterized as being unstable by everyone who knew her. CounterClock keeps listeners hooked as it closes in on the case’s likeliest suspects.
Culpable (Mountain Media and Tenderfoot TV)
When 21-year old Christian Andreacchio was found dead in his apartment’s upstairs bathroom, the police immediately ruled the death a suicide. But Andreacchio’s mother didn’t believe he had killed himself, and suspected foul play. The case was brought before a grand jury, but there were no indictments.
In Culpable’s 15 episodes, host Dennis Cooper uncovers the failures of local police officers, reveals new eyewitness accounts about people who were at Andreacchio’s apartment, and parses forensic clues that actually point to a homicide in the 2014 death. The podcast also focuses on the behavior and motivations of Andreacchio’s then-girlfriend, who has since sued both the family and the podcast. The perplexing case seems made for Reddit, and this podcast unravels its many layers.
This 11-episode series is a chilling account of an unlucky couple’s collision with a serial killer.
Chris Farmer and Peta Frampton were a British couple in their twenties who dreamed of sailing around the world. In the ’70s, they embarked on a trip from Australia to Central America, keeping their family in the loop about their journey through letters. They were last heard from in Belize, where they got on the boat of Silas Duane Boston, ready for yet another leg of their excursion.
Paradise, a haunting narrative of their demise, is one of the darkest true crime podcasts out there. Through chilling interviews with Boston’s now-grown son, the truth about the couple’s last hours is laid bare. The host, a BBC journalist, fleshes out the life of Farmer and Frampton through interviews with their families, including the former’s sister, who wrote a book about the case. The families are finally able to find their graves in Guatemala, giving listeners a rare sense of closure. ●