BEHIND THE SCENES with Janna Graham

When did you first encounter this story, and what about it intrigued you?

This was a story that was gifted to me by journalist Debbie Nathan. We happened to be at the same AIR workshop in Brooklyn in December 2013. When she heard I was from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories in northern Canada, she asked if that was close to Whitehorse, Yukon. Even though they’re 1000 miles apart, I figured that was close enough for a great story.

I came to the AIR workshop at a point where I was feeling stagnant as a radio producer, and feeling isolated because of the remoteness of where I’ve chosen to live. So, it was uncanny that this story from northern Canada came to me through a chance encounter in NYC.

Through her advocacy work with National Centre For Reason and Justice, Debbie had come to know a curious character by the name of Darrell Otto who had helped free four wrongfully accused women from prison in Texas.

What motivated this man who lives alone in the woods in northern Canada to work for almost seven years to prove the San Antonio 4’s innocence? Here was someone that seemed to be a recluse, without any legal experience and certainly no connection to four gay women in Texas... and yet he had dedicated himself to getting them out of jail. What motivates someone to care that much?

Quick digression - tell me about Yellowknife. What does it sound like there?

Yellowknife is still a frontier city, in many respects. It’s on Great Slave Lake (9th largest lake in the world) and my soundscape is hypertuned to the comings and goings of the lake. The sound of bush planes and motor boats, a barge coming in, paddlers, and of course snowmobiles in the winter. There are also a lot of loose dogs roaming around town, so lots of distant barking. This is a scrappy town, so the sound of a siren is never far off, dragging someone to the drunk tank to sleep it off. In winter, everything seems louder. You really hear the subtle sounds – and everything carries for long distances.

Despite how remote we are, Yellowknife is culturally diverse. In the shops and on the streets, you’re as likely to hear Tagalog, Swahili, Spanish, French or Armenian as you are to hear English or Indigenous langauges. Two of the radio stations here dedicate a portion of their broadcast schedule to indigenous language programming so that’s helped keep native languages alive here.

Going into production, what kind of story did you think you would tell (true crime, investigative, etc)? Did the story's themes change during the process?

I had read about the case through Darrell Otto’s blog and in several feature articles that appeared in Texas newspapers. The case itself is fascinating and I partially went into the interview with Darrell thinking that the trial - and how these four women were not given a fair trial because they were gay - was the skeleton to frame the entire piece around.

But a couple things changed during the process of working on the story. I received some tape Debbie Nathan had recorded with one of the women, Elizabeth Ramirez. There’s an ease and an intimacy to the tape because Debbie and Elizabeth had become friends. Some of the tape included Elizabeth talking about her penpal relationship to Darrell, which lasted seven years or so. She even had the original penpal ad she posted on writeaprisoner.com and Debbie had recorded her reading it.

When I visited Darrell, I saw that he had kept every letter he and Elizabeth had exchanged. There were boxes of letters in his cabin. He kept them partially because of the trial but, it seemed to me, they had a real connection that went beyond just the legal dealings.

Here was Elizabeth Ramirez, a young woman cut off from the outside world, and here was Darrell, an introvert who lived by his own rules and chose to spend more time in the wilderness than with people. They shared their lives with each other and developed a meaningful friendship. To me, that was so incredible, and seemed to be the heart of the story.

How did you use sound and music to establish sense of place?

I was trying to set up two worlds – one in San Antonio and one in the Yukon wilderness. I was also trying to portray the self-imposed isolation of Darrell as well as Elizabeth’s spirit – which seems to be open and genuinely in awe of the outside world. You can hear in her voice that, even though she’s been stuck in prison for almost a decade, she somehow hasn’t got a chip on her shoulder.

The instrumental guitar picking at the beginning, which resurfaces throughout the piece, was written by Petunia. I thought the piece set up a kind of desert cowboy ballad tone and somehow connected these disparate, yet similar interior landscapes. Although Elizabeth and Darrell were in geographically distant places, I think they were each seeking something they found in each other. At the start of the story I paired them as if they were having a a conversation to establish their developing friendship.

I recorded the sounds of the Yukon when I interviewed Darrell. The lonely dog howls and the wind are the key notes for his landscape, Darrell is a long-time dog musher and keeps a dog team on his property. There's also the crunchy sound of walking on snow.

Since I didn't actually record in San Antonio, I had to rely heavily on some soundeffects (thanks freesound), using atmospheric outdoor surburban sounds to establish a cityscape in San Antonio, and some distant children's voices.

I think the most powerful tape in the piece, in terms of a sound, is Debbie Nathan's recording when the women were released from prison. The sighs, the howls, the heavy breathing are so cathartic and really brought me to that moment. From there, I wanted the sound to dissolve into lonely dog howls - leading back to Darrell in the Yukon.

Did you struggle with how to end the doc?

There isn’t an ending that I haven’t struggled with but this one in particular was tough. It’s hard to wrap up a story like this in a neat bow. Yes, the San Antonio 4 are out of prison but they’re currently playing a waiting game to see if they will be exonerated, so in a sense the story isn’t really over.

Darrell’s role in their lives, however, is over - and I wanted to end on a note that gave a glimpse into his character. He genuinely liked Elizabeth Ramirez, but he also believes in truth and justice. And, you know, I think he’s a hero for that.