BEHIND-THE-SCENES with Madeleine Baran

Have you always been interested in stories about crime? What brought you to this case?

I’ve been interested in stories about the criminal justice system for a long time, and I’ve done a fair amount of reporting on crime. I started looking into the kidnapping of Jacob Wetterling about two years ago. I was working on another long-term project at the time, and one day, I just got curious and started reading about the Wetterling case. And right away, I was intrigued, because what I was reading didn’t match what I had heard about the case. The Wetterling case had always been described as a kind of epic mystery, an impossible case. But when I learned the basic facts of the crime – that Jacob was kidnapped on a dead-end road, there were witnesses, police got there right away – I wondered why the case hadn’t been solved. And I wanted to learn more about the consequences of the failure to find Jacob – on his family, the community, innocent people who got caught up in the investigation, and the country, because this wasn’t just any child abduction case. The Wetterling case led directly to a federal law that requires all states to maintain registries of sex offenders, and it fueled parents’ fears about “stranger danger.” After some initial research, it was clear that this was an important story, so I got started. I’ve reported full-time on this story for about a year.

What inspired you about podcasts/tv shows/movies about crimes - and what did you hope to do differently with this series?

In the Dark is a story about a crime, but we were trying to do something different than a lot of true crime stories. We weren’t trying to exonerate someone who’d been wrongfully convicted. We weren’t trying to solve the case. We didn’t see ourselves as amateur detectives. Instead, we were trying to find out why the case hadn’t been solved. In a sense, we were investigating the investigation. It was a different focus, and listeners will hear that right away. We were trying to find out what law enforcement did and didn’t do, so we could give the public the information they need to hold law enforcement accountable. I hope that our podcast will lead people to ask questions about the unsolved cases in their area and whether their local law enforcement agencies are doing a good job of solving crime.

In terms of inspiration, I greatly admire the reporting and storytelling in Making a Murderer , The Staircase , The Thin Blue Line and many other documentaries and other works of reporting. I think those kinds of documentaries can help all of us better understand problems in the criminal justice system. A lot of these stories highlight a particular problem with the criminal justice system in a way that engages people. For example, Serial did a great job of highlighting problems with tunnel vision in investigations. And Making a Murderer dug into concerns about law enforcement corruption and interrogations of minors, among other things.

What was your first thought when you learned that the case had been solved?

Right before we were about to start releasing the episodes, Danny Heinrich confessed to the crime. I had so many thoughts all at once. I wondered whether it was true, since there have been false rumors like that in this case before. And I thought about what this meant for Jacob’s family and for everyone who knew and loved Jacob. And then I thought about what this means for all the other people affected by this case, including a person who had been wrongfully suspected of the crime. It was a lot to take in. But as a reporter, that’s my job. So I got to work – with everyone on our team – to try to find out as much as we could, so that we could better understand exactly what happened. So we went back to the scripts and made changes and did more reporting. But the focus and arc of our story remained the same. Knowing who did it allowed us to draw sharper conclusions from our reporting, and it allowed us to better answer the question: What went wrong?

What have you learned from producing a serial about structuring a narrative arc - in terms of episodes, and also seasons?

I’ve learned so much in the past year about how to tell this kind of a story. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with a brilliant, dedicated team – with lead producer Samara Freemark, associate producer Natalie Jablonski, editor Catherine Winter, and many others. One of the big challenges with this story was the scope of it – it took place over decades and involved a lot of different people outside of the central characters. We spent a lot of time talking through the narrative arc and how to structure each episode. We storyboarded each episode, and then we went through multiple sound edits. We also brought in people from outside the reporting project to participate in group sound edits – I would highly recommend doing that. It was so useful to have the perspective of people who weren’t familiar with the story and who could bring completely new perspectives.

The interviews with Jacob’s parents are stunning and heartbreaking. How did they react when you first approached them to do this podcast? How did their collaboration with you influence how you conducted your reporting?

The Wetterlings were incredibly gracious and welcoming. I talked to Jacob’s mom Patty early on, before I started doing any real reporting, because I wanted to see if she would be open to me reporting on this, and she was very encouraging. And over the past year, we spent many hours with the Wetterlings, talking about Jacob, the investigation, their advocacy work, and what it’s been like for them to live for nearly 27 years not knowing what happened to their son. I think we showed them that we were willing to spend the time it would take to get the story right - and to tell it in a way that helps public to understand. I wanted to help listeners understand what it would be like to live through this. I wanted to get beyond the usual questions and really explore how an awful crime this like – and the not knowing – affects a family. We worked really hard to tell that story in a way that was honest and meaningful without being sensational.

We know who committed the crime. Can you give us any clues about how the podcast will end? And – will there be a Season Two of In The Dark?

We wrote the final episode, which we just released, after we did some additional reporting in the past few weeks on Danny Heinrich, the man who confessed to the crime. And we combined that with some other reporting on Heinrich that we had done a few months earlier. To answer your other question - I haven’t had much time to think about anything other than getting this story done, but I’ll be doing some serious thinking over the next few weeks and months about what might come next. We’ll be keeping people posted about our next project. You can sign up for email updates on our website: apmreports.org.