Now that the first season of the Serial podcast has concluded, the only thing that listeners can feel confident about is that there will be a second one. (Can we even be confident that the second season will tackle a crime story? No. No, we cannot. Damn you, Serial, give us something tangible to hold on to!) Luckily for Serial listeners—if not for prospective story subjects—there are myriad cold and questionable cases crying out for the Serial treatment: a painstaking true-crime investigation filtered through an approachable narrative lens. Here are five cases Sarah Koenig’s crew would be wise to tackle in future seasons.
The Darlie Routier Case. When, in 1996, police in Rowlett, Texas, learned that 5-year-old Damon Routier and 6-year-old Devon Routier had been stabbed to death, they soon came to the obvious conclusion: Their mother, Darlie Routier, did it. For one thing, there were no other plausible suspects, despite Darlie Routier’s claim that a knife-wielding intruder was to blame; for another, the stab wounds that Routier herself suffered were superficial and appeared to be self-inflicted. Routier was arrested, convicted of murder, and sentenced to die by lethal injection. And yet Routier has maintained her innocence. Her now-ex-husband continues to support her. And the conclusion that seemed so obvious in 1996 has become much less so over time. As the title of a 2002 Texas Monthly story about the case put it, “Maybe Darlie Didn’t Do It.” Let’s get Serial on the case to find out.
The Byron Case Case. In 2002 a 23-year-old man named Byron Case was convicted of the murder of his high school friend, Anastasia WitbolsFeugen, and sentenced to two life sentences. Since then, Case has maintained his innocence, claiming that the evidence against him consisted primarily of the dubious testimony of his vengeful, crack-addled ex-girlfriend. Others maintain his guilt; a recent episode of On the Case With Paula Zahn emphasized WitbolsFeugen’s father’s insistence that Case was the culprit. Case is an articulate and prolific writer who recently published a book of essays titled The Pariah’s Syntax: Notes From an Innocent Man. (“Shows flashes of brilliance, but lacks cohesion” was the verdict from Kirkus Reviews.) Full disclosure: In 2008, Case wrote an article for a magazine I used to edit called Polite, in which he described how he had turned his literacy into a prison survival skill.
The Rabbi Neulander Case. In his great book Popular Crime, Bill James argues that the true-crime cases most likely to attract significant media attention were those featuring the sorts of “fictional elements” best suited to a mystery novel: bold characters, intricate planning, prominent participants, layers of deception. “I would argue that there is no other case in American history,” writes James, “which has so many fictional elements as does the murder of Carol Neulander.” In 1994 the affluent and upstanding Mrs. Neulander was beaten to death in her New Jersey home. Eventually, suspicion fell on her husband, Fred Neulander, a prominent rabbi who was having an affair with a local radio personality. A local ne’er-do-well claimed that the rabbi had hired him to murder his wife, and the jury believed him; Rabbi Neulander was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison, proving once again the old noir adage that crime never pays. But real life never resolves quite as neatly as novels do; James writes that “the guilt of Fred Neulander becomes less clear as one gets more perspective on the crime.” Granted, the Neulander case is rather flashier than that of Adnan Syed, whose murder conviction Serial explored in its debut season. But it’d make for a great radio story all the same.
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist Case. OK, this one doesn’t involve any dead bodies, but it’s entertaining and fascinating all the same. On March 18, 1990, two men dressed as police officers bluffed their way into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, immobilized the two guards on duty, and made away with $500 million worth of art. Despite the fact that the thieves didn’t bother to conceal their faces, they were never apprehended and the art was never recovered. Since then, the Gardner Museum heist has inspired books, documentaries, and endless speculation. In 2013 the FBI announced that it knew the identities of the thieves—who were apparently members of a mid-Atlantic organized crime gang—but that it would be “imprudent” to reveal their names as long as the investigation was ongoing. Does that mean that they actually don’t know their names? Or was it just that the statute of limitations for major art theft had expired and the culprits likely couldn’t be prosecuted anyway? Sounds like a job for Serial.
The Woman in the Water Tank. In January 2013 a Canadian tourist named Elisa Lam disappeared from her room in the Cecil Hotel, an infamously seedy Los Angeles establishment that was once the home base for serial killer Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez. For weeks, the only evidence in her disappearance was a surveillance tape in which Lam was seen acting strangely inside the hotel elevator. Then, in February, Lam’s body was found inside one of the water tanks on the Cecil’s roof. The coroner later ruled her death an accident, but that shouldn’t dissuade Koenig and the Serial crew from probing further, as the case is lousy with unsolved mysteries. (How did she get in the cistern? What made her so skittish in the elevator? Why didn’t she stay at a less creepy hotel?) A horror screenplay based on the Lam case was purchased last year by Sony; Koenig should get the jump on the movie studio and prove yet again that truth can be more entertaining than fiction.