David Ridgen takes us behind-the-scenes of a true-crime podcast series
If you're one of the millions of people who dutifully followed the first season of Serial or binge-watched Making a Murderer, you know how addictive true-crime can be.
Whether it's The Thin Blue Line or the OJ Simpson trial, true-crime stories are everywhere and, once you're hooked, it's hard to turn away. It's also hard not to play armchair detective or amateur psychologist. Hard not to decide, with blithe certainty, who is and isn't guilty.
It's entertaining. But should it be? The characters in the story are actual people. Someone has often died. The pain of the victim, not to mention the victim's family and friends, is often overlooked and all too real.
These sorts of moral dilemmas are exponentially more difficult when you're the one trying to tell the story.
What happened the day five-year-old Adrien McNaughton wandered into the woods and was never seen again? How does a family grieve for someone who may still be alive? And where might he be today? Someone Knows Something host David Ridgen returns to his hometown to investigate the case.
Today, CBC launches its new true-crime podcast series, Someone Knows Something. Season one will focus on the cold case of Adrien McNaughton, a five-year-old boy who disappeared while on a family fishing trip in 1972.
SKS host David Ridgen is no stranger to cold cases. He helped spearhead The Civil Rights Cold Case Project in the U.S. And made four documentary films for the CBC as part of his Canadian Cold Case series.
Many of his investigations have lead to cases being reopened and charges being laid. Mississippi Cold Case, a 2007 documentary, lead to the conviction of a Klansman for the murder of two young black men during the civil rights era.
Ridgen also has a special connection to Adrien McNaughton's case. He grew up in the same small town as the McNaughton family, moving there shortly after Adrien went missing. And while people tried not to talk about the case, the shadow of that missing boy has hung over the town for the past 40 years.
I spoke with David Ridgen to find out his thoughts on true-crime stories, on reopening cold-cases (and old wounds) and what it's like to conduct an investigation in his hometown.
In general, do you like true crime? What separates your work from most cold-case documentaries?
Normally networks can't afford the amount of time it takes to follow a case long form, and as a result reporters fly in and deal with a family for a day or two maximum. They do some kind of re-enactment or dramatization of the case, maybe blame police because, frankly, they are easy targets, and then move on to the next one. They use the cases to feed audience interest in this genre - the salacious details of what humans do to each other. And it's something that weighs on me every time I consider doing one of these cases. On one hand you have to engage an audience because it is with that engagement that tips can come in, it is with that connection that people who do know something might be encouraged to tell what they know. But, by invoking the engagement card, we can also call on some of the worst properties of storytelling cliché and, even worse, make no time for actually investigating anything.
What are some of the special considerations that you have to make when you're working on this sort of documentary?
I am always very conscious of how I would feel with a person coming to me and asking some difficult questions around a clearly painful collection of memories. How would I respond to a request to re-live the disappearance of my own son, for example? Would I see the value in that and wouldn't I already be beating myself up about exactly that every day anyway? Would I feel it would be helpful to open that up again, at least publicly? Would I buy what the person is saying about trying to help the case? What is really motivating this person? These are the crucial questions whose honest answers all lead to the final landing place of any cold case endeavour I want to be involved in. In the end, it needs to be a journey that people are willing to take with me because they see the value not only in the outcome - be it a solution to the case or not - but in the process of getting there.
See key dates and events in the missing person case of Adrien McNaughton. As the show progresses, and new evidence and information is revealed, the timeline will be updated.
Is it harmful to make friends and family members of the victim relive painful memories? Is it harmful, after all these years, to give them hope?
I think it is never harmful again, in the end, to utter the truth, in the open, and with vigour. Hope comes into it, but it is also about the act of personally healing yourself. And maybe, strangely, hope isn't the sole focus after that.
Being from Arnprior in Ontario, I'm sure Adrien McNaughton's case is one that you've thought of investigating for a while. What made you decide to finally take it on? Why now?
Friends and family have asked me about this case over the past several years. "David, you should do Adrien's case," kind of thing. But I wouldn't take it on without the support of a news outlet, partially because there are more resources available to do it right, and partially because without the distribution, it makes it a harder option for family members looking for a successful outcome. So, when the SKS podcast opportunity arose I had already been in discussions with the McNaughton family and left the possibility of doing something with them in a holding pattern until I was able to find a proper venue for the story. You never want to make promises unless you are ready to commit in this realm. SKS made it possible, so I followed up with the family and here we are.
Are there any special challenges to doing this sort of investigation in your home town. Does it make it harder or easier?
I think it makes it easier to do an investigation in the home town, actually, because I already know many of the people who might know something, and they know me, or at least my family name. Knowing the geography of the Calabogie area is also a big plus. I spent a lot of time up there in my own childhood.
I understand that your investigation into Adrien's case is ongoing. What challenges/opportunities does this create?
One has to be very careful with an ongoing investigative podcast, especially when you are examining cases involving potential human perpetrators. What if the guilty parties are listening? Should they know you are looking for them? In some instances, yes. But in most, probably not. So the release of information in a weekly format has to be just enough to drive the story forward, revealing some of your findings without showing your entire hand. Otherwise, you run the risk of blowing an investigation, and stalling any forward momentum you may be creating.
That said, there's a huge opportunity. The hope is that we can engage a large audience, because that sort of engagement usually leads to tips coming in. If you can make a connection, if you can make people feel they're involved, the people who actually know something might be encouraged to come forward.
How nerve-racking is it to start putting out weekly podcasts, and still not have an ending?
Weekly episodes, and storytelling in general, demand a certain arc to them - a beginning, middle and end. But investigations are unpredictable by nature and while efforts are made in selecting cases that we deem to have a certain level of "viability", we cannot always know where our endeavours will take us. That includes the unfortunate possibility of a dead end. But coming to a successful end does not necessarily mean finding out who did it, or finding the missing person. Those outcomes would be great. And in every season we will find new evidence that may assist in the solutions to cases. But our other main intention with these podcasts is to provide, through their process, a public service to the families and communities where the cases happened. By taking families and communities back into these stories, we ask them to shine a bit of light in areas of darkness they may not have been willing to undertake on their own. And that is a process that, from my experience working cases, ends with the people who are willing to go there coming out of it with a better sense of their loss, and how to move on from it in a more positive manner.
Chris Oke is a digital producer with Someone Knows Something.