Category: True Crime

Agent of chaos

Hoaxed review

Production company – Tortoise Media

Rating –

Hoaxed logo

When it comes to factual podcasts, there are a few big players. Pushkin Industries is the one that immediately springs to mind, but one I was unaware of until relatively recently was Tortoise Media. I first heard of them when the presenter of the excellent Londongrad podcast was interviewed on the radio. That particular series blew my mind, so when I saw this podcast advertised, I dutifully subscribed.

So what’s it about?

Two children spoke out and told a story about how they were abused by satanists. These otherwise normal children recounted horrific crimes including cannibalism, sexual abuse and murder. The perpetrators of these despicable acts included local clergy, parents and school teachers. This may sound like something from 17th century New England, but this happened in 2014. In London.

As news of this spread all over the world, tempers flared in those who look to get angry about such things. People came to Britain to try and get “justice” for the children, and uncover the high-level conspiracy of silence. Could this be final proof of the global cabal of the reptilian overlords child trafficking?

Well no. The problem is that it was all a hoax. And this is where the real story starts. What possessed (pun slightly intended) two children to accuse innocent people of such awful crimes? And more to the point, how did this outlandish tale get so much traction? This is the point of the podcast.

As the series progresses, the truth comes to light, and the real people pulling the strings are exposed, as is the long lasting damage they caused to innocent people.

Is it any good?

In cases like this, I’m almost hesitant to say that it’s good. The facts behind the story are awful, and the emotions of (almost) everyone involved is apparent. For this reason, I would put it in the same league as Hunting Warhead. Hoax or not, this isn’t really a series to listen to if you’re triggered by such things. 

However, what is good is everything else. The research and journalism is faultless. The real need to try and get the reasons for the whole debacle, whether a fool’s errand or not, is absolutely necessary, and it is quickly becoming a Tortoise Media trademark.

Final thoughts

There seems to be a glut of “satanic panic” podcasts recently, and I will be carrying on this thread soon enough. I find it fascinating how otherwise rational people can get so fixated on what is nothing more than medieval grade religious hysteria. Not only that, but the actions of a few can convince so many into believing such things.

Another thing that is apparent in these cases is the real disregard for the very real harm done to people who get caught up in the furore. Mud sticks, and to be wrongly accused of anything, let alone such hideous crimes is not something I can fathom dealing with.

Tortoise Media is really producing some amazing content at the moment, and I can’t wait for the next story. 

You can get Hoaxed here:

https://www.tortoisemedia.com/listen/hoaxed/

Or wherever you get your podcasts.

No more heroes anymore

Disgraceland review

Rating –

Disgraceland logo

I am becoming aware that recently I’ve been giving every podcast the maximum 5 brain rating. I’m worried that if I just keep saying “yes, this is great ” then there’s no benchmark. Not everything can be perfect all the time can it? So in the interest of balance and not giving everything top marks, here is one that is something of a problem child. I hope you’ll understand my reasons here and give it a go anyway. Well as much as you can. Read on and I’ll explain this rather cryptic introduction.

So what’s it about?

Disgraceland is a podcast covering the various scandals and misdemeanors of music’s great and good (and bad). Each episode covers a different story and they run the whole gamut of decades and genres. There are some wild tales to be found here, and also some heartbreaking ones too, but each is told with the amount of respect deserved. Just because someone is famous, doesn’t make them an exhibit to be held up for public amusement does it? Or maybe you think it does. Maybe you like to read the paparazzi infested gossip magazines. Whatever, I’m not your dad. I can’t tell you what to do.

The show is narrated by Jake Brennan. He also writes, produces and composes the music, so the credits list is rather short. I first heard Jake on his other podcast Dead And Gone, about people who disappeared following The Grateful Dead around the country. This true crime podcast is on my “to review” list, and will be getting 600 or so words dedicated to it very soon.

Jake has the kind of achingly cool American voice that you would expect someone who narrates rock music podcasts to have. His voice sounds like sunshine, surf wax, petrol and pot (at least to a Welsh nerd anyway). I don’t mean any disrespect here. He’s not just someone who sounds the part. He has a deep knowledge of musical history and he has a real talent for bringing any story to life, regardless of the era. This is purely down to his skill as a writer, and he avoids the usual cut and paste from Wikipedia problems that other shows on music history (by much more well known presenters) have fallen into.

Is it any good?

Yes and no. 

Now, I’m a massive music fan and I’m not really fussy about what I listen to. The playlist on my phone runs from Dixieland Jazz, to Death Metal, Psy-trance to 1970s Japanese Funk with some traditional West African music and Musique Concrete thrown in for good measure. There aren’t many stories told that I’m not familiar with, although there are a few. Because of this, I could rate it low and say “well, there aren’t any new stories here, I’ve heard them all before”. That’s not how I do things though. Just because I know something doesn’t mean that you will, so I keep powder dry and save my penalties for other things.

Want to hear about the time Jerry Lee Lewis wanted to murder Elvis? Or maybe you want to learn about Syd Barrett’s psychological fall from grace. Maybe you’re interested in the sorry story of Britney Spears’ lost childhood and subsequent mistreatment. If so, this is the show for you. Unfortunately, this is about all you’ll learn because this podcast seems to be subscription only. Or rather, you can listen for “free” on subscription based platforms. You can get the full thing on Amazon, or Apple podcasts, but I dont use them. There are very few episodes that are truly freely available, and the ones that are are brilliant. This makes the situation all the more annoying because I really want to rate this show higher.

Jake’s style of writing is like a (much) better version of the journalist Mick Wall. He puts himself in the situations that occur, and that really makes for an exciting story. For my money, Jake is a way better writer than Mr. Wall anyway. I’d love to read a full length biography written by him, or even better an audiobook narrated by him.

Final thoughts

As you know, and are probably bored of me telling you now, I only like to review podcasts that are freely available to everyone. This is certainly a good show, and very interesting, but I feel I can’t rate it higher purely because of the lack of available episodes. Even some that show up in my podcatcher won’t actually play.

The more cynical of you may well think that I’m picking on this podcast just to give it a poor rating, but I’m really not. I love this series and it’s a real shame when a new episode shows up in my list and it won’t play. Jake has his reasons and I’m not going to be all millennial (apart from the fact I’m too old) and expect everything for free all the time. It’s just disappointing that I get teased with such good content, and not get the whole shebang.

This is unfortunately a fatal flaw in an otherwise brilliant series. 

You can get disgraceland here:

https://www.disgracelandpod.com/

Or a few episodes from your usual podcatcher.

Lost Dreams

Lost Hills Review

Production Company – Pushkin Industries

Rating –

Lost Hills logo

This is a rather awkward series to rate. Hopefully during the course of this review I’ll clarify my decision for the rather low score you see at the top of the post, particularly if you’ve just started listening to this series before reading this. As with most podcasts, I’ll hear a trailer on a different series and decide to check it out. This one caught my eye (ears?) with its exciting and harrowing plot. I subscribed immediately.

So what’s it about?

Lost hills is a true crime podcast. Each series follows a different case, but the locale is similar. In the case of this series, it’s sunny Malibu in California.

Series 1 follows the case of a shooting at a campsite in Malibu Creek State Park. Campers are awoken in the middle of the night to loud gunshots. A father has been shot in his tent as he slept next to his young daughters. The children were unharmed. The police arrest Anthony Rauda, a man already known to the police, and something of a loner and a recluse who lived in the woods. As the investigation gains publicity, it soon becomes known that there had been attempted shootings going on for months beforehand. Were they connected? Did they get the right man, or was he a scapegoat?

This is a long and complex case with severe failings on the side of law enforcement. There will be parts of the story that will have you literally shaking your head in disbelief at the failings to protect the public. I also can’t help but notice the spirit of Making A Murderer early on in the series. It seems to be weighted in favour of innocence, at least early on.

Series 2 follows the case of a tragedy at sea. Fred Roehler, his wife Verna, and their young son Doug were yachting off the Malibu coast when the boat capsized and Verna and Doug lost their lives. Fred was the only survivor and only witness. At first, he’s devastated. He’s lost most of his family in a tragic accident.

As the investigation develops though, skeletons from Fred’s past start to surface. Death seems to follow him around, particularly with regards to wives. Is he the charming, loving husband that everyone thinks? Or is there a darker side. One that’s hidden from the public?

Something that becomes apparent, particularly in season two, is that despite the multi million pound houses and exclusivity of Malibu now, in the 1970s it was a somewhat seedy area. Its popularity with celebrities came from its anonymity and peace. Somewhere away from paparazzi and prying eyes.

Is it any good?

Yes and no. This is the reason for my low score. The first series was brilliant. A gripping story and real emotion. It was a harrowing story that would be any parent’s nightmare. When you couple that with the history of the area and the fact that nobody seemed to do anything to get to the root of the problem before things escalated, makes for a brilliant show.

When series two started I was expecting more of the same, but I was disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting case, and there is no doubt that Fred was a seriously nasty guy, but it didn’t resonate as much as the first series. Even interviews with the ever charming Rob Lowe couldnt save it.

Final thoughts

Pushkin Industries is to factual podcasts what Rusty Quill is to fictional ones. Revisionist History is their flagship show and will be getting a review soon, there are others too that are all outstanding. This one started well enough, but I feel the second series was not quite up to the usual standard of excellence. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m writing the review, so it is what it is.

If they had left it as a one off, then it would have easily been a four or five brain show. I had to knock some off for series two though. No doubt there are plenty of incredible, dark stories from this area and era. Rob Lowe even discussed some things that could make for interesting story threads. Will there be a season three? Will it be a return to form? We shall just have to wait and see.

You can get Lost Hills here:

https://www.pushkin.fm/podcasts/lost-hills

Or wherever you get your podcasts.

Corrido’s of power

Standoff review

Production Company – Imperative Entertainment

Rating –

Standoff Logo

This is yet another recommendation from a friend, thanks Matt (you were right!) I managed to get through this whole thing in two days. It would have been a whole lot less. With the current shenanigans in Westminster though, I’m spending almost as much time listening to political commentary as I am listening to podcasts. But I digress….

So what’s it about?

In 1974 the Huntsville Prison in Texas was the home of cocaine and heroin kingpin Federico Gomez Carrasco. After a dramatic shootout at a small town motel (following on from a previous prison break), he was incarcerated and sentenced. This was something that Carrasco was not prepared to accept however. With the help of some accomplices, he prepared once more to escape.

The group of inmates took hostages and holed up in the impenetrable prison library. Over the next 11 days Carrasco and the prison authorities negotiated for Carrasco to flee the country in an armoured car. Needless to say, despite Carrasco’s gang taking all eventualities into account, A1 things didn’t go according to plan.

Is it any good?

Absolutely. I’m becoming quite a fan of true crime podcasts, and this one really has a twist. Most series you hear will be told from the perspective of hindsight. The parties concerned will tell their stories in the usual fashion. What sets this apart from the rest though, is the sheer amount of recorded footage from the actual event. Carrasco allowed the hostages to use the phone to speak to their families, and he was on the phone to his attorney and the prison officials, and everything was recorded.

When being told a story, there is usually a disconnect from the raw emotion. Time, as they say, is a great healer. These events are no doubt still harrowing to recall, but the people concerned have no doubt told their stories many times and it shows (or whatever the audio equivalent of that is). The fact that a great portion of this is actual footage from the time really adds an emotional weight to the story. Most of the time they make small talk with their families and make plans for when this is over. The producers don’t shy away from playing the calls that truly convey the terror of the situation though. This is the unique thing about this series.

Federico Carrasco has become something of a folk hero apparently. There are stories here that will give him a kind of Robin Hood mystique. There are even parts of this series when you almost root for the plucky little Mexican, standing up to The Man™. As the series progresses though, these moments are fewer and fewer. Ultimately you accept he was a killer, and he wasn’t fussy about who he killed.

The episodes are broken up with Mexican “corrido’s” (see i didn’t spell the title wrong!). Theae are folk ballads from the time telling Carrasco’s story. They are plaintive and solemn, and I know just enough Spanish to get the gist of the lyrics, although they are explained by the narrator. These songs were being released almost daily as the siege went on, not to glamorise the events (although they certainly do), but more as a “news update” for the cantinas and Spanish radio stations. The musicians would listen to the news, write and record the songs and broadcast them. The more popular ones would get pressed to vinyl and released to the bars for their jukeboxes.

Final thoughts

I can’t recommend this series enough really. It was compelling and heartbreaking in almost equal measure. It’s 10 episodes that you’ll fly through in no time.

As I said previously there is always a part of society that will glamorise the criminal. They add some romance to the crimes, whilst glossing over the gorier elements of their past. There is not much chance of that here though. By the end the events have taken a very dark turn indeed, and there is no way you’ll forget the events of the final night.

You can get Standoff here:

https://cumuluspodcastnetwork.com/pods/standoff/

Or wherever you get your podcasts.

Uneasy listening

Hunting Warhead review

Production company – CBC

Rating –

Hunting Warhead Logo

Hunting Warhead review

Production company – CBC

Rating –

A lot of the true crime podcasts out there are gripping tales of crime cartels and grizzly murders. Hunting Warhead is about neither of those things. It is, however, very gripping indeed. If I’d have seen this in the recommended list on my podcatcher, I would have passed on it. At the time I wasn’t listening to true crime shows. To be honest, I certainly wouldn’t have listened to a show about this subject. When I heard the trailer for it though I subscribed straight away.

What’s it about?

Hunting Warhead follows the story of Einar Stangvik. He’s a Norwegian white-hat hacker (an internet security expert) who accidentally discovers a network of people trading child abuse pictures. He joins forces with journalist Håkon Høydal to uncover the largest child abuse site on the dark web. Now obviously, this story will not be to everyone’s tastes and that’s fine. If you are upset by such things, and later on it does go into some very unpleasant details, this is really not the podcast for you.

From Einar’s initial discovery and meetings with Håkon, the journey takes them to Australia. There they meet with an international task force who are also trying to infiltrate the site and arrest those involved. This leads to some awkward moments early on. The two Norwegians have basically stumbled upon an ongoing investigation, and by wanting to go public are at risk of blowing the whole thing.

They soon realise they can work together to try and find the the ringleader of the whole network . A person known only as “warhead”. Obviously due to the nature of these people, they operate with the utmost secrecy. They also use very clever security measures so that should a breach occur, the members can escape without being caught. This means that the operation needs to work on multiple fronts all at once and the trap needs to snap shut with great timing and precision to maximise the damage to the network.

Is it any good?

I’m not sure if “good” is the right word to use. The story is truly gripping and is a real binge worthy series, despite what you may think at first. You find yourself really rooting for the people who spend their time trying to arrest those who distribute the most horrific material online, and who suffer psychological harm from willingly exposing themselves to this material in order to make arrests.

One of the main things you’ll take away from this series is the ethics of some of the methods that law enforcement use. Whilst the distribution of these images should obviously be stopped, the nature of the security these groups use mean that the only way in for the police is to share the exact material that they are trying to stop. That is one choice I’m glad I don’t have to make. Even though it’s for the greater good, I don’t think I could live with myself for doing it. Not that the task force were producing the images, but even so, just being part of that would be more than I could handle.

After the identity of “Warhead” is established and is subsequently arrested, there are interviews with him and his friends and family. It is at this point that the series takes a poignant and harrowing turn. Up until now it has been easy to imagine this faceless, evil figure looming over the dark web. This is the figure usually portrayed by the media for ratings and to provoke gut reactions. These interviews show the human side of him though. This isn’t done for any pity, or to gloss over the crimes. They do show though that you can never really know someone, and that is the really scary part. It also shows how little regard he had for anyone in his life and the depths he was prepared to sink to to satisfy his own needs.

Final thoughts

Obviously this series goes to some very dark places indeed. The subject matter is never glorified though, and the victims are treated with great sensitivity. This couldn’t be further from ambulance chasing or tabloid sensationalism, and is a testament to the professionalism of CBC and VG, who could easily have catered to that crowd. The sobering thought here is how easily people can seem to be one thing, even to family members, whilst being another entirely.

You can get Hunting Warhead here:

https://www.cbc.ca/listen/cbc-podcasts/387-hunting-warhead

Or wherever you get your podcasts.

Welcome to the real world

Darknet Diaries review

Rating –

Darknet Diaries logo

A bit of a departure from the usual horror fiction and folklore here, for these stories are all real. I can’t really call Darknet Diaries a traditional “true crime” podcast, because although a good portion of the stories are of people who fight crime all over the world, an equal amount are those of criminals. So buckle up with Jack and step into the world of cybercrime, those who commit and combat it. It’s one hell of a ride.

What’s it all about then?

Darknet Diaries is an ongoing bi-weekly podcast, where the host Jack Rhysider interviews a cross section of the heroes and antiheroes of cyber security, hacking, and online fraud. If you don’t know much about this area (as I didn’t), these interviews are almost unbelievable. Want to hear about how people rob banks legally? Or how someone managed to fund a multi-million dollar fake banknote business? Or maybe how a team of people managed to stop a computer virus that had cost global companies billions of dollars. As I said, it’s remarkable and highly gripping stuff.

But is it any good?

Judging by this synopsis, it may sound like the domain of nerds, but the stories are all told in an interesting way with very little technical jargon. It’s this accessibility that really makes this show shine. Since getting into this, I’ve been listening to other shows on similar subjects and they make your head spin with their weird computer tech slang. Don’t get me wrong, there is jargon aplenty here, but Jack usually explains it well enough for you to understand. If you don’t know what “zero days”, “red teams”, “OSINT” or “bad actors” are then you soon will, and you’ll feel like Mr. Robot.

My personal favourites are the stories of “penetration tests”, where security personnel actively try to break into buildings, hack computers and literally rob banks to test security. It’s like the best ingenious crime caper but all legal and (relatively) safe. In the interest of authenticity, not even the police know about these tests, so the security personnel can get arrested for real.

On the flipside from the good guys though are the criminal element. There are really two types of stories here. One is the nation state, government sanctioned hacking groups. These are the people who write viruses, get into powerstations and rob banks. These guys aren’t always Russians, Chinese or North Korean. There’s quite a few stories here of Americans using ingenious ways to disrupt things for hostile nations. I included that last bit because the idea of “good guys” and “bad guys” depends on whose side you’re on.

The other type are the “bedroom hackers”, online scam artists and counterfeiters. These are usually young guys who got into hacking in the early days of the internet, and started out trying to get free stuff, or filling gaps in various markets (fake ID cards for example). One of the mind blowing things that this show uncovers, is the fact that a lot of the criminals interviewed here were all so young when they started. For someone who only learned to write HTML and CSS five or six years ago and still is a code novice, it amazes me that these kids just seemed to understand how to do all this so quickly. Maybe it’s just my old Gen X brain that is too worn out. I mean, just figuring out how to use WordPress to do this blog did my head in!

Final verdict

“I accidentally robbed the wrong bank last time I was in Beirut”

Darknet Diaries S1 Ep6

When I was coming up with the name and tagline for this blog, the “ripping yarns” part was specifically about this series. That’s exactly what each episode is. You may find the cocky, hyperactive young men slightly annoying. If that is the case, then the “pen test” stories will definitely be more your wheelhouse.

While I prefer the latter, there is something about the former that is compelling. Some kid starts selling fake IDs to his classmates, ends up doing so well he outsourced that to China. While doing this, he was also admin of a dark web marketplace selling vast amounts of drugs to people online. I don’t think there’s a single story where the criminals didn’t get completely out of their depth, mainly through greed and vast egos.

Some of the stories are very dark too. There have been two recent episodes that are similar (so similar in fact I thought that there had been a mistake in the uploads). These stories are about the lengths some people will go to to get their hands on unique usernames for social media. I can’t imagine how the victims coped with such harassment from anonymous people online, but it must have been a living nightmare. It is also a sobering alternative to the edge of the seat tales that are the main meat of this series.

Anyway, this is a brilliant podcast and one of the few I actually look forward to new episodes of. A new episode automatically gets played, even if I’m halfway through something else.

You can find Darknet Diaries here:

https://darknetdiaries.com/

or wherever you get your podcasts.

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