The Problem With Crime Junkie
To begin the story of a podcast, let’s introduce a voice:
I keep hearing that you love stories of true crime. You love all things true crime. But hearing about it once a week isn’t enough for you. You guys are just like me—you’re true Crime Junkies, and you need to hear stories more than once a week to get your fix.
Actually, those are borrowed from a podcast, someone else’s work. But don’t worry about that. Just keep reading. Someone’s about to stalk, kidnap, and kill a little girl.
Full. Body. Chills.
Go on. Someone’s about to commit a crime. That’s what we’re here for, right? A fix?
The addicts have arrived at Clowes Hall on the campus of Butler University. In droves. Hours early. Standing in line. Eager to part with $120 for the good stuff: VIP tickets to the live show of the No. 1 true-crime podcast on iTunes, Crime Junkie. Produced in Broad Ripple, the podcast is downloaded 22 million times each month, adored by a growing audience that includes 370,000 Instagram followers. The hosts, Ashley Flowers and Brit Prawat, pose with fans in front of a branded Crime Junkie backdrop as an assistant hands out Crime Junkie swag bags. Britney Spears’s “Oops! … I Did It Again” plays: I’m not that innocent.
Nearby, there’s a merch table hawking $25 T-shirts: “Crime Junkie Podcast Tour,” the front reads; on the back, there’s a list of 15 cities, from Phoenix to Austin. Hoodies cost $50. One of the Junkie junkies near the merch table says, “I think I was supposed to be a detective in real life.” The 43-year-old southside woman wearing a pink Crime Junkie T-shirt works at a nearby college instead, but lives vicariously through her $5-per-month Crime Junkie subscription (packages run up to $20), which she pays via Patreon, a crowdfunding site. “Ashley’s voice is, like, the best.”
Two years and more than 100 episodes into the project that launched in December 2017, Flowers’s voice has made Crime Junkie a seven-figure franchise that’s been hailed by tastemakers like Rolling Stone and shortlisted by networks for a television project. In an upcoming venture, the duo is expected to release Red Ball, a podcast miniseries documenting the work of a young Indiana State Police detective taking over the case of the unsolved 1978 Burger Chef murders.
Now, a little past 8 p.m., more than 2,000 people—a sold-out audience—settle into their seats inside Clowes for a live version of Crime Junkie, where the hosts lead the house through a whodunit from a stage set to look like a living room. They receive adoring applause.
For the next two hours, Prawat and Flowers—literally armchair detectives tonight—take their listeners into the still-pending case of a 6-year-old girl from Tucson, Arizona, who went missing in 2012. Photos of suspects appear on a screen, and their faces are X’ed out as the mystery progresses. Then comes an unexpected beat: Flowers and Prawat cue up a 911 call. It’s the victim’s father, who seems more nonchalant than he should. The crowd gasps. Was it him? The junkies think he’s responsible for his daughter’s disappearance, and Flowers and Prawat egg them on with isn’t-that-suspicious looks and banter that makes the audience erupt in laughter.
More than a year ago, a man was charged for the little girl’s murder and faces a trial in 2021. He was a convicted sex offender who, in 2017, led authorities to the child’s remains among a pile of discarded tires on the outskirts of Tucson. During an investigation of the man’s home, authorities scoured his computers and internet search history, where they discovered someone had Googled the name of the little girl and “sexy” in one query and a host of disturbing others. They also found her sweatshirt buried in his backyard.
Yet the man who was indicted by a grand jury on 22 felony counts, including the murder of another child, is not the little girl’s father. Any armchair detective could tell you that straightaway.
But these two don’t.
True-crime podcasting exploded after the 2014 arrival of the NPR podcast Serial, which reexamined the 1999 murder of a Baltimore high schooler. Podcasts such as In the Dark and Criminal began to rack up tens of millions of downloads, helping to renew an American love affair with the macabre, which can be traced back to Capote’s In Cold Blood and, long before that, to Poe.
The true-crime podcast wave also gripped Flowers, 30, who until just a few years ago had run sales at a medical-device company in her hometown, South Bend, but had been fascinated with crime since her youth. As a child, she grew up watching reruns of Perry Mason and Columbo with her mom. “From the time I was 9 or 10, I just couldn’t stop,” she says. “I loved it.” But decades later, as a young adult, she was left wanting after listening to podcasts like Serial and its imitators. “What I felt was missing was a show that could tell a good story,” she says. “A narrative—not just people reading facts. Two people that could discuss a crime without going off topic.”
Flowers’s appetite for true crime led her to join the board of directors for Crime Stoppers of Central Indiana, where she began formulating the foundations of her now-hit podcast. In 2016, the leaders of the organization asked her for ideas about how to improve the organization’s standing with a younger audience. Her concept: Murder Monday, a 20-minute, three-segment show that appeared on RadioNOW 100.9 in Indianapolis as a promotional vehicle for the organization. “Oh, I got chills already,” Joe Pesh, the local radio host, said when introducing the show’s first-ever segment, where Flowers outlined the story of “Dating Game Killer” Rodney Alcala, a serial murderer in the 1970s who claimed at least five victims before and after making an appearance on the popular game show.
After a year, Flowers left the program to develop Crime Junkie with Prawat, a childhood friend and former private detective. Their first episode dropped in December 2017, focusing on Niqui McCown, an Indiana woman who disappeared from a laundromat in 2001. “I keep hearing that you love stories of true crime,” Flowers told her audience. “You love all things true crime. But hearing about it once a week isn’t enough for you. You guys are just like me—you’re true Crime Junkies, and you need to hear stories more than once a week to get your fix.”
Over the next year, the podcast took off. By January, Rolling Stone announced it as one of seven “Best True Crime Podcasts” of the year. Fans showered the show with five-star reviews, and in a flash it reached 10,000 listeners, who, like the hosts, were mostly women between the ages of 24 and 35. “It’s all happened very quickly,” Flowers says. “Two years ago, we were still sitting on our couch talking about true-crime cases and no one cared.”
The typical episode—a sort of warmed-up book report on the hosts’ chosen crime of the week—drops each Monday, clocks in at under an hour, and often features a female as its victim. Local crimes receive outsized attention: The 2011 disappearance of Indiana University sophomore Lauren Spierer, the 1990s-era Herb Baumeister slayings, and the 1988 murder of 8-year-old April Tinsley in Fort Wayne have all been chronicled.
While Flowers takes the lead in narrating the details of a case, Prawat serves as a stand-in for the audience, finding beats in the story to sound shocked at a narrative turn. “Full. Body. Chills,” she’ll often say, a catchphrase to mark a particularly hair-raising moment in an episode. “Wait, what?” she’ll interject, when a new detail feels out of place. At times, episodes feel overly didactic, like an after-school special for adults who have trouble being adults.
For example, one of the show’s mottos—“Be weird. Be rude. Stay alive.”—serves as a three-commandment public-service tip for how the show’s listeners should conduct themselves to stay safe in public. In Crime Junkie’s 100th episode, which focused on Spierer’s disappearance, the installment closed with a sermonette: “No matter what happened to Lauren, I think there’s a message of personal safety in her story,” Flowers said to listeners, relaying an anecdote about Spierer’s parents searching Bloomington days after she went missing in which they encounter a young woman drunk and alone wandering the streets in the early morning hours. “We all think this won’t happen to us, but we all have to be aware of our surroundings,” Flowers continued. “Lauren didn’t cause this on herself—someone evil is responsible for taking her from her family.”
Episodes take about 40 hours to produce. But the production values of the podcast itself are unfussy. There are seldom interviews with anyone connected to the crime (one notable exception: the Tinsley murder, in which Flowers talks to the victim’s mother and a detective involved in the case). There is rarely documentary sound, just some trademark electronic music, and over it, Flowers and Prawat having a conversation about a murder or disappearance. There is also little reporting. “I always start with Google,” Flowers told WTHR in an interview earlier this year. “I find out what’s available. I think some of the best cases that we do are when I have to track down old news articles. Whether that’s in an archive, in a library, or available on Newspapers.com.”
In the Spierer episode, Flowers spends several minutes trafficking the rumor that the victim got into an accident and, in a panic, friends covered it up. (“This is a local rumor—nothing has been substantiated,” she says, before repeating the rumor to millions of listeners.) But when confronted about her methods, Flowers is quick to point out that neither she nor Prawat is a journalist, and bristles at the notion that the friends prosper from the darkest moment of someone’s life. “I mean, we genuinely care about the people we’re talking about,” Flowers says. “We never want to forget that every week we’re talking about a real event in someone’s life that happened, and it was the worst thing that’s ever happened in their life.”
In mid-August, Cathy Frye and her daughter decided to idle away a drive back home to Little Rock from visiting family in Texas, with a true-crime podcast. Frye, a former journalist from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, told her daughter to search Spotify for something good. Crime Junkie was at the top of the charts.
Two episodes in, the chatty, casual tone rankled Frye, who had spent her career as a reporter chronicling some dark and weighty crimes. Three episodes in, Frye found herself apoplectic: The contours of the narrative was all too familiar to her. The tale, about the 2002 murder of a 13-year-old, just so happened to be a story Frye covered extensively for her former paper in a narrative series called “Caught in The Web.” Frye had interviewed detectives and the victim’s father. She won the American Society of Newspaper Editors Award for the series in the non-deadline writing category in 2004.
Frye fumed. The intimate details of the case Flowers recited, without attribution, could have come only from her copyrighted story. “They were just so giggly and gossipy,” Frye said to BuzzFeed. “What happened to Kacie Woody and her friends and her family—her story deserves to be told with respect and compassion. Honestly, that made me more angry than the plagiarism.”
Frye took to Flowers’s personal Facebook page. “You relied on my series about Kacie Woody to air your podcast, which, I would assume, profits by the sharing of crime stories,” Frye wrote. “At one point, you quoted a portion of MY copyrighted story almost verbatim.”
In a post that spanned 438 words, Frye continued: “You said in one of your podcasts that you share these stories in order to reignite interest in old cases. Bullshit. Kacie’s murder was solved. Her killer is dead. What you did was simply gratuitous. It served no purpose whatsoever except to serve as ‘entertainment’ for your audience and as a moneymaker for your podcasts.” (“I’m not going and knocking on doors or talking with witnesses or family members,” Flowers told WTHR in March. “I’m not trying to get a scoop. Everything that we tell a story on has already been reported.”)
Frye’s comments caused a firestorm. BuzzFeed, The New York Times, and Variety, among others, covered the scandal. Other true-crime podcasters accused Flowers of stealing their work. Robin Warder, the host of The Trail Went Cold podcast, accused Flowers in Variety of lifting one of his Reddit posts for an episode. Steven Pacheco, the host of Trace Evidence, posted a YouTube video exposing more evidence of near-verbatim plagiarism from his January episode that examined the 2000 disappearance of 9-year-old Asha Degree, a North Carolina girl.
A few days after Frye’s post, Flowers deleted a number of episodes of the show, a development documented by BuzzFeed and The New York Times. She posted a statement to the show’s Facebook page: “There is no greater priority for our team, or for me personally, than to ensure the highest levels of accuracy and integrity in our program. Our research process is thorough, rigid, and exhaustive, and those familiar with Crime Junkie are aware that we make clear references to the use of other sources and that comprehensive notes and links to all sources are made available on our show’s website.” Flowers added that the goal of the show is to “advocate for victims and a platform to educate about personal safety. Our work would not be possible absent the incredible efforts of countless individuals who investigate and report these stories originally, and they deserve to be credited as such. We are committed to working within the burgeoning podcast industry to develop and evolve its standards on these kinds of issues.”
Since announcing that Crime Junkie would help the true-crime podcast world “develop standards” on plagiarism issues, it’s unclear if Flowers has made any progress on that front. Overall, the show’s massive popularity demands a new set of rigorous ethics, says Rachel Monroe, a true-crime journalist whose work has been published by The Atlantic and The New York Times, and who wrote the 2019 book Savage Appetites, which explores, in part, women’s obsession with the genre. “It’s one thing to be telling a crazy story to your friends over brunch, but it’s another thing when you have millions of listeners or thousands of people in a room paying a ton of money,” says Monroe. “I think at that point, the calculus of your responsibility is a little bit different. You are creating mass culture. And even if this just started out as something you were doing with your friend or as a low-key hobby, it’s gotten a lot bigger than that now, and so that just means reckoning with the responsibilities that go along with that.”
So, if Flowers and company have well-publicized ethical flaws, you might think that Crime Junkie would have trouble finding opportunities to expand its brand. But, oddly, the podcast has found a willing collaborator in the Indiana State Police.
In May, Deadline.com reported that Crime Junkie was partnering with ISP exclusively to work on an audio project about the November 1978 Burger Chef murders, during which four fast-food workers in Speedway disappeared after their shift. At the Clowes live show in October, Flowers gave attendees a preview and unveiled the project’s name, Red Ball, which takes listeners inside the 41-year-old cold case. (A red ball, in the parlance of law enforcement, is a high-profile case that draws a great deal of media and political attention.)
At some point in 2018, Flowers had approached Indiana State Police Public Information Officer Sgt. John Perrine about a partnership. Perrine directed Flowers to District Investigative Commander 1st Sgt. Bill Dalton, who was assigned to the Indianapolis Post. Dalton had permission to speak to Flowers. But unbeknownst to his superiors and without their authorization, Dalton made a unilateral decision to give Flowers access to the Burger Chef files, documents that no journalist has seen.
Dalton liked that Flowers had served on the Crime Stoppers board; the ISP uses the organization to get tips in cases. But Crime Junkie’s massive reach proved even more enticing. “When I inherited the case, my thought was, We need to generate talk, and when you’re dealing with a 40-year-old case, that’s hard,” Dalton says. “It’s easy to keep a 40-year-old secret if no one is talking about it. It’s harder if it’s a topic that everyone is talking about.”
It’s worth noting that the case doesn’t really lack for publicity: Each November, Indianapolis media outlets feature blanket coverage with look-back stories and law enforcement hold press conferences to provide status checks on the case. In 2018, for instance, this magazine devoted a significant portion of editorial space to the 40th anniversary of the cold case, and focused on the futility that haunts investigators as one after the other has passed along the case to the next, unsolved. Dalton, who had just inherited the case, was a source in the 4,500-word story.
By his estimate, Dalton has spent about 40 hours with Flowers over the last year, giving her exclusive access to his work, which has irked others and may have run afoul of the state’s open-records laws. Chris Davis, the host of Circle City Crime Podcast, had sought some of the same access to the Burger Chef documents, but had an open-records request denied. Davis wrote to Luke Britt, Indiana’s Public Access Counselor, the man in charge of ensuring the state and local agencies adhere to Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act. Was ISP right to disclose records to Flowers and not me? Davis asked.
In July, Britt concluded in an informal opinion that the ISP waived its right to protect investigative proceedings in the Burger Chef case from public consumption when they gave Flowers access. “The purpose of the investigatory records exception is to protect the integrity of a law enforcement agency’s investigation into a crime, not to selectively boost the true-crime infotainment research of one party over another,” Britt wrote. Davis, the rival true-crime podcaster, used the ruling as ammo to renew his request to access the same documents from the ISP. But Cynthia Forbes, the ISP’s legal counsel, again denied his request. Meanwhile, as is his custom, Britt gave the ISP an opportunity to respond to his informal ruling. “It doesn’t look good, guys,” Britt told the agency. “If you give access to one person, you have to give it to everyone.”
In their reply, the ISP explained that not only did Dalton act wrongly, but he also was reprimanded, receiving an employee counseling form and remedial education about APRA laws. Britt issued a final ruling, writing that because Dalton acted alone, and without agency approval, APRA laws weren’t skirted, and the ISP didn’t need to give any other member of the public the Burger Chef case file. “Internal controls and protocols were not followed and corrective measures were taken to ensure compliance going forward,” Britt wrote. Translation: The ISP didn’t screw up, Dalton did—and Flowers shouldn’t have those documents, but does.
It’s unclear how Flowers will use the materials in Red Ball. “When it comes to law enforcement, working with podcasts, it’s new territory,” Dalton says, and Flowers made an appealing partner because she’s not a journalist who is looking to report the case independently, like, say, Serial’s Sarah Koenig might. “When people are knocking on doors—and there are a lot of these investigative podcasts—you can influence the investigation.”
But is it an investigation, a podcast, or something in between? Above all, Monroe, the true-crime journalist, says it’s a mess: “When there is this system of privileged access, that shapes how a narrative is produced, and it also shapes how law enforcement behaves. They’re thinking of themselves as characters on a show.” In other words, by cooperating with a podcast host who is careful to not identify as a journalist, Dalton risks becoming something other than a law enforcement officer, Monroe says; he’s a potential podcast star.
Working with an entertainer rather than a journalist, Dalton and the ISP could advance an unchecked narrative of the case. Flowers told Deadline.com she is eager that the final product pleases the authorities: “There’s been a lot of talk in the television world about how we could turn this show into a series, once it’s out and, fingers crossed, the police is happy.”
In January, Flowers inked a deal with United Talent Agency, which has represented A-listers Jim Carrey and M. Night Shyamalan.
Podcasts like Crime Junkie have become proven ways to get a book or television deal, says Nicholas Quah, the owner and writer of Hot Pod Media, the leading trade newsletter covering the podcast industry. Quah came across the podcast in reporting about the show’s plagiarism scandal, and listened to a few episodes. “It’s pretty clear that these Crime Junkie folks are really into sort of popularity, really into sort of their brand. They’re not here to do journalism, or do anything documentary-like,” he continues. “It’s very clear that this is a celebrity play. If you look at the kind of work that they’re doing, which is essentially repacking other people’s work, basically, they don’t report. It’s an entertainment product. I find it distasteful and harmful.”
Despite the charges against Crime Junkie, the show goes on. An attorney for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette series that the podcast plagiarized sent a cease-and-desist letter on August 29, 2019. In the weeks after Frye’s allegation, other true-crime podcasters followed suit. Yet fans keep downloading the podcast. The Indiana State Police still plan to move forward with Red Ball. Seven of Crime Junkie’s next 10 live shows are sold out.
Back at the October live event in Clowes, the 43-year-old southside superfan considered whether the recent plagiarism controversy surrounding the show dissuaded her from listening to future episodes. “Everybody is doing plagiarism these days,” she says. (For the record, turning in unoriginal work is a career-ender for journalists, and plagiarism isn’t a fad.)
Sarah Weinman, a true-crime writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and BuzzFeed, says when it comes to Crime Junkie and podcasts of its ilk, audiences are often unknowing accomplices. “A lot of them don’t understand what the problem is because a lot of people don’t know what journalists do,” she says. “They don’t know the ‘rules of how to be a good journalist,’ which are actually pretty simple: Be curious, get people on the record, and if you can’t get people on the record, make sure that there are appropriate agreements, and don’t burn sources.”
All true, though Flowers doesn’t identify as a reporter—“I’m not a journalist,” she once told WTHR—and argues the show promotes personal safety. (“It’s a token so they can convince their listeners that they are contributing to the public good,” says Frye. “It’s not. They’re selling coffee cups and T-shirts.” ) Meanwhile, Prawat’s bio on the Crime Junkie website includes the statement, “we are not experts.” Both assertions deserve scrutiny.
The latter claim doesn’t hold. On a weekly basis, the women produce a revenue-generating podcast that has been downloaded millions of times and has major advertisers that include BarkBox, the monthly subscription service for dog owners; Casper, the online mattress company; and ADT Security. Pretty good for a couple of amateurs, no? But Flowers is right: she’s not a journalist.
She is, however a professional nonfiction storyteller—a segment that includes journalists, and helps make up the larger category of mass media. And that distinction comes with responsibilities: striving for fairness (for instance, we sought Crime Junkie’s participation in this story; however, its representatives stopped cooperating when they learned we were asking questions about controversial topics, like plagiarism), accuracy, and, above all, the truth. And those are just the basic virtues—great storytellers put things in context, give agency to the voiceless, and approach their subject matter with both fervor and empathy.
So where has Crime Junkie found success? Monroe, the true-crime writer, says, to its credit, the show has tapped into “a certain kind of sisterhood, or maybe it gives a kind of voice to victimhood that they experienced.” But the live shows are where it can get ethically muddier, Monroe says: “People are paying money, and you want to give them a good time. They want to have fun. And that means you can only tell a story in a certain way.” She pauses. “If I were ever missing or murdered, don’t let them make a show about me.”
Back inside Clowes, a few hours after the show began, the Crime Junkie theme music reverberates across the auditorium. The crowd roars. They clap. The show is over. They’ll do it all again in Portland and Seattle and Orlando in November—and seven more shows after that. Before the tour is over, the 6-year-old girl from Tucson will be stalked, kidnapped, and murdered and her father falsely implicated 15 times.
Full. Body. Chills. Right?
In 2019—even in the face of credible allegations of plagiarism, exploitation, and corrupt storytelling—it’s not illegal to turn a podcast about horrific murders and unsolved abductions into a business.
But maybe it’s a crime.