It has been a bumper year for true-crime podcasts in Arkansas, with three separate productions putting the spotlight on the cases of murder victims Kacie Woody and Rebekah Gould, and on the case of mysteriously deceased party guest Janie Ward.
The popular Crime Junkie podcast notoriously retold the story of 13-year-old Kacie, a Greenbrier girl who was stalked online, raped and murdered in 2002. Then Hell and Gone took on the 2004 murder of Rebekah Gould in Melbourne, and Season Two featured the case of the mysterious party death of Janie Ward in Marshall in 1989.
Now, KATV anchor/reporter Kaila Lafferty has given the true-crime podcast treatment to the case of 15-year-old Cassie Compton, who disappeared Sept. 14, 2014, while walking to a store near her home in Stuttgart. Timeline: The Disappearance of Cassie Compton has wrapped up eight episodes, and as of this writing has been downloaded more than 100,000 times, much to the surprise of Lafferty, a first-time podcaster.
"I'm looking at it right now, and we've had 110,000 downloads of the podcast. Wow! That number is intimidating," Lafferty says in her native-of-Seattle way, speedily and with barely a breath.
"Every single person that listens to the podcast is another person that might have a piece of information. So when I see the numbers going up of the plays the podcast has and the [number] of people that are listening, it brings me hope, it brings investigators hope, it brings Cassie's family hope," Lafferty said.
The case has stumped Stuttgart police, Arkansas State Police and private investigators since Cassie Compton vanished. In the podcast, as in earlier news coverage of the case, it is reported that Cassie went home Sunday evening after spending Saturday in DeWitt at a demolition derby with friends. The story goes that she went home briefly to find her mother sick in bed, and her mother's boyfriend at the time, Brandon Rhodes, there with her. Rhodes and Judy Compton told police that Cassie was there briefly before heading back out the door to walk to the corner store for cigarettes. She was never heard from or seen again.
The podcast takes listeners back to the beginning of the story, the day Stuttgart Police Chief Mark Duke remembers well since he was an investigator at the time. Lafferty said in an interview that she didn't think Duke had listened to her podcast. Duke verified that he had not when asked via phone Friday.
"I have not. And I'll tell you like I told Kaila and I told Tina Storz, what everybody's going on is only what they know or what they think they know. There has not been a tenth of that case released to the public. That's all I can say. It's still so open that I don't like talking about it because I'm still hopeful that we can bring it to an end," Duke said. He agrees that the podcast is helpful in that it gets people talking about the case again, and people who haven't heard of Cassie Compton now know her story. But every story has three sides, he said, and the public is quick to judge.
"In the day and time that we live in, people form their opinions so fast, and they don't want to sway from that idea, you know. That's just something that we have to deal with, that's the cost of technology. Somebody says one thing and they want to crucify them immediately, they want to skip the judicial system and the facts, they want to crucify them. They want them fired, shot, jailed," he said.
One thing is certain, Duke said, in all his years in law enforcement he has never had another case like Cassie's. "Everybody's got their one. I think this is going to be my one," he said.
In the first episode, Lafferty lays out the story logically, setting up the timeline and interviewing former KATV reporter Jordon Bontke, who covered the case when he worked at the station. Episode Two recalls the stories about Cassie that investigators and Bontke were told, and a crucial character is introduced.
It wasn't the first time Tina Storz has investigated a disappearance in Arkansas. She worked on the case of Ebby Steppach, who disappeared from a Little Rock park Oct. 24, 2015, only to eventually be found stuffed in a drainage pipe in that very park.
"OK, so I guess you remember that in Ebby's case, it was kind of like that in the beginning. Nobody took it seriously enough. And if they would have, she would have been found a lot faster," said Storz, an investigator for the past six years with Halos Investigations, a national nonprofit organization that helps families with missing and trafficked children. The organization has a presence in each state; Storz works with the one based in Mississippi.
In Cassie's case, like Ebby's, "I think they felt she was a runaway. It was not taken seriously enough in the beginning. And by the time they realize, 'Hey, wait a minute, this might be a little more.' They just didn't do it. I'm just going to be honest," Storz said.
She got involved with Cassie's case after coming across a poster that another organization had going around. "And I was like, you know, they're doing a good job with postering, but they're not doing enough to get this girl's name out, and this was a girl that was not a rich kid. She wasn't a well-to-do kid. She was just the average girl-next-door. It wasn't getting enough exposure. So that's when I reached out to Judy [Cassie's mother] and explained who I was and said I would like to come in and help. She was all there for it. I went and spent the weekend there ... Cassie kind of just stole my heart a little bit because I just felt like this girl is not getting what she needs."
Storz was eager to get involved again when Lafferty reached out about the podcast. The two traveled together to Stuttgart, where Lafferty would interview Storz about the case with the house Cassie lived in at the time she disappeared in the background.
Lafferty wasn't expecting anyone to be living there, then she thought she saw a ghost.
"That moment was crazy. I was there with one of our photographers, and he was flying our drone to get shots for the piece that was going to air. And we're just out there and I was just there with Tina and her crew from Halos Investigations. And then this woman walks out and I looked at her, and I instantly thought, Oh, my gosh, she looks just like Cassie, she has to be related."
Lafferty decided to stop the interview and knock on the door since the young woman had gone back inside. Turns out, Cassie's sister, who had moved home to Stuttgart to help her mom after Cassie vanished, had taken over the house when her mother moved out and got married. Her resemblance to Cassie, Lafferty said, is jarring.
"At that point, I had not heard from any family members. I'd been trying to reach out to Cassie's mom for months, and she was ignoring me. And so that was a huge moment in the podcast. That is also what led the mom to decide she wanted to talk to us because we were respectful to her other daughter," Lafferty said.
The sudden success of Lafferty's podcast surprises no one more than the 26-year-old journalist. She admits to being obsessed with podcasts, introduced to them by her mother.
"The reason I got into podcasts is because she's a huge podcast listener. She listened to Serial when it first came out, and she was like, 'Kaila, you want to be a journalist you need to listen to this,' and I did," Lafferty said.
Making the podcast gave Lafferty the chance to exercise her journalism skills. She asked tough questions in tough situations, did her first jailhouse interview, and the podcast may have introduced a new piece of evidence. You'll have to listen to the podcast; no big spoilers here.
There will definitely be more Timeline podcasts from KATV, Lafferty said, but she's not closing the door on Cassie's story yet, even after eight episodes.
"So we are waiting to kind of see. I'm not going to definitively say yes or no because if something big breaks in the case, of course, we're going to do update episodes," Lafferty said.
As a journalist, Lafferty must stay neutral when working on any story. She has her gut feelings about Cassie's disappearance, but then so do others involved in the case. Storz is one of them, and she has no qualms about saying what she thinks.
"Do I have a gut feeling? Yes, I mean, do I think Cassie is still alive? I hope she is. I hope that she's out there somewhere living her life and doing good. But I just did not feel it."
Listen to the trailer for Timeline here: arkansasonline.com/1119cassie/
LIFE AND DEATH
You know it's getting real when Dr. Phil makes a house call of sorts, by appearing on the podcast Wrongful Conviction With Jason Flom. TV personality Dr. Phil McGraw weighs in on the case of Texas inmate Rodney Reed, whose appeal of his death sentence was awaiting a Supreme Court ruling over the weekend when the Texas Court of Criminial Appeals blocked the execution to allow a lower court to consider new evidence. Reed's execution was originally scheduled for Wednesday.
Reality TV celebrity Kim Kardashian was reportedly with Reed when the appeal was granted.
The case received a big boost and lots of media attention since Innocence Project co-founder Flom made it the subject of the ninth season of his podcast.
Released last week, the podcast examines Reed's conviction for the 1996 murder of Stacy Stites.
Reed was convicted despite a solid alibi and a lack of forensic evidence linking him to the crime. His case has gained celebrity support from the likes of Rhianna, Kardashian, Dr. Phil and even the Texas Legislature and law enforcers.
Already, the podcast has been listened to 10 million times, according to the news release.
Style on 11/19/2019