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The podcast In the Dark isn't just the new Serial. It's better.

The true-crime story is improved by knowing who committed the crime at its center.

In the Dark American Public Media
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I love true-crime podcasts — but only up until a point. Take Serial, the breakthrough podcast whose 2014 first season made even your most unconnected relatives sit up and listen. I listened to the first few episodes of that show in rapt interest and intrigue.

But the longer the show went on, the harder it became to deal with the fact that these were real people whose lives were being turned into a fun mystery for the internet to solve. Someone had really died. Someone else had really gone to prison for it — and whether justifiably or not, it felt a little ghoulish to speculate so much on it.

This, of course, is the problem true crime has always had, especially when we leave behind the relatively "safe" confines of cases from several decades ago (Zodiac, perhaps the best true-crime movie of the millennium) or cases so well-known that they’ve already become overhyped versions of themselves (the heavily praised O.J. Simpson projects of the past year). When it’s a lesser-known story about tragedy being visited upon those who least expect it, the genre struggles with how to keep from seeming callous.

But there’s a new true-crime podcast that walks the line just about perfectly — even if a big part of why it does has absolutely nothing to do with the podcast itself. It’s less an attempt to catch a criminal and more of an attempt to figure out why authorities so badly bungled the investigation in the first place.

That’s what distinguishes American Public Media’s In the Dark (produced by its APM Reports division), currently unspooling the tragic story of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling, a Minnesota boy who was abducted, sexually assaulted, and murdered in October 1989.

Wetterling’s killer has confessed — so In the Dark can focus on other things

Shortly before In the Dark premiered, something happened that forced the show to pivot, in ways you can hear in the four full episodes posted so far: A man named Danny Heinrich confessed to Jacob Wetterling’s murder. The human remains he led investigators to were examined and found to be Wetterling’s. The case, such as it is, is closed.

In many ways, this doesn’t seem to have affected In the Dark too much. Reporter Madeleine Baran had clearly zeroed in on Heinrich as a major part of her story. He had been questioned in connection to the crime all the way back in December 1989, and he was named a person of interest in October 2015, then held in connections to child pornography found in his house.

So the original version of In the Dark — the one before Heinrich confessed — almost certainly built Heinrich up as a major suspect. But without his confession, it still would have had an element of whodunnit to it, a sense of a mystery you can try to solve on your own at home.

What’s impressive, however, is how skillfully Baran and APM have pivoted the whole story to be about how law enforcement missed the murderer sitting right in front of them, who had sexually assaulted numerous other boys and abducted another. (He set the other boy he abducted free after assaulting him.) In the Dark makes clear that law enforcement had a solid shot at finding Wetterling and returning him to his parents safely — and it certainly should have caught Heinrich much, much sooner.

In fact, one major thrust of In the Dark is the idea that investigators only connected the dots between Heinrich’s early assaults and his later crimes thanks to the work of amateur investigators, including Jared Scheierl, the other boy Heinrich abducted, who eventually helped make the connection between what happened to him and earlier assaults in a nearby town.

What’s most chilling about In the Dark is how the warning signs pointing toward Heinrich were present long, long before he killed Wetterling — and investigators largely couldn’t put them together or just didn’t care. It was as if they took with such certainty the idea that they lived in a peaceful, sleepy little town that they didn’t want to hear information that said otherwise.

And as the series continues, Baran slowly zooms out to reveal how Wetterling’s disappearance affected federal policy and, among other things, created the national registry of sex offenders — in other words, these policy changes, in a lot of ways, exist because various law enforcement officers were unable to do their jobs.

The confession of Danny Heinrich might have removed the element of mystery from In the Dark, but that was replaced with a barely restrained anger, a fury that these pieces have been right there, waiting to be put together, all this time, and nobody cared.

In the Dark is available at APM’s website or on the podcast app of your choice.

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