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The New York Times comes out with a podcast that focuses on a cold case in Laramie

The Coldest Case in Laramie Show Art. it is dark orange with the name of the show in white and a sketch drawing of a small row of apartments.
Serial Productions

Serial Productions has come out with a new podcast series titled, “The Coldest Case in Laramie.” The show focuses on the 1985 murder of a 22-year-old University of Wyoming student named Shelli Wiley. New York Times journalist Kim Barker lived in Laramie when it happened. She opens the podcast by talking about how much that murder stuck with her. Wyoming Public Radio’s Kamila Kudelska asked her why she decided to look into the case after years of reporting.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Kim Barker
Serial Productions
Kim Barker

Kim Barker: It was January of 2021. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to work on; what I wanted to do. And this was just one of the many things I was taking a look at. Could there be a story here? As soon as I saw the charges being dropped, it just made me think, ‘What's going on?’ They said they were gonna be refiled. They never did. And it's just something I started, like, pulling string on in my spare time really. I didn't want to do this if Shelli's family didn't want to participate. Because I didn't see the point of dredging up something that could be very, very painful for them. I mean, going through this for them is not easy, right? But they were on board, [and] that made me decide to go out there in person. Do I think that having a personal connection there and having a framework from what was going on back then helped? Certainly, I think it made people more willing to talk to me because I wasn't somebody who's just sort of parachuting in from the outside.

Kamila Kudelska: How much time did you actually spend in Wyoming? And did you ever come back to the state before you came out here to do the reporting for this?

KB: No. I mean, I’ve driven through the state a few times. I grew up in Montana, and then Wyoming. So for the first 13 years of my life, I was in Montana, and then moved to Laramie, and then moved away three years later, before my senior year in high school. I drive through a lot because I still have a lot of family who live in Montana. But it's not like I spent time there significantly. And for me, it's like my time in Montana, and my time in Wyoming, it's kind of wrapped together, a couple of Mountain States. I grew up backpacking in the mountains, in the Rockies, and fishing. I didn't have a long time in Wyoming. But it was a formative time.

KK: You start off the first episode talking about your memory of Laramie back then. And you describe it as one of the meanest places that you've ever lived. And I wonder why you decided to start with that description. In relation to the whole show, there must have been some kind of thought process behind that.

KB: I mean, Serial editors would have their reasons. For me, it was my personal connection to the story that made me want to go back there. And this isn't just like some, like, let's go find this random thing that happened, the horrible thing that happened to somebody back then, and see if there was something there. There was this specific thing that became sort of the core of these memories that I had in Laramie. And a lot of the podcast does end up dealing with memory. And I need to hold myself accountable for that as well. And I also think that anybody who was in high school at this particular time, they're going to recognize the place I'm talking about, right? They're gonna recognize this particular point in time. I've heard from folks on Facebook and on email who I knew back then, who are like, ‘Oh, my God, you're actually going there. I haven't wanted to think about that time.’ It was just a really hard time. And look, I also get that hearing somebody describe your community, like that can be an angering thing, right? And people are gonna be like, ‘Hey, this is my home, I don't feel like that. You're totally wrong.’ This is my perspective from that time. And I think if people give it a chance and listen to the entire thing, they're going to be surprised at the twists and turns that the story takes.

KK: When you did finally arrive in Laramie to report, you say you were hesitant about how people would treat you as a New York Times reporter. But in the end, you actually got a lot of access. That’s something even for myself as a journalist, I would only wish for. So how did that impact the reporting of your story?

KB: Everybody was so nice and so open and so willing to talk to me. I think it was people wanted to talk to me because they had a lot to say about what happened back then. It stuck with a lot of people for a very long time and is still sticking with them. People had asked the question, and I also do think that it helped that I had a frame of reference, that I had lived there during this particular time. No, I did not know Shelli, nor would I pretend to, but I really vividly remember what this was like and what it was like being in our high school. I mean, like how rumors were circulating and how everybody was talking about it, but yet the media wasn't and it was such a disconnect for me. I can remember looking at the [Larmie] Boomerang and trying to get a sense of who this person was and there was nothing. There was no sense of who she was.

KK: So this story starts out as potentially investigating a police cover up, we kind of have that idea. But it takes a turn. Again, without giving too much away, were you surprised by the path that the reporting took you on?

KB: I'm always surprised by the path that reporting takes me on, right? I think that it's really important as a reporter… you go in with like, ‘Okay, this is my story idea.’ But you have to be really open to the information you're finding changing the way you thought about the story, right? If you're not open minded like that, it can lead you into stories that are simply confirmation bias, where you're simply reporting out, like, ’Well, this is what I think to be the case. So, therefore, I'm reporting this out to be the case.’ So I like to be super open to having my mind changed and like to be like, ‘Okay, well, I thought it was this, but it looks like this.’

KK: And to that point, at the end, you come to a different conclusion about the case itself. And also, I think about Laramie, honing into how our memories can be colored with our own emotions. What do you think about Laramie after this reporting? And what do you hope Wyoming listeners can take away from this story?

KB: I mean I hope they give it a chance, man. I get like, you know, the trailers like, ‘Man, this place sucked.’ And I really don't have fond memories of it. And that's kind of my truth, right? And at the same time, I'm going back there with my friend Jasmine. She did the recording in the very beginning. She was just like, ‘I don't know, everybody we’re talking to is super nice.’ And I was like, ‘No, you're totally right. This is very pleasant.’ Pleasant meals, pleasant Buckhorn Bar and pleasant, like Alibi. We ended up really enjoying our time in Laramie. I'm older, right? I don't think places stay static either. And I think we were in high school during a particular time. It's a difficult time, no matter who you are, right? And it was just a really weird, difficult time in Laramie to be in high school. And it's just that simple. I don't know what high school is like now. And, hey, high school kids out there, feel free to write me and let me know. I think that you’ve got to be open minded to not everything being the way you think it is in the very beginning.

KK: And that's kind of the conclusion or, I guess, the theme at the end about how memory kind of colors what we think, right?

KB: Yes, for sure.

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. She has won a regional Murrow award for her reporting on mental health and firearm owners. During her time leading the Wyoming Public Media newsroom, reporters have won multiple PMJA, Murrow and Top of the Rockies Excellence in Journalism Awards. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.

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