Hidden Between the Pages: Shattered Souls Podcast
Karen Smith is true crime royalty.
As a Forensic Scientist, Crime Scene Reconstructionist, Blood Spatter Expert, Consultant on Crime Stories with Nancy Grace, and frequent presenter at CrimeCon events, Karen has long-standing credibility with the true crime community. But, it's not just her impressive resume that makes Karen who she is — it's also her compassionate yet "no-bullshit" attitude, coupled with her advocacy for justice.
Now, it's only natural that Karen takes her storytelling and educating a step further by teaming up with CrimeCon to present her new podcast, Shattered Souls: A Forensic Detective's Diary. The first two episodes will debut on May 9, and listeners can expect to hear her unique experiences as a Crime Scene Investigator (CSI) while in Jacksonville, FL.
These are the experiences that still keep her up at night.
Podcasting feels like home to Karen, as she explained to me in our recent conversation that she has a background in radio. In the 90s, Karen was the News Director on Jacksonville’s syndicated Rock 105 Morning Show. In that role, she would read that morning's Breaking News headlines live for the audience.
"It was really easy for me to transition to podcasting because I'm used to having a microphone in front of my face, I'm used to wearing headphones," Karen detailed, but podcasting presented a new challenge — instead of summarizing other news stories, she's now sharing her own experiences.
Karen, a self-described (and very proud) nerd, tells me that Crime Scene Reconstruction work is “much more cerebral” than the other kind of adrenaline-filled police work.
As a CSI, Karen was tasked with being on the front lines of gruesome and heart-wrenching scenes, while carefully analyzing and collecting the evidence that tells a story of what happened to a person in their last moments in life.
Before entering the threshold behind crime scene tape, CSIs have to climb into layers of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Karen talked about putting on a Tyvek — or as it’s creatively called, a Bunny Suit — before completing the glamorous head-to-toe protective look with gloves, shoe coverings, an N95 face masks, and goggles.
Once inside the crime scene, Karen had to be meticulous about everything — leaving nothing unturned (and then photographed!) while maintaining a diligent chain of custody of every item, print, or drop of blood found.
This literally takes hours, sometimes days on end, to comb through the details that shed light on the tragic events that unfolded.
You never know what could be discovered at the scene of a crime.
With only 4 CSIs to cover all of Jacksonville, and each of them running around responding to 6 - 14 calls a day, when you look at the numbers, Karen says she completed a 30-year career in 14 years.
That’s a lot of crime scenes.
Karen says that at first, it was difficult to be selective when deciding whose stories she was going to bring to light in the episodes. After responding to hundreds and hundreds of calls over her career, boiling those experiences down to 6 cases was a heavy task.
“I have these old composition notebooks of nearly every call I ever went on,” Karen said, explaining to me how these notebooks acted like the diary she refers to in the title of the podcast. “Sometimes if there was something odd or unusual about that call, I would just make a margin notation in my notebook.”
After spending hours looking through those decade-old journals, Karen concluded which six cases she was going to share with the world; these are homicides that still haunt her, terrible injustices that still make her blood boil, and cases that were riddled with compelling intricacies.
These cases, Karen says, are the ones that have challenged her as a Crime Scene Reconstructionist, and they’re the ones she wants to educate her audience about.
To add additional case detail to each episode, Karen poured herself over 5,000 pages of court documents to analyze line by line. Because of her research, each case is described in crystal clear detail.
At a 2019 presentation Karen gave in New Orleans during her CrimeCon: On The Run lesson, she spoke about the stress of being a CSI, saying, "There’s a lot of pressure. If you’re not terrified, you’re not doing it right.”
On Shattered Souls, listeners get a rare glimpse into a Forensic Expert's thought process, from the moment of getting a call in the middle of the night, to arriving on the scene, to seeing an investigation all the way through.
Karen explained out loud her thought process to me, giving a hypothetical scenario where she finds a beer bottle at a crime scene, and the first question that rings in her head is, “What can I do with it?"
"Well," she continued, "I can swab the mouth for DNA and then make sure that when I pick it up, I'm not picking it up where somebody else will pick it up so we can process it for prints."
Karen continued to demonstrate her racing thought process aloud, questioning, "Do we throw it in the superglue chamber? Do we do black powder? Is it going to stay with me? Am I going to process it, or is the lab? Do I have to give them notes about what I think is important, what's not?"
She explained, “You have all these choices — bam, bam, bam, bam, bam — and they come at you hard and fast! So you have to realize really quickly what can be done with each piece of evidence.”
And just like that, my head is spinning too, with sweat forming on my forehead just thinking about the pressure to get everything right.
In order to keep her mind clear under the pressure, Karen would typically grab herself another cup of coffee and blast rock and roll music to alleviate any stress.
Despite the palpable pressure you can feel when listening to Shattered Souls, there's also a clear sense of passion and emotion that Karen brings to each episode.
“Going back into those emotions was hard because a lot of these cases that I talk about left a real lasting scar on me, and most of the others that investigated them,” Karen said.
While it’s painful for her to talk about, she said she never had any intention in sugarcoating case details because the listeners and victims alike deserve to know the truth.
Karen gets emotional during some of the episodes, expressing clear and valid frustration when bureaucracy gets in the way of investigating. You can sometimes hear the strain in her voice when she talks about the inhumane brutality she’s had to analyze at some scenes.
But, the emotion of it is nothing to be ashamed of, because it’s the reality of the work of a Crime Scene Investigator.
Moreover, Karen is genuinely motivated by sharing the victim's stories — and getting those stories right.
She opened up to me about where her curiosity took her when doing research to understand the background of the crimes she investigated. Karen reached out to some of the victim’s friends and families, curious to learn more about who the victims were in life — what they liked to do, even down to understanding the last conversations they had with their loved ones.
The audience can feel the amount of care and compassion that Karen put into making each episode because we know that in the true crime community, the way to never forget the victims of a crime, is to share their story.
“To give [the victims] an appropriate voice, and to make sure people remember their names — I think allowing my emotions to come out is the appropriate thing to do,” she explained.
I couldn’t agree more.
And, as much as the episodes are intense, they’re also a treasure trove of education. As someone who has been spending my entire academic career studying the psychology of criminals and criminal behavior, the scientific practices that Karen explains in her podcast feel...honestly, like magic.
"There’s still a lot of information that can be deduced from a single blood drop: directionality, minimum falling height, size, and a possible source," Karen explains in one of the podcast episodes.
From that one drop, Karen can work backwards to uncover where that drop came from and what circumstances created that droplet. It's a literal spot on a much larger map that holds the clues in its measurements.
In the episodes, Karen also discusses bullet trajectories, chemical processing, Amido Black — a protein stain that can make patterns in blood, like shoe prints, more visible to the naked eye —, and bloodstain patterns on clothing, surfaces, and weapons.
Shattered Souls is truly an emotional and very real version of Forensic Science 101.
“We all have different jobs at crime scenes — this was just mine,” Karen said, rounding off our conversation.
Karen also hinted to me that there will be other special guests featured on Shattered Souls. These guests will offer their unique perspectives on the crimes from their own investigative lens, opening up a new window of conversation that listeners have never heard before.
Karen continued, "One person does not solve a case, it's a team effort. [Shattered Souls] is my part of that team effort brought to fruition through my voice and the experiences that I went through, and the emotions that I went through."
Listeners are going to get a taste of what it’s like to be a CSI, and Shattered Souls is the ride-along that true crime fans want to be in the front seat for.
CrimeCon Presents "Shattered Souls: A Forensic Detective's Diary" is going to be available to stream premiering on May 9th. Sign up at this link here to receive notifications for when the podcast is live for you to listen to, and for when future episodes are uploaded!
Edited media used in the above video via Dateline.
Other relevant photos via Karen Smith's Bare Bones Forensic Consulting, LLC.