True Crime Rewind: 2020
2020 has been a tough year — an unordinary year with so many twists and turns I think no one saw coming.
The same could be said in the context of true crime. The twists and turns came in the form of newly unearthed evidence in cases that haven’t been in headlines for years, while other cases saw breaks that advocates have only previously dreamed about.
This was the perfect year for escapism, with all of the horrors that the constant news cycle brought into our living rooms with the daily number of COVID-19 cases rising and a climbing death toll, self-care came in the form of cold case Websleths chat forumsand popular Netflix documentaries.
As we leave 2020 in the rearview mirror with hopes of a brighter 2021, let’s take a look back at what 2020 did give our true crime community.
January — Long Island Serial Killer Belt Buckle
Just two weeks into 2020, police in Suffolk County, New York unveiled photos of a belt embossed with the letters "WH" or "HM" found at Gilgo Beach.
Investigators quickly deemed this a "significant piece of evidence" saying they believe it belongs to the suspect of the Long Island Serial Killer murders.
Even though the police have sat on this accessory for nine years, the true crime community was buzzing after the press conference, each person trying to connect their personal suspects with the initials.
The Long Island Serial Killer has seemingly been dormant (or moved away) for years, but he's believed to be respoinsible for anywhere between 10 to 16 murders over a period of nearly 20 years at Gilgo Beach.
Now, in classic 2020 fashion, Newsday reports that the Suffolk County Police Department released two more photos of the belt in early December as a way to give greater context to what the belt looks like, and to show the public the embossed tip of the accessory.
What a full-circle moment that we began 2020 with the LISK, and we're ending it with the LISK too. Now let's just hope 2021 isn't like groundhog day.
February — Lori Vallow is Arrested
On February 21, the world was reintroduced to the cold eyes of Lori Vallow after she was arrested in Hawaii for failing to comply with a court order to produce her missing children, 17-year-old Tylee Ryan and 7-year-old Joshua "J.J." Vallow.
The two children were missing since September 2019, following the recent deaths of her former spouses, and her new husband Chad Daybell's former wife.
Since Vallow's February arrest, the bodies of Tylee and JJ were found in Vallow's current husband's backyard over the summer. Vallow is currently being held in Idaho and recently filed a motion earlier in December to disqualify the prosecuting attorney, claiming he tried to coerce Vallow's biological sister during a phone call in October.
I can guarantee that we will hear more about Vallow in 2021 as her trial begins.
Using my forensic psychology background, I combed through dozens of articles and empirical research to reconstruct Lori Vallow's psyche for a recent blog article, and get to the bottom of her bizarre motives and behaviors. To check that out, follow the link below.
Additional Reading: 'Lori Vallow: Untangling the Death Web, 3 Part Series'
March — Tiger King and Don Lewis
Even though the 'Tiger King Phase' of the pandemic feels like a lifetime ago, it's hard to wrap my head around the fact that this documentary-craze took place only earlier this year.
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness distracted America while the coronavirus pandemic made its way onto our shores.
With most states in lockdown, this wildly popular seven-episode series
dazzled viewers with Joe and his blonde mullet and sequin jacket, Carole Baskin with her flower crown — and the mysterious story of Don Lewis's disappearance.
Don Lewis disappeared in August of 1997 after his van was found at a local Spring Hill, Florida airport where he owned several planes. The keys to the van were found inside the vehicle, and investigators say it was parked for a couple of days. Don was never seen from or heard from again — leaving more than $5 million that Carole Baskin and Lewis's children fought over, according to the New York Times.
Carole Baskin herself denies the allegations that she had anything to do with Don's disappearance, despite fantastical stories of her grinding up and feeding Don's remains to tigers in her sanctuary. After the documentary aired, she posted to the Big Cat Rescue website, her animal organization, this comment:
"[The directors] did not care about truth," she says. "The unsavory lies are better for getting viewers."
Regardless of Baskin's comments, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office in Florida tweeted out a request for anyone with any leads about Don's disappearance to contact their investigators. Don was declared legally dead in 2002 after five years of being unaccounted for.
April — Vanessa Guillen Goes Missing
On April 22nd of this year, a bright and beautiful young woman's photo would begin to circulate on every news channel's top-of-the-hour segment — not because she was a promising Regimental Engineer Squadron soldier, but because she had gone missing right under the army's nose.
Vanessa Guillen, 20, was last seen around 1:00pm on the Fort Hood Army base, leaving her Squadron's headquarters to follow up on an assignment. She left behind her car keys, ID, wallet, and barracks key — alarming everyone around her when she never returned. Not long after, Fort Hood was crawling with FBI and U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command officers looking for answers, the Washington Post reports.
Vanessa's body was eventually found in June of this year, dismembered and charred as we came to learn that a junior enlisted soldier, Aaron David Robinson, bludgeoned Vanessa to death, and enlisted the help of his girlfriend, Cecily Anne Aguilar, to dispose of her body.
Robinson took his own life before law enforcement could capture him, and Aguilar has plead not guilty to charges in the case. She is currently being held without bond, a local ABC affiliate reports.
Before Guillen went missing, she confided in her family that she was being sexually harassed by someone above her at the Army base. While this hasn't been confirmed or directly connected to Vanessa's death, advocates argue that it was Fort Hood's lack of care and organization that allowed for a toxic culture to fester at the base.
After Vanessa's body was found, I spent countless hours glued to my computer, reconstructing what could've happened to Vanessa in her final day. To check out my theories and an in-depth timeline of the events, check out the link below.
Additional Reading: 'Vanessa Guillen: Reconstructing the Crime Scene'
May — George Floyd was Murdered
In what historians and advocates will most likely deem a defining time in 2020 and beyond, it's important to note that this 8 minute and 46 second monumental event and the impact left in its wake cannot simply be summed up in a few paragraphs for this article.
George Floyd's likeness and name will now be a symbol in the movement for racial justice forever, following his untimely murder at the hands of four Minneapolis Police Officers, namely Derek Chauvin pictured above. While this is not the first time an unarmed Black man was killed at the hands of law enforcement while being filmed — and it will unfortunately not be the last — George's agonizing death sparked a flame that had been heating up for decades.
Following George's death on May 25, protests erupted across the country in over 2,000 cities and towns in all 50 states, according to the New York Times. Protesters and marchers demonstrated in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and to advocate against the countless instances of police brutality we see in our country.
The true crime community proudly took part in the movement, as many advocates for justice understand that the concept of "justice for all" is currently only an ideal — and that being a 'true crime enthusiast' means more than simply being curious about Ted Bundy or wondering what happened to JonBenét Ramsy.
I took to the streets in New York City to express my own personal outrage over Floyd's murder, and I walked away feeling more connected and more invigorated to fight for justice and equality than ever. If you want to check out that article, follow the link below.
Additional Reading: ‘They Do Have Souls’: A Dialogue Between Cops and Protesters
June — Kyron Horman is Missing for a Decade
September 9, 2020, should have been Kyron Horman's 18th birthday. He would've graduated from high school this year, but instead, his family has been going through the unimaginable for a decade — wondering, in agony, what happened to their 7-year-old boy that disappeared without a trace 10 years ago.
After being seen at his elementary school's science fair in Portland, Oregon, Kyron was never seen again. Multiple witnesses have come forward this year to say they saw Kyron leaving Skyline School with his stepmother the morning he disappeared, according to a newly released book written by Rebecca Morris, an award-winning true crime journalist.
Citizen detectives have long pointed the finger at Kyron's stepmom, but without concrete evidence or cooperation on her part, investigative stones have yet to be turned.
To check out Kyron's latest age progression image, as well as learn more about the Kyron Horman Foundation that helps families of missing children, visit this website.
July — Ghislaine Maxwell Arrested
In a monumental victory against the child predators of the world, the FBI arrested Ghislaine Maxwell on July 2nd on multiple charges that she helped the late convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein recruit underage girls for sexual abuse, NPR reports.
"Maxwell was among Epstein's closest associates and helped him exploit girls who were as young as 14 years old," Audrey Strauss, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said at a news conference following her arrest.
In recent months, Epstein's alleged victims have come forward and spoken out about Maxwell's involvement in their trafficking and abuse, of which Maxwell has denied multiple times.
To that end, investigators maintain that Maxwell took an active role in recruiting, grooming, and abusing of victims. She was denied bail and currently remains incarcerated with a trial expected to take place next summer.
If you have the stomach for it, the Netflix series Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich includes harrowing interviews with survivors of both Maxwell and Epstein's abuse, and the series will only infuriate you to the point where you're punching walls being unable to believe these acts take place.
August — Golden State Killer Sentenced & Michael Turney Arrested
On August 21, a living nightmare was finally locked away behind bars after being sentenced to
life in prison following decades of perpetrated terror to the people of California, the Guardian reports.
Joseph James DeAngelo, 74, was arrested in 2018 after his geneological DNA connected him to 13 murders and numerous other crimes. He plead guilty in June of this year to the murders, as wekk as 13 kidnapping-related charges, and dozens of rape and sexual assault charges.
As part of his plea deal with prosecutors — to escape the death penalty — DeAngelo admitted to an additinal 131 uncharged crimes for which the statute of limitations have run out, the LA Times reports.
DeAngelo stood to make a brief apology to his survivors and victim's families during his August sentencing.
“I’ve listened to all your statements, each one of them. And I am truly sorry to everyone I hurt,” he said.
Additional Reading: 'Golden State Killer: CA's Deal with the Devil'
Five days later, the true crime community celebrated another monumental win with the arrest of Michael Turney, the step-father and prime suspect in Alissa Turney's 2001 disappearance.
Michael Turney was indicted on second-degree homicide charges by a grand jury following Alissa's sister, Sarah's continuous and unrelenting advocacy work to catch her sister's killer.
Sarah started a podcast, Voices for Justice, where the first season was dedicated to Alissa's case. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of talking with Sarah about her podcast and about Alissa. We spoke in-depth about the case intricacies, her family dynamic, and what the next steps were for the true crime community. To watch our conversation and learn more about Alissa's case, check out the link below.
Additional Viewing: 'Where is Alissa Turney? Featuring her Sister, Sarah Turney'
September — 'American Murder: The Family Next Door' Premiered
This Netflix documentary is the true definition of hearing the victim speak in their own words.
Using entirely primary archival footage, documentarians were able to reconstruct the life of the Watts family through the years leading up to 2018, when Chris Watts committed the senseless massacre of his family — pregnant wife Shanann Watts, and their children 4-year-old Bella and 3-year-old Celeste "Cece", including their unborn son Nico.
The archival footage that makes up the entire 1 hour 22 minute documentary includes Shanann Watts's Facebook posts, text messages, home video footage, and law enforcement recordings to detail the events that led up to the grizzly murders. It offers an unprecedented closeness to a case that I haven't felt in a true crime documentary before. It's spooky, because it's like a window has been left open for you to look into — a voyerist's dream.
The case shocked the country two years ago when the murders took place, and this documentary brought all of those feelings back up to the surface in a new and unforgettable way.
October — NXIVM Sex Cult Leader Sentenced to 120 Years
Keith Raniere told women that they would be able to find wealth, happiness, and even a "higher purpose in life" if they followed his self improvement workshops at his company, NXIVM.
Under all of the charm and glamor, Raniere instead was a "puppet master" pulling strings for a criminal enterprise, the New York Times details.
Finally, on October 27, Raniere was sentenced to 120 years in prison after dozens of victims gave heartbreaking testimony about how Raniere manipulated and sexually abused them in NXIVM. Raniere was found guilty of sexual exploitation of a child, sex trafficking, and sex trafficking conspiracy, among other crimes.
Former members of the company/cult said that Raniere was able to spot the people who were insecure, and needed a way to find themselves while being a part of something. Once that vulnerability was identified, he hoped that by immersing his victims in these self-help classes that they'd be trapped inside of his system.
Citizen Detectives speculate that Raniere has done more than just sexually abuse victims, as some women have disappeared in connection to NXIVM, prompting speculations surrounding homicide.
November — CrimeCon House Arrest
While all of us in the true crime community were upset at the realization that we wouldn't be able to meet in person for this year's CrimeCon event, the taste of normalcy that came with the November virtual 'House Arrest' event was sweeter than candy.
I think, like many, I had my doubts about whether or not an event that is typically so immersive and captivating could hold the same energy through a computer screen — but I was incredibly surprised at the air of connectedness and enthusiasm that was infectious through the online event.
CrimeCon curated a weekend of online interactive experiences that made me feel like I was back in the ballroom of a beautiful hotel again, with star-studded (and of course well respected) speakers like Dr. Henry Lee, Mark McClish, and Paul Holes to name a few.
I was the most impressed with Mark McClish's breakdown of Chris Watts's lies, as McClish combed through footage of Watts trying to decieve reporters and law enforcement — but miserably failing because McClish could detect his verbal and nonverbal ques with ease (now that I know his tips and tricks, watch out folks!).
CrimeCon: House Arrest was the boost I needed to get me through the rest of 2020, and I know many in the true crime community agree with me when I say it's interactive experiences like these that make us feel like we're not alone in this journey for justice, and that we don't need to be next to one anohter in a big ballroom to be a part of something greater (although I can't wait to be elbow-to-elbow with you all again!)
Were you unable to see the House Arrest sessions? Visit their website and become a CC Insider to view the sessions on demand.
December — Zodiac Infamous 340 Cipher Decoded & Sam Little Dies
In a classic 2020 twist that I don't think many saw coming, the news broke in early December that the Zodiac's infamous '340 Cipher' was finally cracked by code experts 51 years after the vexing letter was sent to the S.F. Chronicle, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
To crack the 340 Cipher — cleverly named because it contains 340 characters — Oranchak teamed up with two fellow code crackers and ran the set of symbols through special software programs for nearly a year. His teammates were Sam Blake, a mathematician in Australia, and Jarl Van Eykcke, a warehouse operator in Belgium.
According to David Oranchak, the first part of the cipher’s text says: “I hope you are having lots of fun in trying to catch me. ... I am not afraid of the gas chamber because it will send me to paradice (sic) all the sooner because I now have enough slaves to work for me.”
Many in the true crime community see this as not just a win for the case's advancement, but a win to help solidify the validity of including citizens in the crime-fighting process, as many of us have skills and knowledge that law enforcement wouldn't otherwise posess.
I would suggest checking out this short YouTube video by David Oranchak as he visually explains how he and his team decoded the Cipher. It's incredibly interesting and it goes to show you just how complicated it was to decode this message — and even more interesting to think of the mind of the person that created this.
Are we one step closer to finding out who the Zodiac is because of this message? probably not, but does it tell us more about his level of sophistication and his possible ideology? Absolutely.
“We would like to dedicate our work that culminated in this solution to the victims of the Zodiac killer, their families and descendants,” Blake wrote in a social media post. “We hope this is a stepping stone towards finding justice for these people.”
Moreover, this December saw another final suprise from the 2020 Gods.
On December 30, Samuel Little — arguably the most prolific serial killer in American history — died at age 80, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Little says he killed 93 people, mostly female sex workers, many of which he would've beaten and strangled to death over the course of decades, the Washington Post details.
Little had been serving a life sentence in a California prison after a previous conviction of three murder counts in 2013. It wasn't until 2018 that he opened up to a Texas Ranger saying he killed nearly 100 people in 19 states between 1970 and 2005 — and he had the memory to back up most cases, even drawing the women's faces for each crime detailed.