Paper Ghosts Is What Every True Crime Podcast Aspires To Be

True Crime Podcast

From the first moment I heard M. William Phelps’ grizzled and vaguely New England voice at the start of his first episode, I knew I was hooked. 

He sounds just like what a true crime writer and podcaster should sound like. 

Having written five books about serial murderers, he also has an in-depth understanding of the subject matter.

The stories about the missing girls and young women Phelps shares with us in this new true crime podcast Paper Ghosts are personal to him. 

My first podcast, PAPER GHOSTS, is live. One after the other, from 1968 to 1975, young girls vanished from quiet neighboring towns near my New England hometown. I’ve investigated the cases for the past 11 years.

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— M. William Phelps (@MWilliamPhelps) September 2, 2020

True crime podcasts rarely get better than this, in my opinion. 

The empathy for the families is evident in his tone. He lives in Tolland, Connecticut, the same area where these girls went missing. 

He went to school with some of their family members.

When he speaks to the families of the missing, you can hear that they have found someone who cares, someone who is connected to them.

There have been some great true crime podcasts released in 2020: Missing in Alaska, Dateline’s Motive for Murder, and Catch and Kill. 

All of these true crime podcasts have one thing in common: great reporting by veteran investigators who are all excellent storytellers.

Phelps, however, goes one step further in his iHeart Radio podcast. He lets us know, in carefully crafted detail, how these missing cases, starting in 1968 affected a group of rural Connecticut towns. 

He explains how these sleepy hamlets went from feeling safe to being hypervigilant and suspicious.

What is a Paper Ghost?

Imagine years after a missing poster is posted in your town but not taken down. The photo and print fade to ghost-like images. 

These, Phelps explains, are paper ghosts. We walk by them every day. 

When someone is first missing, the images are crisp and clear, but time washes them out, except from the minds of their families.

The Background on the Missing

Starting with the case of Debra Spickler, 13, in 1968 from Mystic, Connecticut, five girls, and young women, ranging in age from 7 to 20, went missing from four neighboring rural towns. Janice Pockett, 7, went missing from nearby Tolland in 1973. Lisa Joy White, 13, went missing from Vernon in 1974. 

Neighboring Rockville was the site of the disappearance of two girls: Susan LaRosa, 20, in 1975 and Patricia Luce, 18, in 1978.

Pockett’s disappearance gives the best example of how an innocent moment can turn horrific and change the behavior of a bucolic village overnight. 

Janice Pockett, Phelps explains, had begged her mother to ride her bike a short distance from her home, a 10th of a mile, to pick up a dead butterfly she had seen earlier in the week.

It was the first time she had been allowed to ride alone and her mother gave her strict instructions to go and hurry back. 

Janice’s mom had even given her a clean white envelope to hold the butterfly. Janice Pockett was never seen again.

Being the youngest of the missing, the image of 7-year-old Janice innocently riding her bike to collect a butterfly only to vanish within minutes is strikingly heartbreaking. 

What family is ever prepared for that?

Fast Forward 50 Years

Phelps has been investigating and reporting on this cluster of missing girls for over 10 years. 

An episode on his ID program, Dark Minds, airing at the same time his article about the cases was published in 2013, got the attention of the police and generated leads and investigative activity.

Fast forward to 2019 and Phelps reveals that new leads might give law enforcement the chance to close these cases and bring answers for the families. 

After 50-plus years, the families have hope of some conclusion. 

I cannot begin to fathom how a family lives with such heartache day in and day out over 50 years!

The Importance of the Smallest Clue

In murder and missing person investigations, solutions can come from the smallest piece of evidence. 

Time after time it has been shown that every clue is important. 

Phelps drives this point home very clearly in Episode 2.

The first part of the second episode talks about the difference that accurately recording witness accounts can make in moving a case forward. 

The school nurse, Nancy Reisch, where Janice attended school, was transferring her records from one grade to another in advance of fall classes the summer Janice went missing.

Before Janice went missing, an important detail wrongly recalled by the police, Reisch discovered that Janice’s record was gone. 

In addition to medical information, the records included student contact information such as addresses.

In 1973, long before HIPPA and FERPA laws, these files were unlocked and within access of many school employees. Reisch recalls specifically a maintenance man who regularly went into the file room.

The sighting of a maintenance worker near the scene of Janice’s disappearance and the fact that the file went missing before her alleged abduction, and not after as incorrectly recalled, might be coincidental but maybe not. 

Either way, the correct recording of small details in witness accounts can often prove to be critical in solving a crime or having it turn cold.

Technology has certainly helped in that regard, but mistakes still happen every day. 

We will never know if that tiny, misreported clue could have found Janice but the question will always linger: could it have?

Make No Assumptions

Another critical aspect of any criminal investigation is the importance of not making assumptions. 

In our day to day lives, we learn quickly what can happen when we assume we know what happened or what an outcome might hold. 

The same principle applies to police work.

In the second part of Episode 2, “I Wish It Had Been You,” Phelps introduces us to Maria, the friend Lisa Joy White snuck out to visit the evening of November 1, 1974. 

A big assumption was made by local law enforcement that has possibly led to decades of not knowing what happened to 13-year-old Lisa.

Lisa had been grounded by her mother, Judi Kelly, because the night before on Halloween, Lisa, and Maria, along with other older friends, had gone out joyriding and drinking. 

During the ride, the group decided to engage in some pumpkin tossing. This resulted in them being pulled over by the police. 

Judi Kelly had to pick up Lisa from the police and was, as you would expect, none too happy.

Lisa and Maria were both grounded and banned from “ever” seeing each other again. 

On November 1, Lisa left home to go to Maria’s house to leave Maria’s parents an apology note for all the trouble the night before. 

Lisa had also left a written apology to her mom, Judi.

The apology note to Judi was clearly not a runaway note. 

Lisa did express that she wished she had Maria’s family and that she was in love with a boy named Greg. However, she never mentioned running away.

While the police did investigate and search for Lisa, at some point an assumption was made that Lisa had left willingly. 

Many assumed Maria must have known where Lisa was. But both she and Judi vehemently stated for decades that Lisa had not run away. 

Maria even passed a polygraph test shortly after Lisa’s disappearance regarding her involvement in Lisa missing or running away.

Assuming a 13-year-old has run away, even if it true, does not absolve law enforcement or the community from actively pursuing all avenues to find the child. 

Judi Kelly felt, until her death in July 2012, that this runaway assumption weakened the investigation into her daughter’s disappearance. Is she wrong?

Why You Should Listen

There are now a lot of true crime podcasts available to help fill the hours of our quarantine lives, but Paper Ghosts, in my opinion, is special. 

The intimacy from which Phelps derives his connection to the missing girls is unique.

Is Phelps too close? I do not think he crosses any lines. Again, I will leave that for you to decide.

Season 2: Burned

True crime podcast, Paper Ghosts, has recently returned for a second season featuring a case about a 1981 quadruple murder in an Ohio farmhouse. 

M. William Phelps is back to take us through another investigation and I am excited about this new season. 

I found Paper Ghosts Season 1 to be very engrossing and Season 2 should not disappoint.

The Case-Bethel, Ohio 1981

On July 6, 1981, a Bethel Ohio farmhouse is found burning and four bodies of one family are discovered in the aftermath. 

Locally the Stevensons were known to be a wealthy family who made their money through a chain of local fireworks chains. 

The bulk of their fireworks sales were cash buys between Memorial Day and July 4th.

As the 4th of July weekend sales had just wrapped up, the Stevensons were at home trying to wind down from a busy week of selling firecrackers and bottle rockets. 

Independence Day was their busiest time and they had done very well during that summer of the nation’s 205th birthday.

The Fire

Imagine being woken up at 4:30 AM by a neighbor telling you that your mom Linda and stepdad Billy’s huge house is engulfed in an inferno. 

That’s the nightmare that 19-year-old Carol Thompson entered on the morning of July 6, 1981.

Billy and Linda Stevenson’s ranch was only a mile away from Carol’s house. 

Carol grabbed up her baby daughter and raced to see if it was true. Carol had thought the neighbor who called her had been joking. 

The blaze could be seen from miles around.

When Carol arrives at the horrific scene, she lunges from her car in an attempt to enter the burning house. 

She is stopped by cops and firemen and told she can’t go in.

Carol then screams to find out where her little 5-year-old step-brother Billy, Jr. is. 

She is told he is in an ambulance and is fine. However, that was incorrect. 

Tragically, little Billy Jr. was dead along with visiting uncle, Eddie Dowell. 

Dead also was her mother Linda and her step-father, Billy Stevenson.

This was the beginning of hell for Carol. 

As she watched that night, four bodies were laid out on the porch of the burned home covered with sheets. 

Carol remembers seeing and recognizing her mother’s foot from under one of the sheets. 

This was proof that her family members were gone.

A Fire to Cover a Murder

As the details unfolded during the post-fire investigation, police discover that all four family members had been shot prior to the fire. 

It was also discovered that the perpetrators had stolen around $200,000, the recent earnings of Stevenson’s fireworks stand. 

Who had done this!?

Just the day before Billy Stevenson had opened the trunk of his car and shown a friend and rival, Jim Riley, the cash. 

Stevenson had stated that he was worried about keeping the money on him until the bank opened the next day. 

Riley told Stevenson he was crazy for hauling around all that cash and left it at that.

Many theories began to develop around this murder with everyone in small-town Bethel having their own speculations, suspects, and motives. 

For example, a few days prior to the 4th of July a teenager had intentionally exploded one of Stevenson’s fireworks shops. 

And, although generally popular, Billy Steveson was known to have those in the community who did not like him.

Billy Stevenson had a rivalry with competing fireworks stand owner, Jim Riley. 

Although friendly, Jim Riley was not close with Billy Stevenson, on purpose. 

In addition to both men selling fireworks, they both had other competing businesses selling gold.

During his interview with Phelps, Riley stated that he kept the competition with Stevenson light but also kept his distance. 

He felt that the Stevensons were too flashy and Billy too much of a blowhard. 

Riley’s wife, Wanda, on the other hand, liked to socialize with the Stevensons.

Further, Riley claims that Eddie Dowell, Stevenson’s brother-in-law, regularly threatened him with guns over the competition. 

When Riley called a truce, he and Billy became friends, at arm’s length. 

However, Riley’s wife was having an affair with Dowell.

Riley then quickly became a suspect. 

Carol Thompson pointed a finger at Riley while at the murder scene. 

Carol also became a suspect down the line along with the mob. Yep, the mob. 

Apparently, wise guys have their fingers in the fireworks biz along with everything else under the sun. 

As a true crime podcast, it doesn’t get better than this.

Dive Into Season 2

I have listened to four episodes so far and I am hooked. 

In my opinion, everyone is a suspect in this case, which always makes for good listening. 

Also, the characters in this tale are straight from the best film noir casting. 

Think Humphrey Bogart meets Quentin Tarantino.

From the “aw, shucks” midwestern accents to the no-nonsense interviews, I’m going to bet you will want to hear this whole story. 

Enjoy and, oh yeah, don’t flash your cash.

13 Best True Crime Podcasts

If you are already a fan of true crime or if you are looking to get indoctrinated into this thrilling new wave of investigative entertainment, we have compiled the ultimate true crime podcast feature for you.

Here are The 13 Best True Crime Podcasts:

1. Sword and Scale

This is the podcast show that is “proving that the worst monsters are very real.” Creator Mike Boudet masterfully produces the best true crime podcast out there to date.

Boudet artfully uses real audio clips from 911 tapes, police confessions, and news sources to tell the tales from some of the most horrifying crimes our society has endured.

Boudet narrates and gives his commentary from time to time but as a great documentarian does, he allows the interviews to do the bulk of the storytelling.

This show is not for the faint of heart. If you are sensitive to explicit content involving murder and violence you may want to skip this show.  

Go check out our full feature article on some controversy surrounding Sword And Scale right here!

2. Crime Junkie

From the opening chords of the theme music, Crime Junkie podcast sets a serious but slightly sassy tone. The primary host, Ashley Flowers, does most of the heavy lifting in terms of research and reporting. 

Brit Prawat, the co-host, is a strong contributor in that she represents the audience’s reaction through her visceral comments and supporting questions. 

This true-crime podcast’s first episode aired in December 2017 and, from the start, the ladies stated that they are dedicated supporters of their local chapters of Crime Stoppers. 

So not only want do they want to bring the crimes they discuss to a growing audience in an interesting way, but they also value having justice for the victims.

Check out our feature the 5 best episodes of Crime Junkie right here.

3. My Favorite Murder

Witty and unique, the podcast My Favorite Murder by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark is a great choice for any lover of true crime. 

The breadth and scope of the crimes they cover are quite impressive. 

The women are not hesitant to cover disappearances, solved murders, odd crime cases, and much more. Be warned, the language is unapologetically salty and uber adult-oriented.

Go check out the full feature article on the 13 Best True Crime Podcasts right here!

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