In May 2017, Connie Walker, a longtime reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, walked through Park View Cemetery in Medford, New Jersey. It was a sunny morning, with birds squawking, and Walker held a microphone to pick up the crunchy footsteps that she and her producer, Marnie Luke, made among the graves.
Walker knew what she was looking for; she’d seen a photograph of the squat headstone for 13-year-old “Beloved Daughter, Cleo L. Madonia,” born 1965, died 1978. “It’s quiet here, which is good,” Walker narrated, “because I imagine we’re a strange sight.” Connie Walker at the grave of a Cree girl, Cleopatra Semaganis Nicotine, who was forcibly removed from her family in Canada and adopted into a U.S. family.Courtesy of Connie Walker The cemetery search begins the fourth episode of Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo , the second season of Walker’s popular podcast. Finding Cleo investigates what happened to Cleopatra Semaganis Nicotine, a Cree girl from the Little Pine Reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada, who was forcibly taken by social workers, adopted in the United States, and given a new name. Over the course of the show, Walker, also a Cree woman from Saskatchewan, and Cleo’s biological siblings learn how Cleo ended up in Medford and what happened in the final moments of her short life.
Finding Cleo is generally considered a true-crime podcast, giving it the advantages of the popular genre; at the time of this writing, six out of 10 podcasts in Apple’s top U.S. charts involved murders, swindlers or nightmarish doctors. Finding Cleo has been downloaded over 17 million times and frequently appears at the top of Canadian podcast charts, along with Thunder Bay , a podcast by Anishinaabe host Ryan McMahon that investigates crimes against Indigenous residents in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
But Finding Cleo doesn’t focus on a death for its own sake. The story’s true mystery lies in systems that dwarf a single event: the Canadian government, child welfare practices, Indian residential schools and the colonial legacies that shadow Indigenous lives. The Indigenous reporters behind Finding Cleo and Thunder Bay weave true crime and Indigenous history together — deploying a trusted formula to reveal a world frequently invisible to white listeners, but reaching beyond the violence that draws much of the public’s attention.
In the cemetery, Walker gasps, “There it is,” she says, spotting the headstone. Walker and Luke stand quietly in front of it. The discovery is a turning point that will lead Walker to documents about Cleo’s adoption and to people who knew her during her short lifetime. Walker works like a detective in reverse — she finds the grave to confirm Cleo’s death, but it’s a better clue to the mystery of her complicated life.
IN THE FOUR YEARS since Serial , the true-crime show so trailblazing it was simply named after its format, podcasts have become a formidable medium. If audiences keep growing, within two years, more than half of all Americans will have listened to podcasts. Major publications have reporters who cover them as a beat , and juicy ones like Dirty John have been adapted for television. Gimlet Media, a for-profit podcast network started in 2014, produces 24 shows and routinely brings in millions of dollars.
Investigative and true-crime podcasts have reached the point of parody. Saturday Night Live has spoofed them more than once. A sketch about an award show called “The Poddys” includes categories like “Best Nervous White Girl In A Place She Doesn’t Belong.” In her acceptance speech, the award winner thanks “the thousands of women who chose to listen to gruesome confessions of neo-Nazis while walking on their […]
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