From Idaho to North Dakota, true crime cases spark public conversations

Crime scene at RJR
Crime scene at RJR(KFYR)
Published: Jan. 17, 2023 at 8:33 PM CST
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - In the 1970s and 80s, stories of serial killers dominated headlines. Now, fewer of these stories are around due to many factors, like the growth of forensic science, and more specific classifications of crimes. But public interest in criminal cases remains. People wonder why crimes were committed and ask how to prevent tragedies in the future.

The dark world of true crime has captured public attention in the form of film, literature, and, lately, podcasts. Each person is drawn in by different aspects of the genre.

“Mental health is a very big draw for me. When we can see the deterioration down the road at the end of the case, we might not be able to see it then, but we can see the deterioration of someone’s mental health at the end of the case and you wonder, ‘Were they failed by the system? Did they get the help they needed? Is there something that society could have done differently?’” said Dawn Palumbo, co-host of the Midwest Murder Podcast.

In recent years, small-town cases like the Idaho and RJR murders sparked national interest.

In these two high-profile cases, some similarities stand out.

“There was the interesting response of the public doesn’t need to be worried in both cases. And so, with RJR, generally, the public around here accepted that clarification, and the police department stayed with that language. In Idaho, they backed off that language right away because there was such backlash over it. Really, it’s an indication that the investigative officers feel that’s an intentional act,” said Dr. Chad Litton, director of the criminal justice program at the University of Mary.

But, criminologists say there’s a main difference between the crimes in Moscow and Mandan: the release of information.

“Each jurisdiction is different. And that’s why things that happened in Idaho are different than what happened in RJR. Legally, they’re not able to say very much,” added Dr. Litton.

Criminologists also say the interest in the cases has led to questions like, “How are investigations and crimes different from the 1970s serial killer boom?”

“When things started going digital, that was really a game changer for police to sort of be able to pinpoint a lot of timelines and negotiate situations where there weren’t formerly witnesses or unreliable timing on the witnesses so they can create this digital footprint,” said Jonah Lantto, co-host of the Midwest Murder Podcast.

Other questions emerged too, like, “What factors create a serial killer?” and “What’s the difference between a mass murderer and a serial killer?”

“In both RJR and the Idaho case, while technically mass murders are probably murders with multiple victims because there were more victims there,” said Dr. Litton.

No matter the interest in the cases, true crime podcasters and criminologists remind folks it’s important to remember the real people suffering because of these crimes. They say misinformation and speculation can damage victims’ families.

Dr. Litton says his class on serial killers is consistently popular among students.