If you’re the kind of person who needs a true-crime narrative to end in a definitive resolution pinning down who did it and why, then the new podcast from the team behind Serial, the podcast that launched the true-crime boom nine years ago, is not for you. Also, be advised that audiences like you are a blight on the genre! Who can say how many fascinating and revelatory true-crime stories haven’t been told because producers feel the need to cater to this mulish demand for certainty and closure? The important thing about any true-crime narrative isn’t establishing the identity of the perp. (Though, in the exceedingly rare cases where that happens, it doesn’t hurt.) Rather, it’s everything a sleuth discovers about a place, a time, a culture, human beings, and herself during the investigation.
For New York Times journalist Kim Barker, narrator of Serial Productions’ The Coldest Case in Laramie, that place was the Wyoming city where she spent her high school years in the 1980s. She remembered Laramie as “uncommonly mean, a place of jagged edges and cold people.” She also remembered the 1985 murder of a 22-year-old college student named Shelli Wiley at the apartment complex where Wiley lived on the west side of Laramie. (She and her teenage friends even tried to summon the dead girl’s spirit with a Ouija board to name her killer.) Wiley, who waited tables at a truck stop, was stabbed 11 times, and her apartment was set on fire. The crime was never solved. Barker describes how, at the tail end of the pandemic, she’d felt “tapped out” of story ideas and searched Wiley’s name online. To her surprise, a man named Fredrick Lamb had been charged with Wiley’s murder in 2016, but the charges were dismissed the following year.
A little further investigation told Barker that several key figures in the Wiley case—Shelli’s sister and niece, her roommate at the time of the murder (who had been at her boyfriend’s home that night), and the police detective who had revived the cold case—were convinced that Lamb had killed Wiley. Lamb often stayed at a friend’s apartment in the same complex, he was there alone on the night of the crime, and his blood was found at the scene. But Lamb was a former police officer, well-known to the detectives investigating the crime, and his accusers insist that he was never taken seriously as a suspect for that reason.
Wiley’s sister and niece were eager to talk to Barker about their suspicions. So was her roommate, Michelle, who had, by freakish coincidence, learned that a man she’d worked with for decades had been the first person to notice the fire and had tried to rescue the young woman he’d glimpsed through a window lying on the floor. This man, who also agreed to talk to Barker, described how oddly he thought Lamb had behaved when rousted out of bed by the alarm. He also said that during his interview with police, he’d been told that they weren’t concerned about Lamb because he was former police. All this smelled fishy enough to persuade Barker that it was time to return to the town she’d never wanted to set foot in again.
I settled in for that: A story about police complicity, the thin blue line, and what Barker characterizes as a “good-ol’-boys-protecting-their-own thing.” While there’s nothing wrong with issue-driven storytelling per se, it can be pretty predictable and spinachy even when well executed. But that’s not where the story takes Barker. Racism and sexism certainly played a role in the investigation. Detectives questioned every Black member of the university football team when they found out that the one Black player whom Wiley had casually dated had an iron-clad alibi. The podcast also plays an appalling excerpt from a recording of their interview with that player in which an investigator asks him if Wiley “liked sex,” implying both that she was promiscuous and that this might have led to her death.
That’s what’s exceptional about The Coldest Case in Laramie: the stunning amount of access Barker was granted once she arrived in town, a cornucopia of what audio producers call “good tape.” Lamb’s defense attorney made all the original case files and recorded interviews available to her and to the Serial crew.* Wiley’s sister and niece turn out to be careful, precise sources. Barker has Michelle, who talks about Lamb’s creepy behavior around the apartment complex, and about her co-worker who couldn’t understand why a former police officer didn’t spring into action when informed that the building was on fire. And, finally, Lamb himself, now in his 70s, told his attorney he could speak freely to Barker and hand over all the evidence they had obtained during discovery in 2016.
This lawyer—a former public defender who sounds exactly like Steve Zahn, says he hates cops, and hangs posters of Che Guevara and Cheech and Chong in his office—chips the first cracks in the seemingly self-evident case against Lamb. Surely this attorney would never knowingly perpetuate a cover-up for the police? What about the 2016 interrogation of Lamb, all seven hours of it, during which, it was reported in the press, Lamb uttered the words “Fred Lamb did it … I’m not denying that I did it” and “bottom line is, I killed a girl”? Surely these statements were damning? But the recordings of the questioning, excerpted in the podcast, reveal them to be far more ambiguous than they come across when the quotes are taken out of context. It becomes increasingly less flabbergasting that prosecutors lost interest in pursuing the case.
Instead of a clear-cut story of police incompetence (although there was plenty of that), The Coldest Case in Laramie presents an unsettling call and response between then and now. Michelle remembers being terrified when, a few weeks after the murder, she received at her new address an anonymous envelope containing cash and a card with the handwritten suggestion that she “get out of town.” She reported it to the police and handed over the card. When Barker digs up the report, to Michelle’s astonishment, it describes a card with a pre-printed “Merry Christmas” message and no menacing note. This incident, which doesn’t pertain to Lamb’s guilt or innocence, is just one example in The Coldest Case in Laramie of fictional details growing like moss on the memories of those traumatized by Wiley’s murder, details that further and bolster whatever narrative the witness has chosen to believe about her death and its aftermath. Over and over again, sources tell Barker with absolute certainty that they did or said something that contemporaneous evidence indicates never occurred. “I feel like I’m so unreliable,” one baffled man tells Barker after she demonstrates his error. He is very far from alone.
Even Barker was finally forced to reassess her longstanding judgement of Laramie. “If there is one constant,” she says, confirming what alert listeners will have already noticed, “it’s that almost everyone I’ve talked to in Laramie has been extremely open and kind.” You just can’t count on anything they remember about Shelli Wiley’s death and the circumstances and events surrounding it. So maybe the world’s certainty addicts ought to listen to The Coldest Case in Laramie after all. It doesn’t prove who killed Shelli Wiley, but it does demonstrate how an insistent desire for answers can lead us so very far away from the truth.
Correction, March 14, 2023: This article originally misstated that it was the detective who charged Lamb who gave Barker access to the case files and police interviews.