9 Times True Crime Documentaries And Podcasts Helped Crack Real Life Cases

Don't underestimate your true crime obsession.
Loading the player...

Six years after Kayla Unbehaun’s abduction, she was found by a North Carolina store owner, who recognised her from Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries

It’s not the first time a true crime series has helped solve a real life case. 

Our obsession with true crime podcasts and documentaries often gives renewed attention to long forgotten cases—leading to new evidence and surprising revelations. 

In fact, during Unsolved Mysteries’ first 23-year run, the series helped solve over 260 cases. Now, the reboot has already helped solve one of its own. 

Below, nine other true crime documentaries and podcasts that helped crack real life cases. 

Unsolved Mysteries (1988)

unsolved mysteries
Unsolved Mysteries (1987) (Credit: NBC)

A 1988 episode of Unsolved Mysteries focused on a case involving a 15 year old girl from Maryland called Missy Munday. Missy ran away from home with Jerry Strickland, an older man who had recently moved to the area and developed a friendship with Missy. When Jerry was accused of robbing and murdering Elmer DeBoer, a courier for an oil company, the pair went on the run. 

Within minutes of the episode’s broadcast, more than 20 viewers called the police to report the pair’s new location in Moses Lake, Washington. Jerry was accused of murder, kidnapping and armed robbery. He is currently serving two consecutive life sentences without parole. 

The Thin Blue Line (1988)

thin blue line
Thin Blue Line (1988) (Credit: Miramax)

In 1976, Randall Adams accepted a ride from a 16-year-old boy named David Harris. Later that night, Texas police officer Robert Wood was shot and killed while inspecting the headlights of the same vehicle. The jury believed Randall was guilty and he was sentenced to death. 

After getting a confession from Harris, Erroll Morris’s documentary freed Randall Adams from prison after he was wrongly convicted of Wood’s murder. 

Unsolved Mysteries (1994)

Craig Williamson
Craig Williamson (Credit: IMDb)

A second Unsolved Mysteries case was solved in 1994, after a man recognised himself as the subject of the episode. Craig Williamson went missing on a trip to Colorado Springs in 1993. Craig, who had suffered a concussion a few weeks before, ended up being mugged on his trip. 

When Craig woke up in hospital, his concussion had progressed to amnesia and he couldn’t remember who he was. Two years after beginning a new life in Florida, Craig watched the episode of Unsolved Mysteries and reconnected with his wife. 

The Staircase (2004) 

the staircase
The Staircase (Credit: Canal +)

In 2001, Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of the stairs of her home. Her husband, crime novelist Michael Peterson was accused of the murder and embroiled in a 16-year court battle. 

In 2004, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade released a documentary about the case, revealing that Kathleen was found clutching owl feathers and some of her hair when found. The documentary also highlighted flaws in some of the key witness’ testimonies. In 2017, Michael entered an Alford plea and was released from jail.

Serial: The murder of Hae Min Lee (2014) 

Hae Min Lee
Hae Min Lee (Credit: Serial)

When true crime podcast Serial released a dozen episodes dedicated to the murder of Hae Min Lee, it would lead to the acquittal of Adnan Syed. Adnan, who was Hae Min Lee’s ex-boyfriend at the time of her murder, convicted of kidnapping and first-degree murder in February 2000 after prosecutors argued he was enraged by Hae Min seeing someone else. 

However, after the podcast prompted for the case to be reopened, Adnan was acquitted due to insufficient evidence. He had already served 23-years in prison by the time he was released. This year however, Adnan’s conviction was reinstated. 

The Jinx (2015)

the jinx
The Jinx (2015) (Credit: HBO)

When millionaire Robert Durst agreed to participate in HBO’s 2015 docuseries The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, he didn’t know it would eventually lead to his own conviction. 

The millionaire agreed to sit down for interviews about his suspected connection to his wife’s 1982 disappearance, the murder of his neighbour Morris Black and the murder of his friend Susan Berman. 

At one stage during the interview, when Durst didn’t realise he was connection to a live microphone, he muttered, “killed them all, of course.” His admission was taken as a confession and Durst was imprisoned for life. 

The Teacher’s Pet (2018) 

teacher's pet
The Teacher’s Pet (2018) (Credit: The Australian)

The Teacher’s Pet investigated the 1982 disappearance of Lynette Dawson, an Australian nurse and mother-of-two. The highly popular podcast shed light on Lynette’s husband, Chris Dawson, and his relationship with a teenage student from the school where he taught. As a result, the case was reopened and Chris Dawson was found guilty of murder.  

Your Own Backyard (2019)

Your own backyard
Your Own Backyard (2019) (Credit: Your Own Backyard)

In 2018, Chris Lambert created a podcast dedicated to solving the 1996 disappearance of Kristin Smart. Kristin, who had been a California college freshman at the time of her disappearance, went missing after attending an off-campus party. The last person to see Kristin was her classmate, Paul Flores, who offered to walk her home. 

The podcast didn’t only bring new attention to the case but whose witnesses provided enough evidence to reopen the case. Eventually, police discovered that Smart’s body had been buried under Flores’ father’s home before it was moved. In 2023, Flores was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. 

Who Killed Malcom X? (2020) 

Who Killed Malcom X? (2020) (Credit: Netflix)

This documentary explores the 1965 assassination of civil rights icon Malcom X, and the convictions of Muhammad Aziz, Khalil Islam, and Mujahid Abdul Halim. 

Despite Halim being the only man to confess to the crime (and dismiss Aziz and Islam’s involvement) all three men were convicted and imprisoned. The documentary’s new evidence and compelling witness testimonies lead to the case being reopened and Islam And Aziz released from prison. 

Related stories