Cheyna Roth used to cover the state capital for WKAR. Now a reporter for MLive.com, she adds a new line to her resume today: author. Her book Cold Cases: Unidentified Serial Killers, Unsolved Kidnappings, and Mysterious Murders is out today. WKAR’s Scott Pohl talks with Cheyna Roth about her early career as a lawyer and prosecutor before turning to journalism.
NOTE: This interview includes references to rape and murder that some might wish to avoid.
SCOTT POHL: Our listeners will remember you as our capital correspondent. Now you're reporting for MLive.com, but they might not know about your early career as an attorney and a prosecutor. You're pretty well qualified to write about these kinds of stories. Tell me about your interest in true crime.
CHEYNA ROTH: I have always been interested in crime and criminal stories. Even as a kid, I was really interested in mafia movies and reading Nancy Drew. I loved a good mystery. When I was in law school, I realized that the one thing that I wanted to do if I was going to be a lawyer, because even then I had some reservations about being an attorney, was to be a prosecuting attorney. So when I graduated, I worked in Ionia County for a little over a year.
There were some parts of the job that I really liked. I liked working with law enforcement. I really loved the investigative part of the job, looking through and putting pieces together, trying to find out extra evidence and things like that, but the job itself just was not for me. That part of it that I like, that investigative part of it, that puzzle piecing part of it and the explaining part of it, kind of going through in the storytelling of what happened here. Those are things that all translated while I was writing this book, because it was basically just doing a ton of research, going through dozens if not hundreds of newspaper archives to try and find what was happening back in the day and what was the mood surrounding these cases. Doing a lot of research online, going through books and things like that, and then putting it all together and telling these stories, but also trying to figure out what are some of the things that are missing from the narratives around these cases that are typically told. What are some things that people haven't been talking about?
My background really came in handy when I was going through the JonBenét Ramsey case, for example, because I was able to recognize where law enforcement really went wrong in that investigation. So that background really came in handy quite a bit while writing this book.
POHL: You're bringing up the JonBenét Ramsey case. Some of your stories here are pretty well known like that one and the Golden State killer. For instance, the story of D.B. Cooper's airplane heist is also here.
ROTH: D.B. Cooper was a really fun chapter. I wanted the book to be not just about murders, but about different types of unsolved cases. One of the things that I noticed with D.B. Cooper was that case really spoke to our society's love of an outlaw, so this is a section from the book that kind of speaks to them.
CHEYNA ROTH ON THE D.B. COOPER STORY
Our love of the outlaw may not be anything new, but the stories we want our outlaws to inhabit have continued to evolve with the times. Yet whatever you call them - outlaws, Robin Hoods, anti-heroes - they're still cut from the same cloth. They're still criminals, or people with darker edges than most, which lead them to do bad things. In some ways, our bloodlust has regressed. Where we once bellowed from the stone seats of the Coliseum for the gladiators to finish their opponents with death, we now yell at our televisions for Omar - a character who was actually loosely based on the Robin Hood model - to steal all the drugs and kill anyone in his way. If HBO turned the D.B. Cooper saga into a television series today, he'd be played by Pedro Pascal, come dangerously close to blowing up the plane, maybe even a hostage or two, with moments sprinkled throughout that show off his humanity and tortured past. Maybe he, like Tony Soprano before him, has cold-cuts induced panic attacks. Cold Cases: Undentified Serial Killers, Unsolved Kidnappings, and Mysterious Murders
POHL: Did you learn anything new about D.B. Cooper or any of these stories?
ROTH: I learned a lot of new things. A a lot of these cases are ones that I wasn't intimately familiar with, and that was why I wanted to do them. The publisher had a few that they really wanted to get in there, the Zodiac Killer, JonBenét Ramsey for example. Those were cases they really wanted to include, and then I got to choose the rest of them.
I was looking for cases that either I didn't know a lot about or that I thought weren't as wildly popular in the true crime genre as maybe they should be. For example, the Freeway Phantom, the story of a bunch of girls who were raped and murdered and left by the side of the highway in Washington, D.C. That was a case that I didn't think had gotten a lot of publicity, so I learned a ton about that case. As far as a more well known one, the Black Dahlia, Elizabeth Short, I thought I knew a lot about that case, but as I was going through it, I did not realize that there were so many red herrings with that case, that there were so many people even at the time who were coming forward and saying oh, actually, I'm the one that killed the Black Dahlia, and it turned out that they weren't, which was kind of an interesting thing sprinkled throughout a lot of these cases. You would find people either coming forward and wrongfully claiming that they committed these crimes, or which was almost as interesting, coming forward and claiming that their family members or somebody that they know committed the crimes. There's a lot of people who claimed “my father's the Zodiac” or “my father's the Black Dahlia Killer,” which was very interesting.
POHL: Are there Michigan stories here?
ROTH: There are not Michigan-specific stories, but a couple of them do have some Michigan ties, for example, the JonBenét Ramsey case. John Ramsey actually ran for state representative in Michigan. The Ramseys had a home in Charlevoix, and a few years after his daughter's death, as sort of a way to kind of change the narrative around his life and maybe to stop being known exclusively as the father of a murdered daughter, he ran for state representative. He lost.
Then there's also some theories that D.B. Cooper is actually from Michigan. Those were theories that I wasn't able to dive into too much in the book, but there are some people who theorize that D.B. Cooper came out of Michigan or was hiding out in Michigan.
POHL: You're a reporter, and you get to do something in Cold Cases that many reporters would be jealous of: you get to express your opinion. Did you find that liberating?
ROTH: It was, it really was! When I talked with the publisher, they really wanted a sort of conversational tone with a little bit of sass, so I was able to just kind of write this as though I was just sort of talking it out. My brain was just kind of dumped onto the page, which was very nice. I didn't really have to censor myself too much, so as I was writing, I was able to just kind of have a conversation with myself and be a little snarky and be a little sassy about some of the things going on in these cases and make it fun and conversational, which was really great. As you know, as reporters, a lot of times we just kind of have to take that more neutral tone, so liberating is a very good word for it.
POHL: This is your first book. Do you have more books in your future?
ROTH: I really hope so. I really enjoyed working on this book. I would love to write maybe some fiction, but crime is definitely the genre for me. So who knows? Stay tuned. I'm definitely working on it.