WyoFile talks to New York Times reporter and podcast host Kim Barker about digging into the brutal 1985 murder of UW student Shelli Wiley, why police have failed to close the case and how memories can be fallible.
“The Coldest Case in Laramie,” a new podcast series from the New York Times and Serial Productions, follows reporter Kim Barker on a quest to understand why the 1985 murder of 22-year-old University of Wyoming student Shelli Wiley remains unsolved.
Barker was a sophomore at Laramie High School when someone stabbed Wiley multiple times and set fire to her apartment. The brutality of her death, the way the local media covered it and the fact that it was never solved left an impression on Barker that she just couldn’t shake.
In 2021, as a New York Times reporter, she dug back into Wiley’s case and learned that a former Laramie police officer whose DNA was found at the scene had been charged but never prosecuted. She asked herself: What happened? Was this a case of good old boys protecting their own?
Barker set out on a road trip to Laramie with her dog and a friend to get answers. She discovered that memories — including her own — aren’t as reliable as they seem, and determined that biased assumptions of police and reporters at the time may have gotten in the way of closing the case.
WyoFile sat down with Barker to discuss the reporting project and what she learned when she returned to Laramie after decades away.
The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
WyoFile: In the trailer for “The Coldest Case in Laramie” you say: “I’ve always remembered it as a mean town — uncommonly mean. A place of jagged edges and cold people.”
I live in Laramie and I can tell you that depiction has some hackles up. That’s your truth but I think it might turn some Wyoming residents away from investing time to listen to the season. Why did your memories of Laramie as a mean town feel essential to include in the story?
Kim Barker: It was one of the reasons that I wanted to look at this. Shelli’s murder was a big part of that. And look, this is not everybody’s truth. I think if people actually listen to the podcast, they’ll realize that you can get fixed on a memory that might not actually be the way things are. And I tried to be super honest about that. And you know, I had nothing but good experiences talking to people when I went back to Laramie.
I think [Laramie seeming mean] has something to do with the time period, right? We hit the national news for [high school students] branding [each other]. It felt mean and it was nothing I ever really examined. I only did that through the reporting of this particular story. So I would hope that people in Wyoming give it a chance and actually listen to the whole thing, because I think they might be surprised where it comes down.
WF: You were a sophomore at Laramie High School in 1985 when Shelli Wiley — a 22-year-old college student — was murdered. You moved away not long after but for years you checked the news to see what happened to the case. Why did her death continue to haunt you?
KB: I remember reading the Laramie Daily Boomerang and I just remember being shocked by how little coverage there was.
She grew up in Laramie, people at the high school knew her. There were relatives. Nobody ever talked to any of those folks. There was no sense of who she was as a person. So, I don’t know if that motivated me to take my first high school journalism class, but I did. I took my first journalism class at Laramie High my junior year.
But I do want to say that this podcast is not about me. It’s about this case. My memories are a way to get into it, but most of it has nothing to do with me.
I’m not narrating much of it. I feel like what’s interesting about it is you’re really hearing one interview move to the next, and you’re really seeing what it’s like to work as a reporter to try to get to the bottom of something — at least I hope that’s what people come away with.
WF: Listening to the season I was struck by how you let your sources speak for themselves. Instead of cutting in with narration to get to the point quicker there are these long cuts from your interviews. In one instance a source talks for close to seven minutes and you interject with just one simple question. Tell me about that decision to let people tell their own stories from start to finish.
KB: I think that’s what I try to do as a journalist in general. I think the most powerful question you can ask a lot of times is ‘and then what happened?’
You have to be listening to what people are telling you to know what the next question should be. So I like to let people talk. I like to spend a lot of time with people I’m interviewing and I think what you can hear in this podcast is a level of intimacy — folks are trusting me to tell the story and to let them tell their own stories and not to cut them off. That was really important to me.
WF: It’s interesting to hear you say that and to have a podcast that renders legible some of the journalistic process and where sources from all different sides of the story do come to trust you. I’m wondering if there’s something that felt important about doing that in a moment where there’s such a strong rhetoric of distrust for journalists.
KB: I am trying to get to the bottom of what happened with the investigation into Shelli’s murder and I would never have done this if the family didn’t say, ‘Yeah.’
That was super important to me, because why dig all this up if they didn’t want it to be dug up?
But I think that would be great if it made anybody feel like, ‘OK, you know, maybe if I just talk to this journalist, they will make an effort to try to get to the bottom of things.’
It’s like this whole idea of fake news. If only people had any idea how hard you work to make sure that you’re getting every apostrophe. I can’t even tell you about the fact checking into this, and you’re just really trying to make sure that everything you’re doing is as accurate as you could possibly make it and that includes correcting my own memories.
WF: The trailer sets up Laramie to be this place with pebble-flinging high winds and winter storms that trap you for days. By focusing on Laramie — as uncommon or exceptional — are you worried you’re letting other communities off the hook? That people might listen to your explanation of why Shelli Wiley’s case remains cold and say to themselves, ‘well I’m glad I don’t live there.’
KB: I think this is America’s story. And it’s also a story about news deserts. It’s about what happens in a news desert when there isn’t enough time to properly dig into something and to properly report it out. Because to be honest if somebody had had the time back in 1985 and 1986 to really look at this case and dig into it I don’t know that we would be in the same place we’re in right now. But nobody held the police’s feet to the fire back then. They just accepted what the police were saying and that is not isolated to Laramie.
I was super shocked when I first heard the [police interviews] from the 1980s. I was just like ‘what?’ It really felt like you were hearing some things that nobody would have ever wanted the general public to hear about how policing worked back then.
WF: What impact are you hoping to have?
KB: Impact is always a hard question. You never really know the impact you’re going to have until it happens. Like you never know if somebody’s going to come forward. Even if the impact is just shining a light on all the mistakes of the police in the very beginning, that’s good. Because it goes to what you were saying — the fact that this isn’t just the story of Laramie.
It’s the story of a lot of things that happened to young women — for a woman who happened to date a Black guy or two in Laramie, and the way she was shamed. I think that’s important for us all to remember.
Ultimately impact can be something as simple as a police officer thinking about his questions before asking them. You’re not really gonna see that impact. Maybe it’s just like victim services being better about calling families. You talk to [Shelli’s family] about the level of support the family got and it was just not there. It was just not there.
WF: Serial has been credited with revitalizing the true-crime genre. As an investigative journalist, how does that term ring for you?
KB: I think true crime has become like this catch-all, and it can feel kind of gross. It can feel exploitative. But it is this genre that’s come up and that is super popular. And I understand that this podcast is going to be put into that category. I’m OK with that. Because I do think that it is a fundamental question: Who did this? Who could have possibly done something so horrific? And why were they not held accountable?
I feel like this podcast does a good job of showing what happened with the case, with holding the police accountable for mistakes, and maybe hopefully creating enough word about Shelli’s death that maybe somebody will step forward. This case had no attention. It really had a shockingly little amount of attention on it, and maybe this will help. At least it’s gonna be able to show what happened with the case at base level even if nothing else comes out of it.
Listen to the “The Coldest Case in Laramie” wherever you get your podcasts.
This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.