If you’ve paid any attention at all to the media landscape in the last few years, you’re probably familiar with the recent resurgence of the “true crime” genre as it intersects with various forms of new media.
Leading the way was “Serial,” a public radio-backed podcast whose first season in 2014 dealt with the controversial conviction of a young man suspected in the 1999 murder of his high school girlfriend. A year later, HBO and Netflix each released similar long form documentaries — the former with series “The Jinx,” in which a New York real estate heir appeared to confess to a murder for which he’d avoided prosecution, and the latter with “Making A Murderer,” which told the story of Wisconsin man Steven Avery and his controversial conviction in the 2005 murder of a young photographer.
And the floodgates were open. Any number of true crime podcasts and miniseries — of varying quality, it should be noted — can trace their lineage back to one of these three productions. So it was only a matter of time until the craze caught up with our area. Durham is at the center of not just one, but two new productions. First was Netflix’s “the Staircase,” a miniseries which examines the case of Durham author Michael Peterson and his involvement in the 2001 death of his wife.
Another — podcast “The Long Dance,” which was released in its entirety on July 1 — purports also to be about Durham. And it is. It examines the case of 20 year old Patricia Mann and 19 year old Jesse McBane, who were kidnapped from a lover’s lane near the Orange-Durham county line in February 1971 and found murdered a few short weeks later. Their killer or killers have never been found, and for a time it was one of North Carolina’s most high profile unsolved mysteries. We briefly featured the case in May, when it was reported that new DNA techniques could potentially play a role in identifying suspects all these years later.
It’s a fascinating story that examines an unspeakably brutal crime, life in North Carolina in the early 1970s, the politics of jurisdiction and law enforcement, and more.
But it’s also a story about Sanford and about Pittsboro. Mann, a student at Durham’s Watts Nursing School at the time of her murder, was born and raised in Sanford. Her boyfriend McBane, then a student at N.C. State, hailed from Pittsboro. Their friends and family members — many of whom remain prominent in their home communities — are featured at length in the podcast’s eight episodes, discussing their memories of the crime, their respective communities’ reaction to it, and their search for answers more than four decades on.
They include Carolyn Spivey, who recently retired as the director of Lee County’s Coalition for Families (subscription required), and her husband David, one of the owners of downtown Sanford’s Jones Printing Company. Carolyn was a first cousin and best friend to Mann, and when Mann began dating McBain, Carolyn met David, his best friend. Also featured is two-term former Sanford Mayor Cornelia Olive, who knew both families growing up and later covered the case as a reporter for the Durham Herald Sun in the 1970s.
“The Long Dance” is the work of investigative reporter Drew Adamek, crime fiction author Eryk Pruitt, and producer Piper Kessler, who apparently spent several years investigating the case on their own, and eventually in conjunction with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which reopened the case in 2010.
And while it has its issues — the sound quality throughout can be inconsistent, and Adamek and Pruitt’s dry and sometimes a little hokey presentation doesn’t quite match their apparently incredible investigative skills — the story itself is gripping from the start. It touches not only Sanford and Pittsboro and Durham, but also places like Florida, Chicago, and South Carolina, and even involves in very small ways some of the same people who investigated the Watergate scandal.
In the course of discussing the background of the victims and the crime itself, and identifying and looking into people who were and are known suspects, the podcasters do a great job of drawing listeners in, particularly with regard to the narrative structure. With each passing minute and each episode, you feel not only invested in learning who the killer or killers are, you also feel like you’re getting closer all the time.
There are times when the podcast gets too “in the weeds” on some things. And on more than one occasion we had to make sure we were on the right episode because it repeated interviews and information. The story could probably have been told in 4-6 episodes with ease. But unlike some podcasts that are clearly made to cash in on the latest “fad” of true crime, it’s obvious that the narrators have a passion for the subject and went the distance in their research.
We won’t say much about the content — mostly because we wouldn’t like it if someone stole our hard work. Suffice it to say, though, that you’ll be surprised by the lengths the podcasters are willing to go. They even name multiple suspects, and make the case for and against each. And all three are compelling cases.
In the end, one stands out. Closure in this 47-year-old case may come after all. We won’t say any more. Just listen.
The production also has an Instagram account that should be of interest to anyone who finds themselves listening. You can find the episodes on podcast outlets like iTunes or Spotify, but if you’re not a regular podcast listener, the easiest thing to do is visit the Long Dance Podcast website and listen to the episodes there.