Renee Nelson portrait

Laramie County Community College instructor Renee Nelson is starting the Unsolved Wyoming podcast, which focuses on unsolved crimes and missing persons in Wyoming. Courtesy photo

There were 1,042 Wyoming residents reported as missing in 2021, according to the Missing Person Clearing House.

A little over 99% of these cases were cleared. That leaves a small percentage of cases still open.

There are many missing persons cases involving minorities, especially within the Indigenous population.

There are currently 65 open missing persons cases in Wyoming listed on the Division of Criminal Investigation’s website. The oldest dates to 1974, with the most recent being just a few weeks ago.

Five unsolved cases will be featured in the inaugural series of episodes from the new Cheyenne-based podcast Unsolved Wyoming, which will be released in early June.

Its creator, Renee Nelson, doesn’t have a background in law enforcement, nor in investigative journalism. She does have a passion for the truth. That was enough for the Laramie County Community College professor to build a network of sources around the state and research official documents on unsolved Wyoming missing persons cases.

People from around the state have been reaching out to her about cases. The impending release of her show has put a lot of pressure on Nelson, she said.

“We're talking about people's worst days of their lives. We know the trauma,” Nelson said over coffee recently.

Nelson teaches several courses at LCCC. Among those on her resume, one, in particular, stands out – True Crime Literature. In the class, she takes students through nonfiction retellings of gruesome criminal cases and analyzes them for the class.

“I have to be mindful of the contents, but also be aware of my students' capacity,” she said. “We talked after class one day, and I said, ‘When we do this in an academic setting, it's not about the tourism of it. There is such a thing called ‘trauma tourism.’”

Crime Junkie, Serial and Criminal are three of the popular podcasts that Nelson, and many other Americans, delve into weekly. Most podcasts are respectful of the narratives they recount, through they may be slightly dramatic in the storytelling, but there is a point where entertainment is prioritized.

Not 'trauma tourism'

"Trauma tourism" is a phrase with negative connotation, used to label podcasts that focus more on the grisly details than the victim’s story.

This won’t be Unsolved Wyoming.

Nelson's main goal in the podcast is victim advocacy through accurate retelling of events and using evidence collected from DCI, newspaper clippings and family/witness accounts that she has spent the past several months researching and compiling.

Among the five episodes, four are fully recorded and are being edited by Nelson. She will weave a comprehensive narrative throughout the episode, allowing victims' families and credible organizations to tell the stories of Irene Gakwa, Anne Elliot, Renee Yeargain and Terry Meador.

Throughout her episodes, she has to ensure that she isn’t crossing legal boundaries by making false claims or accusing anyone of a crime.

“One victim’s fiancé was named a person of interest, but hadn't been formally arrested, so I never mentioned his name,” she said. “You have to be really careful. It’s definitely one of those things I have to be mindful of in making sure that I'm not like sending out a lynch mob anywhere.”

Possibly more than any other crime, missing persons cases are highly dependent on the public’s participation. Social media has become an important tool, and with strong cooperation in disseminating information across a state, most missing people are located within a week.

DCI plays a crucial role in monitoring and working missing persons cases.

DCI

At the control terminal for the missing persons unit at the agency is Katie Kiskelowski, the missing persons clearing house manager.

Cold cases and missing person cases are two separate entities. For a case to be cold, a body has to be found, and the case has to have such a lack of evidence as to be unworkable. In missing persons cases, a body is simply never found. Even if the person has not been identified in years, it is still not technically a cold case.

Nelson and Kiskelowski have met once before to discuss the cases that Nelson is taking on in her podcast. She’s the right person for Nelson to talk to about how cases are reported, the process of researching them and listing them in a database.

Kiskelowski oversees all of the missing persons, warrants and protection orders that are submitted from around the state, fact-checking them and redistributing them.

She’s a "crime junkie" herself – it may have even played a part in pursuing her career path. While there’s no concrete grounds to know if Unsolved Wyoming's involvement will help lead to cases being solved, she figures that it couldn’t do any harm.

“It could be helpful. Once podcasts are out there like Crime Junkie, they'll get a case out there, and then they help people because there's cases that people may not be aware of,” Kiskelowski said. “Once they hear about it, they might have information about that. They might have never even realized it was never solved.”

The more effective strategy so far has been the aid that Kiskelowski has provided to the Missing People of Wyoming Facebook page which, since its founding in 2019, has already played a significant role in locating missing people statewide.

Missing People of Wyoming

Several years ago, Missing People of Wyoming founder Desiree Tinoco had caught wind of multiple missing persons around her city of Casper. Because of their questionable lifestyles, be it substance abuse or past criminal activity, she said the cases were forgotten about.

What the state needed was a database constantly being updated with information about missing people that the public could monitor and circulate information from. With connections between her, Kiskelowski, reporter Jennifer Kocher and other DCI agents, this group, which now includes Nelson, can monitor the pulse of missing persons around the state.

"It has been helpful for us to work with her so that she can get it out,” Kiskelowski said. “Because of that, we have had people submit tips on our tip line on the homepage, and because of that, we have cleared cases. It’s really helpful having people that don't necessarily want to reach out to law enforcement, but want to help find that child or person.”

When a case arises, Kiskelowski verifies the information in the report. She then sends it to Tinoco for distribution to roughly 21,000 followers.

Tinoco monitors the site pretty much full time, making sure that the community is only contributing helpful information about the missing persons and not creating conspiracy theories or spreading other disinformation.

“The number one point of the group is finding missing persons and getting their fliers out there,” Tinoco said. “Second would be staying out of law enforcement's way. The idea of it is bridging the gap between government, including law enforcement, and the public regarding missing persons cases. That's our biggest motivation.”

There’s a market for a true crime podcast focused on Wyoming, and with people going missing every month, there’s always room to help.

Will Carpenter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s Arts and Entertainment/Features Reporter. He can be reached by email at wcarpenter@wyomingnews.com or by phone at 307-633-3135. Follow him on Twitter @will_carp_.

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