Kim Barker felt a loss of security when 22-year-old college student Shelli Wiley was brutally murdered in 1985 in Laramie. The event stuck with her for nearly 40 years.
“I think it was something that just always sort of sat with me,” Barker recently told the Star-Tribune. “I didn’t know that it was a story in the very beginning. It was more just like trying to scratch this itch I’ve always had.”
The unsolved murder was the focus of a new limited series by the popular crime podcast “Serial.” Barker, who was in high school in Laramie at the time the murder took place, hosted “The Coldest Case in Laramie,” the New York Times and Serial Productions announced. Barker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the New York Times.
Laramie had a population of about 25,000 people when Wiley was murdered, and there was only one high school. It affected everyone there, she said. The students in high school and people around the city knew Wiley, and they knew her family.
“Having only one high school means rumors spread really quickly,” Barker said. “I think it felt way closer than it actually was, if that makes sense. Sorta this idea that you weren’t as safe as you thought you were.”
Barker was born in Montana and grew up in Laramie, where she lived until her senior year of high school. Her family is now scattered around the United States, and she hadn’t really been back to Laramie until she started working on the podcast. So she was “very cognizant” about the potential of appearing as an outsider while trying to write about Laramie and the murder.
“It’s something I thought about a lot when I read stories about Montana or Wyoming by the national media. Everybody is portrayed in this folksy way, and it drives me crazy,” she said. “I hate the idea of parachuting into smaller towns. I know people are going to be suspicious of me and suspicious of my motives.”
During the podcast, Barker describes Laramie as an “uncommonly mean” place made of “jagged edges” and “cold people.” That segment was used to promote the show on social media.
“Wyoming Twitter did not like that. I don’t blame them. I get it. I totally understand where you’re coming from, but just listen to the podcast,” she said. “It was my experience in the mid ‘80s at a specific point in time, and people need to give me some rope with that.”
She recalled feeling a mild sense of dread upon seeing the rust-colored soil that reminds her of Laramie, she said. She did in fact remember it as the meanest place she ever lived. Though, things have changed.
“I got back there, and I’m like oh, that’s a very nice vegetarian restaurant. Everybody was so freaking nice,” she said. “Memory is a tricky thing, and the podcast deals with that. I would happily go back to Laramie right now. I totally get why people live there.”
Barker looked into the case every few years to see what happened with it, and she did again during the pandemic. It was the first time she saw that charges had been filed against former Albany County sheriff’s deputy and Laramie police officer Fredrick James Lamb. Then, the charges were dropped, and nothing more happened.
The murder was particularly violent. Wiley was stabbed repeatedly before being dragged into her apartment, which was then set on fire. An autopsy found her neck was cut through to the bone and she had been stabbed in the lung.
Officials filed murder charges against a teenager shortly after Wiley’s death, but they were dropped in 1991. Investigators also performed DNA tests on a convicted rapist in Utah in 1994, the Salt Lake Tribune reported at the time.
Many sources, including the lead detective on the case, believe Lamb, who was staying two doors down from Wiley, killed her. Lamb was not a law enforcement officer at the time of Wiley’s killing.
An investigation determined a body had been dragged from the apartment where Lamb had been staying to Wiley’s apartment. And his DNA was allegedly found at the scene.
Lamb was charged in 2016, and he pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and first-degree arson. But the charges were dismissed in 2017.
Former Albany County District Court Judge Tori Kricken also signed an order of expungement, removing his criminal record from public access.
Officials said dropping the charges was supposed to be a temporary “procedural hiccup.” Yet, they never refiled. The Laramie Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.
Barker didn’t want to give any spoilers, but the unusual part of this Serial production is that “we really have a sense of everything that happened,” she said.
Many podcasts basically take whatever they are told by police at face value, and the police are painted as heroes, she said. There’s this dynamic that they are the good guys going after the bad guys.
“And I certainly understand that dynamic. The police are trying to get to the bottom of things. But I think there can be a lot more gray area there. And I think that’s what people are going to get to hear in this podcast,” she said.
The series placed a spotlight on the interview subjects, with Barker often taking a backseat. There is a level of intimacy in the conversations that show that the interviewees trust her and trust where she is coming from, she said.
This is not somebody from the New York Times coming in to criticize Wyoming without having ever been there, she said. It’s the opposite of that.
“If you’re at all curious about what happened with this case, or if you want to hate listen to it and say I’m totally wrong, knock yourself out,” she said. “I think people should give it a chance in Wyoming.”