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Dakota Spotlight: A search for truth

Posted by Kylie Blanchard, Co-Editor 8/22/2022 8:06:48 AM

True crime and audio storytelling have always been interests of James Wolner. He often listened to true crime podcasts and was struck by those that spelled out the facts of a case without sensationalizing the crime.

When he found himself listening to a “bar stool story” about the mysterious death of a man named Victor Newberry in Glen Ullin, it piqued his interest in finding the truth about the events surrounding his passing. “I didn’t believe any of it,” says Wolner of the rumors circulating the community.

From this drive for the truth, and his own curiosity, the “Dakota Spotlight” podcast began in 2018. “Season one started with my need to show people you can find answers if you look and ask the right questions,” Wolner notes. “It was an attempt to demonstrate the truth is out there, but it does require some effort and that is important in itself.”

Now in its seventh season, Wolner continues to investigate unsolved cases across the state, and “Dakota Spotlight’s” fact-based, narrative style continues to gain popularity nationwide.

 

The First Season

Wolner was raised in Sonoma County, Calif., a great distance from his current home in Hebron. Following his graduation from college, he moved to Sweden for a few decades before landing in Colorado in 2012, working in the information technology industry. When it came time to search for a new job in web and database design, he found an opportunity in Hebron. “I came to North Dakota for the job interview and fell in love with the open landscape,” he says.

The appeal of audio storytelling is what drew Wolner to develop a podcast. “To experience a podcast, you don’t have to be watching,” he notes.

But “Dakota Spotlight” wasn’t his first run at the genre. The year prior to its debut, Wolner developed the “DakotaBall” podcast, which focused on the story of Class B basketball in North Dakota. “It was a pretty steep learning curve,” he says. “I am so glad I did this podcast before ‘Dakota Spotlight.’ Like anything else, practice makes perfect, and you learn along the way.”

He recorded the podcast in his home studio, a closet with recording equipment and sound proofing materials. “I had done a lot of storytelling, but a lot of the learning had to do with the technical side of things,” says Wolner. “I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I am still learning.”

Wolner took on the research, writing and production of the first season of “Dakota Spotlight” completely on his own. “Victor Newberry was found deceased outside his running vehicle. According to law enforcement, there was no foul play. The local rumor was that he was in an altercation earlier that night. I wanted to know where that rumor came from,” he says. “Rumors seem to evolve from a death naturally, and I wanted to find the truth.”

He set out to talk to those who knew Newberry in the Glen Ullin community, and his family living out of state. He requested public records and police reports and visited the locations instrumental to the events leading up to Newberry’s death. “I was working a day job in I.T. and was producing the podcast on the side,” Wolner notes.

The podcast began to gain a following of listeners intrigued by the small-town story and the narration developed around the information Wolner was unearthing through his research.

 

Researching Cases

For the second season of the “Dakota Spotlight” podcast, Wolner was intrigued by the case of the 1976 murders of Wade and Ellen Zick in Zeeland. “I thought it was the strangest story,” he notes. “I initially did a lot of research online. I spent months researching newspaper articles and even federal documents. I stood at the counter in the federal building in Bismarck taking notes because I couldn’t leave with the documents I had requested.”

He spoke to family members and those who knew the couple and traveled to Valley City and other locations in North Dakota to visit the places where the Zicks grew up. During his research, Wolner notes, he also often visits the state archives and libraries to review microfilm. “I try to get as much of a feel for everything I can related to the case,” he says. “I find these cases and find them worth looking into.” 

“Season 2: Zeeland, the Untold Story of Wade and Ellen Zick” took 10 months to complete and was a local success, drawing the interest of a fast-growing number of followers and Forum Communications in Fargo. “We discussed how it might work to have them produce the podcast and I now work full-time for Forum producing ‘Dakota Spotlight,’” says Wolner.

He notes “Season 5: A Better Search for Barbara Cotton,” was also a unique turning point in his research for the podcast. “About halfway through the season, people listening, and the family of Barbara Cotton, jumped in to help with the research.”

“No one was talking about this missing girl,” he continues, noting the cold-case disappearance of Cotton from Williston in 1981. “Now there is a group, ‘Find Barbara Cotton,’ and a billboard in Williston. People from other states are even helping to track down information.”

As a result of this community effort, Wolner says there were breaks in the case and new information uncovered. “We tracked down people that law enforcement never spoke to and learned more about them.”  

Six full seasons of “Dakota Spotlight” are currently available for listening and download, and all but one, Wolner researched and produced alone. Wolner teamed up with Forum Communication co-worker Jeremy Fugleberg to research and co-produce “Season Six: Vanishing Act,” which tells the story of the 1993 unsolved disappearance of Kristin Joy Diede and Robert Michael Anderson in North Dakota.

Wolner says while information may change throughout a season, he tries to be upfront about what each season holds for listeners from the first episode. “I want them to know what they are in for,” he notes.

Most importantly, Wolner says he wants to learn and share the facts about a case. “I want to tell these stories in an ethical manner that is victim-focused and not romanticizing anything and giving the perpetrator any recognition.” 

 

Challenges and Rewards

“I have a hard time accepting when people don’t want to speak about some of these things,” says Wolner. “But nobody has to talk to me, I just wish sometimes they would.”

In addition, he says he has also run into frustrating roadblocks with open records requests. “Sometimes I’ve had phenomenal help and other agencies will make it difficult to get documents that we have a legal right to see.”

But he says the rewards far outweigh the challenges. “The relationships I’ve built with the family members of victims have given me an unplanned and unexpected role in the family,” Wolner says. “That was never part of the plan, but I didn’t realize it would mean as much to some of these families.” 

“Dakota Spotlight” recently reached an impressive milestone with one million downloads. In total, the podcast boasts 88 total episodes over six seasons. The podcast has also been recognized on the “Best of True Crime Podcast” lists in publications such as “Marie Claire,” and is the first podcast to be preserved by the North Dakota State Archives.

 

The Future

Season seven of “Dakota Spotlight” was released in July, and new episodes of “Call Me Shelly: The Mysterious Disappearance of Michelle Julson” are now available weekly. “I feel fortunate to be able to do this,” says Wolner. “I want to thank Forum Communications for the opportunity and thank everyone, listeners and fans, who is incredibly supportive. I have no idea what the future holds, but I feel like my best work is still in front of me.”

More information and full episodes of “Dakota Spotlight” are available at inforum.com/DakotaSpotlight, as well as any podcast platform.

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