Resurrected tales of terror are moving listeners to the edge of their seats. Culling through reporter notes from stories he’d written decades ago, Robert Riggs created a hair-raising podcast that’s attracted more than 55,000 listeners in its first three months.
“It’s a journey into darkness when you’re listening to it,” says the veteran journalist who, in his pre-journalism days, once served on a committee investigating spillover scandals from Watergate — things like slush funds, defense contracts and bribery.
The first season of True Crime Reporter relives the crime spree of Kenneth McDuff, whom Riggs describes as the “worst sexual, sadistic serial killer in the state of Texas.” The podcast is fact-based and fact-checked, says Riggs, who believes McDuff’s chilling tale, which helped change laws and clean up corruption in the criminal justice system, contains lessons that can still be applied today.
Riggs recalls how after McDuff was captured in Kansas City, Missouri and brought back to Texas, the crowd wanted to “tear him limb from limb.” He also recalls the subsequent, somber mood of the marshals and investigators.
“I mean, there wasn’t any celebration or anything,” he says. “It was very sober.”
Later, Riggs would be handed something to read, the confession of Alva Worley, McDuff’s accomplice to the 1991 murder of 28-year-old Colleen Reed, who’d been snatched from a car wash in Austin before being raped and killed.
Riggs says he thought he’d seen it all. But he hadn’t.
“It was horrific,” he says of the confession’s chilling details. “I mean, it was awful.”
Episode 6 of the podcast revisits Worley’s confession, although Riggs says it’s been heavily edited out of respect for the family. Still, it’s harsh.
“I’ve had females call me and say ‘I couldn’t go on,’” he says, “or ‘you know, ‘I couldn’t sleep.’”
McDuff, who’d been branded the “Broomstick Killer” because of the way he’d murdered a young girl — using a broomstick to snap her neck — had been out on parole at the time of Reed’s murder. Previously, he’d been on death row for murders, but when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty (temporarily) in 1972, McDuff’s sentence was commuted to life and he was later granted parole.
Riggs says it became his mission to find out how that had happened. Before long, he began getting leads on corruption in the prison system and in the parole system, he says, adding that a member of McDuff’s family came forward with word of a $25,000 bribe. While that allegation was never adjudicated, Riggs discovered that another parole board chairman had taken bribes on other inmates.
“I knew I was onto something when people would just curse me and hang up,” he says, adding that he continued to cultivate sources, eventually gaining access to confidential files.
Riggs says he also noticed, time and time again, that horrific crimes were often being carried out by parolees.
“The parole board members would say ‘Well, we don’t have a crystal ball,’” he says.
Eventually, “Texas began an overhaul to ensure that no other criminals like [McDuff] were able to get out on parole,” according to the website crimemuseum.org. “They changed the rules and improved the monitoring upon release; collectively these new rules in Texas became known as McDuff laws.”
Now that law enforcement officers who worked the cases are retired, Riggs says they’re free to talk. He’s heard from FBI agents and guards who’d worked in McDuff’s unit as well as second-generation family members of victims.
After decades of documenting the “underbelly of life” at its worse, Riggs is having the most fun he’s had in years, he says. And despite having looked into the dark recesses of humanity, he’s always “made a concerted effort not to go there.”
“You’ve got to find a brighter star to look at,” he says. “Or else, it’ll take you down.”
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