Author starts True Crime Fest NWA to help solve murders

Author starts True Crime Fest NWA to help solve murders
April Wallace

If you’ve ever had the itch to go to CrimeCon, but didn’t have the budget for the tickets or the travel, you are in luck. True Crime Fest Northwest Arkansas is a similar event that’s a more affordable option closer to home.

LaDonna Humphrey, author of “The Girl I Never Knew” and “Strangled,” two books based on the unsolved murder of Melissa Witt, is the organizer of the event. She started it as a fundraiser for the nonprofit organization she started called All the Lost Girls, which takes on one female strangulation cold case per year and pours the time, energy and resources of the board members into finding and contributing more information to its resolution.

This year, All the Lost Girls is focused on the Melissa Witt case, about the 19-year-old girl who went missing from Fort Smith in 1994. Her car was left at Bowling World, and her body was found 45 days later in a remote location.

“I wanted to launch a fundraising event that would get our name out there and help raise funds for the Melissa Witt case,” Humphrey says. “I thought we might get 50 or 60 people to attend and bring folks who want to talk about the (victims’) advocacy work they’re doing, but it blew up from there.”

So far, more than 500 people have registered to attend True Crime Fest NWA, which partnered with CrimeCon. It will take place from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. May 20 at the Rogers Convention Center.

Many familiar names are planned to be on stage, including keynote speaker James Renner and other notable speakers including Nic Edwards of “True Crime Garage” and Lance Reenstierna of Crawlspace Media. CrimeCon itself will also have a presence at the day-long event.

“Our entire goal is to share the stories of those who are advocating for the missing and murdered, the unsolved cases,” Humphrey says. The significance of having a CrimeCon connection is sharing in its goal of seeing cases solved while never glorifying murderers, she says. “We honor the victims.”

Keynote speaker for this inaugural event is investigative journalist and true crime author James Renner, who wrote the bestselling book “True Crime Addict.” His next book, “Little, Crazy Children,” will be released in June.

Renner’s interest in true crime began at 11 years old, when Amy Mihaljevic from the next town over was abducted and murdered. Riding his bike around town and seeing her missing poster pasted on telephone poles, Renner wondered: “What in the world happened to her?”

It was then that “I realized we lived in a dangerous world,” Renner says by phone. “It changed me and changed a lot of my peers. Before that, I didn’t have too much to worry about. We left the front door unlocked. Everything changed after that. I became obsessed with the case, with what happened, who might have taken her.”

It became the first big story that he pitched as a reporter. Renner always wondered why, until recently, true crime didn’t interest more people. As a cub reporter at the Cleveland Scene, he had an editor who told him lovingly, “Jimmy, you’ve got to stop writing true crime; nobody reads that stuff.”

The hit podcast “Serial” changed that.

When writing about true crime, Renner says it can be complicated figuring out which details are the ones to share and which ones to not disclose about an unsolved case.

“I’m very aware of the victim and victims’ families; I often have excellent relationships with those that I write about,” Renner says. “But you don’t know what clues or background are important. I tend to … err on the side of sharing more information, because at the end of the day … while some of the details might be embarrassing, what’s more important? Sharing information that makes sense to someone and solves a case, or don’t share because we don’t want to embarrass somebody?”

Renner likes to think that if he were the missing person, he’d rather someone do and share whatever it took to find him.

Nic Edwards of “True Crime Garage” will conduct a question-and-answer session via Zoom at True Crime Fest. When Edwards and his co-host began the very popular podcast in 2015, they did so as an excuse to hang out — and they were pretty sure they were the only ones listening. The purpose of the show, once described as “Wayne’s World” meets “Dateline,” was to take a deep dive on a cold case. They spend 90 minutes to two hours exploring what all is known about a case in greater detail than has been heard on other shows. Now “True Crime Garage” has a million downloads a week.

“Some people (are hoping we) tell them something outside of the box … others are happy to take issue with something you said,” Edwards says. “These cases are unsolved for a reason. Most weeks we are featuring unsolved cases, hoping to help in some way, to keep media attention on these cases and crowdsource some of these lesser known cases.”

Because “True Crime Garage’s” audience is so large, they often do receive tips on the cases they feature. They pass those on to law enforcement. Edwards has a habit that helps him easily pick case information to disclose while also remaining a victim advocate. He pictures the family members in the room that he’s recording.

“To me, it is usually very obvious when what we say would be degrading to the victims,” Edwards says. But there are “so many victims in these cases, not just the person who was attacked or had their life taken. It’s their family, extended family and colleagues. A lot of times the community is in pain and in need of healing.”

Lance Reenstierna and Jennifer Amell of Crawlspace Media have found that the very act of letting victim’s families and friends talk about their loved ones on their podcast is a helpful part of the healing process.

“It’s never really occurred to us to really solve something,” Reenstierna says. “You start to understand that the compassion and empathy part is a lot more important than, for whatever it’s worth, solving something…

“They get to talk about the person who is missing or the victim…once they start talking about them, you can tell that that helps them. If you really start to interact with these people, you recognize how important that is.”

Reenstierna and Jennifer Amell will be interviewing LaDonna Humphrey and Alecia Lockhart, her cohost on the “Deep Dark Secrets” podcast, about their work exposing the death fetish community.

“I think it will be incredibly informative to the audience to learn about this little known community out there,” Jennifer Amell says. “And maybe a didactic approach to women keeping themselves safe from harm within this community, what markers or red flags (to watch for) if you’re being groomed for such a thing or what to do if you’re accidentally in it.”



True Crime Fest NWA

WHEN — 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. May 20

WHERE — Rogers Convention Center

COST — $25-$125


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