Citizen Sleuth - Chris Kasick
Credit: Chris Kasick/Jared Washburn
by Emily DuGranrut Featured Film

Citizen Sleuth — Chris Kasick [SXSW ’23 Review]

March 17, 2023

Society has always had something of a morbid curiosity with true crime. From Jack the Ripper and In Cold Blood to the near-constant stream of new Netflix docuseries on the killer of the week, it’s clear that we really love learning about and delighting in the grisly details of murder. Since the 2014 release of Serial, podcasts have been feeding the flames of that obsession. Just take a look at the most downloaded podcasts on Apple or Spotify, and you’ll see titles like Crime Junkie, My Favorite Murder, and Morbid: A True Crime Podcast — and that’s just in the top ten. This surge in popularity has in turn triggered multiple studies into how the constant barrage of true crime content affects our psyches. Some blame the 24-hour news cycle, while others claim its consumption actually has an evolutionary benefit. All of this to say, it doesn’t matter much what your personal interest level is in hearing about Alex Murdaugh or watching the latest Making a Murderer rip-off — true crime is inescapable.

It’s unsurprising then that a documentary like Citizen Sleuth is premiering at SXSW, a festival that itself features a lineup of podcasts, because it’s a film about a podcast about a murder. Emily Nestor is the host of Mile Marker 181, a show that investigates the death of Jaleayah Davis, a woman who was killed in Nestor’s hometown of Parkersburg, West Virginia in 2011. “Murder, or a freak accident? Cover-up, or just rumors?” reads the description of the podcast, which debuted in 2018. Jaleayah was found dead after having been struck by her own car. Reported as a tragic accident, Jaleayah’s mom and others in the community believe there was foul play. Authorities found Jaleayah’s car just down the road, her clothes neatly folded over the guardrail, and the other people involved in the accident happened to be the son of a former police officer and the granddaughter of a former sheriff. 

Director Chris Kasick began following Nestor early on in the podcast’s life. The documentary’s opening scenes show her explaining her homemade studio (i.e. a small padded box she puts around her microphone to deaden the sound) and contacting potential sources for interviews. She’s palpably fired up; it’s clear she truly believes there is more to the story of Jaleayah’s death, and she’s determined to find it. She’s also a certifiable true crime freak, to the point that we watch her get a tattoo of the phrase on her calf. As the film continues, Nestor’s podcast gains traction: she eventually attends CrimeCon, where she connects with Fox News’ true crime pundit, Nancy Grace; she sells Mile Marker 181 merch; she hosts events at local libraries where people profess their love for her work.

The turning point in the film comes when Nestor visits a psychic who, in addition to a lot of talk about angels, tells her, “The career you choose is supposed to benefit others, but your talkativeness is gonna bring you harm. Use it to your advantage. Remember this, Emily, your words have power. You’re like a vehicle. They can go forward, backward, or run amok. Watch what you recycle.” At this point, Nestor’s belief has clearly crumbled, and her inexperience and naivete become obvious. Also around this time, Jaleayah’s mom starts to disentangle herself from Nestor, and even shows support for a petition for Nestor to end the podcast. Nestor confesses that she hasn’t talked to key people involved in the case, including the others in the car on the night of Jaleayah’s death. Kasick, however, does interview those individuals, all of whom agree that the entire premise of Nestor’s podcast is flawed and that she shouldn’t continue. Nestor eventually, reluctantly, makes the decision to end the podcast, and has since taken all episodes offline. She even gets her beloved true crime tattoo removed.

Were it not for its aesthetically familiar documentary style, Citizen Sleuth could be mistaken for a feature film. Kasick has taken four years of footage and crafted an engaging emotional arc, following Nestor from innocent investigator to exploitative fraud and back again. The documentary is even structured as something of a whodunnit; even if you come to this already aware of the outcome, following all of the switchbacks still proves intriguing enough. Kasick keeps things moving along, and at a tightly-packaged 81 minutes, the film never lulls or risks feeling lazy; every scene, every interview, every question has a clear purpose. But building suspense is rarely a challenge for this kind of product. What should be a bigger concern for a film like this is how to translate a podcast-oriented narrative to a visual medium, and this indeed proves to be a struggle for Citizen Sleuth. Images rarely feel necessary here, and, somewhat ironically, it wouldn’t be unfair to argue that this would be just as effective as a podcast. Still, what ultimately matters most about Citizen Sleuth is its essential question: where exactly is the line between reportage and entertainment, and what are the ethical quandaries of straddling that line? Kasick’s film may not offer a complete answer, but as the space between true crime media and conspiracy theory continues to shrink and blur, it’s a question that more people should be asking before they tune in to the latest episode.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 11.