Newport Beach police turn to podcasting to assist manhunt

Jennifer Manzella at a press conference for Countdown to Capture.

An unexplained break from a stable family routine. A bathroom only very slightly out of order: a rumpled towel on the floor, a broken vase, tiny specks of blood. An unbelievable 9-1-1 call and, soon after, an arrest.

Countdown to Capture has all the ingredients of a good true crime podcast, but it’s not a decades old mystery picked apart by probing reporters. It’s a police manhunt, produced and hosted by the Newport Beach Police Department in Southern California.

In six parts, the podcast—perhaps the first produced by law enforcement on an open murder investigation—tells the story of  Peter Chadwick, a wealthy real estate investor suspected of killing his wife, Quee Choo Lim Chadwick, 46, on October 10, 2012. Two of the three Chadwick children were brought home from school by a neighbor after their mother didn’t show up to pick them up from the school bus stop. “Their mom, Quee Choo, who is known as Q.C., is not the kind of mom who would let her boys wait at a bus stop,” host Jennifer Manzella, the department’s spokeswoman and podcast host, says in the first episode.

Peter Chadwick called police early the next morning, on October 11, 2012, with a wild tale about a day laborer named Juan, who Chadwick said killed Q.C., stole her body, and held him captive for hours. But police have found no evidence this man exists, and Chadwick was arrested on October 12, 2012, 100 miles south in San Diego, with dried blood and scratches all over him. Q.C.’s body was found in a dumpster days later. He was held in custody until December 2012, when he made bail for $1 million, and made regular court appearances until December 2014. In January 2015, he missed the first appearance of the new year, and the cops haven’t seen him since.

The department decided to make a podcast to enlist the public in searching for Chadwick, who has been missing for three years and is believed to be abroad. Podcasts, thought Manzella, could reach people outside of Southern California.

It’s an interesting experiment: a merging of police work with a journalistic medium, minus all the rules of journalism (Chadwick has not been convicted of a crime, but the podcast suggests his guilt), plus an admission from law enforcement that they need help. Where other podcasts have questioned convictions—the first, viral season of Serial focused on the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, and raised reasonable doubts about the guilt of Adnan Syed, her ex-boyfriend and convicted killer—Manzella says Countdown to Capture has a different goal in mind.

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“The point isn’t to convince people that he is guilty or that the crime is heinous. It’s to conduct a manhunt. We need to find Peter Chadwick and have been unable to do so with our staffing and resources,” says Manzella. “If we can deputize everyone who listens to the podcast and goes to the website and looks at [the pictures], someone is going to recognize him. He’s been on the run since January 5, 2015. The more that net widens, the closer it gets to Peter.”

After Chadwick fled, the Newport Beach police went the usual route as they searched for their fugitive: news conferences and press releases. But Chadwick, a dual citizen, is believed to have fled the country with hundreds of thousands of dollars, despite having both his American and British passports confiscated. And the police department says they lack the ability to get stories in front of people across the country—much less around the globe—who may know where Chadwick is. A podcast was a cheap way to try something new in a stagnant case. The police department spent less than $2,000 producing the podcast, according to Manzella.

“This case has been out there, but it hasn’t grabbed attention. It’s been in People magazine, Crime Watch Daily, and [CNN’s] The Hunt with John Walsh,” Manzella tells CJR. “We wanted to intensify the search and we didn’t believe that the traditional route of pushing press releases was going to get the attention we wanted.”

So Manzella, who has no journalistic or audio training but had listened to Serial, suggested they make one of their own. The top investigator on the case, Sergeant Court Depweg, wasn’t fully sure what a podcast was. But he told Manzella to run with it in the hopes that helpful tips would begin to roll in.

Manzella is careful to note that she is not a journalist, but her process was not unlike what journalists do when they want to write a story. She got her hands on documents and started to dig. Manzella met with detectives who were first assigned to the case in 2012, and those working on the case now. (Detectives in Newport Beach rotate back to patrol duty every three to five years.) She gained access to the case file—photos, interview notes, evidence logs—and met with detectives to broker what information she could and couldn’t make public. They needed to be careful, she says, because if Chadwick is caught, they intend to put him on trial.

“I had to go over with investigators what bits had already been made public and what was fair game, and what we weren’t able to share in case we bring him back and put him on trial,” says Manzella. “It was a bit of a vetting process [of] what I could include in the script. I sat down and started writing narratives that weave together a story arc.”

Manzella wrote and recorded all six scripts herself in police conference rooms and at home. The department works with a contracted videographer (they declined to name the person, citing a policy against helping contracted workers promote their business) who helped teach Manzella how to record audio and edit tape, a process she called “a bit of a learning curve.”

Manzella at times reveals her rookie podcaster status—a music cue a beat too soon, a pause that lasts just a bit too long, a too-dramatic line. (“But today won’t be like every other day,” Manzella croons in the first episode.) But the script itself follows a clear narrative arc, accented by scene tape, and the mystery—where is Peter Chadwick—is compelling. The podcast does not feature interviews with any of the Chadwick boys for fear of retraumatizing them needlessly, but the script intentionally targets listeners’ sympathies for the children left behind.

Detectives such as Lieutenant Bryan Moore, who was assigned to the case in 2012, chime in, sharing details from the case file. In the first episode, called “Something is Wrong,” Moore describes what officers found when they finally entered the Chadwick home on that night in 2012. “The bath mat is rumpled and slightly out of place,” says Moore, who recalls details from the notes officers took. “There is a towel on the floor. On the side of the Jacuzzi tub, there are shards of broken glass. It looks like one of the decorative vases on the deck of the tub’s been broken. Inside the tub, there is a faded reddish smudge and, on the wall, there’s a few faint drip marks, tinged with a ruddy brown color.”

What makes this different from similar, journalistic efforts, is the lack of scrutiny of the police working the case. Their bias is clear: The department harbors open disdain for Chadwick, a rich man who they say killed his wife, lied about it, and then ran away, abandoning his children. In Countdown to Capture, Peter Chadwick is the only character held under a microscope. In a journalistic version, the police work would be up for probing, too.

“It’s easy for this to become [just about] a rich man [who] kills his wife and gets away with it,” says Manzella. “The tragedy for us is that [the kids’] mother was taken, and now they don’t have closure and don’t have a father. Even if he was in jail, he would still be here.”

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Alexandria Neason is CJR's Staff Writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Previously, she was a reporter at The Village Voice and covered education for the Teacher Project, a partnership between Columbia Journalism School and Slate. A team she worked on won the 2016 Education Writers Association award for news features. Follow her on Twitter @alexandrianeas.