‘Citizen Sleuth’ review: True crime podcasting finds itself in an unflattering spotlight

True crime podcasting is a place of murky, ethically gray areas. For every rigorously researched reporting of a murder mystery, there might be dozens more where amateur sleuths dabble in plagiarism(Opens in a new tab), wild speculation, and unchecked conspiracy theories, all while cracking jokes or refilling wine glasses. Such true crime fans turned content creators might see themselves as heroes for forgotten victims. But the slippery and sophisticated documentary Citizen Sleuth exposes a dark underbelly to these altruistic ambitions. 

The protagonist of Citizen Sleuth is so on-the-nose of true crime podcasting cliches that she initially seems like a caricature. Emily Nestor, the host of the Mile Marker 181(Opens in a new tab) podcast, is a young white woman who projects alternative cool with her messy bun, oversized eyeglasses, and smattering of tattoos, some of which were inspired by her passion for true crime. You could say she wears her love of the genre on her sleeve, but her tat of a heart wrapped in a banner that reads “true crime” is actually on her leg. 

She showers praise on popular documentary shows like Making a Murderer and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, but Nestor’s passion for crime-solving was originally inspired by fictional FBI agent Clarice Starling of Silence of the Lambs. In that story of underestimated rural girl makes good, West Virginian Nestor saw a path toward her own passion for justice. So, when a bizarre death sparks rumors of murder, conspiracy, and cover-up, Nestor saw her chance to make her dream come true. Never mind that she has none of the training of an investigator or the boundaries of a journalist: She’s got a microphone and passion, and that’s enough to podcast. 

What case does Citizen Sleuth follow? 

On November 19, 2011, a 20-year-old Black woman from Marietta, Ohio, was found dead on the side of Interstate 77 in West Virginia. Authorities would determine(Opens in a new tab) a car crash to be the cause of Jaleayah Davis’s death. But speculation began to rumble that the friends Davis partied with earlier that night might have a role to play in her tragic end. 

Curious details about the condition of Davis’s body, the placement of her clothes, and the location of her car spurred Nestor into action, launching a podcast that aimed for uncovering dark truths. “I read the case files,” she shares with Citizen Sleuth‘s filmmakers. “I was like what the hell? Murder. Cover-up. This needs to be handled. So, why not me?”

For 23 episodes, Nestor pursued the possibilities, interviewing Davis’s mother, questioning police officers, unfurling her pet theory, and sharing personal stories of her own. Citizen Sleuth begins up with Nestor as her podcast is on the rise, making her an emerging luminary at true crime conventions and podcast meet-ups. 

Citizen Sleuth dares to get real about true crime podcasting. 

Eager for attention, Nestor welcomes documentarian Chris Kasick into her home and DIY podcasting studio, which includes her yarn wall and a modest foam box to improve the sound quality of her recording. Her family warmly regards her show as a helpful hobby and brag about her “gumption” in pursuing this passion without a college education. However, in an aim to impress, Nestor begins to spill information about the victim that is embarrassing and not remotely relevant to the case. This twisted version of name-dropping serves as an early red flag that this will not be a tale of sleuthing heroics. 

As Kasick accompanies Nestor to a true crime convention, where podcasters giddily line up to have footage shot of them smiling with their merch and props, Citizen Sleuth steadily slides away from glorifying these ambitions. Amid a sea of fame-seeking fans, actual detective Paul Holes(Opens in a new tab) — renowned for his work cracking the Golden State Killer case — seems a beacon of reason. So, when Nestor scores an interview with him for her podcast, where they compare notes over what they think happened to Davis, it could be a moment of victory for the aspiring Starling. Instead, it’s where Citizen Sleuth takes its pivotal turn. 

Citizen Sleuth is boldly unsettling. 

In the third act, Nestor has fallen into a problematic pitfall of true crime: exploitation. Her quest for the truth has yielded inconvenient answers. To tell them could risk ending her podcast, which would also mean an end to the sponsorship deals that allowed her to walk away from waitressing, not to mention her newfound role as idol to a growing — and demanding — fandom. The documentary crew presses her on the ethical dilemma while addressing their own burgeoning concerns, because a revelation from Holes calls into question their project as well. 

The tension of the final act of Citizen Sleuth comes not only from worrying about what Nestor will do but also wondering how her being filmed impacts her decision. With the cameras in her face, does feel she pressed to perform? Is this what sparks a flurry of (white woman) tears when questioned about her benefitting from the violent death of a Black woman? Or does the edit being out of her hands push her to ruthless self-evaluation? And within these edits, the viewer might well wonder, what debates the filmmakers had in making — or even continuing — their project after some particularly damning information comes to light. 

Some of the most striking moments in Citizen Sleuth are when Kasick steps beyond Nestor and interviews her suspects, people who’d (understandably) never agreed to be on her podcast at all. Within these interviews, a sobering slap hits the giddy thrill of amateurs dabbling in true crime. While the documentary centers on Nestor — and certainly does her few favors — it doesn’t suggest she is an outlier in this booming industry. Over the end credits play true crime podcasters chattering away in a cacophonic audio montage, urging the audience to think critically about their next listen. 

Riveting and unnerving as it is uncompromising, Citizen Sleuth is a must-see for true crime fans. 

Citizen Sleuth was reviewed out of its World Premiere at SXSW 2023

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