“Let’s take my best friend. If something happened to her and there was any reason in the world (her murder) should be looked at, I would want to know that they looked at me, because I want the truth to be known.”
That’s why Amber Hunt, a foul-mouthed, funny-as-hell but dead serious investigative reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, ended up digging into a murder older than she is—one that police “solved” in a day and never looked back upon—even after the supposed killer was acquitted and then won a civil wrongful death suit brought by the murdered woman’s parents.
Hunt and Enquirer photo journalist Amanda Rossmann’s year-long probe into how justice hit a dead-end in the 1978 strangulation and stabbing of 23-year-old Ohio college student is now a podcast, Accused. In it, Hunt, who narrates, lays out what they found that the police did not—and the apparent disinterest of Oxford, Ohio, law enforcement officials in those findings. After listening to the first two episodes, I spoke with Hunt (whom I spent a year with in Michigan as a Knight-Wallace fellow at the end of her eight-year stint as a crime reporter for the Detroit Free Press) and Rossmann about the show and the case. Here’s a condensed version of our interview, stripped of spoilers:
Amber Hunt: Elizabeth Andes, 23 years old, was found dead in her Oxford, Ohio, apartment on Dec. 28, 1978. Her boyfriend, Bob Young, walked in and found her body, and ran to a neighbor’s to call for help. He was immediately brought in for police questioning, and 15 hours later he confessed.
The defense tried to get his confession tossed out, because it was flawed. That didn’t work. So, instead they embraced the confession, because it was so flawed.
The defense lawyer would be cross-examining a cop, and he’d say, “Oh, OK, in the statement it says that she had a sash tied around her neck. Is, is that what it says here in this report?” and the guy would have to say, “No, that doesn’t match.” Those kinds of things. And then he brought Bob up and had him say what happened in his own words.
He was acquitted by the criminal jury, then found not liable by the civil jury—and despite that, the law enforcement agents overseeing the case refused to consider that they might have arrested the wrong guy. They decided that they had the one and only suspect, and that the juries got it wrong. So, we’re looking at whether it’s possible that there were other people who should have been investigated more thoroughly.
One of our big concerns here—because we have the benefit of coming after Serial and Making a Murderer—is that there are legitimate criticisms that some information was left out. I can promise you, if there had been anything past that confession that pointed to Bob, we would have included it, but we can’t find it. Law enforcement’s theory was that the two were going to have to break up, because they had just graduated, but we can’t find any friends aside from one who says that that was possible.
And I’m not saying he’s lying, but I’m saying, he was the only one we could find, and we did include that, so everything we found that could possibly point to their theory being right, we included. This is, you know, this is fair. This is both sides, as much as we can get both sides with only one side talking to us. But, at least I have the trial, so I can point out the arguments that they made, and, there, there just wasn’t a lot beyond his confession.
At one point, Bob’s lawyer wrote a letter to the police, naming other people that should be investigated more thoroughly, and as far as we can tell, they weren’t looked at again.
How’d you come to find this case in the first place?
Hunt: It was brought to us by the lawyer who’s interviewed in the first episode, who knows the (Enquirer's) lawyer, Jack Greiner. He mentioned it as “oh this is something that maybe a reporter should look at, this interesting murder case.”
When we first started looking at it, this was not a project. This was a Sunday story at most, just an interesting tale. And then every time I reached somebody new and realized I was the first person to reach them in 37 years I was constantly able to go back to the bosses and be like, you know, it would be interesting as one story, but it might be interesting as a series. And then it went to well, maybe it’s a podcast actually. We learned from Serial that might be a good format for this. I wasn’t looking for a podcast, but it actually ended up being like, well, this is sort of a no-brainer because it’s so complicated and so convoluted that it would be difficult even in 4,000 words, much less a thousand. So it just kept snowballing and pretty early on we realized how superficial the original investigation was—that at minimum I could go back in and reinvestigate some things. And I was paired up with Amanda and it just kept going from there.
There’s a confession and nothing else. This one feels like every story I’ve done leading up to this played a role in me being able to cover this one because I’ve written about confessions already. I know that that’s a thing and that it can be the only thing. So, I came at it with an open mind. We’ve got this case that starts out—we have a guy who very understandably is looked at by police because he’s the one who finds the body, and most of the time, absolutely that’s where you’re gonna want to start. But he does—
And, and he’s the boyfriend.
Hunt: And he’s the boyfriend. So, like, 70-some percent of the time, it goes that direction. So, so he’s brought in and first statement he writes, “I didn’t do it.” Second statement, “I didn’t do it.” Third statement, “I didn’t do it.” It isn’t until 15 hours after he finds his girlfriend’s dead body that he, not even, he doesn’t write out a confession. He signs one. Somebody else types it up and he signed it, and they start feeding him hypotheticals, like, “If you were to find her in this situation, what would you have done?” “If you say, walk in on her doing this, then what would you have done?” Right? And then that’s when it kind of morphed into this thing he signed and he just wanted to get out of there. And I’ve seen that before.
I wouldn’t have been able to do this when I was 22. And I wouldn’t have been able to do it at the Enquirer, you know, a year-and-a-half ago. It’s like, all the stars aligned and they actually let us investigate properly. Like, it’s crazy. Crazy good…
And then the family this whole time has thought, well, the police believe it’s the boyfriend. It’s only been in recent years that they started to question whether the police were right about that. I mean, what do they know? They’re trusting that the professionals have looked at everything. That’s a new development. Without that, this would have been a lot harder to tackle, because I wouldn’t have had their cooperation and that was pretty crucial.
And they’ve gone back countless times trying to get it reopened, and told again and again that “this guy did it, and sorry about the, you know, the loss we had, but it’s time to move on. We did what we should have done,” and, you know, it only took maybe two weeks of reporting part-time before I could honestly say, “Oh, but did you really do all that you could have done?” I’m not in law enforcement, but I have covered it a long time, and there are things that I know are pretty standard that didn’t happen here.
Hunt: For starters, some of her friends pointed to specific people that they thought were worth looking at. And they, they were superficially looked at, as in, “Hey, you know, when did you last see the victim?” But, some of them didn’t provide alibis. They weren’t asked for alibis as far as the case file shows. So that’s a no brainer. There were items in her room that, while, I guess that they didn’t know about DNA at the time, they did know about fingerprints, but they didn’t collect some of those things for fingerprints. So that’s a little odd.
What else? A lot of it was just the idea... it seemed like as soon as they fixated on the boyfriend, anybody else that was raised by the friends to be looked at, instead of being looked at as a possible person of interest, it’s more like they went at it to exclude that person, you know what I mean? So it would be you know, the maintenance man, “Oh, well, he says he was at the movies. That’s good enough for us.”
It was that confirmation bias problem.
Rossmann: Yeah, it feels like they only talked to people to back up their theory.
Hunt: So, when talking to these people, they would ask questions about the couple, or about her as a person, nothing about, “Where were you the night she was killed?” Just basic things, you know?
And then, once somebody is acquitted—OK, so they arrest this guy. They charge this guy. Let’s give them all of that. OK, but he’s acquitted. And then, let’s say you’re a little ticked off at the jury and you don’t want to reopen it right away. I can buy that too. But then a civil jury, four years later, finds him not liable again—isn’t there a point where you say, “OK, maybe we should just double check. Maybe we should look at this and make sure that our original theory makes absolutely 100 percent sense”?
But what they decided to do instead was, five years after that civil trial, Young asked for the case to be sealed, and they decided that that meant that they didn’t have to look at it at all, and that no one else could because the seal meant that they would get sued. I have never heard of that in any other case. That’s what they decided here.
What surprised you most as you investigated his case?
Hunt: The seal is just so unusual. I’ve never heard of that. So that on its own let me know that this hasn’t been properly looked at in at least decades. And then Young signed off on it being reopened to us. That made a huge difference, because that meant that avenues were open to us that otherwise wouldn’t have been. If we had to investigate a sealed case, it would’ve been impossible.
The fact that he waived it, number one, points to, unless he’s a complete psychopath, him being interested still in figuring out who did this to his girlfriend. And, two, it makes it so that we have access to documents that actually even another reporter coming in at this point would have trouble getting, because it’s not in the courthouse.
So now you two come in and start looking at this. You get Young’s permission to let you see the files about his case, and start doing your own investigation. What are your interactions with Oxford law enforcement like after that?
Hunt: They did respond at first. But it was basically, “Oh, well, I don’t really have that info. Let me look into that for you,” and then they just quit responding altogether. They just quit communicating, to a laughable extent.
Especially in the late ’70s, the idea that somebody would be forced into a confession, it just wasn’t as accepted as it is today. So, it makes me wonder how many other cases are there (like this one). You can hear in the first episode the police chief is regretful that they didn’t prevail in court. Which means he would like Young in prison and I guess that he thinks that he’s guilty, but when I asked, “What if he’s not?” he was very flip, I thought, in his answer. So, how many other cases are there like that? I don’t know. And I’m not anti-law enforcement. I’ve developed great sources in law enforcement, and I know that there are so many of them who put their heart and soul into this, that they believe in the right thing, and it does make me wonder, OK, what are the checks and balances in place for those who aren’t that way?
So in the first episode you talk to Young’s prosecutor, who sounds totally convinced he had the right guy, but can’t really say why he’s so convinced. This is an old case obviously, but he, he seems, it does seem flip to me, right?
Hunt: Yeah. I think that’s fair. One of the nice things about this format is that I get to just put that audio out and let people decide how he sounds, because that would have been hard in print. The words on their own don’t necessarily sound as flippant as they do in the tone but yeah he doesn’t really have a good answer and doesn’t seem interested in the idea that he could be wrong. And I mean, this is real life.
Speaking of flippant, what years were both of you born?
Hunt: I was born in ’78. Actually, I was born on the day Beth signed for the lease for the apartment. I feel like I was supposed to be on this. I know how cheesy that is, but…
Rossmann: And I was born in 1984.
Anything else that you guys really would like to get out there or have people keep in mind as they’re hopefully keying in and listening to this?
Hunt: Well, there were plenty of people that I think were a little hesitant to talk to us, so we’re hoping if they know something, if anyone knows something, that they’ll come to police or come to us.
I think we’ve dug up a lot here, but there are still a couple of missing pieces, and obviously one hope is that if Accused gets enough traction, it might be able to reach the right person. We’re hoping to reach the right people. It’s a podcast, and so, I know some people listen to it as entertainment, but this is not entertainment for the people involved. They really want answers, and that’s what we’re hoping we can do with this.
Amber, you’ve done a lot of things in your career. Why keep coming back to crime?
Hunt: I don’t think it’s the crime. I think it’s the effect on people. We’re just trying to get through this life and it floors me when somebody else takes somebody we love away, and what the repercussions of that are and how unnecessary it is. So, I think that’s why I keep getting drawn back to it. It’s like the worst and most base human experience to lose somebody like that, and I think I’m a little obsessed with figuring out why people would do that.
Did you speak with Bob Young about his experience, first discovering his girlfriend murdered, and then being arrested and tried for her murder?
Hunt: You know, he’s a very reserved guy. He keeps things in compartments. But this has affected him profoundly. We did talk to him about that, and that, for me, is part of the bottom line, you know? When you say to the authorities, “Well, what if you’re wrong?” the effect of this has been life altering for many of these people. It matters if you’re right or wrong on this.
Anything else you want to leave people with?
Hunt: One of the criticisms of Serial was that they didn’t focus on the victim enough. It was helpful that Beth’s family was on board, but I think they were only on board because I told them: The first thing we hung on the wall was Beth’s picture. She is the focus here. I have to say, that’s a big part of it.