Need a new podcast fix to take you through these dark New Year evenings? Bonaparte, an intriguing tale of one woman’s quest for answers over the murder of her childhood friend, could be the slow-burn listen to solve all.
Ever since Sarah Koenig brought us Serial back in 2014, the true crime podcast has taken on an art form of its own. Koenig’s investigation into the murder of high school student Hae Min Lee was a masterclass in storytelling, eking out historical detail and compelling witness testimony over a series of highly charged episodes that made detectives of us all.
Fast-forward to present day and there are possibly more cold case podcasts than there are killings to investigate. And yet, now and again, a series still manages to capture our attention in a way that is unique.
Bonaparte is one such offering. The 10-part podcast, which launched last October with new episodes released each week since, is compelling on a number of levels.
Firstly it has the power of personal involvement, in the form of New York attorney Anne Champion. Anne is a friend of journalist Jason Stavers, and one night, she happens to tell him the story of her childhood friend Laura Van Wyhe.
In 1996, 21-year-old Laura went to a party in Bonaparte, Iowa. Eight hours later, her body was found by a rural roadside in the neighbouring state of Missouri. Her murder has never been solved.
Anne is a powerful litigator: she’s deposed right-wing paramilitaries in a Bogotá prison and has helped extricate a victim of the NXIVM sex cult. Yet the glaring injustice she’s never been able to put right is the one the cuts the deepest: the cold case homicide of the bohemian girl she grew up with.
Bonaparte is also gripping because of the way it is told. Along with Anne, podcast host and lead reporter Jason is careful to avoid any hint of sensationalism. Instead, 25 years after Laura’s death, the pair return to Iowa to re-track old friends, family members and police officers caught up in the case. The result is a fresh and forensic look at an incident that has long since proved baffling for investigators.
Yet it’s also about the wider impact that an unsolved homicide has on a close-knit community of the kind that Anne and Laura grew up in. This is especially true because Laura had a baby son with her teen boyfriend, Donald Knight. The couple later split up, and Laura apparently left her toddler at the trailer home of Donald’s family on the night she died.
With no easy answers within reach, speculation has run wild and families have been torn apart. “If it was a hit-and-run, thank you, because I prefer that to people she knew f**cking hurting her,” a distraught friend tells Jason at one point.
Bonaparte is as much about these excruciating dynamics, and the febrile climate of suspicion they create, as it is the murder itself.
Perhaps most intriguing, however, is the physical evidence of the case. Laura suffered a blunt force trauma but no blood was discovered on the patch of highway she was lying on when a truck driver found her that fateful night. She was also lightly grasping a water bottle.
Laura was wearing a black satin jacket with no blood on it either, although an opened-up pocket knife was found in one of the pockets. A baby blanket was also found nearby: this despite the fact that the young mum was assumed to have left her son with family nearby when she went out that night.
As her friend Anne says, “Reading the police file, I just thought ‘wow’. This case needs to be solved, it’s solvable and it should have been solved.”
Ready to get stuck in? Bonaparte, a joint production from Imperative Entertainment and Vespucci, concluded just before New Year. All 10 episodes are available to listen now, wherever you get your podcasts.
Images: Getty, Instagram
Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.