True Crime tales may be more popular than ever, but it’s a topic that has fascinated mankind since the second story of the Bible. As humans, we are compelled to search for answers and find justice for those who have suffered the most terrible of fates; as Americans, we have no shortage of such cases, sadly.
In recent years, Oxygen has become the premiere TV destination for high-quality true crime programming. Building on the success of their signature show Snapped, the programming on Oxygen spotlights stories within the realm of criminal justice, with an emphasis on justice.
This weekend, Oxygen and NBC News are participating in CrimeCon: House Arrest, a virtual true crime convention taking place on Saturday, Nov. 21. Ahead of the event, we were able to hop on Zoom to speak with Injustice host Nancy Grace, Dateline NBC correspondent Josh Mankiewicz, and Kelly Siegler of Cold Justice. Check out our interviews below and follow the link at the bottom of the page to sign up for Sling Blue at the best price, and get our Lifestyle Extra package—which includes Oxygen and 10 other channels—free for one month!
Sling: The CrimeCon panel you’re doing will focus on the episode "Murder at Fort Hood," what can you tell us about that story?
Nancy Grace: I can tell you that the big banner right now is that nothing has changed since private first class Vanessa Guillen was murdered. After a period of time being sex harassed there at Fort Hood, I learned a lot about the investigation of what really happened from Vanessa's sister Mayra, and their family lawyer. I did multiple interviews into the—let me just say—atmosphere at Fort Hood. But specifically as a trial lawyer and a former prosecutor, I was interested in the nuts and bolts of what happened in the hours surrounding Vanessa's death and disappearance, and what I found out was very upsetting.
Sling: It sounds like there’s a lot of stuff around the larger culture at Fort Hood.
NG: I appreciate your question: a lot of stuff around Fort Hood. That is not a technical legal question with which I am familiar. Are you referring to their ongoing drama of about THIRTY dead military people and multiple [sexual harassment] incidents? That? I can tell you about that.
I spoke with Vanessa Guillen’s family, [who are] heartbroken. When I was little, I never dreamed of walking down the aisle with Prince Charming, and that struck a chord with me because I don't think Vanessa did either. She would build forts and play military; I thought I’d travel the world in a trailer full of books with a horse. Now, I don't know exactly what that means except that I loved horses and I wanted to write books, and Vanessa was unique and had her own mind even as a little girl. And she was making that dream come true and wanted to devote her life and her career toward advancing in the military and protecting our country.
I also talked to the family of Gregory Wedel-Morales and to this day, his mother [is still] heartbroken over Gregory. Who is Gregory Wedel-Morales? In searching for Vanessa, a body was found — I remember getting the call and something just didn't feel right when I got the call. Well, it wasn't Vanessa, it was Gregory Wedel-Morales, who also went missing from Fort Hood. His body was found before Vanessa’s, but just yards away from Vanessa's buried body. Then you've got Elder [Fernandes], he had been sex harassed by a male superior and when he did complain, he's the one they got transferred to another division, like he was the one that did the bad thing.
And what really irritates me, first and foremost: Vanessa was called in by a colleague to work on an off-day so he could kill her there in the armory. It was a bludgeoning death. And you can't tell me, after all the crime scenes I’ve processed, there was not evidence in that armory of a bludgeoning death. But the army said, “It's nothing, we don't see anything wrong!”
Her sister Mayra drives through the night to get to Fort Hood trying to find her sister; they poo-pooed her, she has to go off in a motel every night, and wake up begging for answers. This has been one thing after the next. And now the guy that was in charge of Fort Hood [Maj. Gen. Scott Efflandt], he hasn't been fired, he hasn’t been reprimanded. He’s still bringing down a big paycheck that you and I are paying for. Don't get me wrong, my dad was in the military, gave up a basketball scholarship, lied about his age and went all the way across the country when he was a teen boy to fight for our country. But this isn’t right, Efflandt is still on the payroll at Fort Hood! He’s right down the hall from the new commander. They’re probably, as I like to say, at the Officer’s Club having a big fat steak right now. That’s not right.
And what happened to the bill to protect people like Vanessa? NOTHING. It’s stuck in Congress. So nothing has changed, it's just business as usual. That doesn't sit right with me.
Sling: I guess just to step back just a little bit, you’ve hosted a lot of different shows over the years...
NG: Excuse me, I wouldn’t say I’ve hosted a lot of different “shows.” These are real cases, about real people. And on Oxygen’s Injustice, I’m proud to say we’re on season 2...we have so many cases that display gross miscarriages of justice, we can’t get to them all. We’re just going as fast as we can. These are not “shows,” like game shows or a pretend cop show with some producer sitting in his easy chair gazing down at Rodeo Drive, dreaming up a story. This is real with real consequences. So, you know, our programs mean a lot to me and a lot to the people they’re about.
Sling: That was where I was trying to take the question: What is unique about Injustice compared to some of the other programs that you’ve hosted, but it seems like you touched on that.
NG: I do have something I’d like to add to it: You know for so many years, and I loved every minute of it at HLN, we would be breaking crime and justice news every single night, and I loved being there for the investigation. What's very, very different about Injustice on Oxygen, it's more how I would prepare a case for trial. I would work literally around the clock, leave no stone unturned, visit the crime scene, count out steps, take my own photographs, my own measurements. Speak to every single witness in doubt, at their home or their place of employment or wherever I can find them. And really know the case and the background, know the victim, know the perp, know the people that were going to be my witnesses. And then put it all together in a presentation for a jury, which meant the world to me. In court it would be like a tennis match: I'll be watching the witness and the jury. So I’d be looking at the witness and the jurors to see how they were reacting, back and forth, the whole time. It was as if nothing else mattered except the truth. And that's how I feel about Injustice.
Sling: You’re doing a CrimeCon panel with Hungry Girl food blogger Lisa Lillien. How did that come together? It seems like an interesting combination.
Josh Mankiewicz: I was in a watch store about a year-and-a-half ago because I needed a new battery for my watch. And all of a sudden, this woman came up to me and said, “I watch you all the time.” And it was Lisa. And she runs this lifestyle brand called Hungry Girl and she’s put out all these cookbooks. And so we became friends and we went out and had dinner and in a weird example of how small Hollywood is, it turned out that her husband is in the film business and my cousin had been his assistant at one time. So they already knew another Mankiewicz, which was a little surprising.
She’s a big Dateline fan, Lisa is. So when CrimeCon came along, I knew she was going to go. But then CrimeCon turned into something virtual because of COVID, so as a result, we decided to do this thing where she’s going to show me how to cook. Which is a little like trying to show a chimp how to do nuclear fission. Let’s just say we had limited success. But the finished product, which she eventually showed me how to make, was actually great. And anybody who has more experience with cooking, which is nearly everyone, is probably going to have an easier time than I did. But that was a lot of fun.
I’m glad that CrimeCon is continuing in a virtual way; I’m really sorry that we’re not all there in person. I love it because it’s how we meet the audience. And you find out exactly what they’re thinking and what they’ve gleaned from the episodes. And they ask you like these really detailed, granular questions about the cases that we’re working on. So it’s like cramming for final exams; you go to CrimeCon, and they’re going to ask you some tough questions. And they’re not fans in the traditional sense; they sort of see us all as being on a common mission. We’re all looking for truth, we’re all trying to bring justice to someone. And it’s nice to feel that sort of kinship with all those people.
Sling: You recently did your first podcast, Motive For Murder, what was your experience like working on that?
JM: I loved it. I had never done a podcast before, I had been a guest a couple of times on some podcasts but I’d never actually told a story on a podcast before. It was fascinating. And it was tremendously freeing, because you know, a Dateline hour is 37-38 minutes of television and it’s broken up into six parts. And a podcast, it doesn’t matter if an episode is 26 minutes long or 31 minutes long or 38 minutes long. And that meant that we could talk at much greater length, and we could play interviews longer, and we could talk about things that we wouldn’t have had time for on television, because they take so long to explain. In podcasts you discover that people’s attention spans are frequently longer than we in television give them credit for.
So it was an opportunity to tell a story in greater depth, at greater length, using all of this material that we were gathering when we were actually shooting the Dateline broadcast, which ended up being two hours long. So that part of it was great.
Sling: Is podcasting something you’d like to do more of in the future?
JM: Oh yeah, definitely. My next podcast—and I don’t know what it’s going to be—I’d like it to be a story here in southern California where I live so I can get to all the people much more easily, particularly in a time when travel is difficult. I’d like it to be a story that isn’t well-known, in which the audience doesn’t already know how it comes out, or at least won’t know without trying to Google it or something. And it would be good if it’s a story that the television audience hasn’t seen on Dateline before. And there’s a lot of cases like that, so we’re going to look for something like that.
Sling: I'm curious now that you've been there for so long, do you have any particular story that you're proud of?
JM: I did a story in 2005, 15 years ago about how...if you watch television news in the United States, you’re under the impression that everybody who goes missing is white, blonde, female, and attractive. And of course that's not the case at all, but those were the only ones that TV news was covering. So I did a story about that and I sort of felt a little bit of an impact. And I was glad about that; that was 15 years ago, things have changed a little bit since then.
So that was one that I'm proud of. There was also a story a couple of years ago in Phoenix, that somehow mind-bogglingly involved the murder of a friend of mine. And I originally went to Phoenix to go to his funeral and then I ended up doing a story about how he died, who killed him, and the domestic violence that was not just the backstory but the main story of how that all came to be. The system missed repeated opportunities to do something about this guy before he actually started killing.
I had seen him 10 days earlier. I kept thinking about the fact that when I saw him here in Los Angeles, and we hung out for an afternoon, he was probably already in the sights of the guy who killed him, he was probably already stalking him and waiting and planning. It was awful.
Sling: What are you working on for this season?
JM: I’m working on a story in in the middle of the country about an unsolved murder that's about 30 years old, a little more than 30 years old. Police in that jurisdiction are convinced that if we show a particular piece of evidence on television that it will quite possibly shake loose the tip that they need to solve this case. I don't know if that’s true, but the department believes that's true, so we're going to do that at some point. That's interesting to me because we don't do a lot of cold cases, because generally it's hard to do a case and then say at the end of the hour or two hours, “So you know who killed Mary? We don’t and the police need your help, goodnight people.” People don't like that, they want an ending and it's one of the things that works about Dateline, there's an ending. The person was convicted, or they’re acquitted, or the charges are dropped, but something happens. So it’s hard to do cold cases but this is one we’re doing because that department feels like we might actually be instrumental in making this cold case a solved case, it would be great if that happened.
Sling: The new David Fincher movie Mank is about your grandfather, Herman. Have you had a chance to see it and what did you think?
I did see it, they sent me a secret code so I [watched] it on Netflix one weekend. It's great, I loved it and I suspect a lot of other people will too. Now, for me personally, it was kind of surreal: I never knew my grandfather, he died before I got here, he drank himself to death, he was like 55-years-old. But the guy that I always heard about—really smart, really funny, really witty, really gifted, really drunk, really full of self-hate, and really his own worst enemy—that guy emerges from the film, brilliantly brought to life by the great Gary Oldman.
Now, my family has nothing to do with this movie. But it was a pleasure to see it and it was weird seeing actors portraying your grandparents, particularly my grandmother, who I knew really well, and my grandfather, who I didn’t know at all. But the movie’s great, it's very, very well done. David Fincher, who I don't know, did a brilliant job and the movie is shot and photographed and scored very much like Citizen Kane. So it does look a lot like that and it does take you back to those days of Hollywood. The cast is spectacular, so I applaud them and I'm certain to see it again when it reaches my Netflix account.
Sling: For someone who hasn’t seen Cold Justice before, how would you describe your show?
Kelly Siegler: We are a TV show that does something no other TV show has ever done before, because we go out to mostly rural communities and work on unsolved murder cases and we actually solve them. And you get to see the investigation, the witness interviews, the suspect interviews, and the whole thought process that goes into doing that.
Sling: You’re doing new “Inside the episode” specials, what can longtime fans of Cold Justice expect from these?
KS: Think about it like this: If we were able to watch the TV show together—say me and some girlfriends, drinking some wine, having a good time on a Saturday night—it would be the show where I could [pause] and say, "Hey, wanna know what really happened that day?" Or "Hey, this is what really went on when we interviewed that witness." So it’s kind of behind-the-scenes about what really happened when we were working the case.
Sling: So it’s a mix of both behind the scenes of what you worked on, as well as new insights into the case itself?
KS: It’s a mixture of legal points—there are a lot of geeky people like me who watch our show. So things about, ‘That sounds like hearsay, why is that admissible?’ We talk about that. We talk about what we really think about a certain witness. We talk about things that happened that day that were particularly difficult or dangerous or odd or unusual, or maybe even funny. Just all those different kinds of things.
Sling: Tell us about some of the more interesting cases you’ll be revisiting.
KS: We were in Onida, Wisconsin working on a really old case of a man who had sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl while he was married and in the course of that, sort of lead this little girl on and promised he was going to marry her. And he ended up killing his wife over that relationship. That little girl was friends with his two daughters at the time. They’re all grown women now, they’ve all gone on to live their lives.
The casefile was really huge, it’s the biggest casefile I’ve ever worked on on Cold Justice. It took me a month to read it just the first time through. We were always intimidated by the file and wondering whether or not that 14-year-old little girl who was, honestly, his lover, would come through with all that happened the day that Barabara was murdered. No one knew.
And we went there, she’s a grown woman who now works in the jail system for the state of Minnesota, she’s turned into a wonderful lady. She told everything about their relationship, the shame, how the people in the community treated her, how her church treated her. And with that, along with everything else that happened unusual with that case, we were able to put it all together. And he was arrested for the murder of Barbara Mendez, his name is Bob Mendez. They actually have already had the trial since the episode aired and he was sentenced to a life sentence under Wisconsin state laws.
Sling: You all have over 20 convictions among the cases that you’ve done, and over 40 arrests, is that right?
KS: Something like that, it’s a lot. And you know, the other shows out there, they talk about cases—like I’ve had my old cases when I was a prosecutor profiled on those other kinds of TV shows—as an after-the-fact, Monday morning quarterback dissection of the case. That’s not what we’re doing. We’re solving the cases right now today, and letting people see how that process works. And arrests are being made, convictions are being [made].
Sling: Do you find that revisiting these cases with the victims helps bring them some closure?
KS: I do. You know when you’re talking to them, just like in the courtroom, but now in their living rooms, you can see it in their eyes. Sometimes they feel empowered to talk about it, sometimes they feel relieved just to have somebody to listen, sometimes they relive it and the pain just comes rushing back and you can see it happen in front of you. But I don’t think there’s any person that we’ve talked to that would tell you today, “I really regret the fact that we let Cold Justice come look at our case.” I don’t think that’s ever happened because it’s just such a relief to them that we’re trying.
Sling: It seems like there have been some revolutionary developments in technology that could help crack some of these cold cases. Can you talk a little about that?
KS: It’s super cool, really fascinating. As a matter of fact, I’m talking now with a genealogy group called Innovative Forensics out of Virginia about the idea you just discussed: Working on cold cases where you have the DNA but it’s never hit in [the criminal justice database] and you’re trying to do it through a family DNA website search to try and find the person who’s a suspect. I read a case today in the news...I think like once a week now you’ll see a case where they solved it through GEDmatch or Ancestry.com, one of those. I think it’s really fascinating and a wonderful new tool for working on cold cases.
CrimeCon: House Arrest streams live on Sat., Nov. 21. To get Oxygen on Sling free for one month, follow the link below!