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Veteran Journalist Brings Hit True Crime Podcast To Bloomington

Cindy Le
"Suspect Convictions" producer Scott Reeder.

The second series of the hit true-crime podcast Suspect Convictions will focus on the 1998 murder of 3-year old Christina McNeil of Bloomington.

Veteran investigative journalist Scott Reeder and GLT News Director Emeritus Willis Kern will collaborate on the weekly series that begins Oct. 27 on GLT's Sound Ideas.

Reeder has seen plenty in his 30-year journalism career. If your ear is tuned to curious, he’ll happily regale you with stories of covering Rod Blagojevich’s stumbles or winning national awards for his investigation of teacher tenure in Illinois and the difficulties in firing bad teachers.

“I’m just passionate about journalism,” said Reeder. “It’s just an adventure every day.”

As someone who covered the Illinois legislature for over a decade and even started three news organizations in his three decades of journalism, he’s a prime candidate for person “who has probably forgotten more stories than most can remember.”

An image seared into his brain 30 years ago as a cub reporter in the Quad Cities is one he wishes he could delete.

Suspect Convictions logo
New episodes of Suspect Convictions will air every Friday during GLT's Sound Ideas, starting Oct. 27.

“I was driving through downtown Davenport (Iowa) and I hear on the scanner, 'Small fire at a school playground.’ And I thought, ‘This is nothing.’ It wasn’t in the greatest neighborhood and it was a place where a lot of people would burn their trash in an open lot.”

A walkie-talkie call from his editor directing him to check on the fire quickly followed.

“When we got there, we see the smoke rising from tall weeds on the edge of the playground, and we walk over and get maybe two or three feet from the fire. And instead of being a trash fire ... it was a little girl who had been doused with gasoline and set on fire. It was the most horrible, awful thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Reeder.

Twenty-six years later, "this is nothing" became the focus of Reeder’s popular investigative-crime series podcast “Suspect Convictions.” Reeder said the inspiration came from NPR’s hit podcast “Serial,” a series he and his wife binged-listened on a three hour drive one afternoon. The real life Baltimore murder-mystery introduces numerous characters and plot twists over 12 episodes during its debut season.

“Finally I say, ‘You know, this is really fascinating and it’s the most listened to podcast in human history, but you know my murder case is so much more interesting,’” said Reeder.

Knowing he had a compelling story in the 1990 killing of the 9-year-old in the Quad Cities but lacking the skills to produce a podcast despite his storytelling chops, he contacted friends at public radio station WVIK. He said they jumped at his idea, and working with producer Lacy Scarmana, they produced Season 1.

Teaming Up With Willis Kern

For the second season of “Suspect Convictions,” Reeder is leaning on the production skills of Kern, the longtime GLT news director, to help him tell the story of the killing.

Barton McNeil was convicted of killing his daughter, Christina, but has long maintained his innocence. The story is similar to the Quad Cities murder in that it involved a young girl. But Reeder pushed back on the notion that because he’s new to this story he doesn’t have an emotional attachment to it as he did with the Quad Cities story.

“I’m developing one,” said Reeder. “I obviously wasn’t there like I was for Jennifer's (Lewis) murder. But man, I’ve been interviewing people involved in the case and going through the crime scene photos. I’ve looked at the forensic pathologist’s testimony and I’m developing a real vivid image of what has happened here and I’ve become emotionally involved.”

So does he think McNeil killed his daughter after scouring through that evidence?

“A lot of people ask me that,” said Reeder. “I really don’t know, and I’m trying very hard to remain objective in this case.”

You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Reeder:

GLT's full interview with Reeder.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.