Behind The Cat Lady Case

Joan Lawrence, referred to as the Cat Lady by her community, disappeared at 77-years old in 1998. When the police searched the small shed where Lawrence lived, they found only her cats, many of whom were shot dead. The CBC’s podcast, Uncover, reveals many layers and deeper mysteries, which has brought the police investigation back into the forefront of community concern. We talked to the Executive Producer of CBC Podcasts, Arif Noorani about the surprise season of Uncover and what it takes to produce a true-crime podcast.

Q&A With Arif Noorani, Executive Producer of CBC Podcasts

Pocket Casts: How long were you investigating the Cat Lady Case, and how did it come to be a podcast?

Arif: Well we’ve actually been working with Zander [Sherman, host] for 3 years now. He originally came to us in our second year when we had Someone Knows Something as our main investigative brand, and he wanted to do it as a season of that. It didn’t work at that time, so we actually connected him with the Fifth Estate, which is our TV documentary program and they did an episode.

Then last year when we launched Uncover, which is our third investigative strand, he approached us again and said there’s lots of new information that’s come [out] because they went to court and got the police to release a lot of investigative notes. Zander had also found two witnesses who were new.  We had Uncover, so we had an opportunity to have him report and host a season. It was a really nice alignment.

Each season [of Uncover] is a different reporter. We always look for someone who has investigated or done deep research on a story they want to tell but don’t have a platform that can get at the nuances of it. Zander lived in Muskoka for decades, and he’s been wanting a resolution to this case for a long time, so it was the perfect fit.

Pocket Casts: Throughout the season, you can hear how invested Zander is in the story.

Arif: Yes, I mean this is a bit “spoiler alert,” but in a later episode, he finds out the cop who originally investigated 20 years ago visited his house because his father is an artist and they had an open house. It would have been in that house. So it’s sort of like this full circle story, right? You have this cop who’s been plagued by this for 20 years. You have this kid who grew up there who’s been really plagued by this for the last 5 years and they kind of come to know each other.

PC: There was a really long investigation period even before the podcast. Did you get to interview everyone you wanted to, and were all the interviews included and the podcast?

Arif: I would say, we didn’t get to interview everyone.  We wanted to talk to Erin, who was the cop who dug into the case a few years ago.  And Zander had talked to her before, but she’s no longer with the police force so couldn’t speak on behalf of the case. But we did use her notes from the Access to Information.

The voice that we did get at last minute was Rob Matthews who is the investigator on [the case], and up until a month or two before we finalized the episodes, he was not in it. But it was so important. He started reaching out to Zander and wouldn’t agree to a sit-down interview. Through the phone calls, we were able to get more and more information from him. So he’s a key player that I’m so glad is in the podcast because he sheds a lot of light in terms of what he thinks and what the police think.  Throughout the story, Zander pushes him to talk publicly, and he says okay I’m going to do a press conference for the media. And he did that. That was because of the podcast. We led to that.

But I think, in the end, we got most of the voices [we wanted]. Obviously, the Laans [the owners of Joan’s property and suspects in the case]; it would be good if they spoke. But we didn’t think we would get them, and we didn’t in the end.

PC: How did you guys approach the interview with Matthews editorially, because it sounded like he was definitely on the record, but it’s probably awkward having that conversation with him.

Arif: For us, it’s common in our investigative podcasts. The police know anything they say to us is on the record. We find the best technique is to not wait for the formal interview but just ask as much as you can on the phone call while you have them. Lots of people like to talk, and then you get what you need.

We do a lot with Someone Knows Something where as soon as David Ridgen gets someone on the phone and they’re saying ‘okay, let’s find a time to meet,’ he’ll still ask them questions because he knows that could disappear. Our approach as investigative journalists is, ask questions all along the way. Don’t wait for this formal thing; everyone knows they’re on the record.  Get what you can because you know a lot of times people will then change their minds later.

PC: It seemed like a very tense relationship between Zander and the police. Do you have any idea why that was? Is it just because there’s an outside investigation, or is it specific to this case?

Arif: We were transparent and left it in the episode.  I think Rob starts off with saying ‘well, you said this and that’s not true,’ and then over time in the conversation, [Rob] Matthews realizes that’s not the case.

I think it’s fair to say that Canadian police are much more reserved in what they will tell the media in general.  And this has been across all the cases I’ve worked on — which has been about 10 different seasons of our various shows— there is a marked difference between American police and law enforcement and how much more openly they speak about evidence in cases versus what [Canadian] police will do. Like here you’ll have a cold case that’s 20 years old, there’s been no information about it publicly, and it’s still hard to get them to share information that we hope opens more doors. So, it’s a cultural difference between the two law enforcements between both countries.

Sometimes when a case takes us to the U.S., we’re just so surprised at how much more frank investigators are. We encountered that in The Village, which is our Season 3 of Uncover, looking at the murders of gay men in the ’70s and ’80s in Toronto, trying to get details from the cold case lead investigators was very difficult. But then when we went to Detroit — because one of the men was murdered in the suburbs of Detroit — we went to the police, and they pulled out all the boxes from the case and went through it with a reporter and recorded on the record. They said we should connect with Canadian law enforcement and maybe we can solve this one. It was a very marked difference.

PC: In the Cat Lady Case, it seemed like there was disagreement within the police force. It wasn’t just disagreement on tiny details. These insights were influential to how the investigation would proceed. How do you handle that?

Arif: We posed a lot of questions to Rob around the information we were getting as part of our journalistic duty, around getting verification or not. And in cases where he said ‘that’s completely not true’ and we didn’t have a double source on it, we wouldn’t use stuff like that.

We do believe in talking to the police to get their perspective on what is true or not. I think for this example the situation is, there’s one person in the police force who feels the case is not being actively investigated. Rob feels differently, and we sort of just leave it at that and let you decide. The nuance here is the OPP, the Ontario Provincial Police, don’t call a case ‘closed.’ They feel even a cold case is always open, but then the question is — and this is for any case, not just this one specifically — how much is it really being actively investigated just because you didn’t close it? Has it been 5 years since you looked into it or not? Those are the questions we won’t have full answers to, but what’s really important is that it is now being actively investigated. They’ve asked people to come forward. So we try to leave that in and let people decide because we don’t know 100 percent what the final reality is.

PC: I want to turn to the production side. What makes this different than other narrative podcasts? My understanding is there’s a lot more that goes into production then people can see from the outside, even beyond the investigation.

Arif: I feel our investigative podcasts are more in line with the ones that come from public broadcasters, whether that’s In the Dark or Bear Brook or even Serial. Because there’s a whole other layer of true crime where folks are sort of telling you a story that’s already happened. We’ll take a case on only if it has the following ingredients: Are there unanswered questions still? Can our investigation help shine a light on those questions and open doors? So we’re looking for cases where the work we do leads to some potential public good. Are there larger themes or issues or systemic questions it raises? So it’s not just this isolated case.

With Cat Lady, the larger question is, what happens to people who are older and disenfranchised from their families or estranged from their families and are vulnerable? This is a case where there were older people that were recruited from shelters and other places to go to a retirement community. That’s an ongoing issue as our population ages, so we always try to figure out what’s the larger ‘why’ around why we’re doing this.

I would say the amount of time we spend on production is somewhat unique. There are others that do it, but we spend minimum six to eight months [in production].  If you also count the background of the person investigating, there are years often added to it. Zander’s been investigating off and on for four years. Justin from The Village, he’s been working on that story for more than five years, so I think it’s the length and depth of research and even the production that we put into it. We know if we green-light something today, even if there’s a depth of research, it’s going to be eight or nine months before we release it because we want to dig in and we really do it right.

PC: How about for marketing? I know you had some discussion on the artwork, and how you were going to keep it from being comical because of the Cat Lady connotation.

Arif: Yeah, and we had long conversations about calling it the Cat Lady Case. We did it partly because that is how Joan was known in the community, and it was never meant in a derisive way. It was how people talked about her, but we also wanted to unpeel the layers of that to say that there is a Joan Lawrence here.

Our approach in terms of even the graphic art was to have it be emotive. If you look at the art and you listen to the sound design, and the kind of world that it creates, it’s one of, I think, empathy. I hope you feel invested in finding out what happens to Joan and the other folks and you learn more about her.

Our goal with all our podcasts is to present people as fully developed human beings, and that’s why we spend so much time on them. We want you to leave feeling like you met these folks. The driving force is empathy and understanding and making you feel connected to the world they lived in.

PC: Are you considering how the soundtrack influences the listening as you produce it?

Arif: Absolutely, I think we try to use the score to create the atmosphere and the world rather than to be like dun dun dunn. We try to avoid the kind of cliche horror or the score that’s used to amp up. Zander and his musical partner created the score, and I think they were very mindful of creating a world rather than just hitting certain beats.

PC: I wanted to touch on the post-production process. I was told you have someone outside of the team listen to the entire podcast to get notes on it. Is that true?

Arif: Yes, and it’s part of why the process takes so long because we have many eyes on the script and many ears. Podcasts go through five to seven to nine versions. When we feel we have a version that is close to being released publicly, we have a listening session for a full day or two days where we listen as a group and we always bring one or two people who have not been working on the podcast who are listening to it for the first time. At the end of each episode, we talk through our notes and suggested changes and if there are any concerns that come up.  We feel it’s really helped our podcast because you think it’s done, but there is five percent or ten percent that you didn’t pick up on because you got so used to it. You didn’t pick up that the context for that part of the story or it stands out because it doesn’t really work.

PC:  Why did you decide to do a surprise release instead of a drawn-out promotion period? You didn’t announce that this season was coming, right?

Arif: Yes, that’s right. We decided on a surprise release for a few reasons. So one, the practical reason was our Uncover: The Village season was having this long life. We released in April, and it was clear by even the end of June — because of Stonewall and World Pride — that the tail of it was longer. A surprise binge release was appealing because it let that grow.

And then the other reason was this case really fit. It was a series where a summer release really made sense because it takes place in cottage country.  And we decided on a binge rather than a weekly so that people could listen to it while they are at the cottage or they’re traveling.

We also thought let’s try something different. Like when Beyonce did Lemonade. Because she just dropped it, it got people talking and the word of mouth spread much faster. We thought that would happen here and it did.  

PC: Do you think the success of it will inform how you do other releases or is this a one-off because it’s the perfect situation?

Arif: I think our goal is to experiment with how we release content more and more. The Village taught us. We did The Village in our standard way: we did two episodes and then weekly. I think the fourth week in people were loving it and getting frustrated that they had to wait another week to listen to the next chapter. Like Netflix, right — some people who watch Netflix want to watch it all in a weekend. So, I think more and more we’re going to try to compress our release date.

Our September launch of Uncover which is called Sharmini, rather than do a six-week release we’re going to release all the episodes over three weeks, so we’ll do two a week every week. There might be another season that we decide, ‘you know what, we want to compress it even more, let’s do a binge release.’

And I’m coming around. I used to believe, ‘oh no, do it weekly so you can build up the audience through social,’ but I think you can still build an audience through social even if you binge. Just because you binge doesn’t mean you can’t continue talking about it, and I’m now of the belief that there are more and more people who want to listen to something at their pace and someone’s pace can be more than one chapter to time. You don’t read a book on a weekly basis, right? Sometimes you binge a book, and I think that we want to give that option to podcast listeners.

PC: Is there anything you would have done differently about the podcast whether it be in the reporting or in the production or the release, anything that you would like to see differently or change at all?

Arif: You know, to be honest, no. I feel they’ve all been successful in finding their audiences, so I don’t spend a lot of time thinking, ‘oh we should’ve done that,’ because it feels like we’re trying different things and I don’t want to ever push back the urge to experiment.  

You know, I guess one thing around The Village maybe: if I did it again, I would release two episodes a week over the full run rather than weekly. That would be the one thing, but I feel it still was successful.

PC: What is one piece of advice you would give other podcast producers that are attempting to do investigative stories, whether it be with big network backing or without.

Arif: Do good, not harm, with your series.  That can include making sure you are in touch with the families of the victims affected. Do they want you to open up the case again? Because they have to live through it when you do it, so you have an obligation, I think, to have that conversation. Do it for the right reasons. Do it because you feel it’s a case that needs a light shined upon it, and that you think there are questions that still need to be answered, that your work can help with.

Try to find out the systemic reasons why something happened.  Try to dig at that as well. Operate with lots of empathy and humility. You’re not here to get numbers, you’re here to actually do something important in the world. And if you follow some of those [guidelines], you sleep well at night.

When I was at Radioday’s Podcast Day, I was on a panel with other folks, some of whom just tell the story of a true crime, and a guy said, ‘oh how do you live with yourself?’ or something along those lines. And I was thinking to myself, I would feel worse if we had not done The Village. For me, the series we do actually help me sleep better. The Village was a story about history repeating itself in terms of how the LGBTQ community has been policed and how different groups at the margins of society are [treated]. I couldn’t live with myself if we had not done [it].

Ask yourself those questions. There are plenty of stories that fit. I think it’s choosing the right one.

PC: Is there anything you think I missed?  Is there anything about the podcast in general that you want readers to know?

Arif: We’re trying to think of how we do this in a way that transcends the medium and that is ethical. That’s really a driving force. Now, when we pick cases to do, we ask, is it something that is going to further the case or further a conversation, and I’m really proud that those are big filters.
Listen to Uncover: The Cat Lady Case in its entirety, or catch up on this season, Sharmini before the next episode comes out.

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