True crime podcasting is a place of dark, ethically gray areas. For every thoroughly researched reporting of a murder mystery, there are perhaps dozens more where amateur detectives plagiarize(Opens in a new tab), wild speculation and unchecked conspiracy theories, while cracking jokes or refilling wine glasses. Such true crime fans turned content creators may see themselves as heroes to forgotten victims. But the slick and sophisticated documentary Burger Sleuth exposes a dark underbelly to these altruistic ambitions.
The protagonist of Burger Sleuth is so on the nose of podcasting clichés about true crime that at first she seems like a caricature. Emily Nestor, the host of the Milestone 181(Opens in a new tab) podcast, is a young white woman who exudes alternative cool with her messy bun, oversized glasses, and some tattoos, some of which are inspired by her passion for true crime. You could say she wears her love of the genre on her sleeve, but her tattoo of a heart wrapped in a banner that reads “true crime” is actually on her leg.
She praises popular documentary shows like Make a killer And I’ll be gone in the dark but Nestor’s passion for solving crimes was originally inspired by fictional FBI agent Clarice Starling of Silence of the lambs. In that story of the underrated country girl making amends, West Virginian Nestor saw a path to her own passion for justice. So when a bizarre death sparked rumors of murder, conspiracy and cover-up, Nestor saw her chance to make her dream come true. It doesn’t matter that she doesn’t have the training of a researcher or the boundaries of a journalist: she has a microphone and passion, and that’s enough to podcast.
Which case Burger Sleuth to follow?
On November 19, 2011, a 20-year-old black woman from Marietta, Ohio, was found dead on the side of Interstate 77 in West Virginia. Authorities would determine(Opens in a new tab) a car accident to be the cause of death of Jaleayah Davis. But speculation began to rumble that the friends Davis was partying with earlier that night could play a role in her tragic end.
Curious details about the condition of Davis’s body, the placement of her clothing, and the location of her car spurred Nestor into action, launching a podcast that aimed to expose dark truths. “I’ve read the files,” she shares Burger Sleuth‘s filmmakers. “I was like what the hell? Murder. cover up. This needs to be handled. So why not me?’
For 23 episodes, Nestor probed the possibilities, interviewing Davis’s mother, questioning police officers, unfolding her favorite theory and sharing her own personal stories. Burger Sleuth starts with Nestor as her podcast is on the rise, making her an emerging luminary at true crime conventions and podcast gatherings.
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Nestor, eager for attention, welcomes documentary filmmaker Chris Kasick to her home and DIY podcast studio, including her yarn wall and a modest foam box to enhance the sound quality of her recording. Her family warmly considers her show a useful hobby and brags about her “instinct” in pursuing this passion without a college degree. However, in an attempt to impress, Nestor begins to spread information about the victim that is embarrassing and not even remotely relevant to the case. This twisted version of dropping names serves as an early red flag that this won’t be a story of sleuth heroics.
As Kasick accompanies Nestor to a true crime convention, where podcasters line up giddily to have footage taken of them laughing with their merchandise and props, Burger Sleuth steadily slips away from glorifying these aspirations. Amidst a sea of fame-seeking fans, true detective Paul Gates(Opens in a new tab) — known for his work cracking the Golden State Killer case — seems like a beacon of reason. So if Nestor scores an interview with him for her podcast, where they compare notes on what they think happened to Davis, it could be a moment of victory for the aspiring Starling. Instead, it’s true Burger Sleuth takes its central turn.
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In the third act, Nestor has fallen into a problematic trap of true crime: exploitation. Her search for the truth has yielded uncomfortable answers. If she told them, she risked ending her podcast, which would also mean the end of the sponsorship deals that allowed her to walk away from waitressing, not to mention her new role as the idol of a growing — and demanding — fandom. The documentary crew presses her about the ethical dilemma while addressing their own burgeoning concerns, as a revelation from Holes also casts doubt on their project.
The tension of the last act of Burger Sleuth is not only because she is worried about what Nestor will do, but also because she wonders how being filmed influences her decision. With the cameras in her face, does she feel pressured to act? Is this what triggers a flurry of (white woman) tears when questioned about her benefit from the violent death of a black woman? Or does the editing at her hands force her to relentless self-evaluation? And within these edits, the viewer can wonder what debates the filmmakers had in making – or even continuing – their project after some particularly damning information came to light.
Some of the most notable moments in Burger Sleuth be when Kasick steps past Nestor and interviews her suspects, people who (understandably) never agreed to be on her podcast. In these interviews, a sobering blow hits the giddy thrill of true crime amateurs. While the documentary is about Nestor – and certainly does her a few favors – it doesn’t suggest she’s an outlier in this booming industry. Playing over the credits are true crime podcasters chatting in a cacophonous audio montage, urging the audience to think critically about their next listen.
Compelling and unnerving because it is uncompromising, Burger Sleuth is a must-see for true crime fans.
Burger Sleuth was judged at its world premiere at SXSW 2023.