Heartland DarklandOct 22, 2023 02:04AM ● By Lisa Lukecart
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
The letters, smeared in white grease on the left side of Richard Valdez’s body, greeted police officers at a rural farmhouse in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. An almost empty and discarded tube of gear lubricant lay nearby with the index and middle fingers of Valdez’s right hand smudged with the substance…and blood.
Crimson letters warned, written possibly by a bloody finger, on the casement of the door. Someone shot Valdez four times in the abdomen, chest, and left arm, causing damage to vital organs. Could Valdez have stayed alive long enough to etch the killer’s identity? His pregnant girlfriend Sharon Condon, 19, died instantly from gunshot wounds to her head.
Police narrowed down the prime suspect to Jeff Boppre of Scottsbluff, who purchased cocaine several times from Valdez. Boppre, serving double life sentences for the 1988 shootings plus a litany of other charges, insisted on his innocence while trying multiple times to clear his blood-stained name over the decades.
The killing spree spurned the interest of two whodunnit sleuths who wanted to dive deeper into the case in their true crime and paranormal podcast, Heartland Darkland.
“It said that the gun was fired from three feet away, so I mean to me, that’s very personal,” said Shannon Benzel about the Condon shooting in the first episode. “Written in Blood-Scottsbluff, NE.”
“It sounds like she was the target…and not Valdez,” Casie Powers added. “The law enforcement was probably just over their heads anyway. I mean, I’m sorry, but nothing like that happens in a small town, or it shouldn’t, and you don’t think it will…“
But it does, as Powers was quick to note. The podcast zip-ties this central idea of cutting into the sinister side of the heartland’s neighborly reputation. The women came up with the concept while working at Massage Envy, bonding over midwestern murder investigations such as the deaths of Sydney Loofe and Mollie Tibbetts.
“We wouldn’t cover the really popular ones. We tried to cover the lesser-known ones,” Benzel said.
Powers believes that true crime podcasts overwhelmingly detail crimes committed near the coasts over the midwest, even though there are “creeps everywhere.”
This passion for crime manifested during their small-town childhoods watching Unsolved Mysteries, America’s Most Wanted, and Bundy: The Deliberate Stranger. Benzel’s father served on the jury for the Boppre case, and she heard stories about it growing up in Gering, Nebraska.
The rise in popularity of true crime podcasts further spurned their interest, as well as that of 34% of American adults, according to a 2022 Pew Research Center study, which coincidentally is the same year Heartland Darkland launched its premiere episode. Women reportedly tune in twice as much as men, and the younger generation gobbles up the content more than those over 65. Powers even listens to Small Town Murder to help her fall asleep at night. Serial, a spinoff of This American Life, shattered records with 300 million downloads to pave the way in 2014. Indeed, reality reflects fiction—Hulu’s television series Only Murders in the Building showcases three characters who form an unlikely friendship based on their fixation with true crime podcasts.
Like in the show, Powers and Benzel lack the funds for big-time equipment or production rooms. Sometimes the duo needs to tape in the car, sitting in the driveway or garage, since screaming children or barking dogs interrupt the process. In the Scottsbluff episode, one of their dogs whines in the background, adding eerie audio to the conversation. The busy moms live blocks away from each other but found it easier to record individually from their separate houses.
Editing, researching, and promoting content takes time and dedication when under a weekly production schedule. Powers, 35, looks like someone interested in mayhem and ghosts, appearing in TikTok videos with bright blue or pink hair cut short, a nose ring, and occasionally, dangling knife earrings. Benzel, 37, pulls her brown hair back into a messy bun, throws on minimal makeup, and prefers comfortable pajamas.
“We have alternate witchy vibes. Shannon, I say this with love, but it’s the suburban mom look,” Powers said, nodding to Benzel with a laugh.
This contrast provides the perfect chemistry for witty banter and challenging viewpoints between friends. They share a similar goal of taking time off or flipping the narrative to the paranormal when one of them needs to preserve their mental health, especially when diving into the darkest realms of the human experience.
“I’ve struggled with anxiety my whole life. I still can’t bring myself to do [an episode] about kids. It’s really heavy,” Benzel said.
“We are still putting forth our best effort while not feeling burnt out,” Powers added.
Benzel is typically responsible for the social media side while Powers focuses on editing and uploading to Podbean. The alternation between promotion and research helps bring down the fatigue. Benzel dug into the Omaha Tribe’s loss of Ashlea Aldrich, her nude body discovered on the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska one week, while Powers explored the Reservation missing and murdered indigenous women in South Dakota the next. The 75 episodes recorded thus far (at time of writing) offer explorations and insights into some of the midwest’s most gruesome and bizarre cases—such as the haunting of the Historic Bullock Hotel in South Dakota, the Angels Landing Cult in Kansas, and the Bonebreaker Killer in Wisconsin.
“We try to cover a wide range of cases, not just the pretty blonde women cases. We always try and make sure we are being respectful of victims,” Powers said.
The future might mean trips to spine-chilling places such as the Villisca Axe Murder House in Iowa, purchasing better equipment to help with production, and collaborating with people in the same podcast space. Powers had the opportunity to attend the Grand Comic Fest and created some Heartland Darkland merchandise, like t-shirts, for the event.
The road ahead remains uncertain since the friends never thought too many people would listen besides friends, husbands, or their moms. Yet, 1,800 listeners have downloaded that original episode.
As for Boppre?
The Nebraska Supreme Court recently denied the now 60-year-old convicted murderer his appeal for a new trial.