Season 1 Bonus: Why Revisit a 26-Year-Old Crime?
Due to popular demand, Episode 3 was dropped early for your binging pleasure. Before we return to our regular weekly episode releases next Tuesday, this week, host Amy Donaldson explains why she pursued this case in the first place, and what can be learned by looking at the last day of an 18-year-old murder victim’s life.
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Amy Donaldson 01:21
Hello friends, before we get started, we wanted to thank you for your support and explain why this episode is different from the others. We were so overwhelmed by the support for the letter that we decided to release Episode Three early on Friday. But we still wanted to drop something in your feed on our regular Tuesday release day. So we’re giving you a sneak peek into the world of bonus episodes. These episodes are usually only available when you subscribe to Lemonada Premium through Apple podcasts. You can get all the bonus content offered by Lemonada in the Apple podcast app by clicking on our podcast logo, and then click the subscribe button. We hope you enjoy this little extra. And again, we cannot thank you enough for all of your love and support for a podcast. Hi, this is Amy Donaldson, host of the letter, and today I’m taking you to church. Let me explain. In the summer of 2021, I ran into an old friend. And I told her about the podcast I’ve been working on for nearly three years. The letter a couple of days later she called and asked if I thought Sy Snarr. The mother in the podcast whose son was killed would speak to a group of women from her church about forgiveness. She like Sy is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I said I’d pass on the invitation. So I was willing to speak to the women. But she had a condition that I speak at the gathering with her. I was reluctant for a few reasons, but especially because while I was raised a Latter Day Saint, I haven’t practiced in nearly 32 years. I thought it might be a little odd for me to speak at a church meeting. But both women assured me this would not be an issue. And what they wanted from me was a little insight on why this story resonated with me. So that’s what you’re about to hear a little behind the scenes and some hints about what’s to come in the podcast. The meeting took place in September of 2021 in a multipurpose room at an LDS church in Salt Lake City. So I spoke first and will share her remarks in future bonus content. Then I address the room of about 50 women. So many thoughts. First, let me say how I found out about this story I knew Sy, I covered Crime and Corrections when Zachary was killed. I was not actually on the beat the night he was killed. So someone else actually wrote about his murder. But I wrote some follow up stories. And I actually we just connected these dots, sat in her living room with her and did a story about what it was like to go through the first holidays, the first birthday the first Christmas after you lose somebody, especially in sort of an unexpected and a violent way where you kind of are filled with these questions about what why is this happening to me. And I think it’s important for you to understand that in the 90s. We were using the death penalty pretty aggressively. Seven people were sentenced to die in the 90s which is more in the rest of the decades. In modern Utah history since the death penalty has been back we that’s the most we’ve ever sentenced to die. In the same decade. We actually executed three people also the most. That was a very real possibility. In their case, and had they pushed it. George would have been on death row, though there’s no I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. You can listen to the podcast for all those details. But so I found out about it from a friend of mine who was running friend in. The woman who delivered the letter is actually his aunt. And he said, you got to do his podcast on the story. And I just started podcasting in 2016. And I was a print reporter for most of my career. And we’d been talking about podcasts we loved and kind of some goals we wanted to do. And I had no interest in doing a crime podcast, I said, I am, I’m going to do something about running and I’m going to do some stuff with veterans. I had all these other goals. And he sent me the letter that his aunt wrote about taking the leader to church, the weekend, the Sunday after George killed Zachary. And I was sobbing. And I said, I just, I don’t know what I need. I didn’t even think I need to write this story, or I need to make a podcast. I just thought, I need to know these people. And I prayed about it. And I said, you know, God, I feel really lucky. I have had the greatest job my entire life.
Amy Donaldson 06:15
My job is my church. Because I learn, I’m inspired. I can’t, the people that I’ve met have made me a better parent. They made me a better person. And I read this letter, and I just thought I need to I need to know how the story goes. I mean to know, so I like put it off. I think I had I looked up Sy’s phone number, which I was surprised. I was surprised I could find it so easily. But, um, I she lived in the same house. And I thought about going to her house and like, should I take her some flowers? Like how should I get her to talk about and I’ve actually just reached out to the woman who delivered the letter. And I said, I’m interested in talking to her about maybe doing a story or a podcast or something. But I really just want to talk to you. So we I brought sandwiches and we talked and we sort of all liked the idea but we had, I just was really upfront with this, that I didn’t really know what I wanted from them. I just needed to know them and know the story. And I think it was at the time still really unfolding. She had just gotten a letter a few months earlier and it had been a miracle. And we did an interview we did a sit down interview in my in my little studio I made in my house was my stepsons old bedroom with blankets hanging around my dog’s candle that like shown everyone have a treat so we can be quiet. And it was just an I can’t even tell you that two hours was just I felt in my soul. This is what I this. This is not an accident. And then she broke my heart a month or two later and said I changed my mind I don’t want to do it. And the woman who delivered the letters I changed my mind. I don’t want to do it either. And the only person who was willing to do it was a woman who’d survived the shooting.
Amy Donaldson 08:52
I prayed about it a lot. And I just said, you know what, I’m just going to talk to people and keep this open. I believe ideas come to you for a reason. And people, I, my mom and I was talking about, because I’m a person who uses prayer, like for everything, I lost my keys, come on, God help me out where my keys, you know, you know where I left him. My husband doesn’t know. But you know. And so I joke a lot about that praying to me is very like a, I don’t always treat it, I think with the I think reverence that it may be demands at times, and I just had some experiences where I felt like, just keep doing it, just do your job, and be open to the possibilities and keep talking to people. And maybe when you have time do a little research. So I did like one interview every three months. And I talked to the lawyer who represented your I called them and they were like, in shock. They couldn’t believe this happen. One of the lawyers said to me, of all the clients I’ve represented, I never imagined this would be, that this would happen. And I said, Well, will you do an interview, come to my house. And so I just interviewed slowly over time. And then I didn’t really know what I was doing. And I got to this point. And, you know, the year of COVID, was really hard. I covered. I wrote a lot about people who lost someone to COVID. And people whose lives were changed because they got long COVID syndrome, or I was down on the Navajo Nation three different times, and people lost their businesses. And I just, and then there were a lot of pros, I was covering protests all the time. And it just felt every day just felt like a lot of pain. And I just kept thinking about this story all the time. And I just, I said, you know, I don’t know, if I’m the person that’s supposed to tell the story, or help be a part of this, but I just need to know how it ends. And I remember going on a hike with some friends. And I told them the story, that what I knew at the time, which was, you know, the first 30% of the story that’s in the podcast, no. And they were mesmerized. And I mean, it got us through like seven miles of uphill, fight for horn. I don’t know if any of you’ve ever done that. But it’s really hard. And it was snowy. And it was a slog. And we and all these were all guys that are all tough guys. And they were all silent and completely emotional. And they said,
Amy Donaldson 12:44
We really hope you get to do that story. And we got to know it. And I said I do too. But you know, if I never get to publish it, like I just am so grateful God brought it into my life. Because I needed this, I needed that it was like my little life preserver, through 2020 Like a work on this stuff that I have to do. And I want to give it everyone I write about my very best and put myself in their shoes. And so I try to open my heart as much as possible. But this really like, I even was telling my boss the other day, there’s just no journalistic separation between me and the story anymore. Like it is like in, I dream about it. I don’t even try to not to be like, I’ll just work on something. If I feel compelled to work on this, I work on this. It has been the most uplifting thing I’ve ever and I have been so lucky. So many people have trusted me with their stories, I waited five years for a story ones. And it was worth every year that I waited. Because I feel like the stories, they find their way to be told when they need to be told, in running, we have the saying the trail gives you what you need when you need it. And I feel that way about the stories that we all look that we need and that we share with each other. They find their way to the person who needs them when they need the most. And I will say you know, I do think I when I pray I always expect like God to be like, instantly there’s your keys, you know, so, or like I have this problem. Oh my gosh, that’s the solution. So easy. And it’s usually two or three or four years go by and I go, Oh, that’s why I had to deal with that. And one of the lessons I’ve learned from this is to be patient because we are the answer to each other’s prayers. Whether we know it or not. God doesn’t come down and bake dinner for your sick neighbor. You do that? And you do that because you felt like you know, I know she doesn’t feel Well, she’s probably not, she’s probably eating microwave dinners, you do that, because God tells you, God sends you a little nudge to think about someone else. So I just feel like there’s so many. This story is so much more miraculous than even sigh has led on, there are so many ways in which we are connected. And that if any one person had decided not to listen to the little nudge that God was giving them, none of this would have happened. And it’s a miracle that a person who lived in Max security for 17 years, would ever become a human being that she knows and loves. It’s a miracle that she has embraced him and his family the way she has. I’ve had the miracle of forgiveness in my own life. And I know that resentment is a poison that you drink, hoping the other guy dies. But yeah, I think we’ve all been there. And I don’t think it’s an unreasonable response to want to hurt the people that hurt us. And if someone took from me, my children, who I love, just as much as say, loves her beautiful kids. I don’t think I would want to do anything except an eye for an eye. I don’t think anything would feel fair. And that’s what we as human beings do. And I think what I’ve learned from Sy, and Ron and their kids I’ve met Sydney is actually we’ve roped almost everyone signed nose into the podcast now. But every person has added just an unbelievable element of love. And again, this like what that domino just the little puzzle pieces that fit together that we had no idea if it together. But it’s had a profound impact on me as a journalist, but and as a person who wants to make something, put something out in the world. I remember somebody saying years ago and in journalism, you know, what do you want to do you want to win the Pulitzer? Or do you want to, you know, win this? Or do you want to get on the front page, you know, I said, I want to make when I’m gone, I want people to say, You know what, I was better because I read that story. She wrote, I, my life was better because of the art that she made. And I feel like most of my life I failed at that. There are a few times I feel like, God basically took control of the keyboard and, okay, let’s do this together. And this is one of them. And I feel like this will make people’s lives better. What I have learned is to trust the story and to trust that there are people who need to hear a story that I feel compelled to chase and Hound someone into doing. And we don’t know who those people are, and we don’t know what difference is going to make. But I know I have seen it happen over and over in my career. And I just trust it now almost without thinking about it.
Amy Donaldson 19:40
The last thing I’ll share with you is something that I shared with Ron Snarr earlier. Yesterday I had to put down one of my dogs and I think about this, I’ve had this experience a couple of times recently, what would you want your last day to be? And I think about that with my dogs like, oh, I have to take them on a hike. So they go to their favorite trail, and they get ice cream. And they, you have to do all your favorite things in 24 hours. I think this comes from I have a daughter who was born with a congenital heart defect. And I, when she had her open heart surgery at 11 months, I was terrified that she was not going to make it. And I felt like we had to live all our lives. In the three months that I had before I knew she was going to have surgery. And so I did all this nutty stuff and tortured my husband and my children. And I regretted every minute of it. Because it was just, she just wanted to be with me. She didn’t care about going to Disneyland and all the stuff I made us do what she was like, you know what, my mom dragging me all over. And doing we have photos we have to do. And my kid was just like, just be with me. Let’s just have a tea party. And when I was with my dog yesterday, I just thought he doesn’t want to go on a walk. I’m like dragging him around the neighborhood. And it’s hot and his tongue singing. And I thought, you know, what is what would you want your last day to be because you don’t know when it’s going to be for most of us. And I thought about Zach’s last day, and he did a kind thing for his mom. He expressed his love for the people who are most important to him. He made his sister laugh. He gave everyone something joyful to, to remember to hold on to. And he didn’t know it was his last day. And he enjoyed a beautiful place with people with a person that he cared about. And I thought if that’s my last day, I’m gonna be so grateful that everything about my day all the people who know me and let me say, oh, yeah, I she called me that day. Oh, yeah, she, she waved at me from her truck, like a nut job, you know. And I just, it just made me calm down yesterday about my dog, just hold my dog and love my dog and think you know what, you live all these other, I always say that game isn’t decided on the last free throw taken. It’s all the other plays that lead up to that moment. You focus on that end, but you have all this other time to do all these other amazing things. And you have to trust that that you know you, you lived a good life. And I think that maybe is what I’ve learned most from Zach is just do the right thing when you can, and that’s what people will remember from you, you know not oh my gosh, he you know, did this he skydive done his last day, you know what I mean? You always feel like it has to be big and sensational. Maybe it has to be that you clean the kitchen for your mom. And I thought if I did a kindness for my mom, and made my sister laugh and made my dad feel special, I would think that was a great send off, I would be happy about that. I’m grateful to listeners for just letting me torture them. You have no idea how many interviews I don’t even know how many interviews we’ve done at this point. I’m grateful that I get to work on this podcast and to know all the people involved. I mean, seriously, every interview for the first I don’t know 12 interviews was a sob session. There’s no I think I’ve interviewed one person who didn’t cry at this point. Because it is just it is as the one of the attorneys said this case and what has happened is a life changing experience to know and to be a part of. It’s called THE LETTER that’s the name of the podcast.
THE LETTER is researched and reported by me, Amy Donaldson. It’s written by myself and Andrea Smardon, who is also responsible for Production and Sound Design. Mixing by Trent Sell. Special thanks to Nina Earnest, Becky Bruce, KellieAnn Halvorsen, Ryan Meeks, Ben Kuebrich, Josh Tilton and Dave Cawley. Main musical score composed by Allison Leyton Brown with KSL Podcasts Executive Producer Sheryl Worsley. For Lemonada Media, Executive Producers Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs And Executive Producers Paul Anderson and Nick Panella with WorkHouse Media. If you’d like our show, please give us a rating and review. It helps people find us follow us at the letterpodcast.com and on social at @theletterpodcast. The letter is produced by KSL podcasts and Lemonada Media in association with Workhouse Media.