A Must Listen
If you've got a true crime addiction (and don't we all?), here's another podcast to add to your list. Final Days on Earth comes from investigative journalist Claire St. Amant, a development producer for CBS News who just happens to be a former CultureMap Dallas editor.
St. Amant has produced over 20 episodes of the true-crime television show 48 Hours since she joined CBS News in 2014, along with a handful of stories for 60 Minutes. But she began researching her latest subject while at CultureMap, where Texas-based murders and mysteries were often part of her beat.
Final Days on Earth premiered on April 20 and focuses on Dammion Heard, a college wrestler who vanished after a party in 2014 in Gunnison, Colorado. After a six-month investigation, Gunnison Police ruled Heard's death a suicide, but his friends and family have always wondered if foul play was involved.
The 12-part podcast from Cold Case Productions and PodcastOne covers his baffling disappearance through police interviews with witnesses from the party and Dammion's friends in 2014, as well as original interviews conducted in real time as the podcast is being produced. It debuted at No. 30 on the true crime podcast charts, and is sure to keep climbing.
We chatted with St. Amant about her foray into podcasting, why this case has stuck with her all these years, and why she's hopeful that new witnesses will come forward to shed light on Heard's death.
CultureMap: How did you first become interested in the Dammion Heard case?
CSA: I was actually the managing editor of CultureMap Dallas when Dammion's story first came across my desk in April 2014. It was a compelling story to me because of how suddenly Dammion's life was turned upside down. One day, he's a rising star on the wrestling team, with tons of friends and close relationships with his family, and then he just disappears out of thin air.
The college freshman walked into a party and had no idea it would be the last night of his life. It's just such a tragic turn of events on a seemingly normal night that I had to know more about who Dammion was and what events led up to his disappearance and death.
I never imagined my reporting journey would last this long — seven years and counting — but believe I'm closer than ever to getting the answers that Dammion's family has been looking for ever since his death.
CM: How did the podcast come about?
CSA: I was contacted by a recruiter in 2018 about hosting a true crime podcast and she pitched me on a bunch of different cases, but none of them felt like the right fit for me. I already focus on true crime cases for CBS News, so I have a pretty high threshold of what kinds of cases that I find interesting.
There was a local newspaper poll that came out after Gunnison Police ruled Dammion's case as a suicide, and 85 percent of respondents said they did not believe that police were justified in closing the investigation. I realized it wasn't only Dammion's family who had questions about the suicide ruling, and I wanted to see if I could help find some answers.
Dammion's story had so much material — the Gunnison Police Department conducted 47 recorded interviews with witnesses in the case — and it had never been heard by the public. When I got ahold of that raw audio, it was a jaw dropping moment. I realized it was a podcast waiting to happen, and I wanted to be the one to put it together.
CM: What extra reporting have you done for the podcast?
CSA: I've conducted over 35 interviews of my own for the podcast, and in June 2020, I roadtripped to Gunnison and spent a week reporting on location. The cornerstone of my reporting was putting together a timeline of Dammion's final days on earth and the ones following his disappearance, before police found his body.
The police file on Dammion's case was 187 pages long, but it was just a listing of individual reports from three different investigators. No one had ever taken the time to go through everything and put all the events in order.
Using eyewitness statements, bank records, cellphone data, and information from Western Colorado University about Dammion's ID card usage, I constructed a timeline that paints a much clearer picture than anyone has ever seen in this case.
CM: What was the experience of putting it together like?
CSA: It was a lot harder and took a lot longer than I ever could have imagined when I started the process back in 2018. But I've learned so much about every aspect of podcast production. In the beginning, it took me a week to put together one episode, and it was so stressful handling all the technical aspects of audio editing. But around the third episode, I really hit my stride and got into a rhythm.
CM: Did you discover anything new while making it?
CSA: Absolutely. You'll have to listen to the full season to get all the details, but suffice it to say I've found new witnesses and consulted experts from all over the world, as close as McKinney and as far away as Germany, to get insight and answers that no one else has about Dammion's case.
CM: Do you think this case could benefit from increased exposure and renewed interest from the public?
CSA: Definitely. There are key witnesses in Dammion's case who have never been identified, even though there are vehicle descriptions and other pieces of identifying information available. We need the public's help to get these descriptions out there and hopefully compel someone to come forward and share what they know about Dammion's case.
CM: What are some of your favorite podcasts?
CSA: Oh man, so many! The classics for me will always be season one of Serial and season one of Up and Vanished. More recently, my favorite podcasts of 2020-2021 were season two of American Nightmare;Murder in a Safe Place with Paul Wagner; and Tom Brown's Body, the first podcast from Skip Hollandsworth at Texas Monthly.
New episodes of Final Days on Earth with Claire St. Amantare released every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all other podcast listening platforms. The 12-episode series runs through July 6.