When I first spoke with the stars of TNT’s Cold Justice, former Houston prosecutor Kelly Siegler and former Las Vegas crime-scene investigator Yolanda McClary, the duo were meeting press at a TNT network function and hoping that their vision for the true-crime series would resonate with audiences.
A few months later, the series is among the network’s top launches and one of basic cable’s top 5 new unscripted series for the third quarter of 2013, thanks to an irresistible combination of intriguing crime solving and emotional storytelling.
And Cold Justice has proven as effective a crime-fighting enterprise as it is compelling TV. Thanks to the efforts of Siegler and McClary and their teams, cases featured in Cold Justice’s first three episodes have seen new progress toward resolution.
In the Sept. 3 series premiere, Siegler and McClary presented fresh evidence to a Texas Grand Jury that lead Ronnie Joe Hendrick to plead guilty to the 2001 murder of his girlfriend, Pamela Curlee Shelly — a death investigators previously ruled a suicide despite protests from the woman’s family. Hendrick was recently sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Siegler and McClary also helped secure indictments of three suspects in the 2006 murder of Mattie Williams in Collinston, LA — including the victim’s own son. New evidence in the 1982 death of Charlene Corporon in Palacios, Texas, could also result in the victim’s son being charged with murder.
Channel Guide recently caught up with Siegler and McClary to talk about the successes of and lessons learned during Season 1 and their hopes for Season 2, which will premiere in early 2014.
CGM: Congratulations on the success of the show! What was it like to realize that the viewers are as invested in Cold Justice and its intent as you are?
Yolanda McClary: I think we’re both really happy that people got the concept of what we wanted to do. They feel a lot of emotion off the family and off of us and the local police and the detectives we bring in, and that’s what we wanted — for them to know that the case had not been forgotten and that all of us feel the same emotions that they do. The viewers are definitely getting the concept.
Kelly Siegler: We wanted the viewers to see that these detectives have a lot of difficult, frustrating days and — like Yolanda says — it’s not all glamorous. It’s very tedious at times, but a lot of times, that’s how you solve these cases. That’s the real world.
It’s great to see how much credit and gratitude and good publicity the show and the two of you give to the local law enforcement officials who work with you. You’re not going in here and saying, “Here, let us show you how the pros do it and you just tag along” — you really are working collaboratively and learning from each other.
YM: That’s exactly how it is — we do all learn from each other. And you’re absolutely right — we never walk in and act like we’re going to take anything over. They’re inviting us, and we’re grateful to be there with them and to try to give them a hand. But ultimately, it’s their case. We’re just there to give some opinions and help. And everyone we’ve worked with so far in the local law enforcement — they’re awesome. We couldn’t ask for better people working on these cases.
What was it like for you and your team and the show’s crew on the day that the press release went out announcing that Ronnie Joe Hendrick had confessed to murdering Pamela Shelly?
KS: That was a really big day. That case was the pilot, so by the time the trial came around it had been almost a whole year — what we’re doing now is a lot quicker, so the show airs before any trial could happen. So that was an anomaly that that could fall into place the way it did, but I remember that we were so excited when we found out that Ronnie Hendrick was going to plead guilty to murder! We didn’t even know what to think!
YM: Especially when Ron was saying right up until the last minute that this was a horrible mistake and we all knew it wasn’t. And then in the end he pled when he realized that nobody was going to go anywhere and we were going to follow through.
KS: And I think the other thing is when Ronnie Hendrick looked out into the courtroom in a world of people from his home county and they admitted that they had seen the show and they had their minds made up, I think that’s when reality hit him upside the head!
We’ve learned a lot this season about the effectiveness of cases based on circumstantial evidence. Do you think there are too many agencies and officials that are too quick to automatically write them off as losing cases?
KS: Yes! Yeeeeeesssss!
KS: That’s what we want the mantra or the theme or the slogan of the show to be — that there is nothing wrong with circumstantial-evidence cases, oh my God! People, would you quit thinking that!
YM: Actually, there are a lot of law enforcement officials out there that would love to do that, but I think that Kelly would agree that where the stop usually happens is the DA’s office. There are a lot of DAs across the country that really just want that smoking gun; they don’t want all the bits and pieces that they have to walk into a courtroom with.
I think police officers across the United States would love it if more of these circumstantial-evidence cases could go. We need to start working with more DA offices and saying, “Look, you can do it. It’s been done in the best. It gets done every day. You just need to move forward with more of them.”
KS: Because that’s real. A lot of the times, you have a lot of these little things that keep pointing you back to the same suspect, and there comes a time when you’re like, look, you have to make up your mind if you’re the prosecutor. Witnesses are going to start to pass away. Memories are going to start to fade. This is the best the case is going to be. So what are you going to do? Are you going to prosecute the case, or are you going to let someone go free just because you’re going to wait for something that is never going to happen?
YM: The easy cases that have all the fingerprints in place and the umpteenth pieces of DNA, those are the easy ones. Those are the easy ones to solve and they’re also the easy ones to prosecute. We don’t get those cases. Those are not the ones that we open up and look at. We have nothing but hurdles and bridges to cross and walls to knock down on all of ’em!
KS: But hopefully, if we are able to keep doing that, people will be able to understand that most cases don’t have that kind of slam-dunk evidence. You have to do it the hard way.
YM: And DNA and fingerprints and forensics in general are just tools in a case. And sometimes that tool gives you just a small bit of information and not the slam dunk that you wanted, so you still have to take the information that it is giving you and move forward. So many DAs just want the slam dunk and they’re not taking it for what it’s worth and moving forward from there. That’s where things start falling apart.
In our cases, we don’t ever expect that. We just expect to understand a crime scene and what happened there so we know how to go after something. You’re still going to have to know how to go after it without all the nice little bells and whistles.
YM: All of them look really good on the surface and then once we get into them, sadly enough, we realize on that last day that we’ve exhausted everything and there is nothing else that can be done. You’re going to run into cases like that, and we all have to come to terms with that. The family has to come to terms with that. The police. It’s is a sad day, no doubt, but it does happen and it’s going to happen.
Will we see updates on those and other Season 1 cases, either in Season 2 or in some sort of Season 1 follow-up special?
KS: They’re working on the best way to do the follow-ups, because it seems like one of the comments we get most often is “What’s the latest on Matagorda County?” or “What’s the latest on Thatcher?” The viewers want to know about any updates — and they’re trying to figure out the best way to give the updates. Because people do really care about that.
Does your team stay in touch with the local officials after you leave a particular town behind?
KS: From the law enforcement part, our detectives and Yolanda and I are still talking to the detectives from all of our old towns with new thoughts and new ideas on ones that we didn’t solve in case something does come up.
You have a link on the Cold Justice web site for folks to submit cases, and you’ve also said that you’ve been deluged with victims’ family members asking for help. I don’t care how long you guys have been at this — that has to feel like an overwhelming amount of responsibility, especially knowing you can’t help everyone.
KS: Every time you read one of those emails, it just breaks your heart. They’re just dying for any little thing and they hope for any help. Because, obviously, they’re still in pain and what we have to keep saying over and over again is that we can’t open any investigation because of a victim’s family member’s request, because we have to be able to see the offense record and the witness statements and look at the evidence and all of that. We can’t ever walk into a town and say, “Hey, the mom wants us to work on this case, Mr. Police Officer, so give us your file.” He’d say, ”Get the hell out of my office!”
So it has to be the local law enforcement who wants us to come — and unfortunately, even though we say it over and over again on our web site, victims’ family members aren’t hearing that. Or they’re so desperate, they just don’t know what else to do.
YM: Some families that I’ve heard from say, “OK, I’m going to go talk to them!” And I’m sure all of them have marched down into those PD offices, but I’m not sure how many of those PDs would listen to them and actually contact us. Unfortunately, we can’t just say, “Sure! We’d love to take a look at your case!” And that’s really hard for people. They think we can just walk in and do this and we can’t. And even if we had 200 teams doing this, we couldn’t take them all on.
KS: The other thing the victims’ family members don’t think about is that, with a lot of the cases that we read, the local law enforcement guys have done everything that there is to do and there is absolutely nothing more that we could do or even think of to do to make the case any better. And we know — Yolanda and me and our detectives — from doing this so long that there are just some cases that you read and know they’re just never going to be solved.
Are there any standout cases or moments for each of you from Season 1?
KS: It happens in every case
YM: Every case has a moment where something turns or twists or something is found that makes us all look at each other and say, “Well, I didn’t that coming!”
KS: I think we said it yesterday!
Will we see anything different in Season 2 based on what you’ve learned in Season 1, or if it ain’t broke …
KS: I think we have a good system right now — we know how to proceed and it gets a little more efficient. The cases we’re getting now are a little more difficult because there are more witnesses and they are a little more complex. So the complication for us is always can we solve it — because we wouldn’t go to a town unless we thought that we could — and can we solve in 8 working days? In our real world, we could open up a case and work it for years. We have to do these in 8 working days!
YM: I do think we finally got a good rhythm down by the end of Season 1 on how we needed to film these and how we needed to work. But it took us a little while to get it down. Now that we got it, I think that Season 2 is going roll a little smoother and a little better.
The Cold Justice Season 1 finale premieres tonight at 9/8CT on TNT.