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Stacy Chapin, whose 20-year-old son, Ethan, was one of the four University of Idaho students brutally stabbed to death last November, was initially skeptical about attending CrimeCon, an annual event attended by thousands of true crime enthusiasts from around the world.
“I’m not a true crime watcher, and I never have been,” Chapin told a packed ballroom in Orlando, Florida, on Sunday, “but what you see as a level of entertainment, there are real people behind” — her voice broke into a sob — “behind the stories.”
But CrimeCon, Chapin learned this past weekend, also offers a unique platform for victims and survivors to open up about their devastating losses — as catharsis, to inspire others and to advocate for change. Often, they’re sharing the same stages as the people who make their living off of tragedy: the attorneys, investigative experts, and podcasters who are celebrities in the true crime world. But in between the selfies and the celebration — the “Neon Disco”-themed opening night party featured a musical performance by Creighton Waters, the attorney who prosecuted Alex Murdaugh — attendees have shown they’re ready to respond with empathy and heed the calls of action from family members of murder victims.
Becky Patty, the grandmother of 14-year-old Liberty German, who was killed in 2017 with her best friend, Abby Williams, in Delphi, Indiana, shared that sentiment from the stage in front of a rapt crowd: “You guys are what makes this, and it’s just wonderful to see how many people care and want to help.”
Chapin and Patty’s panel was called “A World Turned Upside Down: Tragedy, Triumph, and the Power of Healing,” and they were joined by Tara German, Liberty’s aunt; Sharon Love, whose 22-year-old daughter Yeardley, a University of Virginia lacrosse player, was killed by her boyfriend in 2010; and Kerri Rawson, the daughter of convicted serial killer Dennis Rader.
The women shared their coping mechanisms for dealing with intense media scrutiny and rampant speculation about their cases, compared tattoos in honor of their murdered children, and emphasized the importance of leaning on each other and their community to navigate their upended lives.
Dozens of panels in the three-day event included speakers analyzing headline-making cases — like the Idaho killings — as well as sessions from people involved in all facets of criminal investigations and court trials, interactive workshops, live podcast tapings, and eyewitness accounts. Through it all, attendees schmoozed with popular true crime figures like “Dateline” correspondent Josh Mankiewicz, the Murdaugh trial teams, “Cold Justice” investigator Kelly Siegler, and Nancy Grace and Paul Holes, in scheduled “meet and greets” and on the floor. But the convention often turned to deep emotion — sometimes unexpectedly.
During the Saturday Q&A portion of “The Idaho Murders: An Expert Forensic Analysis,” a bumbling and sometimes graphic presentation by veteran death investigator Joseph Scott Morgan, Chapin stunned the crowd by stepping up to the microphone.
“I actually didn’t sit through it because it’s too hard to watch,” she said through tears, “but I do want all you to know that these were the greatest kids.” Amid the discussion of their killings, she pleaded, “Don’t forget these kids.”
Families want to talk about their loved ones, not the case, Candice Cooley, whose son Dylan Rounds is believed to have been killed last May, told the crowd during another panel about “missing white woman syndrome.” Sitting alongside her were David Robinson II, whose youngest son Daniel Robinson, a 24-year-old Black man, went missing in June 2021, and the parents and stepparents of Gabby Petito, the 22-year-old white woman whose disappearance and death dominated news coverage in August 2021.
While thankful for the massive publicity and citizen sleuths who helped track their daughter and her abusive boyfriend and killer, Petito’s parents, Joe Petito and Nichole Schmidt, and her stepparents, Tara Petito and Jim Schmidt, recognize the vast majority of cases involving missing men or people of color receive little attention and are ignored or minimized by law enforcement.
Sisters-in-law Derrica and Natalie Wilson, the co-founders of Black and Missing Foundation Inc., spoke about the crisis at another panel. And as previous winners of CrimeCon’s Crime Fighter of the Year Award, they took the stage Saturday night at the Clue Awards — which recognize the work of true crime creators — to present this year’s honor to the Gabby Petito Foundation. After accepting the award, the Petito and Schmidt families surprised the Wilsons with a $15,000 donation to BAMFI.
The plight of missing people was also highlighted on a corkboard wall plastered with missing person flyers and supportive notes from passersby.
Foot traffic was heavy in front of it as people rushed to grab a good seat in the ballrooms, meet their favorite podcasters manning tables in the exhibit hall, and queue up to buy books by true crime luminaries to have them signed in person. Once in a while, a squeal of recognition pierced the crowd noise as someone recognized a celebrity, followed by a flash of light as they posed for selfies.
In some of the ballrooms, the hush of the captivated crowd listening to investigators, crime analysts and forensic psychologists was broken by laughter at dark humor — many of the convention’s most popular speakers are natural entertainers.
On other stages, people recounted the worst days of their lives and the unbearable grief that followed. In spite of the courage needed to be so vulnerable to thousands of people, many speakers said they felt they were in a safe space. And their audiences were sympathetic, compassionate, respectful and even protective.
“I just feel like I’m in my skin here, like my new family,” Rawson said about the CrimeCon community. “I’m home with my family,” Rawson similarly posted on X when she arrived at CrimeCon this year.
The convention also offers a chance for survivors to meet and connect with people who are suffering from similar tragedies.
“I’ve met a lot of amazing people that are going through a lot of the same feelings that we go through,” Tara German, Libby’s aunt, said. “Our cases are not directly the same, but the grieving process is really the same.”
In previous years, the family hosted a booth to publicize Abby and Libby’s unsolved killings. (Richard Allen was charged with their murders last October and is awaiting trial.)
“I got to talk to so many people, and all these people that would come up had their stories too,” Patty said.
It was unexpected kindness after experiencing the firestorm of the national media spotlight, Chapin said, adding she hopes to continue to advocate for her son and the other victims’ families.
“From the beginning of being here at CrimeCon to now, my perception of it has changed a little bit,” said Chapin. “I really didn’t know.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated incorrectly that the co-founders of Black and Missing Foundation Inc. received the Crime Fighter of the Year Award at CrimeCon’s 2023 Clue Awards. They received the honor in 2022 and were presenters this year.