OSWEGO — A mystery that captured the attention of a wide region before Ryan Zalduondo was born — the disappearance of local teen Heidi Allen — has turned into a WRVO podcasting series for the SUNY Oswego senior journalism major.
Allen disappeared from what was then the D&W Convenience Store in New Haven on April 3, 1994. Her body was never found, and in the 25 years since, the search for justice has brought controversy and sharply divided opinions.
Zalduondo learned about the mystery while on the road to cover hockey games for The Oswegonian in the North Country. When they passed the Oswego County location where Allen disappeared, a person he was riding with mentioned the case, which piqued Zalduondo’s interest.
“Later, I started listening to ‘Serial’ and other true crime podcasts, and thought about this and asked, ‘Why not do it myself?’” he recalled.
He spoke with Catherine Loper, a communication studies faculty member whom he had in a few journalism classes, and she immediately thought of on-campus National Public Radio affiliate WRVO, where she worked previously.
“I knew about the Heidi Allen story from covering it as the news director of WRVO,” Loper said. “I immediately thought if you’re doing a 25-year anniversary story, having the archival tape would be helpful, and WRVO would be really helpful. It’s hard for a small newsroom to do a long-term project like this, so it was a good partnership.”
Jason Smith, current news director of WRVO, agreed that it was a win-win situation.
The station planned coverage for the anniversary but “Ryan’s work was more in-depth than we could have been able to do,” Smith said. “He was willing to spend hundreds of hours on research, talking to people, going through documents and writing. Each script was about 25 pages.”
The support of the WRVO staff was “incredible,” said Zalduondo, whose main experience previously had been print journalism. “It didn’t take me long to realize there’s a reason they work in radio.”
Mark Lavonier, WRVO’s senior producer, did masterful work with editing the piece and helping him learn, Zalduondo said. The support, expertise and encouragement of Smith and Leah Landry, producer and “Morning Edition” host, were extremely valuable as well, he said.
Loper noted the station promoting the series via excerpts on “Morning Edition” and other avenues, while providing a platform on their website, helped give the project a wide audience.
Smith said WRVO was impressed with Zalduondo’s work ethic and enthusiasm for learning everything needed. “This whole project was his idea,” Smith said. “I’m happy that we have the facilities and the staff to help bring it together.”
Gary Thibodeau was arrested and convicted for Allen’s disappearance, and died in jail in 2018, saying that he was innocent until the end.
Gary’s brother, Richard, was arrested but acquitted. Appeals and media reports kept the case in the news in the quarter-century since Allen’s disappearance.
Interviews with many of those connected with the case unearthed feelings that often were still very raw. Most memorable was interviewing Allen’s sister, Lisa Buske, which was “very emotional for her, and for me,” Zalduondo said.
“He had experiences with sources he hasn’t had before, and he’ll be able to take those experiences with him to help with whatever job he gets in the future,” Loper said.
Plenty of opinions, rumors and theories have emerged in the quarter-century since Allen’s disappearance, and in the wake of his podcast, Zalduondo has found that many local residents, even those with no connection to the case, remain divided.
“The thing that I found to be really interesting is that the information I would find would contradict something else,” Zalduondo said. “That was a difficult part, establishing what is true and what’s not. I think it comes down to a matter of opinion.”
While he isn’t sure whether he will do more podcasting in the future, learning more about research, editing, voice tracking, balancing the various interviews and more made for a valuable experience.
“I really enjoy telling stories like this,” Zalduondo said. “Through doing this, I think I’ve learned more than a whole semester of classes could teach you.”
A new episode of the four-part podcast premieres every Wednesday through April 24, with past and future podcasts updated on WRVO.org.