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VOL. 43 | NO. 37 | Friday, September 13, 2019

Law enforcement, media often resist private help

By Tom Wood

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Because of her experience with the Holly Bobo case, Nashville private investigator Sheila Wysocki says she tries to avoid cases in Tennessee. To date, she has made only one exception.

A quick refresher: Bobo was murdered in 2011 near her Darden, Tennessee, home and in 2017, Zach Adams was found guilty of kidnapping, rape and first-degree murder and sentenced to life plus 50 years without parole.

But it is what occurred between the murder and the trials that shook Wysocki’s trust not only in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation but in certain members of the media as well.

Not long after her daughter’s murder, Karen Bobo approached Wysocki about getting involved in her daughter’s disappearance. Within a year and working pro bono because it was such a high-profile case, Wysocki and her team had identified four main suspects – Zach Adams, his brother Dylan (who was sentenced to 35 years), Shayne Austin (who committed suicide in Florida in 2015) and Jason Autry (arrested and testified for the state).

Meanwhile, the TBI stopped looking at those four men and was instead focusing attention on another suspect — and on Wysocki’s investigative team, which went public with its search for Bobo’s murderers.

A press release was issued on May 17, 2013, with this headline: ‘TBI determines non-profit “Without Warning” did not conduct investigation on missing West Tennessee woman to law enforcement standards.’ It got worse from there.

“They came and intimidated and they came to the house and took things and subpoenaed things and harassed and harassed and harassed,” Wysocki recalls. “They told me not to speed –you know, I’m thinking, I haven’t done anything.

“And, like hello, do you find that a little intimidating? So I’m scared I’m being followed by them. And you know, what, are you going to argue with them at that point?”

It was only during the Adams trial that TBI officials admitted on the witness stand that they’d been pursuing the wrong suspects.

“And until the trial happened, I kept my mouth shut about the way we were treated. And they wanted me,” Wysocki adds. “Once that case went to trial and they saw what we were talking about, and they had to admit that they lied on the stand, it changed everything. So everybody turned to me and goes, ‘oh, you were right, you were telling the truth.’ Yes, I was.”

The TBI declined to comment.

Wysocki says because of the way the TBI allegations were reported then, she is very selective about media coverage now. In particular, she is still angry with WSMV 4, saying she will never do an interview with anybody from the station “now or ever” because of its coverage.

“There are certain media I won’t deal with. And I’m real particular on the reporters,” she continues. “And I’ve learned the hard way which reporters are good and which aren’t. I’ve been through the fire with some of them – one of which is Dennis Ferrier (now with Fox17), who stood by me when everybody else was calling me a liar.”

WSMV was contacted for this story.

Ferrier says he understands Wysocki’s once-burned stance.

“Relentless compassion, and so authentic,” is how Ferrier describes her. “And that’s why I think she only talks to certain reporters. Because the feeling I get from Sheila is she knows the media is powerful – especially if law enforcement has goofed up, right? … If she doesn’t think the reporter has the best interest of the victims and is just looking for a salacious story, she doesn’t want anything to do with it.”

And that applies to national media as well. She also is choosy about talking with national media, happy to appear on primetime shows like “20/20’’ or “NBC: Dateline,’’ or specialized shows such as “Access Hollywood’’ or “Crime Watch Daily,’’ plus a variety of newspapers and magazines and podcasts.

“I’ll do all of those, their producers are fantastic. And they care about the truth,” she says. “It’s not about sensationalizing and harming somebody.”

But she won’t appear on certain daytime TV talk shows.

Wysocki has become adept at using podcasts and true-crime conventions, conducting popular crowdsourcing seminars at CrimeCons in Nashville (2018) and New Orleans (2019). The one at Opryland Hotel a couple of years ago drew thousands, and next summer she will launch her own EyeCon convention.

“It’s basically getting a large group of people to problem-solve, to handle problems kind of like a focus group. She has been a pioneer, or trailblazer, in investigative crowdsourcing,” says Texas-based P.I. Mark Gillespie, who is profiled along with Wysocki in the new book “Becoming a Private Investigator’’ by Howie Kahn.

“Nobody else has done this kind of work in the P.I. world. She has used social media to help solve crimes and to seek the truth.”

Wysocki has produced her own “Without Warning” podcast on the mysterious 2016 death of Lauren Agee while camping with three friends at Center Hill Lake in Smithville, Tennessee, and is currently appearing in the “Culpable” podcast about the 2014 death of Christian Andreacchio in Meridian, Mississippi, which was ruled a suicide but evidence collected by Wysocki suggests otherwise.

“I stopped the (“Without Warning”) podcast while (Agee’s mother) Sherry Smith goes back to court. She goes back to court early next year, February, I think,” says Wysocki, who was hired by the mother to investigate. “There’s a lot of procedural things that need to be done, and then (Smith) can go forward with the wrongful death (lawsuit).”

Wysocki says the “Culpable” podcast has produced a lot of reaction, both positive in the form of tips and information, and negative with some threats.

“I’m better now … everything’s secured, so I feel better. When you came (for the interview), I think my anxiety was pretty high,” Wysocki adds.

She makes clear that her issues with the TBI does not extend to other law enforcement agencies. Most of her core crew has a legal background of some sort. But she acknowledges the gulf that exists between official agencies and P.I.s.

“In general terms, law enforcement does not realize the resources that private investigators bring. And they’re not well-received,” Wysocki says. “I would say that across the board maybe one or two will realize this is a good thing. But in general, police (and) DA’s, they do not want to use those resources.”

And she notes that she is a fan of Nashville police, especially retired detective Pat Postiglione, who solved some of Metro’s most notorious murder cases in his three-decade career.

“He’s fantastic. I have the utmost respect for Pat. He’s a victim-centered person,” Wysocki notes, adding that they’ve never actually met. They did discuss various cases in telephone conversations, however.

“If she called inquiring about particular cases – or any private investigator called me when I was working on a particular case – I’d be happy to speak to them about the case,” says Postiglione, who is set to soon begin taping the second season of “Deadly Recall’’ for the Discovery ID channel. “And if there are certain issues that I can’t touch on, you know, for certain reasons, then I would tell them there are certain things we can’t discuss.

“And typically a private investigator that understands the system would understand that completely. And Sheila’s one of them.”

Postiglione says one thing they have in common is “her passion is the truth, obviously, to help the families. You can imagine a family … let’s say we’re discussing a homicide and a family member has been killed … we’re going on 10, 15, 20 years, and you have no idea who killed your loved one. Imagine the torment and anguish that a family member goes through.

“That’s what drove me to try to provide them with answers. And I’m sure that’s what drives Sheila as well. You want to come up with some sort of answer.

“So you try to bring them some closure, but at the same time you’re bringing them justice – which is the big thing for the family. And that’s what Sheila tries to do. So looking for the truth, trying to bring the family answers that they so desperately seek, is the deal. I mean, that’s what drives homicide detectives and I’m sure that’s what drives Sheila.”

Author Kahn also noted Wysocki’s quest for truth and desire to act as a voice for the victims.

“I think what you’re addressing … is this idea of how complicated the truth sometimes becomes, what length people go to, to both bury it and to find it, and who is getting in the way of it, and who’s pursuing it,” Kahn says. “I think one of the things that drew me to Sheila is how she truly believes and has so much conviction about her own motive.”

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