ALICIA RANCILIO, Associated Press
In 2019, a listener of writer Neil Strauss’ podcast “To Live and Die in LA” came forward with information that helped solve the case of a 25-year-old missing woman, Adea Shabani. The revelations were released in almost real time, and listening seemed intimate, not to mention terrifying.
Strauss is back with a second season of his podcast, focusing on the 2017 disappearance of Elaine Park, a 20-year-old woman last seen in Calabasas, California. A new episode is released on Thursdays. Strauss became aware of the case after his then-wife, Ingrid De La O, stumbled across a news report online that said Park’s abandoned car was found in Malibu — where they lived. De La O couldn’t shake the idea that something disturbing may have taken place in her community and joined the search. She brought in neighbor and friend Mike Einziger — guitarist for the band Incubus — and his wife, violinist Ann Marie Simpson. Strauss helped too, now saying that at the time it was originally more to get along than to go along. Strauss alludes on the podcast to his marriage breaking up, at least in part due to the intensity of the investigation.
Strauss can attribute some of his professional success to subjecting himself to unique situations. He famously went undercover in the world of pickup artistry, where men trained to attract women with tactics such as backhanded compliments and limited availability. This was chronicled in the 2005 bestselling book “The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists.” Ten years later, he examined his own struggles with intimacy and monogamy in “The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book about Relationships.” Strauss has also served as a ghostwriter for celebrity memoirs by Jenna Jameson and Kevin Hart and writes for Rolling Stone.
But it’s the dive into these missing persons cases that has taken up much of his focus in recent years.
“It’s very just intense and stressful,” said Strauss recently over Zoom. “I’m doing very current cases, not old, cold cases.” Strauss wants to find out what happened to Park, but he also feels a call to help other families searching for missing loved ones. He’s mulling over options, including a book of advice or offering guidance behind the scenes.
Einziger says Park’s disappearance has consumed much of his own life. There’s been times when he’s been on stage performing with Incubus and immediately afterward, gotten on a phone call about the case.
“We’ve all been involved pretty constantly whether we wanted to or not,” he said, also over Zoom. “It’s been a huge learning experience for all of us because things are not always what they seem to be. You think one thing and then you learn something else is true.”
Strauss and Einziger say the Glendale Police Department — which has jurisdiction over the case — has been receptive to their input.
“Whatever way they can get information, they’re happy to get it,” said Strauss, who adds that “from my limited experience, every relationship with the police is different.” He’s also helped amplify the case of missing California man Matthew Weaver by producing a one-off podcast episode about him.
Strauss has a theory why podcasts about unsolved cases can be more effective than articles in drawing people in.
“Articles are static,” he said. “The article comes out and maybe there’s some things in the comments, but a podcast unfolds week to week and it kind of spreads. It’s interactive with tips coming in, people call, they get emotionally involved and attached. You don’t hear people talk about articles the way they talk about podcasts.”
A goal is to humanize Park. The podcast has audio of her performing a freestyle rap, and tweets and a text are read aloud to provide a window into the person behind the name.
“What a beautiful soul, what a beautiful person,” said Strauss. “I tear up every time I listen to those parts of the podcast and you want people to care.”
Strauss’ podcast has drawn a substantial audience. Production company Tenderfoot TV says between the two seasons, there have been over 60 million episode downloads. Strauss says one challenge in keeping listeners engaged is in being concise and simple.
“When you’re writing an article, you can give a lot of facts. But when someone’s listening to audio, if they get too much information, they tune out,” explained Strauss. “You have to be really clear. You have to really repeat stuff, and you have to really give the skeleton of necessary facts.”
The investigation isn’t only time consuming. It can also be scary.
Strauss says hosting a podcast with a large listenership gives him an advantage because “announcing a person I’m investigating is a tiny bit of an insurance policy” to share where the case is taking him.
Einziger adds, “Somebody is missing so the implication is that something probably happened to Elaine. We’re trying to piece it together, so whoever is responsible, it’s logical to assume they would not want us to figure it out. There have been times where we’ve been afraid for our safety for sure.”
The case is now in its fourth year, but Einziger says in some ways, it feels they’re only beginning. The answers uncovered in the Shabani case make him hopeful.
“Someone came forward. That’s our goal in putting this podcast out. Get all of the information out there so that anyone with information who knows anything can come forward.”