Twenty Years and Counting, Paul Holes Works to Solve 'The Riddle of Emmon Bodfish'

The cold case investigator, famed for helping crack the Golden State Killer case, puzzles over the unsolved mystery that still haunts him in an absorbing new podcast.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.

Trigger warnings: inconsistent pronoun use, misgendering, and the mention of a deadname.

Kat Johnson: This is Audible Editor Kat Johnson, and I have the pleasure of talking to the legendary cold case investigator Paul Holes about his new project, The Riddle of Emmon Bodfish. This Audible Original follows one of the most memorable cases of Paul's career, and that's really saying something because Paul has worked on some very chilling crimes, including his most famous, the case of the Golden State Killer. Paul worked on that case for more than 20 years and was instrumental in helping to get justice for the many victims in that as well as many other cases. Thank you and welcome, Paul.

Paul Holes: Well, thank you for having me.

KJ: Thanks for being here. I want to talk about The Riddle of Emmon Bodfish because this is a case you worked on back in 1999, concerning a 56-year-old transgender man who was found bludgeoned to death in his home in Northern California. I want to make this conversation a spoiler-free zone because there are a lot of twists and turns that I don't want to ruin, but I think it's almost like Grey Gardens meets True Detective. Emmon lived a very reclusive life. He lived in a modest home in this very natural setting in Orinda, California, but it turns out he had quite a lot of money and a very complicated family dynamic.

There are elements of mental illness, paganism, secret diaries, and priceless antiques. I want to ask you, because you've worked on so many cases, some very haunting cases: Why does this one stand out to you?

PH: The Bodfish case stands out to me initially because it was so unusual and even from the very first moment I stepped into that house, I knew I was dealing with something different than I had ever experienced before. I will tell you, I've never experienced a case like it since. Emmon Bodfish was wealthy, had inherited money from a wealthy banking family out of Chicago. Even though the house was modest, the house was located in the town of Orinda in the Bay Area, and Orinda is a very wealthy location. The house was worth a lot of money. 

I'm walking into that house for the first time. As I'm walking through the garage, there's a black Bentley parked in that garage and I have never been to a case in which there's a Bentley. Then as soon as I get inside the house, I am now looking at something that appeared to have come out of the medieval world. What added to the experience of going into that house is that Emmon had been dead for five days inside that house. There were flies everywhere. The buzz from those flies, I can still hear to this day. It just added to the suspense of “What am I getting myself into?” Then as I started working the case—and I went to this not as an investigator, but as a crime scene investigator, as a criminalist, but then took on an investigative support role as I went and learned more about who Emmon was and what I thought ultimately was the reason Emmon was killed.

"There were flies everywhere. The buzz from those flies, I can still hear to this day. It just added to the suspense of “What am I getting myself into?”"

KJ: You mentioned in the series that you were a criminalist right at the time you're a crime scene analyst, but you say that you went rogue and that was your approach. Can you explain that a little bit?

PH: As I grew up in forensic science, I found the lab work was interesting, but eventually it becomes somewhat mundane. When I transitioned to doing crime scene investigation and going out into the real world and working with the investigators out in the field and then trying to figure out what was going on, I found that I gravitated more towards the investigative side than being stuck in a lab and doing the scientific analysis. This was kind of a big no-no for a forensic scientist to do because you want to be impartial as you're doing your work. I found, "No, well, hold on. I think I can contribute to this investigation."

In many cases I ultimately would just self-initiate, whether it be pulling up an old cold case and working it, or like in the Bodfish case where now I'm seeing, "I can contribute here." In addition to doing work in the lab and doing the crime scene investigation, I'm now moving into the investigative support role in this particular case, where I'm talking actively with the investigator, saying, "Hey, I found this. This is what I think is going on. I think maybe you guys might want to go look at this or go talk to this person."

KJ: Right. We'll get into that a little bit. I want to talk to you a little bit about the format of the story, and I don't want to put you on the spot or embarrass you, but I've been watching you on I'll Be Gone in the Dark. You're known as the true crime community's unofficial boyfriend. You're not the person that has what they call a face for radio, right? What draws you to audio? Because you've done a lot of audio projects, you have your own podcast. And what do you think is special about this story for audio in particular?

PH: When I retired out of law enforcement, I really did not know and appreciate the expanse of the true crime genre in terms of the popularity, the passion that the people who follow true crime have. I knew there are TV shows out there, and to this day I've just started listening to one podcast, but I've never really gone through and been somebody who has invested myself in the audio format. As I have worked with production companies like XG, who produces this, I'm finding that it's a format that I do well at. I am able to formulate a story and be able to talk the listeners through and try to get them to start imagining what I was experiencing.

I know Jim Clemente from XG. He calls the podcast, "like theater of the mind," and that's so powerful because you're not limited to just what you're seeing on-screen. When you're listening, your brain is now imagining what you're listening to. It adds a richness to the story, and each listener is probably imagining something a little bit different based on their own experiences. If I'm describing something, you may imagine it one way and another listener may imagine it a different way, but it works for this format.

It's a neat way to move through and talk about a case, especially a case like this, which is so visually compelling from a crime scene standpoint. To try to paint that picture verbally, it's the challenge, but it also gives that texture and richness in the listeners' minds that I think is compelling.

"When you're listening, your brain is now imagining what you're listening to. It adds a richness to the story, and each listener is probably imagining something a little bit different based on their own experiences."

KJ: That's super interesting. There was a study where they showed that people were more emotionally engaged when they were listening versus, like, watching a movie. It's interesting as a true crime fan because true crime tends to really skew to audio or it does really, really well in audio, so that's interesting. This case, obviously, has a lot of those very visceral elements, and you mentioned the flies. Not only is that a gruesome detail, but that was a big piece of evidence in this case, right?

PH: It turned out to be an extremely important type of evidence. The insect evidence in this case helped fill in part of the story as to what happened inside that house.

KJ: Wow. Beyond the flies, you mentioned the house itself was quite Baroque and a bit medieval. There were some very fascinating books that he had at the home. Was it hard, as you were analyzing the crime scene, telling what was pertinent from all these mysterious details there?

PH: Yeah, that is always the tough thing in terms of trying to convey such a complex case, because there's so much. This victim, Emmon, had many, many bookshelves of a wide variety of books and some of those books are very important to understand who Emmon was, but within the storytelling aspect I have to pick out those things that are the most pertinent to the case and to getting the listeners to understand who Emmon was, and it's just that type of thing across the board. No matter what detail I'm talking about, I have to pick and choose what I think is the most important. There's other details that are there but can only do so much.

KJ: The victim in this case was a transgender man, Emmon Bodfish. In the 20 years since this case happened, there's a lot more awareness around transgender identity and the difficulties that the transgender community faces as crime victims. I'm curious how Emmon's gender identity factored into the case at the time and what were the sensitivities as you were recording the story?

PH: Well, most certainly, you know, at the time of the homicide and we're rolling out, I'm going in and working the crime scene. I'm processing Emmon's body, and at that point in time I was only told that we had a man bludgeoned to death inside this house in Orinda. Investigators, of course, are now trying to figure out who Emmon is in order to help start to flesh out the victimology. Then, I get to a point in my processing of the crime scene where I cut Emmon’s clothes off. This was something that I would do in order to preserve evidence. When I do that, I'm now seeing the body of a transgender man, somebody who was born female and had transitioned at least partly physically.

Of course, that ends up becoming a focus in terms of, "Is there a possible motive for the violence inflicted on Emmon because he was transgender?" We know that transgender individuals are disproportionately subjected to crime. There are people who will focus in on them. It’s a hate crime. Are we dealing with a hate crime with Emmon Bodfish? That is an early part of looking at this case investigatively. Of course, as I'm processing the crime scene, I'm also paying attention to, "Is there anything here to indicate that the offenders are expressing a certain philosophy that is against the transgender community?"

It is something that factors in. You have to take a look at that aspect of Emmon to see, "Is there motive there? Is that why Emmon became a victim?"

KJ: And you had one piece of evidence that probably was one of the most important pieces of evidence that you had, which was Emmon's diaries. I have to say, over the course of the series, I became quite emotionally connected to Emmon. I really fell in love with him in some ways and it seems like you had quite a connection as well.

PH: Right. What happened to Emmon was brutal and nobody should have their life ended that way, but I've gone out to many homicide cases. There are cases in which it's more going through the motions. I'm doing my job. But once I got Emmon's diaries, and I had 17 years' worth of them, and I read those diaries over and over again. They personalized Emmon to me, and I started to understand the angst, the psychological struggles that this victim had over the course of his life.

It just made the case that much more emotional for me. I became connected to Emmon. Now it was like, "Okay, tell me what's going on." These diaries turned out to be huge in terms of understanding possibly why Emmon was killed.

"I read those diaries over and over again. They personalized Emmon to me, and I started to understand the angst, the psychological struggles that this victim had over the course of his life."

KJ: Then the diaries themselves, there was some code breaking involved in these diaries as well.

PH: There was. I even made a very amateurish attempt to break the code, because what would happen is Emmon every now and then would write using cryptic symbols. Just for the listeners to understand what these symbols look like, it looked like old Celtic runes, something that you would see in, like, some of the writings out of a Lord of the Rings, Tolkien type of symbols. Of course, I'm reading the diaries. I'm like, "Why is he writing with these weird symbols, and what is he saying?" I tried to break it and I couldn't. Ultimately, one of the investigators in the case, Chris Wenzel, reached out to the FBI and they had somebody within their organization that was able to break the code.

KJ: I saw it was quite a difficult code for them to break actually.

PH: It was difficult, but it was more of like what you'd call simple substitution cipher, but she made it a little bit more difficult because some of the symbols would be swapped in and out as she was writing.

KJ: So the Celtic runes does factor in because Emmon was actually a Druid.

PH: Right. She was a, I believe, what's called a third-order priest or priestess in the Druid religion. She was a leader within this small group of Druids in Northern California and actually wrote these "Missals," expressing the Druid philosophies, and then they would have Druid rituals on the property. Of course, this is now an alternate religion that we weren't used to dealing with, and so now it's about learning: "Well, what is this religion? Does that factor into how come she became a victim?" Over the course of understanding that part of her, you start to learn that the Druids are peace-loving. They're not a violent cult. This was something that her participation in this religious philosophy, this religion, really wasn't anything that factors too heavily into why she became a victim. Now, there were aspects about how she died that were influenced by her religious philosophies.

KJ: That's an example of some of the more cryptic aspects of the case, that it's hard to tell whether they were relevant or not. I want to talk about the gendering of Emmon because I'm noticing you're saying she sometimes, and I know you go into this in the podcast. Emmon used different pronouns in the course of his life.

PH: Yes, and that is part of my own recognition as to Emmon's gender, because I read so much of his diaries, that much of what he wrote was reflecting upon when he was Margaret. He was born a woman and was named Margaret. I myself ended up finding that I step into thinking of Emmon prior to transitioning. I get confused sometimes in terms of the pronoun that needs to be used. During the recording, that was something where we're very sensitive to making sure that we were acknowledging Emmon as a man. Because every now and then, just like what I've done here, I would slip into that role. There are aspects within Emmon's diaries where there was some internal debate he was having about what his gender truly was.

KJ: You can hear those in the diaries, and some of those entries are so hard to hear because you don't know if this is internalized transphobia or internalized misogyny. But I appreciate you really can tell throughout the course of the series how you guys have tried to respect his identity and speak to people about what would best honor his memory, but it's complicated in this case for sure.

PH: A lot of credit goes to XG for reaching out to the transgender community in order to better understand, how do we properly convey this? Because we know, even when I was recording this, I was like, "We don't want to misrepresent who Emmon was, and we don't want anybody to be upset that they perceive that we are doing that."

KJ: In this investigation, you went rogue a little bit, and of course, in your forensic analysis, you arrived at some different theories than the lead investigator on the case. To this day, it sounds like you guys still have a friendly disagreement. Do you think this case has a good shot at being solved? What do you think might solve it?

PH: I do think the case has a chance of being solved, especially with my theory. I think there's more than one person involved in Emmon's homicide. Anytime you have that, a conspiracy, at some point, that conspiracy is going to break down, and it's possible somebody could come forward and say, "Yes, I have knowledge as to what happened." Advances in technology that weren't available to me back in 1999 have occurred, and most notably, the improvement in the sensitivities of DNA testing. There is the possibility of offender DNA having been left on certain objects within that crime scene, as well as potentially some other items of evidence, such as hair, that could have come from the offender.

"I do think the case has a chance of being solved, especially with my theory. I think there's more than one person involved in Emmon's homicide."

There is a chance of that. I and one of the lead investigators, Mike Hubbard, we definitely have different theories on what happened on the case. Anytime you have a complex case like that, that is pretty typical where investigators who are involved in the case are thinking different things. That's where you have to talk it out and you have to see where the evidence leads you. Hubbard and I are good buds and we can have these types of discussions and keep it without getting upset with each other that we disagree.

It's just I completely respect his experience. He's proven himself as a very experienced homicide investigator. I think he respects where I'm coming from and what I contributed to the case and it really is, we disagreed, but we know that we have a common goal and that is to try to figure out what happened to Emmon.

KJ: Is it heartening at all to think, as you transitioned from being the crime scene analyst to being an investigator yourself, that you'd still have the same theory?

PH: I know for me, it's because I was a crime scene investigator, crime scene reconstructionist, I'm looking at the physical evidence very intently and have a lot of experience and expertise on that. I know what I see. That's where my theory in part is based on the physical evidence plus what I've read in the diaries. That's where I'm coming from saying, "This is what I see," and of course, the investigators are coming from there. They're out there talking to the witnesses and getting information and developing suspects that seem, "Oh, this person looks suspicious," and we do have a prime suspect in this case that they focused in on. I am saying, "Oh, I can't eliminate that person, but if he's involved, somebody else is involved."

KJ: I have to say, I still feel I'm not sure, but I'm going to buy into your theory because you're the professional. 

Paul, I want to thank you so much for joining us and for talking about The Riddle of Emmon Bodfish, an Audible Original. I'm so excited for other people to get to hear about this fascinating case and see if there are any leads we could be able to dig up.

PH: That would be great, and it's been a pleasure talking to you.

KJ: It's been such a pleasure talking to you too.


Featuring Paul Holes

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