Sisters Anne Varner and Karen DeVanie are on a mission. Their podcast Sugar Coated Murder, and their debut book CLICK CLICK CLICK tell the unheard stories of murder victims. The authors, who are based in Charleston, will host a book signing at Low Country Whimsy on Ben Sawyer Boulevard Dec. 17 from 1 to 4 p.m.
“There’s so much out there about the murderers,” Varner said, “but not often do we see much information about the victims of these violent crimes. In a lot of cases, the victims get lost.”
Varner and DeVanie launched their podcast in January 2020. They discuss true crime stories while baking pastries and sharing recipes, hence the name, Sugar Coated Murder. Varner and DeVanie said they wanted to approach their discussions thoughtfully when talking about real people’s stories, especially when they include victims of horrific crimes.
“A lot of true crime podcasts glorify violence and murder, and that’s not what we want to do,” DeVanie said. “The way we approach every case is that we try to learn as much as we can about the victim.”
The sisters are from the small town of Franklin, Virginia, where a handful of murder cases occurred while they were growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. These stories first sparked their interest, they said, and led them to become perhaps a little “obsessed” with true crime. DeVanie said they are fascinated with trying to understand the motivations of killers.
“It’s multifaceted,” DeVanie said. “We look at all the sides of it — not just the murder itself, but how did the murderer get there? What were they thinking?”
DeVanie and Varner released their debut book Dec. 2. CLICK CLICK CLICK, is based on a real murder that happened in their hometown: the 1990 killing of Trent Whitley, which remained an unsolved case for two and a half years. Whitley’s disappearance baffled friends, family and authorities, and resulted in a drawn-out investigation with many dead ends and false leads. In 1992, police charged two of Whitley’s former high school classmates with murder.
“No one knew what happened to this boy,” DeVanie said. “He was a senior in high school, he kissed his mom goodbye one night to go out, and just disappeared. For two and a half years, it was such a puzzle for everybody on what had happened.”
Varner added, “Our father was the pharmacist in town. And being a small town pharmacist, you know everyone, you hear about everything that’s going on.”
DeVanie and Varner covered the case on the Sugar Coated Murder podcast in April 2020. The next summer, a producer from Investigation Discovery, a television network dedicated to true crime documentaries, reached out to them.
This producer was interested in telling the story, but understood how the small town of Franklin might be protective over the details.
“It’s a very closed-off town. They weren’t gonna talk with some high falutin’ TV producer about their town business,” DeVanie said.
“So they reached out to us, hoping we could use our name in that town and our connections to get in there and try to tell the story,” she said. The sisters delved deep into researching the murder of Whitley. When the series with ID Discovery didn’t pan out, they couldn’t let the case go.
“We realized we needed to write a book,” DeVanie said.
She explained that she and her sister approached writing the book in the same way they approach their podcasting.
“We would work mornings before work, nights after work and just talk about the research we’ve done, the conversations we’ve had, and write it all down. Then, we would have what we called a ‘bedazzling session,’ where we added in the details to make it more visual and descriptive.”
On working together, DeVanie and Varner said their secret sister language has grown even stronger.
“We often joke that we are twins four years apart,” DeVanie said. “We have almost the same brain, so we are able to tap into this special language we have with each other — this podcast and book has made that even stronger.”
The book is the first in the Say My Name series. DeVanie and Varner hope to write more books in the series to highlight the real victims affected by true crime stories.
“We are definitely gonna do more books in the series,” Varner said. “Our hope is that we can hear more from the victims’ families — the goal is to have people know and say the names of the victims.”
DeVanie said the response to the podcast has encouraged them to keep doing what they’re doing, and to expand on that mission with the book series.
“The response to the podcast has given us so much encouragement and confidence,” she said. “We hope to continue to do it. We joke about doing the podcast in our 90s. I can’t imagine that we will ever stop doing this.”
To learn more and to purchase CLICK CLICK CLICK, visit sugarcoatedpod.com.
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