In early November 1978, 16-year-old Donna Green answered the door of her apartment in Carver Homes to find a familiar face: a woman named Lisa whom she’d gotten to know at Grady Memorial Hospital after giving birth to her son, Raymond, just four days before. The random visitor had claimed to be a neighbor and, days earlier, had struck up a conversation in the maternity ward, where the two bonded as seven-pound, eight-ounce Raymond wiggled in his crib. Now, after catching up with Lisa, Green took the surprise visit as an opportunity to take a shower and entrusted the baby to her new friend. When Green returned 10 minutes later, Lisa and Raymond were gone.
Forty years have passed and Green, now the head of a missing children organization, has wondered all the while whether her son is dead or alive, near or far. Atlanta police lost the original case file decades ago, Green says. In 2014, a DNA test revealed that a man in Germany who claimed to be her son was not related. The only images she has of Raymond are memories and two age-progression sketches created by a Georgia Bureau of Investigation police artist by mixing features of Green’s other children.
Raymond was one of seven Grady newborns who went missing decades ago, two of whom were never found. Their cases are the subject of the second full season of The Fall Line, a true-crime serial podcast that’s racked up 2.3 million listens since launching last year. Earlier this year, Green met with podcast hosts Laurah Norton, a writer and Georgia State University senior lecturer, and Brooke Gently-Hargrove, a grief counselor. The duo was intrigued. What makes a person abduct a baby? How did a woman who was obviously not a patient or family member freely roam the hospital halls? How did Atlanta police lose Raymond’s file? And what happened to these babies, who were all abducted at or shortly after leaving the hospital between the late 1970s and mid-1990s?
Norton took up podcasting in June 2017. The daughter of a former investigative reporter and a fan of true-crime dramas like Serial, a series by This American Life about a murdered high school student, she decided to spotlight how social safety nets and the criminal justice system have glaring gaps for disadvantaged people.
“Sometimes it’s because there simply aren’t resources,” Norton says. “And sometimes there are resources, but only some of us have access to them. When you’re born with that access, it’s pretty hard to see all the cracks.”
While listening to the podcast Thin Air, Norton discovered the case of Jeannette and Dannette Millbrook, a pair of 15-year-old black twins from Augusta who disappeared on March 18, 1990. According to the Millbrook family and missing-children advocates, law enforcement put little effort into the case, which remains unsolved.
Norton recruited Gently-Hargrove, a college friend, for the podcast she wanted to produce on the Millbrook case. And they named the podcast The Fall Line, a reference to where the Georgia Piedmont shifts to Coastal Plain—and an ominous metaphor for the socioeconomic divide in Augusta, the east Georgia city that’s home to both the Masters and a 25 percent poverty rate. The team combed newspaper archives to learn about the case and its social context, submitted open records requests, and interviewed family members. The novice sleuths took seven reporting trips from their homes in Tucker to Augusta, sometimes with Gently-Hargrove’s two-year-old son in tow.
In Norton’s guest room, the two edited hours of interviews, then added narration and music by Norton’s musician husband. The first episode was downloaded 190,000 times, and the show shot to no. 3 on the iTunes download list after the hosts of My Favorite Murder, a popular true-crime podcast, recommended the series. One listener, a sound engineer named Tom Young, volunteered to mix the show for free. Another fan, Atlanta lawyer Winter Wheeler-Young, helped the duo find experts to interview.
More importantly, the attention spurred the Richmond County sheriff to give the case a closer look and renewed coverage from the Augusta Chronicle and local TV news stations. The hosts crowdfunded donations from listeners, a law firm, and other podcasters to raise an $8,000 reward and purchase a billboard asking for information about the twins’ disappearance. Fall Line-branded T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other items were created to raise funds for charities helping missing and exploited children.
A “mini-season” looking at the case of two missing siblings from Brunswick followed. For the second full season, Norton and Gently-Hargrove looked at a subject closer to home, coming across scant references in newspaper archives and databases to the Grady abductions. (No babies have been abducted from Grady since 1996, the podcasters say, thanks to security improvements.) Starting in May, with new episodes every week, the team’s podcast will explore why Grady, for decades the backbone of metro Atlanta’s public health network, experienced so many abductions, why some missing children cases were solved and others were not, and the social issues that still contribute to infant kidnappings. “We tell these stories to amplify the voices of those who are not usually heard,” Norton says.
Green, who is now 54, plans to launch a podcast of her own with Norton and Gently-Hargrove’s help to aid parents of missing children, and says she has not given up hope. “Every day I pray God brings a child home,” Green says. “Doesn’t have to be mine. One day, I hope it is mine. I know the Lord, and I trust he’s going to bring Raymond home.”
Editor’s Note: When this article went to print, it stated that the second season of the podcast will debut on May 7. The date has since been “slightly delayed,” per a tweet from the creators.
This article appears in our May 2018 issue.