Tell readers about yourself and how you ended up in Florida.
I was a newspaper reporter for more than 20 years and got my first full-time newspaper gig in Virginia a year after graduating from the Virginia Military Institute. I spent a few years working at a couple of small-town community papers before getting hired at the former Journal Newspapers, where I covered crime and justice in Northern Virginia.
I wasn’t fully committed to the thought of being a newspaper reporter for the long term until I landed there. While at the Journal, I was assigned to cover the D.C sniper case and covered the 2003 trial for Lee Boyd Malvo.
In 2005, I left the D.C. area and moved to Florida. I spent six years at Hernando Today/The Tampa Tribune and then another seven years at the Daytona Beach News-Journal. In 2017, soon after I took over the east Volusia County crime beat at the News-Journal, I launched Sun Crime State, a weekly true crime podcast.
When I was first hired at the News-Journal, I covered city government and criminal court for Flagler County. I don’t think I ever had a bad day while living and working in Flagler. Some of my favorite years of my adult life were spent there. Flagler Beach, in particular, remains one of the best places I’ve ever lived.
You have an extensive background in journalism. How did you get into the field and what’s been the most interesting part of it for you?
After matriculating at VMI, I pursued a commission in the U.S. Army, but a freakish injury derailed that. So, upon graduating I had no plan for what my career would be. I majored in history, but didn’t want to teach, work at a museum or attend law school. I spent a year toiling away at a couple of sales jobs and each of them left me unfulfilled.
The whole do-what-you-love mantra kept banging around in my head during that time, so I decided I would try to make a living as a writer.
The quickest way to do that was to go work for a newspaper. I didn’t study journalism in college, so I looked for the smallest newspaper I could find because I thought I had the best chance to get hired there. Much to my surprise, I did get hired in 1998. It was meager pay, but I kept at it for a few years until I finally got the hang of it.
Fast forward to 2005, after the Journal Newspapers was bought out and relaunched as the Washington Examiner, I was ready to make another move. I knew that if I relocated to Florida, so many great stories would be within arm’s reach. While living in the Mid-Atlantic, Florida was on the minds of everyone who read or watched the news. There was the 2000 election recount fiasco, the Terry Shiavo controversy, the slaying of Jessica Lunsford, the Debra Lafave scandal, etc. Florida was such a goldmine for news. All of it was so zany and captivating. I knew that I had a better chance of making a mark – any mark – in Florida.
In Washington D.C., every print publication lurked in the shadows of the mighty Washington Post, so I thought it would be good for my career to make such a move. After a couple of rocky years, it was clear that I had made the right decision.
Locals may know you for your true crime series with the Daytona Beach News Journal. What have you been doing since?
I left Florida in the fall of 2019 after accepting a job at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which is a fabulous newspaper. The 14 months I spent there were sensational. My editors at the Democrat-Gazette were some of the best I ever worked for. But I could see that traditional print journalism was caught in a downward spin that it was never going to escape. It was time to move on.
I returned to the Daytona Beach area with my girlfriend in 2021, but I’m happy to announce that we moved back to Central Arkansas last month. We wanted to be closer to her family and friends and the thought of a slower-paced, small-town lifestyle appealed to us. I’ve mostly been working as a ghostwriter, a script writer and podcast host.
Talk about your new project and what motivates you to highlight this type of story?
I’m very excited about the launch of my latest podcast. It’s called Chasing Ghosts: The Hunt for the D.C. Snipers. During a three-week period in October 2002, a pair of snipers (John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo) was terrorizing the D.C. region, killing people in suburban Maryland, the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia. They also made their way to the Richmond area, where I was living at the time. They shot 13 total people during that rampage, killing 10. Following their capture, authorities learned they had actually shot nearly a dozen more victims in other parts of the country beginning in February of that year. The first victim was a 21-year-old single mother in Tacoma, Washington. I covered Malvo’s trial during the fall and winter of 2003. It was a unique experience, one that I’ll never forget. It almost felt like I was in the middle of the biggest story that was going on in the world at that time — a 17-year-old boy was facing a possible death sentence for committing one of the worst cross-country shooting rampages in U.S. history.
As the years went by, I had always wanted to revisit this case and take part in a big retelling of it. I also knew after founding and hosting Sun Crime State that I wanted to launch another podcast — a multi-episode podcast about a single case. As the 20th anniversary of the D.C.-area sniper shootings loomed, I finally married those two big ideas. I put together a plan and pitched it to various distributors.
Fortunately, Law & Crime liked my idea and agreed to partner up with me. The 10-episode series drops today (Monday, April 3) and I’m very excited about it. I was honored to be given the opportunity to tell this story.
My goal was to make it to be the most-detailed account of the D.C. sniper case ever told — from when the murderous pair linked up in Antigua in 2001 to the present day. I interviewed more than 40 guests for this series — including shooting survivors, witnesses, first-responders, federal agents, police detectives, SWAT team members, Muhammad’s ex-wife, three attorneys from the defense team who represented Malvo at his 2003 trial and various media members who covered the shootings, trials and aftermath. I’m grateful to everyone who participated, but I’m especially grateful to the three shooting survivors who agreed to be interviewed — Iran Brown (who was 13 when he was shot), Kellie Randall and Paul La Ruffa. I tried to share their stories with as much care as humanly possible.
What’s on the horizon? Will you continue building the crime story brand or work on other projects?
Honestly, I’m not sure what’s in store for me next as far as podcasting goes. I know I’ll need to decompress for a little while. There was so much research, writing, interviewing, recording, traveling and editing involved. It is the equivalent of writing a novel. Some writers may object to that, but I really believe that. All told, it’s more than six hours of content — and that doesn’t include everything that wound up on the cutting room floor. Anyone who has finished writing a book will tell you they’re too exhausted to want to think about what’s coming next. That’s very much how I feel, but I’m sure I will come up with new ideas down the line.
I may remain in that historical crime space or I may venture into something else. That may include presidential history, politics, pop culture or even sports. When I finally feel recharged, I’ll give it some serious thought. For now, I just hope Chasing Ghosts finds an audience and that people are engrossed by the story.
For the people of suburban Maryland, Northern and Central Virginia and the District of Columbia, October 2002 was one of the worst months in history. Millions of people across three metropolitan areas were gripped with fear. You couldn’t just run out and pump gas or buy groceries without thinking you might get shot. That’s a feeling that people don’t forget. In addition to that, the heroism shown by so many people during that time should also be honored and remembered. That was another big motivator for me to tell this story.
I hope I told it well.
You can listen to Tony Holt’s true crime podcast ‘Chasing Ghosts’ through the following links: