Unsolved Mysteries; A Behind-the-Scenes Look

It was the early spring of 2017. Ten years had passed since Kyle’s death, and I’d long since given up hope of anyone stepping forward with new information.  

Then, on March 21, I received the following email from Cindy Bowles: “I’m a story producer with the TV series Unsolved Mysteries that originally aired during the 1990s on NBC, starring Robert Stack. We are currently negotiating to begin a new Unsolved Mysteries anthology series. We are very interested in your son’s case. I’d appreciate the opportunity to chat with you at your earliest convenience.”

Unsolved Mysteries was created by executive producers Terry Dunn Meurer and John Cosgrove (who produced and directed over three hundred hours of primetime network television). The show initially ran from 1987 to 2010 with nine seasons on NBC, two more on CBS, and one season on Lifetime. The series received six Emmy nominations, and it’s been debated whether Unsolved Mysteries single-handedly created the true crime genre for television. 

As I reread the email, I recalled the show—that unforgettable, eerie theme music, Robert Stack’s deep and ominous voice describing an eclectic mix of ghost stories, Bigfoot sightings, and alien abductions. Weird stuff that wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. (At least it wasn’t by me.) But the series also featured cold cases, murder victims, and stories of the missing who were long-forgotten. And forgotten is what Kyle had become.

For a short while, there was some interest in my son’s suspicious death. Two years after his 2007 passing, a wrongful-death lawsuit was filed, and the story splashed across the front page of the St. Petersburg Times. It was quickly picked up by multiple social media platforms, where a small cohort of armchair detectives—spouting opinions as facts—openly debated every aspect of what had happened to my son. The police report about Kyle’s death, filled with inaccuracies and lies, further fueled this ongoing amateur panel discussion. His autopsy report was posted in a YouTube video, and crime-scene photos were shuffled and passed throughout a small community of ex-Scientologists like collectible baseball cards. No one ever contacted me for a statement or an interview. It was alarming how some people thought they were entitled to intimate details of Kyle’s life and Kyle’s case. His death and this unfortunate aftermath were one long, unshakable nightmare. 

This time it could be different, I thought. Perhaps sharing Kyle’s story on a larger platform like Unsolved Mysteries could generate new leads and tips. A spark of hope suddenly replaced an aching stretch of despair.

The true-crime genre in films and on TV, of course, examines actual crimes. Treading the fine line between exposition and exploitation, true crime is often criticized for being insensitive to the victims. With unsolved murders and unexplained deaths—cases in which actual lives were lost cruelly and tragically—it’s crucial the story be presented with care, respect, and dignity.

I struggled with not wanting my son’s death being sold as entertainment. If I remember correctly, the show leaned heavily on tabloid-style reporting. Talking about Kyle in this format would be disrespectful: He deserved better. But then I also realized that doing a show like Unsolved Mysteries could create public pressure. We’d get to expose the bad guys, and the exposure could perhaps lead to something amazing. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I finally decided there wasn’t anything to lose in hearing what Cindy had to say.

Cindy has an upbeat voice. I liked her immediately, so we were off to a good start.

“Your blog is amazing!” she said. “It’s great how you document everything.” 

“So,” I replied, “you’re aware of Kyle’s case being tied to the Church of Scientology? I know it’s obvious when you read the blog, but I feel it’s important to bring it up. When dealing with that organization, you’d best make certain every claim you make is backed up with evidence. They’ve got a reputation for being litigious.” 

“Let me tell you what we are working on with the new Unsolved Mysteries,” said Cindy, “and you can tell us if you’d want to share Kyle’s story. We’re currently reaching out to networks to see if they’re interested in airing an updated version of the show. The new Unsolved Mysteries would highlight one mystery per episode compared to the old format, which consisted of four or five real-life mysteries followed by an update regarding a recently solved case. So, Kyle would have a one-hour show, and we’d have an actor portraying him. We’d place the focus on the last thirty-six hours of his life when he was in Clearwater, Florida.” 

“We won’t have a narrator because, after all, who could ever replace Robert Stack?” she continued. “That’ll make it different from the original series. It will have more of a documentary style.”  

“It’s a way of bringing attention to what happened to Kyle,” she said. “Unsolved will have millions of viewers. We believe with proper media exposure; someone will come forward with valuable information in your son’s case. You’d be amazed at how often that happens. Perhaps it’s because of our anonymous tip line. People feel more comfortable and less intimidated. It could change everything—turn things around.”  

As she spoke, my thoughts drifted. A fragile glimmer of hope was flickering, but it remained grossly overshadowed by the incalculable loss that had shattered the lives of everyone who’d loved Kyle.

During our conversation, there was no mention of monetary compensation. I write this not because I expected payment but simply to point out something that’s not too obvious: entertainment companies are making money with their true-crime programming, lots of money, but little if any of it is going to the people providing the content. Reliving the worst days of your life in front of a camera is traumatizing, to say the least, and you’ve wasted your time if it doesn’t bring about justice or create change for the better. 

Cindy and I stayed in touch via email. I received sporadic updates as Unsolved Mysteries continued its search for a home. After a stretch of time, our communication went quiet. 

On January 19, 2019, almost two years after that first conversation with Cindy Bowles, Netflix announced that it had ordered a twelve-part reboot of Unsolved Mysteries scheduled to premiere in July of 2020. Netflix also reported that producer Shawn Levy and his company, 21 Laps Entertainment, had joined the group. Levy is best known for being the producer and director behind Stranger Things and Shadow and Bone, both of them hit series on Netflix.

It rattled me that Cindy or Terry Dunn Meurer hadn’t told me they’d decided to run with other stories. They should have told me something, especially after building up my expectations. Burying my disappointment, I wrote the Unsolved Mysteries team on February 28, 2019, to congratulate them on finding a new home. I also asked if they were still interested in Kyle’s story.

Over a year passed with no response.

On March 25, 2020, Cindy responded with an enthusiastic yes, and a genuine apology for not following up with me sooner. She’d changed her email address and had missed my message. We chatted over the phone soon thereafter. 

“Let’s talk about getting Kyle’s story on season two,” she said. “I’ve saved all the information about his case, so please send me whatever else you’d like to add to the file. And think about who we can interview. Do you have any names and numbers you can give me?”

“We can ask Kyle’s attorney, Luke Lirot,” I responded. “Then there’s an undercover agent who works for the Department of Justice and a retired FBI agent who has looked over the case.” 

“That’s a start,” I said, thinking that if a suspicious death case makes it onto Unsolved Mysteries, it’s obvious the police have failed somehow. Or, as in my son’s case, the police blatantly lied in the official police report. They’d also obstructed justice. 

“No one from the Clearwater Police Department is going to help,” I continued. “If anything, they’ll be very upset when this story gets publicized on television.” It was an understatement. The story would expose the questionable relationship between the Clearwater Police Department and the Church of Scientology. Making it even more contentious, of course, was that Kyle’s death directly involved the leader of Scientology’s family. Kyle’s father was being spiritually advised by a high-ranking Scientologist, Denise Miscavige Gentile, the twin sister of David Miscavige, the ecclesiastical and controversial leader of the church.

We concluded the conversation with Cindy, saying she would reach out to Luke Lirot.

Hope was renewed with the thought that someone would come forward, given that Netflix and Unsolved Mysteries would present Kyle’s story to a massive worldwide audience. In 2021, Netflix had over two hundred million subscribers in over one hundred ninety countries. That broad exposure might help us get answers. It helped, too, to hear Cindy relate how viewers often contact the show with salient information. I didn’t need much. It could be from someone who’d been there the night Kyle died in his father’s apartment, or someone who picked up the bullet that killed Kyle, wiped away fingerprints, or erased the content from his computer. Most importantly, this kind of large-scale exposé would allow me to directly ask Kyle’s father to do the right thing—tell the truth about the night his son died. That was the best-case scenario. The worst case would be that the story would get completely drowned out in the current sea of TV true-crime offerings.  

While waiting for Netflix to order a second season, I got to know Cindy better. She was laid back, easy to work with, and expressed genuine care and compassion. 

She asked for more information and files. I’d also permitted them to use the videotaped depositions of the Scientologists directly involved: Kyle’s father, Denise Miscavige Gentile, and her husband. We agreed that airing video snippets would add to the show. It’s one thing to call out someone for perjury and contradictions, and it’s quite another to actually show them lying—fabricating timelines, creating dubious alibis, stumbling over readily apparent inconsistencies. These videos—replete with eye-rolls, smirks, and easily analyzed body language—revealed the lack of empathy and contempt they’d levied towards Kyle.  

Cindy and I frequently discussed how best to present Kyle’s case. She kept Terry Dunn Meurer updated regarding our progress. I suggested that—as with Kyle’s blog—every statement reconstructing the case timeline be backed with evidence. I also said it’s best to present the story by posing questions such as: Why wasn’t the bullet retrieved by the police? Why weren’t there any fingerprints on any piece of evidence? Who deleted all the files from Kyle’s computer, and why? This would legally protect everyone involved. I knew full well that if the story wasn’t presented correctly, it would potentially do more damage than good.

In mid-May of 2021, I received numerous phone and text messages from Cindy that suggested urgency. 

“I have some news for you,” she eventually wrote. “Give me a call when you have a moment.”

This was the best news possible, the news I’d been hoping for after four years of waiting. It seemed as if everything had turned around. With bated breath, I listened to Cindy’s enthusiastic voice tell me how the Netflix creative board wanted Kyle’s story. She said they were excited because, since Scientology was controversial the world round, the story had international appeal. And better yet, the Netflix legal team had given it the green light, as had Terry Dunn Meurer and John Cosgrove’s company, Meurer-Cosgrove Productions. Cindy explained that she’d waited to tell me until they’d gotten the legal go-ahead. 

She added that Netflix had ordered 11 season-two episodes, not the twelve they were hoping for. Did I mind that Kyle’s story would be the last to air? I hadn’t realized that Netflix had that level of control over the multitude of series and documentaries they purchased. Cindy said they had explicitly chosen Kyle’s story. 

I thought of the possibilities, remembering what a high-profile lawyer told me after reviewing Kyle’s case: “You need some new evidence.” If you can get someone to step forward with something new, he’d said, we can get past the judge throwing your case out. (Here, he was referring to Judge Steven D. Merryday, who hadn’t taken the evidence we’d presented into consideration.) It didn’t matter how minor the information was, just something. Without it, the Scientology lawyers will yell that the statute of limitations has long expired.

“That’s what we are all about at Unsolved Mysteries,” Cindy said, “getting cases resolved.” She told me that Terry would soon be making arraignments to fly to Charlottesville to meet with me. They do this before filming, so I should expect a call from her.  

The United States claims its justice system provides equal treatment for all its citizens under the law. But the marginalized, the unconnected, and especially those without deep pockets, know the truth. When Kyle’s case was litigated, we spent fifteen thousand dollars fighting the goliath known as the Church of Scientology. They spent over one million. 

A week passed after receiving the uplifting news from Cindy. When my phone buzzed, and I saw that Terry Dunn Meurer was calling, I assumed it was to set up a time for her trip to meet with me. 

“Victoria, I’ve got some news from Netflix,” she said, “and it’s not good. They’ve pulled Kyle’s story!” 

“What do you mean?!” I responded. “Why would they do that?!” 

“Someone from the top pulled it, and they didn’t tell us why,” was her reply. “I wanted to tell you ASAP.”

“This doesn’t make sense to me,” I said. “The Netflix creative board chose the story. I don’t understand. Do you know who did this?”

“No, it came from the top, and we weren’t given a reason why. It’s unprofessional if you ask me.”

It was a crushing blow. Unsteady, I sank into the nearest chair as disappointment and frustration washed over me.

Season two of Unsolved Mysteries is scheduled to air sometime in the fall of 2022. I’m not sure what’s replaced Kyle’s episode. Perhaps it’s a ghost story or one about alien abduction. It might even be about another suspicious death. If you watch season two, I hope you’ll remember Kyle and the human cost of a life cut short.

Disappointment still lingers when I think of what might have been. Perhaps we could have fixed an injustice. Maybe we could have answered some of the myriad questions surrounding my son’s tragic death. Maybe not. But, of course, life goes on. The big difference is victims’ families live on with open wounds.



Copyright©2023 Victoria Britton