FARGO — Justice is everything in the eyes of James Wolner.
It’s not a now-and-then pursuit, but one that’s woven into the fabric of his life.
In the case of a 1976 North Dakota kidnapping, bank heist and double-homicide, it wasn’t that the crime was unsolved or that the perpetrators weren't punished.
What bothered Wolner was that stories of the victims’ lives seemed mostly untold.
“I think I saw that as an injustice, and it just went from there. Like, okay... I’ll do it, then,” he said.
The crime that rocked the tiny south-central North Dakota town of Zeeland is the most recent case Wolner researched and turned into a true-crime podcast.
“I start going down a path that’s kind of like an itch … and I scratch it a little bit,” he said.
Wolner, 55, creator of Dakota Spotlight Podcast, recently released the 7-episode podcast documentary, produced at his home in Hebron.
The California native learned of the horrific crime by reading an old newspaper article.
A husband and wife in their 60s were shot dead in their pajamas after being forced to get money from a nearby bank.
Wolner said if “In Cold Blood” author Truman Capote had read the article about the Zeeland crime instead of one about a quadruple murder in rural Kansas on which the book is based, Capote might have written about it.
He’s not comparing himself to the famed writer, but rather seeing parallels between the crimes.
“This story itself is as heartbreaking and compelling,” Wolner said, his voice stifled by emotion.
Curious and empathetic
Wolner was raised in the city of Healdsburg, located in Sonoma County in the heart of California’s wine country.
He remembers feeling deep curiosity and empathy at a young age, qualities that would serve him well later.
Two weeks after graduating college with a degree in English Literature, Wolner moved to Sweden with an exchange student from there whom he’d met while vacationing in Yosemite National Park.
That relationship didn’t pan out, but he stayed in Sweden for more than 20 years, during which time he married, had two daughters and divorced.
He moved back to the U.S. in 2013, to Boulder, Colo., where he found himself drawn less to the mountains and more to the flats.
Previously, Wolner’s only connection to the Midwest was that his parents had grown up in a small farming community in eastern South Dakota.
He considered moving there, but instead took a web developer position in Hebron.
It’s where he still lives, despite having since taken a computer programmer job an hour’s drive away in Mandan.
During virtually all of his free time, he pores over the podcast work in a small home office, sometimes spending a half hour perfecting a 30-second segment.
“No woman in the world would put up with this. That’s why I’m single,” Wolner said, with a laugh.
The podcast documentary delves into the pre-dawn crime that occurred in Zeeland on July 11, 1976.
Wade Zick, 66, and his wife Ellen, 65, were taken from their home by armed men who forced them to go to a bank in Zeeland, where Zick was the manager.
After getting money from the bank, the couple were driven to a gravel pit a few miles out of town and shot dead.
Three young men, all with ties to the community, were later arrested, convicted and sentenced.
More than 40 years later, Wolner began looking into the details of the crime and those involved — even the most obscure ones help add context and character to the podcast.
For example, he researched the weather on a particular date in Prosser, Wash., because two of the perpetrators’ parents got married there that day.
“That’s not normal to be that detailed. But it’s like … I want to be there myself,” he said.
Making sense of human behavior
Wolner has since interviewed and come to know many of the victims’ family members. Early on, they must have wondered about the approach, he said. But after he met with them, they were on board.
“It’s been an honor,” he said, pausing to collect his emotions.
Most of his listeners have come from this region and the “snowbird” areas of Arizona and Florida, he said.
He’s already planning another possible podcast about the 1993 disappearance of two people from Wishek.
It’s satisfying, he said, to be involved in something that has meaning.
“It’s my way of making an attempt to understand, I guess, human behavior, and to connect the dots between things,” Wolner said.
Learn more about the podcast and Wolner on the Dakota Spotlight website.
Listen to the entire 'Zeeland' podcast below
To hear more, listen to the first season of the 'Dakota Spotlight' podcast, which looks into a mysterious death in Glen Ullin, N.D.