When you’re a West Virginia-based true crime YouTube creator with 60,000+ followers and law enforcement agencies contact you for help…you’re on to something.
Sean McCracken, a life-long West Virginian, has found online success as the creator, producer, writer and on-air personality for Mysterious WV, a YouTube channel that showcases unsolved homicides, missing persons, forensic genealogy and unidentified remains.
A former insurance adjuster, Sean’s curiosity in the true crime genre started in his youth. “It goes back even before Unsolved Mysteries” (currently experiencing a resurgence on streaming platforms like Netflix), says Sean. “I’ve always been interested in solving puzzles or mysteries. When I was a kid I read Sherlock Holmes. It was ingrained early on. I loved In Search of and Crimestoppers, which is where Unsolved Mysteries got their format.”
Cracking Open WV’s Cold Cases
A majority of McCracken’s cases are based in West Virginia, he’s even covered some cases located right here in the Ohio Valley. One such case was the disappearance of Isabel Butchko in the spring of 1963. Isabel disappeared at 7 a.m. while walking East on Seventh Street in Moundsville. Her body was discovered several years later on railroad property near McMechen. Her case remains unsolved, but Sean hopes that more information will surface to help solve the case by sharing her story.
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Other local cases featured on Mysterious WV include an unidentified female victim found on the side of the road in 1983 in Wetzel County. Sean says that there are some possible developments in this case. He has also covered an East Liverpool case featuring Robert L. Wooten, a double-murderer who is currently serving a life sentence at Belmont Correctional Institution.
While McCracken’s work is based in West Virginia, certain cases tiptoe across the surrounding borders into neighboring states like Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio and sometimes much further. For example, the case of The Belle in the Well started in 1981 when an unidentified body was discovered in a cistern in Lawrence County, Ohio but had connections to the Huntington, WV bus depot, Clarksburg, WV and the state of Wyoming. Through a combination of internet sleuthing, DNA profiling, Sean’s documentary, genetic genealogical research and cold case law enforcement work helped identify the woman. However, the case remains unsolved. “It’s a labor of love,” says Sean. “I have to go where it takes me.”
Local Research and Partnerships
If you read the comments section of any of Mysterious WV’s videos, you’ll see immense appreciation for the in-depth research provided by McCracken. This is thanks to his ability to access and understand archival materials available in West Virginia’s official archives. In fact, he’s frequented the state archives since he was 15 years old! He also taps into broadcast and print news sources like WTRF in Wheeling or the Ohio County Public Library’s digital newspaper archives. “I’ve known the archivist there (Charleston) who takes care of all of their news film for 24 years now,” says Sean.
Another resource that enhances Sean’s research is the trust he’s built with law enforcement officials. “I’ve taken a unique approach with this. I don’t classify the channel as ‘news media.’ I have gone out of my way to make it known to law enforcement that I want to work with them, to offer myself as an extension. I’ve got a set of criteria for cases I stick rigidly to. One of them is no criticism of law enforcement whatsoever. I tell them if you want it in, it goes in. If you want it out, it comes out. That’s one of the benefits of being my own boss. I get to make my own rules,” he says.
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Sheriff Donald Simpson of Appomattox County, Virginia says he was convinced after watching a dozen episodes of Mysterious WV. According to Simpson: “I reached out to him [Sean] on Facebook to see if he would be interested in featuring the Coleman case for us [the 1978 unsolved murder of Alfred H. Coleman]. There were several reasons I reached out to Sean: I was impressed with the thoroughness of his research into the cases he profiled. Also very important to me was the way the victims and their families were treated. He always respected their wishes in regards to his presentation. He never tries to point fingers at law enforcement and second-guess their work.”
Mysterious WV has also worked closely with Sgt. W.D. Henderson of the West Virginia State Police (Troop 1 Paden City) and Sgt. Morgan Bragg of the Beckley Police Department amongst scores of others.
McCracken understands that his relationships with family, friends, community and law enforcement are crucial to his success. That mutual respect, as well as the age or ‘coldness’ of the cases, has led law enforcement decision-makers to open unprecedented access to materials. “The first time I had a case file opened to me was right here in Charleston for the 1982 LaRoy Gorman case. The chief said, ‘It’s a 35-year-old case. What have we got to lose? Come in and look at it.’” The notes that Sean writes from the files are never transcribed, scanned or copied, and never leave his home.
Sheriff Simpson says that McCracken’s work offers hope. “I would recommend his services. Law enforcement leaders may have very legitimate reasons not to present an ongoing case publicly. However, for those very cold cases that seem to have no chance of ever being solved, I think Sean produces a great product. His program on Mr. Coleman was very well received locally and was quite popular. It generated several new phone calls and tips about the case,” said Simpson.
By maintaining that trust, he is able to continue his ultimate goal of reaching as many people as possible and to get some of the cases solved.
Sean recently aired a case that he describes as one of his biggest collaborations so far.
Mary Jane Vangilder, a resident of Fairmont, West Virginia, was last seen in 1945 in Shelby, Ohio where she worked for the Air Force. Sean worked exclusively with officials from Shelby Police Department, Preble County, Ohio and Redgrave Research, a Massachusetts forensic services consultation company specializing in forensic genealogy’s new hot science.
M.Lance McCombs, Shelby Police Department Chief of Police who worked with Sean on the case says, “I have nothing but high praise for what Sean’s doing and how he does it as a one-man operation on a shoestring budget.”
An Ode to an Original True Crime Series
Another quirk of Mysterious WV is its similarities to the popular show Unsolved Mysteries, hosted by Robert Stack. In fact, McCracken receives several comments on his videos from folks who enjoy pointing it out. Watch a few episodes and you’ll recognize the trench coat, impeccable pacing, and theme music similar to the original Unsolved Mysteries series. “There is no greater compliment than to be compared to Bob Stack. As far as I’m concerned he is the benchmark of which anyone involved in what we now call true crime will be measured,” says McCracken.
Now that you know a little more about the creator of this unique one-man show, check an episode or two for yourself by visiting the Mysterious WV YouTube channel. You can also tune in to a live Q&A that he’s hosting on Thursday, March 25 on Facebook.
• Rich Wooding has been a Correctional Officer with the State of Ohio/Belmont Correctional Institution for more than 25 years. He received a Bachelor’s Degree in Mass Communication and Journalism with a minor in Philosophy from Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania in 1993. He is a U.S. Navy veteran, serving from 1985-89.