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New Podcast Delves Into Morgantown Disappearance, W.Va. Counterculture

WVPB: 123 Pleasant Street Exterior
Chris Schulz
/
West Virginia Public Broadcasting
The exterior of the 123 Pleasant Street music venue in Morgantown, formerly The Underground Railroad operated by Marsha Ferber. It is the last place Ferber was seen before her disappearance in 1988.

The disappearance of Marsha Ferber has puzzled the Morgantown community for more than 30 years. Now, a podcast titled “I Was Never There” aims to shed new light on the disappearance, amidst a backdrop of the era’s “Back to the Land” movement.

The show’s first three episodes will be available this Thursday, June 9, wherever podcasts are heard.

Chris Schulz spoke with the podcast’s mother-daughter creators Karen and Jamie Zelermyer about the upcoming show.

Schulz: Jamie and Karen, thank you both so much for sitting down to speak with me today. Explain to our listeners what “I Was Never There” is. Karen, why don't you start us off?

Karen: Well, it's the story of Marsha Ferber, who disappeared in 1988. So it is a true crime podcast, but it's much more than true crime. It's my story and Jamie's story. It's the story of 1970s and 80s in West Virginia, and the movement of people who are looking to create an alternative life through the back to the land movement, and then creating alternative businesses co-ops and Marsha was an entrepreneur. So she established cooperative houses called the Earth House, and she established the Underground Railroad and the Dry House. So it really is a very rich, full story of that time period. And then she disappeared. And what happened.

Schulz: Jamie, what can you add to that?

Jamie: For many years, I have been wanting to tell the story of the time and place which was West Virginia in the 1970s and 80s. We realized that it was hard to just tell our story without telling Marsha’s story, and vice versa, because they were so interconnected. My mom had worked at the bar, my dad is on the police report as her attorney when she disappeared. The podcast, I think, is the story of a disappearance. And it is also the story of a time in a place which was this glorious time in West Virginia in the 1970s.

Schulz: Karen, why tell this story now after more than 30 years?

Karen: You know, Jamie is actually the one who's best positioned to tell that story. We've had a long interest in wanting to tell the story of that time and place in West Virginia. And she knew what a devastating experience it was that she went missing, and had just how hard it was for many of us to find closure.

Schulz: Jamie, why did you want to tell this story now?

Jamie: Obviously, true crime is something that interests people these days. But for me, true crime doesn't really resonate unless there's a bigger story behind it. Unless you can really get to know the person and understand the world that they lived in and the circumstances. I feel like the story of the back to the land movement and the way Marsha lived her life and the way my mom lived her life is not so different, you know, in terms of what they were fighting for, those issues are still the same today. So I felt like the story was very contemporary, and that there was a lot for us to look at in terms of what they were doing back in the 70s and 80s. And how that would translate to today.

Schulz: How was the process of making a podcast?

Jamie: I had never done audio before. I come from a film and television background, and I feel like when people tell the story of the 70s to be very cliche in terms of the visuals. So I loved the idea of doing it without visuals. The true crime part was pretty intense. We worked closely with the Morgantown Police Department. That was not something that I had experience with in terms of, you have to be very careful. You don't want to falsely accuse someone, you want to make sure you're getting your facts right. So it was, you know, a new process for me, but how lucky to be able to do something new, and to do it as a mother-daughter.

Schulz: Karen, what about for you?

Karen: You know, my initial motivation was what a trip that would be, how fabulous it would be to be able to do a project with my kid. And I didn't have a clue what that meant. And it became a much more intense, emotional experience than I ever intended. The processing between Jamie and I and my having to think about some of the stuff I did back then. What was I thinking? I mean, really, what was I thinking? I could have lost my kids. You know, I mean, there was just some crazy stuff happening. It was an amazing process.

Schulz: Can you talk about the role of counterculture, and I guess, to a certain extent, drugs in this story?

Karen: One of the ongoing conversations that we had with our producers, and I would be adamant about this: Marijuana is not a drug. It's also a story of drugs. So for me, the counterculture was about marijuana, and it was about psychedelics. And it was about believing that we could create alternative economies that weren't based on greed, that were based on cooperation and equity. That is what the counterculture was for me. When I say drugs, I mean, cocaine and heroin, and now opioids, right, in West Virginia. But back then, that wasn't the case of the counterculture. And I think those drugs are life destroying, and we lost a lot of friends.

Schulz: Jamie, as somebody who was a child at this time, what was your perception of this lifestyle, That you were kind of brought into so young?

Jamie: I loved it. We had a lot of great adults around. And I think, as my mom said, we've lost a lot of friends. I think that there's a lot of light and there's a lot of dark and something can be both. And we've talked about that, about Marsha a lot. That she had a lot of light, she was this really positive force who really loved deeply. And she was a drug dealer, whether

Karen: Selling pot

Jamie: Selling pot, maybe others. I think an important part of the podcast was this, this back and forth, it was important to look at both sides of it. And the drug part was very complicated. Obviously, whether it was an intentional disappearance, or a murder or witness protection, or any number of the theories, most likely drugs were involved.

Schulz: What do you hope people walk away with having listened to the show?

Karen: I hope they walk away with an understanding that all of the problems that we were trying to get away from and reject are just as bad today, if not worse, and I hope they think “Wow, those folks really took some big risks.” I still think we can change those things. So I hope that people look at what we did and hear our story and say, ‘It's time for me to try that now.’

North Central/Morgantown Reporter, cschulz@wvpublic.org, 304-284-1497, @SchulzReports

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