Originally appeared on E! Online
How does someone sift through the noise to find the real story? How does someone solve a 21-year-old cold case? How does someone get anyone to care?
Those are the questions Madison McGhee poses and sets out to answer in her podcast Ice Cold Case, which isn’t just your average addition to the vast true crime canon. Because, as she notes in the eight-episode (so far) series that just concluded Aug. 23, “It doesn’t get more personal than this.”
The cold case in question is the murder of her own father, John Cornelius “J.C.” McGhee, who was shot to death in his Bridgeport, Ohio, home on July 11, 2002.
Madison, who grew up living with her mom in Charleston, W. Va., was only 6 when her dad was killed. For years she thought he died of a heart attack, because that’s what her family told her, and she didn’t find out what really happened until she was about to graduate from high school.
And even then, no one could tell her what really happened.
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Madison went on to get a communications degree from College of Charleston and work in various production jobs, specializing in unscripted shows. And she was certainly a fan of true crime podcasts, but it wasn’t until May 2020—while on a 41-hour drive from Portland, Ore., to her hometown—that it occurred to her that she could make her own.
And maybe then she could get some answers.
“I think about my ideas on a big scale, regardless of what my reality looks like at the moment,” Madison exclusively told E! News in an email interview. “So I started to visualize what it would look like and what it would feel like to solve my dad’s case through a podcast. And that got me really excited. Nothing else had worked to solve the case up to that point—it had been almost 20 years. I felt hope for the first time in a long time, that this could actually work.”
Of course, that was only the seed of an idea, one that she could just as easily have talked herself out of.
“I think it’s a pretty universal experience to get really excited about something and then overnight go from the excitement to the fear of failure,” Madison explained. “I remember talking to my mom about the idea, so eager to get going and dive into the case, but in the same breath wondering if I was capable enough or qualified enough to be doing this. ‘Who am I to…?’ is a common question I’d ask myself throughout the process.”
Not to mention, as she would soon find out, not everyone she set out to talk to was wildly eager to revisit the murder and naturally there were dead ends and disappointments along the way.
“This has been a very uncomfortable process in so many ways,” Madison said. The show ultimately took three years to put together, from inception to Ice Cold Case‘s May 17 premiere. “And on the days that this didn’t feel electrifying,” she noted, “I had to force myself to keep going and remember the end goal: find out who killed my dad.”
Who was John Cornelius McGhee?
Making the podcast was “a very unique opportunity” for Madison to learn more about the man who was violently excised from her life when she was just a little kid, and much of what she found out was news to her.
As she details in Ice Cold Case, J.C. had a colorful life. Her mother, one of several women he had children with, says in the podcast that Madison’s dad loved “his kids, his Cadillac and women.”
Born in Wheeling, W.V., J.C. had an eighth-grade education but always seemed to manage to make a living and he owned a few houses in his hometown. He attended Narcotics Anonymous—Madison’s mother says on the podcast she met him at a meeting in 1994—and “would stay clean for extended periods of time,” his daughter describes in Ice Cold Case. But even amid his own struggles, he was the kind of guy who’d let people in recovery with nowhere else to go stay at his properties rent-free.
“People talk a lot about how generous and kind he was,” Madison told E!. “They say he was charming and always helping people out. He loved to sing.”
J.C. also struggled with depression and anxiety, issues Madison says she has also dealt with, and she would similarly characterize herself as an empath who is eager to help people.
She finds these shared traits with her father fascinating, “how even though I didn’t spend a lot of time with him because I lost him at such a young age,” she shared, “I still have that connection to him.”
His own checkered past with drugs had also made him familiar to local law enforcement, Madison learned, and he had served as an informant. Toward the end of his life, people close to him said that he had become increasingly paranoid and was convinced someone was going to kill him.
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What happened to John Cornelius McGhee?
Authorities confirmed to local news outlets at the time that J.C. had been shot at around 6:30 a.m. at his house in Bridgeport, near the Ohio-West Virginia border, on July 11, 2002. His then-16-year-old daughter Alyssa was home with him and called 911 after finding her dad on the floor, the front door hanging open and a knob-shaped hole in the wall.
A pathology report indicated that J.C. was facing his killer when he was fatally wounded, Belmont County Sheriff Tom McCort told Wheeling’s Sunday News-Register a few days later. They were in the early stages of their investigation, the sheriff noted, but detectives were talking to everyone the victim knew and searching for a black or blue “stretch” van with white or silver stripes.
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“We’re trying to put together a motive,” McCort, who died in 2020, said. “As of right now, it is not determined. We talked with a lot of neighbors that described a lot of vehicles that were up there. No one saw anything.”
Evidence collected at the scene was still being processed and they were waiting on “a bunch of stuff from the lab,” the sheriff added, the lab in question belonging to the Ohio Bureau of Investigation. “In the meantime, we’ll keep talking to anyone we can talk to.”
But as days, weeks and months went by, no one was ever arrested or charged in connection with J.C.’s death.
How did Madison McGhee start investigating her own father’s murder?
Madison knew she had a long road ahead, but she admittedly didn’t realize what a slog it would be at times.
“You are at the mercy of so many different offices and you get what they give you,” she told E!. “It took several months to actually get the case files and in the beginning it felt like I was translating a foreign language. Apart from the revelations within those files, I was very surprised by how many variations of rumors there are flying around. So many people told me so many wild tales. It was hard to know if they really believed their own stories or if they were trying to throw me off.”
Moreover, she went in, as she put it, “completely blind” as far as the 2002-era investigation went, so she really was just piecing clues together as she went along.
Asked if there was an OMG moment that stood out, Madison shared that she was surprised by a lot, but “finding the connection between multiple theories” was particularly revelatory. “I had been looking at each suspect or motive as an individual entity,” she explained. “But there’s reason to believe that they could all be tied together. It’s the kind of revelation that made me feel equal parts shocked and uneasy.”
Among the unequivocally positive results of this experience, though, Madison pointed to reconnecting with her half-sister Alyssa, whom she hadn’t seen since their father’s funeral.
Alyssa participated in the podcast, and they reunited in person last year. Getting to see her after 20 years and meet her nieces and nephew was “really special,” Madison reflected. “We have both grown up and built lives for ourselves, and to see where we are now versus where we were at 6 and 16, it’s really wild. I’m so grateful that through this tragic experience we were able to grow closer together.”
Why was J.C. McGhee’s murder never solved?
Throughout her deep dive into her dad’s case, which included combing through interview transcripts provided by the Belmont County Prosecutor’s Office, Madison became increasingly convinced that a lot of people weren’t telling investigators the whole truth back in the day.
And it sounds as though authorities agree.
“When you have somebody who is repeatedly dishonest, you can’t assign worth to any product that they give out,” Belmont County Sheriff’s Det. Ryan Allar told Wheeling’s WTRF in July. “And when you’re dealing in case work, that is a huge handicap for an investigator.”
Madison acknowledges in Ice Cold Case that many of her father’s associates could have had all sorts of reasons to lie, and not necessarily because they were involved with J.C.’s murder in any way. She speculates that some simply didn’t want to get too close to it. When someone gets killed, after all, that means there’s a killer out there…somewhere.
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Where does the investigation into J.C. McGhee’s murder stand today?
Ice Cold Case, which remains on Apple Podcasts’ Top Shows chart, laid out what was for most listeners a brand-new story. But that means thousands of at-home sleuths now want this 21-year-old case to get solved as well.
Belmont County Sheriff’s Det. Allar told WTRF that they were “doubling down on going back and dealing with things that are solid and can’t be lied about—direct evidence.”
“The sheriff’s office is very grateful that Ms. McGhee reached out to us and included us in her endeavors for shining some light on this case,” he said. “And I personally feel that this is just the shot in the arm that this case needed to regain some momentum.”
Madison told E! she spoke with authorities a few times before her podcast launched and “they did say that they would re-examine the evidence,” she said. “If there is any to re-examine, and they actually do so, I would be very grateful.” Otherwise, she added, “No one is keeping me in the loop of their progress, if there is any.”
E! News reached out to the Belmont County Sheriff’s Department for comment but did not hear back.
Meanwhile, Madison has her theories about who killed her dad. And she knows that, in the end, what she uncovers may have to be enough for her.
“As much as I hope that there will be a path to justice at a legal level through a trial and a conviction,” she said, “I understand that for reasons out of my control there may not be enough evidence.”
“If I end this journey simply knowing who did it and why—I do believe that will be enough,” Madison continued. “But I will not stop until I have tried everything to get it solved in a court of law.”
Focusing only on what she can control, she’ll continue to spread the word about the unsolved murder of J.C. McGhee, “doing whatever it takes to get to the truth.”
And now that she’s planted her flag in the true crime space, in addition to pressing on with her father’s case—episode nine of Ice Cold Case drops Sept. 6—she is interested in collaborating with others like her, “a relative desperate for answers,” on their own quest for closure.
“If there is a way to utilize this to help others, I will make it happen,” she said. “And it would be a great honor to do so.”
For more true crime updates on your need-to-know cases, head to Oxygen.com.