Making Sense of Serial — Who Did It?

In the final episode of Serial, Sarah Koenig’s producer, Dana, talks about the terrible luck that Adnan has. If he is innocent, she theorizes, he is the victim of an unbelievable number of unfortunate consequences. What is heavily implied is that Adnan’s story – his fuzzy memory, lending the car to the guy who implicated him, butt dials and questionable cell phone records – is conveniently fabricated. If you remove emotion from the story and just rely on logic, all signs point to Adnan’s guilt.

However, it’s just not true. His luck is only terrible if you believe Jay’s story, and there is no reason to believe Jay’s story. The only bit of “bad luck” that Adnan has is that he has a hard time remembering details from an unremarkable day, which would happen to anybody. His memory doesn’t match up with the cell phone records – because there is nothing clear in his mind about a day that happened six weeks before. Everything else (even the Nisha call!) can be reconciled with a different timeline of events, one that, of course, Jay wouldn’t want to tell the police.

The fact that Adnan let Jay borrow his car doesn’t mean he has terrible luck – it just means that he was naïve and unassuming. He let a guy borrow his car, then that guy murdered his friend and framed him. That is terrible luck. But the “it’s not possible for him to be innocent because there are too many coincidences” theory is a bad theory. Unfortunate coincidences only exist if you believe Jay’s story – and Jay made up the story so as to contain unlucky coincidences.

We can all agree that Jay’s version of events is wrong. He was described by all who knew him as a liar, his version of events – including critical details that would be difficult to misremember – changed constantly for police, he was absolutely involved with the crime and wanted to minimize his role. We can also (in my opinion) agree that Adnan’s version is wrong. The day was unremarkable, there are aspects that he originally didn’t remember but did once prompted (seeing Asia in the library, for example), there’s no reason to put stock in what he thinks happened or didn’t happen. I also believe that Jenn’s story is suspect, for a mixture of both reasons – she could misremember events from earlier in the day, and she was also invested in protecting Jay, even if she didn’t know fully what his part in the crime was.

A note: I assume that Jay was cheating on Stephanie with Jenn. I think this for a myriad of reasons – it was referred to in the trial (Christina Guitierez referred to it as “stepping out”), Adnan’s best friend Saad talked about it on Reddit, and, most importantly, the number of phone calls between Jenn and Jay (and the fact that her testimony suggests that he spent the night at her house) very heavily imply a sexual relationship.

In general, I think it’s reasonable to assume that people’s memories are shoddy when it comes to specific times and order of events. I think it is unreasonable to assume that if somebody heard something unbelievable like “I just buried a body” or “hey look at this body in this trunk” they would then misremember the details. If there are inconsistencies with such remarkable events, they are lies. I think it’s reasonable to assume that Jenn is lying because she is trying to protect Jay. I think it’s reasonable to assume that Jay is lying because he is trying to protect Jay.

This leaves us with a basic skeleton of events (Hae went to school, Hae was murdered, Hae was buried, Hae’s car was dropped off, Jay knew where Hae’s car was, Adnan usually went to school and track practice, everybody smoked a lot of weed) and a cell phone log, which helps us to see where Jay and Adnan were, and when.

The following timeline answers all of the possible lingering questions about what happened that day. As you read, I suggest that you open up the interactive cell phone tower map on the Serial website, and the cell phone call log, to follow along. Or, if you aren’t as obsessed as I am, you can just take my word for it and follow along with what I’ve found.

The cell tower map showing pings around the Baltimore area
The cell tower map, available on the Serial website, tells the whole story

10:45 a.m.: Adnan calls Jay to remind him about Stephanie’s present. The cell phone tower pings near Woodlawn high school, where Adnan is calling from. Jay picks up Adnan’s car and phone; Adnan stays at school. It is around this time that Adnan asks Hae if he can have a ride after school, because Jay is taking Adnan’s car and phone. Hae says okay.

12:07 p.m.: Jay calls Jenn at home. Since Jay is “stepping out” with Jenn, they are in near constant communication. The cell tower pings out to the west, near I-70, Jay is just driving around.

Jay heads down to the area where he originally told investigators he saw Hae’s body in the trunk – Sarah Koenig mentioned that was an area of town (the strip) where he often bought drugs. He went there to get drugs.

12:41: Jay calls Jenn. The cell phone tower pings near the strip.

12:43: Incoming call from Hae. She knows Jay has Adnan’s car and cell phone because Adnan asked her for a ride. She calls Jay to see if she can score some weed. Her original plan: get some weed, pick up her cousin, meet up with Don at his work. If you look at the map of Baltimore with the relevant sites, it makes sense to quickly meet up with Jay to get weed before going to get her cousin (going to get her cousin first would require her to loop back, and make her even later for the wrestling match). One aspect of the story that hasn’t been discussed much is how Hae got sidetracked on the way to get her cousin – it makes sense to me that she decided to pick up weed on the way to get her cousin, and then didn’t make it to the next step of her plan.

The night before, Hae had told Don that she was planning on skipping the wrestling meet. This is why she at first told Adnan she could give him a ride – if she wasn’t going to the wrestling meet, she would have a lot of time. Later in the day, she told Adnan that something came up – she had decided instead to go to the wrestling meet, in part because the new assistant manager didn’t know how to keep score. This meant that she would not have time to take Adnan anywhere, and instead, she would write a note and leave it on Don’s car, explaining why she wasn’t waiting for him after work. She writes a note to Don, explaining that she is “sorry I couldn’t stay,” ready to leave it on his car. Her new plan: Score some weed, pick up her cousin, drive by the mall to leave the note on Don’s car, and go to the wrestling match.

Thus, at 12:43, she calls Jay to ask him to get her some weed. He tells her to meet him in the parking lot of Best Buy (where often shady things happen) after school. This call pings the cell tower near the strip, where Jay buys his drugs, which is where he will eventually drop the car.

After school, because Adnan can’t get a ride with Hae anymore, Adnan hangs out at the library, with nothing else to do before track. He sees Asia McClane. Hae rushes around, picks up a snack, heads to Best Buy.

2:36: Hae calls Jay to let him know that she is at Best Buy, to bring her the weed. He is already nearby, so the cell tower pings near Best Buy. This call, which is described in Jay’s timeline as “come and get me, I’m at Best Buy,” actually is “come to Best Buy,” but it’s Hae instead of Adnan. Since she had already talked to Jay, the call is short. He knows she’s going to call and there’s no need for much talking.

Hae meets up with Jay, he gets in her car to give her the weed. Being assertive/aggressive and confident, she tells him that she has heard that he is cheating on Stephanie.

Stephanie is Jay’s “everything.” He will do “anything” to protect her, but he is impulsive, and has started a side relationship with Jenn. Hae has heard about this and, as Stephanie’s friend, thinks that it is wrong. She tells Jay that either Jay will tell Stephanie or Hae will.

Jenn and Jay are definitely an item. He is constantly calling her throughout the day, and Jenn testifies that she picks him up at night when he has to clean off the shovel, and takes him the next morning to drop off his dirty clothes (quite possibly he spent the night at her house). When Jenn mentions that Jay lies all the time, she says that Jay but wouldn’t ever lie to her – very much what a mistress would think. She is willing to create an alibi for him – not talking to the cops until he says it is okay – because as the other woman, what she has going for her is that she is always willing to go the extra distance.

Jay cannot stand the thought of Stephanie finding out – and he sees Hae as the instigator of the trouble. He sees Hae as a threat to Stephanie, because if she tells Stephanie, Stephanie will be hurt. He can’t let this happen. He strangles Hae in the car. He leaves her body in the car, trying to figure out what to do. He drives Adnan’s car to his (Jay’s) house to get a shovel, intending to bury the body right away. As he looks at Hae, he thinks immediately of “how fragile Stephanie is” (as he told the police) because, in his sick way, he killed Hae to protect Stephanie, because Hae was going to hurt Stephanie by telling on him.

As Jay kills Hae, he thinks about how tough this murder makes him. Just like when he wanted to stab his friend Chris just because Chris had never been stabbed, Jay thinks about violence as a status symbol. When Jay talks to the detectives, Jay says about Adnan, “He said that he couldn’t believe he killed somebody with his bare hands, that all the other motherfuckers referring to hoods and thugs and stuff think they’re hardcore. But he just killed a person with his bare hands.” This is absolutely not in line with what anybody thinks about Adnan – nobody talks about Adnan as a guy trying to prove how tough he is. On the other hand, Josh (who worked with Jay at the porn store) made it clear that that was how people felt about Jay – that he was tough but not really tough enough. The person who might think “now everybody will take me seriously” is Jay. When Jay is talking to the detectives, he is telling them bits and pieces of truth – except instead of it being “the story as Adnan told it to me,” it is “the story as I experienced it.”

3:15: Incoming call. This is Adnan calling to tell Jay that he is at the library, to come get him, maybe they’ll hang out/smoke before track practice. The cell tower near Best Buy is pinged, as Jay had returned to Hae’s car with the shovel. He puts the shovel into Hae’s car, drives to Adnan, picks him up. Hae’s car (and body) stays at Best Buy. Jay’s story about the car being at Best Buy or not being at Best Buy changes because he is afraid that there are cameras at Best Buy, and also because Jay lies, all the time, about everything.

Adnan does not remember Jay coming to see him at school because Adnan doesn’t remember the day well. Maybe he wanted Jay to drop off weed, maybe he wanted Jay to show him Stephanie’s present, maybe he was just bored at the library. The cell phone records indicate that Jay met up with Adnan at this point, and nothing in Adnan’s general timeline (school, then nothing much, then track) contradicts Jay coming to meet up with Adnan.

3:21: Jay calls Jenn, on the way to pick up Adnan again. Just checking in, as you do when you have a mistress. The cell phone tower near Best Buy/Woodlawn is pinged.

Jenn’s testimony from this time says that Jay was at her house. The fact that somebody (and that somebody was almost certainly Jay) called Jenn at this time, and pinged near Woodlawn, suggests that at the very least her memory is shoddy. Coupled with the fact that she wants to protect Jay, and has reason to believe he’s involved in a crime at this time, it is not surprising that she would say that he was at her house. She is an unreliable witness, and where her story matches the call log, it’s worth paying attention to what she says. Where her story does not match the call log, the call log is more reliable, and we can assume that she misremembered or lied.

3:32: Adnan is now with Jay and the cell phone, near the school. Adnan uses the phone to call Nisha, just checking in as you do when you have a new ladyfriend. The cell phone pings near Best Buy/Woodlawn. Jay then drops Adnan off at practice.

3:48: Call to Phil, pings near Westlawn. Jay is heading back to Best Buy, leaving Adnan’s car and picking up Hae/her car/the shovel.

3:59: Jay calls Patrick as he drops Adnan off at school. Cell tower pings near Woodlawn. Jay heads to Leakin Park.

4:12: Jay calls Jenn at home, checking in. Cell tower pings in Leakin Park, near where Hae’s body is buried. Obviously. Jay knows he has the two hours of track practice (approximately 4:00 – 6:00 p.m.) to bury the body.

4:27: Incoming call. Cell tower pings near Westview shopping center. This is also not far from Leakin Park, and could be an overlap area. Jay is trying to find a good spot to bury the body.

4:58: Incoming call. Same cell tower pinging near Westview, Jenn’s house, and Leakin Park. Jay is continuing to try to find a place to bury the body, driving around the area of Leakin Park. This call is Jenn, calling Jay – he asks her to come pick him up, won’t say why or how, just that he needs her to. “Pick me up at the strip at 5:45.” Jay shuts off the phone because he has some digging to do.

5:14: A call is made that goes straight to voicemail, because Jay has shut off the phone while he buries Hae. During this time, Jay buries Hae in Leakin Park, drives to the nearby Westview shopping center to drop the shovel, and drives Hae’s car near the strip, where he leaves it until he brings detectives to it.

This, to me, is a critical call. The call does not ping on any towers, and goes straight to voicemail, indicating that either the phone is out of range (unlikely) or turned off. Why would somebody turn off the phone? My guess is that Jay was trying to focus on getting Hae’s body buried, and could not risk any more interruptions of incoming calls. He turns off the phone and gets to work.

Jay turns the phone back on.

5:38: Jay accidentally dials Krista. The cell phone tower near Hae’s car is pinged. This is an accidental call – it lasts for only two seconds. It places the cell phone near Hae’s car drop-off. He walks to the strip area, Jenn picks him up, brings him back to Best Buy.

6:00: Jay picks Adnan up from track. They drive to Cathy’s to get high. At this point, Jay is acting weird, because he is freaking out. Adnan is acting weird because he is super high.

6:07: Aisha calls Adnan to ask if he knows where Hae is; says the police are calling. This pings near Cathy’s house. Adnan freaks out because he is super high and he’s afraid that his parents will know. He wants to know how to get rid of a high.

6:09: Another short incoming call, pings near Cathy’s house.

6:24: The police call Adnan and talk to him for a few minutes. He realizes how high he is and that he needs to come down. Jay is freaking out because of Hae; Adnan is freaking out because he is too high. They start to drive around.

6:59: Near Woodlawn. Adnan calls Yaser to tell him he’s coming to the mosque later, but he’s super high and wants to come down. Pings near Woodlawn.

7:00: Jay pages Jenn, pings also near Woodlawn. They are going to drive around, he wants Jenn to pick him up later. He pages her to get her to call him and let her know.

7:09, 7:16: Both of these calls are incoming calls, presumably Jenn calling after Jay has paged her. Tellingly, they are in Leakin Park. This “looks bad for Adnan” if you believe Jay’s story – that they buried Hae’s body after track. However, if you don’t believe Jay’s story (and you shouldn’t), of course they are in Leakin Park. Adnan is trying to get down from a high so is content to just drive around, Jay wants to go back to where he buried Hae to see if you can tell from the road that anything is amiss. Adnan doesn’t notice where they are because he thinks they are just driving aimlessly and he is completely stoned.

When Jenn makes these calls, Jay tells her that he wants her to pick him up around 8:30. He tells her he will page her, and for her to come pick him up at Westview, because after surreptitiously checking the burial spot, he realizes that he wants to double-check the shovel.

8:04, 8:05: Jay pages Jenn to ask her to pick him up soon. Cell towers ping outside of Leakin Park, where they are driving out of. Adnan and Jay drive to Westview. Jenn picks up Jay, Adnan drives away with his car.

Jenn remembers clearly that she saw Adnan and Jay drive up together, and Adnan got out of the car and said hi. Jay’s story is different – he says that he was dropped off at Jenn’s. Adnan doesn’t remember details, as per usual.

Adnan’s memory is bad because it was an uneventful day, Jay is lying because he doesn’t want to admit about the shovel. Although Jenn has some inconsistencies in her memory (like when/if she hung out with Jay), this particular event is unlikely to be misremembered – Jay got in her car and then told her that he helped to bury Hae’s body. Jenn is likely to remember correctly the details about where and when this happened.

She is also not likely to lie to try to help Jay out on this one, because he has already admitted to helping bury Hae.

This is important because Jay got in the car and told Jenn that they had just thrown out the shovel(s) a few moments before, but a small detail in Jenn’s story is telling. Jenn said she was waiting for them, saw them arrive, and then saw Jay get in her car. This means that they could not have just dropped off the shovel (or she would have seen them dump it), but somebody must have tossed the shovel earlier. If we believe Jenn’s story, which backs up Jay’s story, they could not have just gotten back from burying Hae. The shovel had already been dropped.

Jay gets in Jenn’s car, drops the news that he helped bury Hae, and they loop back around and wipe down the shovel.

9:01, etc.: Adnan is back, alone, with his cell phone, near his house. He calls Nisha, calls Krista, everything pings near his house. He has the phone the rest of the night, he goes to the mosque, just as he (and everybody else) has said he probably did.

If you believe Jay’s story (or… one of the many stories that Jay tells), the cell phone logs don’t match up, and there are all sorts of problems. If you don’t believe Jay’s story, and instead build up a timeline based on the facts – the cell log, the map, Adnan’s general school/track schedule, the fact that Hae was murdered, buried, and her car was dropped – everything falls into place.

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I am old and wise. Perhaps more old than wise, but once you're old, you don't give a shit about details anymore.

13 thoughts on “Making Sense of Serial — Who Did It?”

  1. I also made an account to be able to reply.

    Great post, and I’m glad to see a coherent alternative to the “Adnan must have done it” that seems to be everywhere.

    My theory is similar (though not nearly as detailed), with one big difference: I think Adnan may well have been at the mosque from 7-9, while Jay was burying the body, by himself or with some help from Jenn. That’s mostly because I read the interview with the prosecutor on The Intercept, where he mentions that there were EIGHTY witnesses who “were going to testify that Syed was at the mosque because it was Ramadan”. So it just seems to me that he might have been at the mosque.

    Here’s a comment I wrote at the AV Club with my version.

  2. Hi Susan!

    I think you did a great job with your theory of what happened that day. After listening to the podcast multiple times and checking the cell log and map over and over…I came to a similar conclusion. Mainly, that Jay killed Hae. The motive I have was slightly different than yours in that I think Jay felt anger towards Adnan because of Stephanie. Jay thought Adnan “had everything”. The car, new cell phone, popularity and close relationship with Stephanie. I think he got pissed off that Adnan called him asking if he got his own girlfriend a gift. I think Jay wanted to take something away from Adnan and he somehow found the opportunity that afternoon. I understand this is pretty far fetched, but I am just thinking in terms of establishing reasonable doubt.

    The call log simply shows that Jay was in all the locations that had to do with the murder that afternoon, while Adnan would have been at school and the library. Jay goes to the area where Hae’s car was dumped, the area he told police he first saw her body, the park, Westview, etc. He was all over the place.

    It’s also clear that he has getting help or support from Jenn based on the call log. I don’t know if investigators ever checked anyone else’s call logs to see if they called Adnan’s cell that day so personally, I didn’t fill in the incoming calls in the way you did. However, I did theorize that Jay may have been making a couple drug deals during the 12:07 and 12:43 times he made calls to Jenn’s house, so it’s interesting that you tied it to Hae wanting to buy weed. The only thing is that later that after noon Jay claims he went to Jenn’s house and hung out with her brother and that they went to the mall. So that would mean at least Jenn’s brother was a witness to that. Did Jay even gift Stephanie a gift that day? What happened? And another thought I had is why Adnan would kill Hae on his close friend’s birthday. He had went out of his way to get her a gift, call her boyfriend to make sure he got her a gift, let him borrow the car so he could supposedly get a gift. It all started with the gift for Stephanie on her birthday. This has never been disputed by Jay either. He tells different stories about when Adnan said he was going to kill Hae, but he always maintained that Adnan gave him his car so he could buy a gift (and then claims they went to the mall together) And I think that was Adnan’s character ultimately. The good friend. To Steph, to Hae and to Jay. And he is somehow paying for that.

    I have so many other thoughts about this case! But really I think the call log tells the tale. You can see how the pattern changed at 9 pm that night when Adnan gets his phone back. He goes back to his regular calls to Nisha, Krista, Yaser, etc. The same pattern as the day before. He possibly had no clue Hae was dead (only MIA).

    Ok, I could go on but I’ll spare you all. I need to get that out. Thanks!

  3. I’m sure you saw the new interviews with Jay – did they change your timeline at all or is he still a Lying Liar who Lies in your book? (I’m not sure in mine! I find your timeline very believable. I’m so glad that PMag ran the criticism of the race aspect of Serial a few weeks back, though. My family listened to Serial on our holiday drive & I have odd feelings about the entertainment aspect of it all, plus Koenig’s handling of race or lack thereof…)

  4. I have to disagree with this time line and theory.

    1. It was NOT an unremarkable day. I know it’s been played like that. But how often do you get a call from the cops asking if you’ve seen your ex girlfriend, she didn’t come home on time?

    2. Her friend did speak with her after 236. It was most definitely closer to 3 that her friend spoke to her about making it to the meet.

    I’d love Adnan not to be in jail. This case was built on shaking testimony, with very little actual proof of anything. But above all that, the fact that there are thousands of people in jail because of cases like this.

    Jay is a very inconsistent person, but his story has been essentially the same every time. And he really has no motive to kill Hae. I know the idea of Hae telling Stephanie about Jay “stepping out” sounds good, but honestly, that’s almost weaker than a serial killer killing Hae.

    Why is there such a push for Adnan to be innocent? 64% of women killed are killed by intimate partners. 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence (a number that has gone down in the last 10 years, it used to be 1 in 3). Out of that 25%, 1/3 of those victims are high school students. Hae’s friends have stated Adnan was always paging her, always wanting to know where she was, who she was with. He would show up uninvited to stuff. That’s pretty classic early abuse signs. Was Adnan actually abusive? I don’t know. But his behavior as it has been reported by Hae’s friends, indicate he might have been heading that way. He was That Kid. The one who always ended up with what he wanted, the one all the adults liked, that got away with everything.

    1. No, I think you are misremembering. Her friend said she was annoyed when Hae said she wasn’t going on the bus (since her friend wasn’t confident she knew how to score wrestling without Hae’s help). Then she was mad when Hae didn’t show up. That’s what this theory says.
      Bigger problem with the theory is saying Adnan is being dropped off at school at both 3:32 and 3:59.
      The best part of the theory is the earlier burial–that does make it seem more plausible that it’s light enough to “see change in your hand” as Jay said, and light enough to actually bury a body without flashlights.

      1. You are right about the mistake – it was a typo. At first I thought Jay was dropping off Adnan at 3:59, then realized he could have done it earlier and didn’t fix the first version, so I accidentally left it as Adnan getting dropped off twice.

  5. Susan, you have done an excellent job of laying everything out and showing how the evidence points to Jay’s guilt instead of Adnan’s. I completely agree with you: Jay killed Hae because she had threatened to reveal his cheating to Stephanie or because of an altercation over drugs. Yes, he was totally freaking out, but his actions show that he had gathered his wits and was beginning to piece together a plan to implicate Adnan so he could draw attention away from himself.

    The Innocence Project has just gotten involved in this as of a few weeks ago. They’re looking to prove that Adnan did not kill Hae, but they’re also looking into the fact that a local serial killer was operating at the time and that the circumstances surrounding Hae’s death match his MO and methodology. I suppose it does make sense to eliminate all possibilities, including serial killers, but the evidence against Jay is pretty damning.

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