Girl in the Picture · Jailbreak Lovers
Plus Joe Kenda and Jerry Harris
Homicide Hunter is back. I can hear you asking, “Homicide Hunter…left? at some point?” or perhaps “Is that a…good thing?” In order, “I mean, not exactly” and “I suppose that depends,” but something about the ID channel press mailer on the upcoming series of HH specials struck me — namely, that Lt. Joe Kenda’s trademark brand of basso profundo copaganda maaaay be to the Discovery system of networks as MCU is to Disney. Here’s a telling quote from an ID net exec:
“Since I joined the network, we at ID have wanted to bring the HOMICIDE HUNTER brand back to our air. Unfortunately, we had told all the stories we could possibly tell from Kenda’s incredible history of cases…until now. Thanks to advances in science, Joe has finally been able to close cases that have remained unsolved for decades,” said Jason Sarlanis, President of Crime and Investigative Content, Linear and Streaming.
In other words, a combination of the rise of forensic genealogy and the willingness of various PIs and production companies to pay for private DNA analysis (I’m guessing here) allowed the network to return to a durable, if rahhhther threadbare, brand to fill the streaming maw during summer’s dog days — with a cold case from 1987. (The perpetrator of this felonious misplaced modifier remains at large.)
A victim of torture and sexual assault, Lt. Joe Kenda and his team recall the series of events that occurred throughout the investigation and the many leads which turned into dead ends. But before the case goes cold, Kenda has the foresight to meticulously package and preserve every piece of fluid evidence found at the crime scene, a costly and complicated endeavor at the time, noting, “it may never come to anything, but it could come to everything.” More than three decades later and the advent of new DNA technology, what it came to is definitively putting a name to Darlene’s killer: [spoiler redacted by SDB].
Jokes aside, as that particular breed of old-school host/investigator goes, Kenda is IME less of a problem than some. Once upon a time, when your true-crime podcast choices consisted of Serial, Breakdown, and hoping Hardcore History would touch on a major case contemporaneous with his episode’s main topic, I spent several road-trip afternoons with the audio version of HH, and it was self-serving, but professional. I get why people attach to the property, and I definitely get why the Discovery-verse is eager for it to continue creating IP. It’s just interesting that the development honcho would say it, in almost so many words. — SDB
Speaking of soothing copaganda/procedurals that low-key built up Gunsmoke-esque episode numbers despite your never having seen a frame of them — remember JAG? One of its stars, Catherine Bell, is also the lead in Jailbreak Lovers, which premiered on Lifetime over the weekend. JL is the true story of Toby Young (now Toby Dorr), who was leading a prison dog-rehab program in Kansas when she helped her incarcerated lover, convicted murderer John Manard, escape in a dog crate. If this isn’t the Lifetimeliest goddamn case study I ever heard, it’s at least in the top five, amirite?
You may have seen the case on a Dateline episode that aired in June of last year; here’s an essay from the real Toby about making peace with the prison break she helped engineer. Toby did do more than two years for her role in the breakout, and I don’t know the statutes in Kansas, but writing this dreadful has got to constitute a violation of her parole:
With such a truly extraordinary and fulfilling purpose, I could not have been more oblivious to the insatiable gravity within me when John appeared from across the prison yard.
Inmates never approached me so directly. John’s casual stroll grayed the lines between carefree and careless, but I had no doubt that I was his target. He stopped directly in my path, eclipsing the blazing autumn sun, which created a dazzling crown of light. He offered his hand and with a deep drawl he announced, “I’m John Manard. I’d like to be your next handler.” I squinted one eye and shaded my other with my left hand. He shook my hand gently yet firmly. His voice soothed me. Everything about him, a testament to his character, unlike any other convicted killer I’d met while volunteering at the prison. His dark sunglasses concealed just enough to set my mind to wonder, “Are those eyes the icy blue I’d expect on a redhead?”
“And furthermore, did someone order a pizza?” …Okay, that’s uncharitable, and this is really on her editors, but: “insatiable gravity”? Did his character eat the verb in that sentence? Again, not everyone is cut out for writing, so it’s not really a surprise that Toby blunders into the high weeds of bars/barbed wire metaphor later on, and it’s all just a shame — that Toby’s first-person account should add to the conversation around this niche sort of case, but via this clumsy fan-fic, she can’t.
A late-2020 Atlantic longread on her relationship with Manard and the ensuing jailbreak (and disintegration of her family; her sons’ black-and-white repudiation of her, and the ultimate aftermath of that, is heartbreaking) is a better option. — SDB
Patrick Radden Keefe shared his top six true-crime books with The Week. On the one hand, well, The Week, but on the other hand, Radden Keefe, so I was gratified to see that it was better than the RS pod list we were despairing of yesterday. I’ve read five of the six — Kevin Smokler looked at Ghettoside for us years back — and it’s nice to see a handful of lesser-mentioned titles. (Not to mention that he acknowledges the value of the unpacking The Journalist and the Murderer tries to do, without necessarily signing off on Janet Malcolm’s m.o.)
I've interviewed killers, parents of killers, victims, and families of victims. For insights on the hazards of these interactions, I often return to Malcolm's classic examination of the relationship between Jeffrey MacDonald and Joe McGinniss — a man accused of a terrible crime and the writer who wants to tell his story.
And here’s another list that’s more thoughtful IMO than the RS list: Vulture’s Best Podcasts of 2022 So Far. It’s not all true-crime, of course, but it does include Will Be Wild, which I thought well of. — SDB
The July bonus-review topic is Adrienne. Here’s where to watch the 2021 doc, if you’d like, and here’s Soraya Roberts with a longread on Adrienne Shelly’s life and death — and here’s me reminding you that the bonus reviews are only for paid subscribers (but there’s lots of content behind the paywall, if you want to treat yourself!). — SDB
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A quick update on Jerry Harris, which you may have seen trending on social yesterday: the Cheer S01 star got 12 years in federal prison. That number is somewhat closer to the prosecution’s requested term (15 years) than Harris’s attorney’s (six).
Harris’s sentencing is not the only update from Marisa Kwiatkowski and Tricia L. Nadolny:
USA TODAY found officials at that governing body, the U.S. All Star Federation, waited four months to suspend Harris, doing so only after the news organization published an article about the allegations. USA TODAY has since reported on pervasive child protection failures throughout the sport of competitive cheerleading, including how USASF delayed investigations and failed to prevent those accused or convicted of misconduct from working with young athletes.
When USA TODAY began its reporting, just 21 people had been suspended or banned from the sport. Today, more than 200 people's names appear on the list.
When Cheer returned earlier this year, I talked about S02, how the show handled the allegations, and how/when it “should have” addressed them. — SDB
In April of 1990, Tonya Hughes is found by the side of the road in Oklahoma City, beaten but alive. She dies of her injuries at a local hospital, but not before her “much older” “husband,” “Clarence,” appears and gives medical personnel a couple of leads — that she’s an exotic dancer, and that she has a toddler son, Michael.
But the real Tonya Hughes had died 20 years prior; “Clarence” isn’t Clarence; Michael isn’t his child; and the blooming onion of cases her death began peeling isn’t close to getting solved.
The story (with some spoilers, so skip to the last graf if you’d like to avoid those)
Girl in the Picture, the latest doc feature from Skye Borgman (Abducted in Plain Sight and Dead Asleep), is pretty typical Borgman content: a wild and nauseatingly scuzzy story, professionally built to keep drawing the viewer forward before they think to Google the case. Dead Asleep got rung up with gusto by other reviewers when it came out, primarily for a failure to center the victim of its sensational tale, and Girl can sometimes seem like it’s reacting to that criticism, but whatever the impetus, its access is excellent — “Tonya”’s high-school friends, her colleagues at various dance establishments, her biological daughter and, later, her biological parents all participate, as well as various law-enforcement officers and the author of two books on the case. I didn’t remember said case, which spans decades, and didn’t feel tempted to second-screen while I was watching Girl to find out more, so at around 100 minutes, it’s an economical and effective enough sit.
But I don’t know if I recommend it. It’s not essential; it’s well built, it avoids judging its witnesses for the things they didn’t think — or were too afraid — to report decades ago, and it doesn’t use too many visual genre clichés (re-enactments and drone shots are minimal and sparing), but at the same time, Borgman has staked out a territory of sorts with outré files like Girl’s, and appears content not to push the boundaries of narrative much past, you know, a 48 HRS but with swears in it. “Tonya”’s story/fate is horrifying, but that powerful engine is, for lack of a better term, in the same old chassis as a Dateline or a sweeps SVU. That car will drive fine and get you where you need to go (unlike this metaphor, I’m afraid, but let’s just soldier on), but it’s also missing the opportunity to push harder on ideas like 1) not questioning other people’s home lives even when you get a wiggins; 2) the volume of similar crimes that were allowed to occur/go uninvestigated, never mind punished, thanks to antediluvian ideas about parental “fitness” in the middle of the last century, many of which persist; 3) the shadow classes in this country — sex workers and adjacent industry, for just one — that shelter the things that grow in the dark; or 4) where the citizen-sleuthing sweet spot is between harassing interference and helpful signal-boosting.
Would Borgman have needed a limited series to get into any or all of that? Yes. Do I think she, or anyone else, should have? Unclear. Borgman does have an ear for the rhythms of the genre, but that can cut both ways, and while a traditionally propulsive (ugh, sorry) structure doesn’t per se preclude innovation, in Borgman’s case they may not successfully co-exist. Or they haven’t to date, in any case.
Girl in the Picture is good; it’s competent; the graveside family “reunion” at the end is a little lazy, but that’s not fatal. But the story Girl tells has more to tell us about all the other stories like it; it doesn’t do that. Maybe it’s unfair to want that from it, and if you don’t, I recommend it. If you want more than a dark mystery solved, you might do better skipping it. — SDB
Coming up on Best Evidence: dream hampton, “viral true-crime culture,” and more.