Review: ‘If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story,’ starring Juan Martinez, Jennifer Willmott, Maria De La Rosa, Rachel Blaney, Robert Geffner, Chris Hughes and Sky Hughes

February 24, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jodi Arias mugshot in “If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story” (Photo courtesy of Discovery+)

“If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story”

Directed by Christopher Holt

Culture Representation: The documentary “If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story” features a group of white people and some Latino people discussing the case of Jodi Arias, the California woman who was convicted of the 2008 murder of her ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander in Arizona.

Culture Clash: Some people interviewed in the documentary say that justice was served with the murder conviction, while others say that the conviction was unfair because they believe Arias’ claims that she acted in self-defense.

Culture Audience: “If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in notorious true crime cases.

Jodi Arias and Travis Alexander in “If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story” (Photo courtesy of Discovery+)

The Jodi Arias case has gotten so much publicity that most people who followed the story already know what the outcome was. On June 4, 2008, she killed her ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander by stabbing him 27 times and shooting him at his home in Mesa, Arizona. Arias claimed it was self-defense, but she was convicted of first-degree murder in 2013. In 2015, she was sentenced to life in prison without parole. The documentary “If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story” (directed by Christopher Holt) doesn’t reveal anything new, but it does a very good job of presenting both sides of this tragic story.

The documentary includes interviews with some of Alexander’s friends and members of law enforcement who wholeheartedly believe that Arias is guilty. Representing the other side in the documentary are members of Arias’ defense team and an unidentified female relative, who wholeheartedly believe that Arias is not guilty because they think that Arias acted in self-defense. The documentary seems mostly objective in trying to present a balanced view of both sides.

The people interviewed in the documentary are:

  • Christopher Black, who knew Arias in high school
  • Rachel Blaney, a police detective in California’s Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office who interviewed Arias and investigated the case
  • Jeff Jensen, a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints elder who knew Alexander and Arias
  • Maria De La Rosa, a defense mitigation specialist who is on Arias’ side
  • Professor Robert Geffner, a psychologist for the defense
  • Tom Fichera, Arias’ former boss at Ventana Inn & Spa in Big Sur, California
  • Chris Hughes and Sky Hughes, a former husband and wife who were friends of Alexander
  • Juan Martinez, the former Maricopa County, Arizona prosecutor who was the lead attorney in the state’s case against Arias.
  • Taylor Searle, one of Alexander’s friends
  • Richard Van Galder Jr., a homicide sergeant in Arizona’s Mesa Police Department
  • Jennifer Willmott, who is Arias’ defense attorney
  • An unidentified female relative of Arias who wanted to remain anonymous

The movie includes excerpts from Arias’ diaries that are read by an actress in voiceovers. There are also re-enactments for some of the scenes that involve Arias driving from California to Arizona on the day that she committed the crime, as well as re-enactments of of Arias and Alexander’s relationship in happier times. These re-enactments are a little tacky. The voiceover readings would have been sufficient.

A diary excerpt that’s read in the beginning and end of the documentary is: “Five things I’m grateful for: (1) babies; (2) pizza; (3) the shape of my body; (4) my hair; (5) Travis Alexander.” Considering what Arias is convicted of doing to Alexander, these words are haunting.

The movie goes pretty deep into the background and psychology of Arias. Viewers can make up their own minds if she’s an evil sociopath or a victim of a long history of abusive relationships. One thing is clear: She and Alexander had a relationship that was doomed to fail because of her obsessiveness and his unwillingness to give her the commitment that she wanted.

Born in Salinas, California, on July 9, 1980, Arias is the daughter of William “Bill” Angelo Arias (a former restaurateur) and Sandy Arias. Jodi has an older half-sister, two younger brothers and a younger sister. According to the documentary, her life was relatively stable until the family moved in 1995 to the smaller city of Yreka, California, so that Sandy could be closer to her relatives and because Bill was having some health problems.

In Yreka, Jodi was a misfit who was often bullied by other kids in high school, according to her former classmate Black. He describes Yreka High School as a “diverse” school when it came to race, but most of the students knew each other for years, so Jodi’s status as a newcomer automatically made her an outsider. Excerpts from her diaries reveal that she became addicted to smoking marijuana during her unhappy years in Yreka. She also had a troubled relationship with her parents, especially with her father. (Her family supported her before, during and after the trial.)

While she was in high school, Jodi began dating a man named Bobby Juarez, who was a few years older than Jodi. Juarez lived in a trailer and is described in the documentary as a strange recluse and very domineering. Jodi eventually dropped out of high school and worked as a waitress to support herself and Juarez, who was chronically unemployed. They broke up because he reportedly cheated on her often.

Jodi then moved to Big Sur, California, and got a fresh start working in hospitality at the Ventana Inn & Spa. Her former boss Fichera remembers her has a pleasant and down-to-earth employee. She was also romantically involved with a co-worker named Darryl Brewer, a much-older man who was a divorced dad. According to Fichera, that relationship didn’t last because Jodi wanted to get married and start a family with Brewer, but he did not.

Her next serious romance was with Alexander, who was born in Riverside, California, on July 28, 1977. He was a rising star as a salesperson/motivational speaker for Pre-Paid Legal Services (PPL). Jodi met Alexander in September 2006, at a PPL convention in Las Vegas. In November 2006, Jodi converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon religion, which was Alexander’s religion. Jodi and Alexander officially began dating in February 2007, but their relationship was tumultuous with multiple breakups and reunions.

Because she lived in Palm Desert, California, and he lived in Mesa, Arizona, for most of their relationship, they would often meet and stay at the home of Chris and Sky Hughes, who lived somewhere in the middle, in Murrieta, California. In 2007, Jodi moved to Mesa to be with Alexander, but that arrangement didn’t last. Alexander’s friends warned Alexander that Jodi wasn’t good for him, but he couldn’t make a complete break from her.

Chris and Sky Hughes, who were married during the time they knew Alexander, say that they saw signs early on that Jodi was too possessive in her relationship with Alexander. Sky says that she often caught Jodi spying on Alexander. Jodi would do things such as snoop in his phone without permission or eavesdrop on his conversations.

The documentary doesn’t go too much into Alexander’s background, except to reiterate what has already been reported. His friends describe him as a fun-loving, outgoing guy who was very flirtatious with women. The documentary doesn’t mention how he and his seven siblings were raised by his paternal grandparents, starting when he was 11, because his parents (who are now deceased) had drug problems.

As has been reported elsewhere, Alexander had two sides to him: He presented himself as a strict Mormon to some people and claimed that he was saving his virginity until he got married. But the reality was his other side: He definitely like to party, and he wasn’t a virgin.

He and Jodi took sexually explicit photos of each other. These photos surfaced after his death, and she detailed their sexual relationship in her diaries. Ultimately, Jodi and Alexander were incompatible because he was interested in dating other women, and she wanted a monogamous commitment from him that would lead to marriage.

Even though Alexander told people in 2008 that his on-again/off-again relationship with Jodi was over, and he was dating someone else, he was still secretly seeing Jodi on the side for sex. By all accounts, she thought that she still had a chance to get back into a serious relationship with him, but he saw things differently. Prosecutors say that the motives for the murder were jealousy and revenge.

On the day that Jodi killed Alexander in his home, they had sex. She took explicit nude photos of herself and Alexander. And she took photos of him during and after the murder. She left the camera in the washing machine, thinking that water would destroy the photo evidence. But through computer forensics, investigators were able to recover the damning photos from the memory card.

Even though Jodi’s supporters vigorously defend her, they can’t erase the fact that she lost credibility when she changed her story more than once. First, she denied having anything to do with the crime. Then, when the photo evidence was found, she claimed that she and Alexander were victims of a home invasion by unknown intruders. And then, her last excuse (which was used in the trial) was that she killed Alexander out of self-defense because he was allegedly abusive to her.

Jodi’s arrest, interrogations by police and highlights from the trial are all covered in the documentary. Police detective Blaney remembers that Jodi came across as emotionally aloof when Blaney interrogated Jodi before the arrest: “It was hard to find Jodi’s soft spot.” The documentary does not portray Alexander as a saintly, since it mentions evidence brought up in the trial that he sent derogatory messages to Jodi when they were having problems in their relationship.

Jodi’s supporters in the documentary try to victim-blame Alexander, by saying that any mean-spirited text and email messages that he sent to Jodi somehow constitute enough reason for her to kill him in-self-defense. Defense psychologist Geffner says that Alexander was “leading a double life” and that “there was emotional and verbal abuse during the entire relationship” between Jodi and Alexander. Defense attorney Willmott comments that there was “formidable power and jealousy and cruelty from Travis.” De La Rosa goes as far to say that Jodi didn’t get a fair trial because of sexism and misogyny toward Jodi. Because Jodi was sexually active, “that made people hate her,” says De La Rosa.

What these defenders didn’t mention but the documentary does bring up is that Jodi admitted in her court testimony that there was no proof that Alexander physically abused her. The defense’s legal representatives also sidestep the issue of why Jodi changed her story so many times and tried to cover up the fact that she killed Alexander. And the defense psychologist doesn’t state that the excessive number of stab wounds and choosing an additional way to kill by shooting the victim are indications of overkill rage that go beyond self-defense.

In the documentary, Alexander’s friend Searle becomes so overcome with emotion that at a certain point in the interview, he couldn’t speak. He comments on this tragic murder: “There’s nothing in the world that can make sense of what happened.” Chris Hughes and Sky Hughes, who wrote a 2015 tribute book about Alexander called “Our Friend Travis: The Travis Alexander Story,” also express sadness over the tragedy of his death. However, police interview footage shows that shortly after Alexander was found brutally murdered, Chris and Sky were oddly laughing and grinning in the interview room when they said that Jodi probably committed the murder.

The documentary mentions that former prosecutor Martinez, who was fired and disbarred in 2020, has had his reputation ruined because he was accused of sexually harassing several women in situations unrelated to the Jodi Arias case. He was also accused of having a consensual but unethical sexual relationship with a female blogger who covered the Jodi Arias case and leaking information about the case to the blogger.

Martinez believes that his tainted legacy won’t change the facts and the outcome of the Jodi Arias trial. He says he got “no joy” in his victory in the Jodi Arias case. “I see myself as a conduit of the truth,” Martinez adds. Jodi’s attorney Willmott says that she is hoping that Jodi will get a new trial. But that is extremely unlikely, considering that Jodi’s own testimony at the trial had a lot to do with her conviction and why she was sentenced to life without parole.

Discovery+ premiered “If I Can’t Have You: The Jodi Arias Story” on February 12, 2021.

2021 IDCon: Dead of Winter announces lineup

February 9, 2021

The following is a press release from Discovery+

ID’s beloved fan appreciation event engagement event is returning for another virtual edition – this time with a streaming twist. Presenting the very best crime and mystery programming powered by ID and streaming at discovery+IDCON: DEAD OF WINTER will Zoom the most coveted stars in the true crime business and the most jaw-dropping cases straight to fans in the comfort of their own couches – all for free. With IDCON: DEAD OF WINTER, armchair detectives can face the dreary doldrums together and commiserate about the cases that keep them up at night, with special appearances by their favorite faces in the genre throughout the evening event. Attendees will receive sneak peeks of upcoming true crime offerings from discovery+, and registered fans will be treated to surprises, insider knowledge, and a chance to have their own burning fan questions answered.

Fans can join the sixth annual IDCON: DEAD OF WINTER via Zoom on Saturday, February 27 beginning at 4 p.m. ET. Sign up for a special link to enter the event, be entered for surprises, and submit questions for the panels at IDCONDeadofWinter.com. In lieu of an attendance fee, ID is encouraging donations to nonprofit organizations that we support, including the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In addition to sneak peeks and special appearances by Paula Zahn, Candice DeLongJohn WalshChris Anderson and Fatima Silva, IDCON: DEAD OF WINTER will have six confirmed panel sessions, outlined below:

American Detective with Lt. Joe Kenda

New episodes released Wednesdays on discovery+

After nine seasons captivating viewers with his own haunting cases, ID’s Homicide Hunter Lt. Joe Kenda brings viewers astounding investigations from across the country in American Detective. Join Detective Dan from the hit podcast ”Small Town Dicks” as he catches up with the Kendas in quarantine, chats about Joe’s  upcoming book “Killer Triggers,” and they shed light on why small town crimes still deserve big attention.

In Pursuit: The Missing with Callahan Walsh

Special begins streaming on Sunday, March 7 

With the acute understanding of someone whose family has been through the unimaginable tragedy of losing a child, join victim’s advocate Callahan Walsh as he actively investigates two mysterious disappearances and shines a light on additional unsolved missing persons cases from around the country. Callahan will give fans an exclusive sneak peek of his new special The Missing, as well as share breaking news about his fugitive-catching series with his legendary father, In Pursuit with John Walsh.

Unraveled: The Real Story of the Long Island Serial Killer

Unraveled” podcast available now; Special begins streaming on Tuesday March 9

Against a backdrop of police corruption, sexual misconduct, and cover-ups at the highest levels of the Suffolk County Police Department lies one of the most frustrating serial killer cases in recent history. Join retired police sergeant Derrick Levasseur (Breaking Homicide”Crime Weekly”) as he leads a discussion with true crime journalists, Alexis Linkletter and Billy Jensento reveal the disturbing evidence they’ve uncovered behind just why the case of the Long Island Serial Killer has remained unsolved for more than a decade.

Onision: In Real Life

Streaming now on discovery+

After an explosive special exposed allegations of predatory behavior and grooming against the influencer Greg Jackson, known online as ‘Onision,’ YouTube finally took action and demonetized the controversial figure. Now, Jackson’s ex-fiancé and one of the first accusers to come forward, Shiloh, will share her first-hand accounts of Jackson’s behavior, with internet safety advocate Alicia Kozak joining to speak to influencer culture and the dangers of online criminals. The discussion will dive deep into this dark YouTube controversy, and hint at what is yet to come in the jaw-dropping final episode currently in production. 

Barry Levine Author Chat from ID BOOK CLUB Selection, “The Spider: Inside the Criminal Web of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell” 

“The Spider” is available for purchase nowWho Killed Jeffrey Epstein? is available to stream now

Former Brooklyn, New York prosecutor Anna-Sigga Nicolazzi (True Conviction”Anatomy of Murder”) hosts a discussion with author Barry Levine about his explosive investigation into the Jeffrey Epstein case. By shining a light into the darkest corners of Epstein’s world, Levine unearths never-before-reported details in the most comprehensive account yet of the disgraced financier’s life, corrupt criminal web, and shocking death. The sordid tale doesn’t end there, and the two will discuss how Ghislaine Maxwell’s entanglement with Epstein has landed her in a Brooklyn jail cell, awaiting trial on several counts of sex trafficking minors and perjury.

Unseamly: The Investigation of Peter Nygård

Streaming now on discovery+

Peter Nygård built an international fashion empire and led an extravagant lifestyle, but hiding beneath the outlandish public persona, scores of women claim, was a dangerous sexual predator. More than 80 women have joined a class action lawsuit accusing Nygård and his companies of rape, sexual assault, and sex trafficking. Their accusations led to an investigation by the FBI and Nygård’s December arrest in Canada. Hear from survivors and those closest to the Nygård saga who exposed his alleged crimes and discover what is being done now to finally hold him accountable.

You can follow discovery+ on InstagramFacebook and Twitter.

About discovery+

discovery+ is the definitive non-fiction, real life subscription streaming service. discovery+ has the largest-ever content offering of any new streaming service at launch, featuring a wide range of exclusive, original series across popular, passion verticals in which Discovery brands have a strong leadership position, including lifestyle and relationships; home and food; true crime; paranormal; adventure and natural history; as well as science, tech and the environment, and a slate of high-quality documentaries. For more, visit discoveryplus.com or find it on a variety of platforms and devices, including ones from Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Roku and Samsung.

February 27, 2021 UPDATE: The following is the livestream of IDCON 2021:

Review: ‘JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?,’ starring John Ramsey, Cindy Marra, Mark Smit, Paula Woodward, John Anderson, John San Agustin and Greg Walta

January 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

JonBenét Ramsey in “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (Photo courtesy of Polaris/Discovery+)

“JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?”

Directed by Kim Duke

Culture Representation: The documentary “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” features a nearly all-white group of people (and one Asian) discussing the murder case of JonBenét Ramsey, a Colorado rich girl who was brutally killed on Christmas Day 1996, when she was 6 years old.

Culture Clash: The unsolved case has been controversial because investigators and prosecutors disagree over evidence and who might be the prime suspect or suspects.

Culture Audience: “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” will appeal primarily to people interested in this case or in true crime overall, but the documentary does not reveal any new facts that are helpful to this case.

Lou Smit in “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (Photo courtesy of Discovery+)

Because there have already been so many news reports and documentaries about the JonBenét Ramsey case, any new ones that come along almost never have new information that can help make progress in the case. Almost every documentary about the case seems to have an agenda to push only one or two theories of who killed JonBenét Ramsey, the 6-year-old girl who was murdered on Christmas Day 1996 in her millionaire family home in Boulder, Colorado. This highly disputed case remains unsolved because there are conflicting accounts about the crime-scene evidence and numerous theories about who committed the murder.

It’s rare for a JonBenét Ramsey documentary to truly include perspectives of people who have very diverse viewpoints and theories about the case. “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (directed by Kim Duke) is one of those “agenda” documentaries, because it seems less concerned about interviewing people with a variety of perspectives and more concerned about being a one-sided tribute to Andrew “Lou” Smit, who was a prominent investigator for the Boulder district attorney’s office on the JonBenét Ramsey case. He was also an unpaid private investigator for the case when he stopped working for the Boulder D.A.’s office.

Smit (who died of cancer in 2010, at the age of 75) firmly believed that an unknown intruder or intruders committed the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. The documentary includes interviews with people who say the same thing (including JonBenét’s father John Ramsey), but not any interviews with people who believe in other theories. Furthermore, a copious amount of time in the documentary looks like a fawning biography of Smit instead of a well-rounded investigation that looks at all sides of this contentious murder case.

The documentary pushes a narrative that Smit was a crusading and often-misunderstood investigator who constantly battled over this case with the Boulder Police Department, because the Boulder PD immediately put JonBenét Ramsey’s parents at the top of the list of suspects. The documentary (which uses a lot of the same archival footage that’s been in many other JonBenét Ramsey documentaries) includes clips from Smit’s personal diary-type audio tapes that he made during the investigation. However, these audio tapes do not reveal anything new, unless you want to hear some ranting from Smit about how he felt mistreated by the Boulder PD. An epilogue in the documentary mentions that the Boulder PD declined to participate in the film, because the Boulder PD has a policy not to comment on the JonBenét Ramsey case.

It’s repeated several times in the documentary that Smit refused to believe the Ramseys could be guilty because he thought that they seemed like nice people. In his audio tapes, Smit says that people like the Ramseys don’t kill their children, and he had a gut feeling they weren’t guilty. What happened to the crime investigator rule that even if people who appear to be “nice,” it isn’t enough of a reason to decide that they can’t commit a crime? It’s about evidence, not personality. It’s no wonder that Smit got a lot of criticism for not being objective enough in this case.

Smit often accused the Boulder PD of having tunnel vision by not properly looking into other suspects. However, Smit displayed a certain amount of tunnel vision of his own with very biased actions during his investigation, by going out of his way to show the Ramseys that he was on their side. The documentary mentions that during Smit’s investigation while he was working for the Boulder D.A., Smit would park in front of the Ramseys’ house every day to pray for them and even invited John Ramsey to pray with him too. While this praying activity with a possible suspect might be considered noble by some people, it’s actually very unprofessional for a murder investigator to act this way with a witness who’s under suspicion while the investigator is working on the case.

Although there have been very divisive opinions on who committed the murder, these are the indisputable facts, which have been widely reported and are reiterated in the documentary: JonBenét Ramsey was murdered in her home sometime during the night or early-morning hours. Her parents (businessman John Bennett Ramsey and homemaker Patricia “Patsy” Ramsey) and JonBenét’s older brother Burke, who was 9 years old at the time, were also home at the time of the murder. All of them have denied having anything to do with the murder. The Boulder D.A. Office cleared the Ramseys as suspects in 2008, mainly because the Ramseys’ DNA did not match the unknown male DNA on JonBenét’s clothing that was on her dead body.

On the morning of December 26, 1996, Patsy called 911 to report that JonBenét was kidnapped. At the crime scene was a three-page, handwritten ransom note that was written on Patsy’s notepad and using a pen that was owned by the Ramseys. When the police arrived at the Ramseys’ 11,000-square-foot, three-story house, John and Patsy had already invited several of their friends and neighbors over to the home to comfort them. The Ramseys called some of these visitors over to the house before they called the police. Unfortunately, all of these people in the house inevitably contaminated the crime scene.

Instead of securing the crime scene and telling the visitors to leave, the Boulder police officers let the visitors stay and asked John to search the house again for JonBenét. John found JonBenét’s body in a basement-like area of the house. An autopsy determined that JonBenét had blunt force trauma to her head and had been strangled with a wiry cord that was still tightly wound around her neck. There are disagreements among investigators over whether she had been hit on the head first or had been strangled first. JonBenét had also been sexually violated with one of Patsy’s broken paintbrushes that was found near JonBenét’s body.

Although a former schoolteacher named John Mark Karr (born in 1964) confessed to the murder in 2006 and was arrested for it, it was later proven that Karr gave a false confession, and he was never prosecuted for the murder. He wasn’t even in Colorado when the murder happened, and his DNA did not match the DNA found at the crime scene. Karr is now living as a transgender female named Alexis Valoran Reich.

Whatever people think about the JonBenét Ramsey case, the main theories of who committed the murder identify these four possibilities:

  • John Ramsey
  • Patsy Ramsey
  • Burke Ramsey
  • An unknown intruder or intruders

People who believe that the Ramseys were involved think that the Ramseys know more than they’re telling and that the Ramsey family is covering up the truth. (Patsy died of cancer in 2006, at the age of 49.) The severe ligature strangulation of JonBenét indicates that it was done by an adult.

Those who think Burke was the real culprit have a theory that Burke brutally hit JonBenét on the head with an unknown object during an argument, and the blow possibly left her unconscious. According to the theory, John and Patsy found out and perhaps thought JonBenét was dead, and so the parents might have panicked because they were afraid of the scandal that it would cause their prominent family.

The “Ramseys are guilty” theory usually believes that John and/or Patsy then further assaulted JonBenét to establish another cause of death and to make it look like a stranger did it, in order to confuse investigators. A kidnapping was staged to also confuse investigators, according to the “Ramseys are guilty” theory. People who believe this theory think that even if one person in the Ramsey family actually committed the physical crime, the other family members who were home at the time eventually knew about it and helped cover it up.

Most people who think the Ramseys are guilty point to clues that the killer or killers seemed comfortable taking a lot of time to commit the crime without fear of being caught in the act. There was the highly unusual and long ransom note, written on a paper and pen from the Ramsey home. Handwriting analyses ruled out John as the writer of the note, while Patsy could neither be completely identified nor completely ruled out as the writer of the ransom note.

Everyone agrees that the words of the ransom note indicate that it was written by an educated adult. The only fingerprints found on the note were those from Patsy (who said she found the note), investigators and visitors who were in the house. The intruder theory is that the intruder could have worn gloves.

Another big clue, which was not mentioned in this documentary, was that the autopsy of JonBenét found some undigested pineapple in her stomach, indicating that she died shortly after eating the pineapple. A bowl of pineapples was on the kitchen counter when the police arrived at the crime scene, but the Ramseys denied knowing anything about it and said that it was unlikely that JonBenét prepared the pineapple meal herself.

Was it an intruder? And if so, what kind of intruder would feel comfortable enough in the Ramsey home to kidnap a child but stay long enough to feed the child a pineapple meal? And why use Patsy’s notepad in the house to write the ransom note instead of writing the note somewhere else in advance?

The Ramsey family was out attending a party earlier that evening, and the intruder theory is that an intruder could have been hiding in the house for hours and written the ransom note while alone in the house. (The Ramseys did not have all of their doors locked when they were away and when they were at home.) But no one can seem to explain the sequence of events that led to JonBenét eating pineapple in the middle of the night shortly before she died.

Police found that there were no signs of a disturbance in JonBenét’s bedroom on the night of the crime. Investigators have different theories on how JonBenét could have gone from sleeping in her second-floor bedroom, to being murdered, to her body being found by her father in an area of the house that’s below ground level and was known to few people outside of the Ramsey family. John, Patsy and Burke have maintained that they were asleep when the murder happened, and that they didn’t know that something had happened to JonBenét until the next morning.

People who believe the intruder theory think that the intruder used a stun gun to subdue JonBenét, because there were marks resembling a stun gun on the side of JonBenét’s face and on her back. People who believe that John, Patsy and/or Burke were involved think that JonBenét likely went down to the kitchen for her pineapple meal voluntarily, and something happened that caused her violent death. The marks on her face and back also matched a detached section of a toy train track owned by Burke, according to several news reports with details of what the police found at the crime scene.

The documentary also mentions that Smit was able to show in video evidence that an intruder could have easily entered and left the side window to the room where JonBenét’s body was found. Smit demonstrated by climbing in and out of the window himself. However, what the documentary didn’t mention is that photographic evidence at the crime scene showed that after JonBenét’s body was found, an open window in that room had undisturbed dust and cobwebs on the window sill. If there was an intruder, the undisturbed dust and cobweb evidence definitely can raise doubts that someone entered or left by that window.

A neighbor reported hearing the sound of a frightened child screaming from the Ramsey house on the night of the murder. The documentary mentions that Smit found that there was a pipe in the room where JonBenét’s body was found that can carry sound from that room to outside of the house, but the sound cannot be heard on the upper floors inside the house. It fits into the theory that John, Patsy and Burke Ramsey couldn’t hear any signs of distress during the murder, if they were asleep in their bedrooms as they claimed.

However, the documentary doesn’t question the other side of this belief: If a kidnapped child was crying out that loudly inside the house while being murdered, how did the killer know that other people in the house wouldn’t be able to hear those noises? Furthermore, several people in the documentary describe JonBenét’s murder as slow and tortuous. And yet, it’s never explained why a kidnapper/intruder would feel comfortable murdering a screaming child in her own home, in a slow and tortuous way, without any fear of being caught by other people in the house. Wouldn’t a scared intruder kill her quickly instead of slowly torturing her?

The documentary mentions the biggest evidence to support the intruder theory: unknown male DNA was found in JonBenét’s underwear and on her longjohns that she was wearing when her body was found. All of the Ramseys’ DNA did not match this unknown DNA. What the documentary didn’t mention is that police have not ruled out that this DNA could have been touch DNA, which is DNA that could have gotten there if a man, such as a store employee or factory worker, had contact with this item of clothing before it was packaged. Because John Ramsey got to JonBenét’s body before the police did, and he carried her body to another location in the house, his DNA was all over critical areas, so it did not prove either way if he killed her or not.

Because this documentary seems to have been made to convince people that the intruder theory is the only correct theory and that Smit should get the most credit for this theory, it’s an echo chamber of people who essentially agree. In addition to John Bennett Ramsey, the documentary has interviews with John Andrew Ramsey (JonBenét’s oldest brother, from John Bennett Ramsey’s first marriage); Smit’s daughter Cindy Marra; Smit’s son Mark Smit; and Smit’s attorney Greg Walta. Also interviewed are investigative journalist/author Paula Woodward, who covered the JonBenét murder case from the beginning; John Anderson, a retired sheriff of Colorado’s El Paso County; and Ramsey Family private investigator John San Agustin, a former El Paso County Sheriff’s Office commander.

The beginning of the documentary lists Smit’s impressive work credentials, including his role in helping solve the 1991 murder of 13-year-old Heather Dawn Church of Black Forest, Colorado, as if it’s proof that he could never be wrong. He spent more than 20 years working for the Colorado Springs Police Department, in addition to experience working in a coroner’s office and as an investigator for district attorneys. He later became a private investigator who refused any payment and gifts for working on the Ramsey case. John Bennett Ramsey says in the documentary that Smit even refused his offer to buy ice cream for Smit.

And yet for all this investigator experience, Smit is heard on audio saying about the Ramsey case: “I don’t think this ransom note was written by the parents. Look at all the references to death and dying.” It’s as if Smit believes that “good” parents aren’t capable of talking about their children dying. That’s Smit’s opinion, but this opinion shouldn’t be used as proof of the parents’ guilt or innocence in this case.

In another audio clip, Smit says the Ramseys should be ruled out as suspects for this reason: “There’s no bad character with the Ramseys.” Just because someone doesn’t have an arrest record or seems to have a “nice” personality isn’t proof that someone can’t commit murder. It’s an appallingly bad assumption for a murder investigator to have, because it’s based on opinion and bias, not evidence.

This documentary makes it clear that Smit had it stuck in his head that the Ramseys (who were millionaires at the time) couldn’t possibly be involved in this heinous crime. And there’s nothing wrong with believing in “innocent until proven guilty.” But time and again, in audio tapes played in the documentary, Smit makes telling comments that show a conscious or unconscious bias that appears to be based on the Ramsey’s social class. He says he thinks that the Ramseys are too “nice” or “not the kind of people” to be involved in murdering a child. It’s all really code for “I don’t think people in this income bracket should be considered likely suspects.”

One of the most noticeable flaws in this documentary is that it doesn’t offer anything substantial about what kind of person would commit this crime. If the killer was an intruder, then who else had access and intimate knowledge of the Ramseys’ home and sleeping habits to get away with this crime so easily? None of that is mentioned in the documentary, even though Smit and other investigators surely developed profiles of possible suspects.

The documentary has a brief and vague mention of a large computer database of tips from the public and other information that Smit compiled. But he also complains in his audio diaries that the police didn’t follow up on the majority of this information. Smit acknowledges what has already been widely reported: The Boulder PD was fixated on proving the Ramseys guilty, while Smit was fixated on proving the Ramseys were not guilty. The clashes were inevitable, but they show flaws and narrow-mindedness on both sides.

In 1999, a Boulder grand jury indicted John and Patsy Ramsey on two counts of child abuse related to JonBenét’s murder. However, then-Boulder D.A. Alex Hunter declined to prosecute John and Patsy Ramsey, based on lack of evidence. This secret grand jury decision wasn’t made public until 2013. John Bennett Ramsey, who gives credit to Smit for influencing Hunter to make this decision, comments in the documentary that Smit “saved our lives.”

JonBenét’s father doesn’t say anything in the documentary that he hasn’t already said in other interviews. He comments that when people ask him what he would say to JonBenét, it would be this: “I’m sorry I didn’t protect you. That’s my job as a dad.”

He also defends JonBenét’s participation in beauty pageants, by saying it was JonBenét, not he or his wife Patsy, who insisted on being in these contests. John and Patsy were vilified for allowing JonBenét to dress and act like an adult in these pageants, with critics claiming it was “proof” that John and Patsy were bad parents. There has been speculation that JonBenét could have become a murder target because of her pageant activities.

We might never know why JonBenét Ramsey was killed and who murdered her. But her father says in the documentary that the “real tragedy” is that Patsy “has been maligned as awful. She was an amazing mother.” He also says that the Ramsey family and their supporters won’t give up until JonBenét’s killer is caught. Sadly, unless there is a confession backed up with proof, this is a murder that’s unlikely to be solved.

Smit’s family members seem to be carrying on his legacy by being interviewed about the case and by making public his audio and video recordings that he made about his investigation. Smit’s granddaughters Lexi Marra and Jessa Van Der Woerd (who have a JonBenét Ramsey podcast) and his daughter Cindy Marra were prominently featured in ABC’s “20/20” episode titled “The List: Who Killed JonBenét?,” which aired on January 15, 2021.

This “20/20” news report is very similar to “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” (including interviewing some of the same people), except the “20/20” report had a variety of interviewees and at least made the effort to discuss other people (besides the Ramseys) who fell under suspicion for the murder. The “20/20” news report also had more mention of Smit’s suspicions (he kept a semi-confidential list that he shared with other investigators) about who could have been the killer. Unfortunately, whatever has been reported in JonBenét Ramsey documentaries like this one just adds up to recycled information that does nothing to make a breakthrough in the case.

Discovery+ premiered “JonBenét Ramsey: What Really Happened?” on January 4, 2021.

Review: ‘Lost Girls,’ starring Amy Ryan, Thomasin McKenzie, Lola Kirke and Gabriel Byrne

January 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Oona Laurence, Amy Ryan, Thomasin McKenzie and Miriam Shor in “Lost Girls” (Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Netflix)

“Lost Girls”

Directed by Liz Garbus

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in New York state and partially in New Jersey, the dramatic film “Lost Girls” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class in depicting the real-life people involved in the Long Island Serial Killer (LISK) murder mystery.

Culture Clash: Mari Gilbert, whose murdered daughter Shannan is believed to be a LISK victim, fights for justice with her daughters and family members of other LISK murder victims, who believe that law enforcement isn’t properly investigating these crimes.

Culture Audience: “Lost Girls” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in dramatic portrayals of true crime stories and don’t mind if some scenes in the movie are unrealistic.

Thomasin McKenzie, Amy Ryan and Oona Laurence in “Lost Girls” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

The ongoing investigations into the unsolved murders of at least 16 people who are believed to have been victims of the Long Island Serial Killer (also known as LISK, the Gilgo Beach Killer or the Craigslist Ripper) are too complex to condense into a scripted movie. Almost all of the murder victims were women who worked as prostitutes, they advertised themselves on Craigslist, and their bodies were found on New York state’s Long Island from the 1990s to the 2010s. Instead of telling all of these murder victims’ stories, the Netflix dramatic feature film “Lost Girls” focuses on the perspective of one real-life mother whose eldest daughter is believed to be one of the LISK murder victims. As of this writing, no suspects have been arrested in the murders.

Directed by Liz Garbus, “Lost Girls” is a well-acted but ultimately a by-the-numbers and often-melodramatic depiction of Mari Gilbert’s struggle to get justice for her murdered 23-year-old daughter Shannan Gilbert, who disappeared on May 1, 2010, in Oak Beach, New York, shortly after Shannan visited a prostitution client. Shannan’s body was found on December 13, 2011, about half of a mile from where she was last seen in public. Investigators have concluded that she died of strangulation sometime in the after-midnight hours when she disappeared. 

Michael Werwie wrote the “Lost Girls” screenplay as an adaptation of Robert Kolker’s 2013 non-fiction book of the same title. It’s fairly obvious that much of the movie was fabricated for dramatic purposes, particularly in depicting the police investigation and by showing Mari suddenly turning into a supersleuth. People who like the type of “crusading mother” clichés that are often seen in Lifetime movies won’t have as much of a problem with the unrealistic aspects of the “Lost Girls” movie as much as people who might be looking for a grittier and more authentic depiction of what really happens in murder investigations. (And there’s a Lifetime movie about Mari Gilbert called “The Long Island Serial Killer: A Mother’s Hunt for Justice,” starring Kim Delaney as Mari Gilbert. The movie is set to premiere on Lifetime on February 20, 2021.)

Garbus gives “Lost Girls” solid direction, and the talented cast led by Amy Ryan (who portrays Mari Gilbert) elevates the movie slightly above the type of forgettable crime thrillers that are usually made for basic cable networks. Because “Lost Girls” is based on a true crime story that got a lot of publicity, many people watching this movie already know how it’s going to end. By making Mari the central character of the movie, “Lost Girls” sticks to the same “angry mother looking for justice” formula that’s been seen in many other movies just like it.

However, the real Mari Gilbert was much more controversial in real life than this movie makes her out to be. Airing all of her dirty laundry in this movie wouldn’t make her look as sympathetic as the filmmakers want her to look. For example, there were long-standing allegations that she brought up her daughters in an abusive home, where Mari’s boyfriend at the time was accused of sexually abusing her two middle daughters Sherre and Sarra.

The “Lost Girls” movie leaves out a lot of information about the real-life Mari Gilbert and her family. Mari was a single mother with four daughters, but only three of her daughters are mentioned in the movie: eldest daughter Shannan, second-eldest daughter Sherre and third-eldest daughter Sarra. Mari’s youngest daughter Stevie Smith is not seen nor mentioned in the movie. In real life, Sarra was a teen mother to a son named Hayden at the time of Shannan’s disappearance, but the movie makes it look like Sarra was never a mother. 

Mari’s daughters Sherre and Sarra were teenagers at the time that Shannan disappeared, so they weren’t as involved as Mari was in hounding the police to properly investigate Shannan’s disappearance. Sherre (played by Thomasin McKenzie) is portrayed as stoic and introverted during this family ordeal. Sarra (played by Oona Laurence) is portrayed as a troubled and rebellious child who’s been suspended from school for lighting paper towels on fire in the school’s bathroom. Sarra is also on various medications for her mental health.

At the time of Shannan’s disappearance, the movie shows that Mari was living in Ellenville, New York, and holding down two jobs—a forklift operator and a waitress—making her too busy to have a love life. The father(s) of her children are not seen in the movie, and it’s implied that these biological fathers have no contact with Mari and her children. “Lost Girls” shows that Mari being a working-class single mother and Shannan being a prostitute had a lot to do with how the police investigated the case. Mari thinks she’s being treated like a second-class citizen and she’s very angry about it.

The movie’s depiction of Shannan only comes in snippets. There’s a home video shown a few times portraying Shannan at 8 or 9 years old (played by Austyn Johnson), singing “Beautiful Dreamer” in a talent contest. There are also brief flashbacks of an adult Shannan (played by Sarah Wisser), with her face obscured, depicting the last-known moments before she disappeared.

According to several eyewitness accounts, the last time Shannan was seen alive in public, she was frantically running alone on a neighborhood street after midnight and incoherently begging for help. There was a 23-minute phone call to 911 from Shannan’s phone, but what was heard on the caller’s end was hard to decipher. Concerned citizens called 911 too, but by the time police arrived more than an hour later, Shannan had disappeared. Because the movie doesn’t have any flashback scenes of what the adult Shannan was like except for this moment of trauma, she’s like a mysterious ghost in the story.

The “Lost Girls” filmmakers don’t reveal anything significant about Shannan’s personality. Viewers will just have to speculate or just go by the tiny hints that are shown in the movie. It’s implied from the way that Mari talks about what Shannan used to be like as a child that Shannan was thought of as a “golden child” and the “star” of the family. Shannan had a lot of potential, but she didn’t live up to those expectations. How and why Shannan became a prostitute is never explained, although the movie does mention that Shannan had a much more troubled home life than Mari was willing to talk about publicly.

For years, Mari had a rocky relationship with Shannan. The movie mentions that Shannan hadn’t lived with her mother since Shannan was 12 years old, because Shannan was put in foster care by Mari, who considered Shannan to be an unruly child. Mari giving up custody of Shannan to put Shannan in the foster care system led to Shannan having abandonment issues and a lot of resentment toward her mother.

The movie doesn’t gloss over this information, but puts more emphasis on this narrative: Shannan (who lived in New Jersey) and Mari were still fairly estranged at the time of her disappearance, but mother and daughter were taking steps to mend their relationship. The movie depicts that Shannan was supposed to have dinner with Mari, Sherre and Sarra in Mari’s home on the day that Shannan disappeared. And when Shannan didn’t show up, they didn’t think much of it at first because it wasn’t that unusual for Shannan to skip appointments and not show up when she was expected.

But something odd happened that turned out to be a crucial part of the investigation. On the day that Shannan disappeared, Mari gets a phone call from a stranger who identifies himself as a doctor who runs a home for wayward women. Mari doesn’t know at the time that Shannan was missing and was last seen running frantically and begging for help. In his phone call to Mari, the doctor says that he is looking for Shannan, because Shannan is one of the women he’s been helping, but Mari tells this stranger over the phone that she doesn’t know where Shannan is either. Mari is so distracted that she can’t fully remember the doctor’s name when she’s asked about it later.

As the hours pass and the Gilberts get more concerned about where Shannan is, they find out that Shannan’s live-in boyfriend Alex Diaz (played by Brian Adam DeJesus) hadn’t heard from her either. (Alex had an alibi at the time Shannan disappeared and was never a suspect.) The family began to suspect that Shannan had run into foul play, but they couldn’t file a missing person report until Shannan had been missing for 48 hours. The movie makes it look like Mari and her daughters didn’t find out that Shannan was working as a prostitute until she disappeared and Alex (who was also Shannan’s pimp) told them that Shannan was a prostitute. 

However, Alex expresses skepticism that Mari didn’t at least suspect that Shannan was involved in illegal activities because Mari allegedly demanded that Shannan give her money to help pay Mari’s bills, even though Shannan was supposedly unemployed. When the Gilberts go to where Alex and Shannan lived to question Alex about her disappearance, it’s clear that they blame him for Shannan’s problems. Sherre also makes an angry comment to Alex that indicates that he was physically abusive to Shannan and the family knew it.

Shannan’s prostitution driver Michael Pak (played by James Hiroyuki Liao), who witnessed Shannan frantically running away when she disappeared, also hints that Mari already knew that Shannan was a prostitute before Shannan disappeared and that Mari didn’t care about Shannan being a sex worker, as long as Shannan was giving money to Mari. He comes right out and says that Shannan despised her mother, whom Michael describes in the movie as money-hungry and demanding. Michael (who was also cleared as a suspect) claims that Shannan refused to get in the car and she ran away when he tried to help her during her fateful after-midnight ordeal. He says that he drove around looking for her but eventually gave up and drove away.

“Lost Girls” doesn’t try to make Mari Gilbert look like Mother of the Year, but there’s a definite sense in watching the movie that more could’ve been told about Mari, but this information about her was deliberately left out because the filmmakers didn’t want the audience to feel alienated from the story’s main character. There are predictable scenes of tough-talking Mari storming into police stations and yelling at detectives because she thinks they’re incompetent or not acting fast enough. 

Joe Brewer (played by Matthew F. O’Connor), the prostitution client whom Shannan met with before she disappeared, was quickly cleared as a suspect after he passed a polygraph test. Shannan was last seen far from his house. The eyewitnesses who saw Shannan running down the street and desperately going to people’s houses to beg for their help say that she was too incoherent to describe what was wrong. She gave the impression that someone was after her, although the eyewitnesses say they saw no one chasing after Shannan.

Just like in real life, the movie depicts that the investigation into Shannan’s disappearance led to the discovery of more murder victims who were dumped in the same marshy areas near Long Island’s Ocean Parkway. However, Mari was convinced that Shannan was still alive until Shannan’s remains were found more than a year after she disappeared. Many of the people who saw last Shannan, when she was in a hysterical state of mind, assumed that Shannan was on drugs at the time, but an autopsy later revealed that she had no drugs in her system. 

Much of “Lost Girls” shows either one of two things: (1) Mari feuding with the investigating police (including holding press conferences that are meant to shame them) and (2) Mari doing her own investigations. It’s the movie’s latter depictions that come across as less authentic. Mari goes snooping around people’s front yards, she looks in windows of places where she’s trespassing, and she interviews neighbors and local business owners, as if she’s a middle-aged Nancy Drew.

“Lost Girls” also has a “good cop/bad cop” cliché that’s frequently used in crime dramas. In this case, the “good cop” is Richard Dormer (played by Gabriel Byrne), who’s leading the investigation into Shannan’s disappearance and murder. The “bad cop” is Dean Bostick (played by Dean Winters), one of Richard’s underlings who’s tasked with doing a lot of the legwork. Richard is portrayed as flawed but willing to help Mari, even when she berates and insults him. Dean is portrayed as a mean-spirited and crude sexist who’s not afraid to show it when he’s rudely dismissive of Mari. At one point, Dean says to a co-worker: “Honestly, who spends this much time looking for a hooker?”

During the investigation, Sherre goes on social media to connect with family members of other suspected LISK murder victims. Eventually, some of these family members travel to New York state to pressure the police to do more in the investigation. The family members also hold vigils and participate in press conferences so that the cases can continue to get media attention. Sherre thinks it’s a good idea for the Gilbert family to meet these other family members who are victims’ advocates, but Mari initially refuses because she thinks that Shannan is still missing and isn’t murdered like the other victims.

Mari doesn’t want to be lumped in with the other victims’ families, and she feels somewhat superior to them. “Lost Girls” author Kolker, who interviewed Mari for the book and followed the case closely, says that Mari was like this in real life too. And just like in real life, the movie shows that Mari aligned herself with the other victims’ families only after she decided that it would be an advantage to show strength in numbers, rather than Mari trying to get media attention all by herself. At one point in the story, Mari exclaims: “It’s our job … to make sure these girls are not forgotten!”

“Lost Girls” portrays Mari as being standoffish yet domineering when she first meets some of the murder victims’ family members (who are all women), who have gathered in a diner. They are:

  • Missy (played by Molly Brown), a woman from Connecticut whose sister Maureen was a murder victim.
  • Lorraine (played by Miriam Shor), whose daughter Megan was a murder victim.
  • Lynn (played by Anna Reeder), a woman from Buffalo, New York, whose daughter Melissa was a murder victim.
  • Amanda (played by Grace Capeless), who is Lynn’s daughter and Melissa’s sister.
  • Kim (played by Lola Kirke), an on-again/off-again prostitute from North Carolina whose sister Amber was a murder victim.

It doesn’t take long for Mari to make herself the leader of the group. Gradually, she becomes less aloof and more open to making friends with them. Mari bonds the most with easygoing Lorraine and clashes the most with feisty Kim. Sherre often acts as a peacemaker when Mari gets irritated with other members of the group. At times, Mari acts like she wants to distance herself from the group, but Sherre is usually the one to smooth things over and convince Mari that these other women can be allies. 

The movie depicts Mari as being the chief organizer of the group’s press conferences and the mastermind of staging events, such as having this group of women march through neighborhoods where the murder victims were last seen. It’s a bit of credibility stretch to believe that Mari singlehandedly did all the things in real life that she’s depicted as doing singlehandedly in the movie. However, one of the most authentic aspects of “Lost Girls” is Mari’s emotional ambivalence over who to trust in her quest for justice. It’s not an easy issue for anyone to deal with, especially if it’s compounded by the trauma of looking for a missing child and feeling let down by authorities who are supposed to help.

“Lost Girls” also has a character named Joe Scalise (played by Kevin Corrigan), an Oak Beach neighbor of cleared suspect Joe Brewer. Joe Scalise is portrayed as being the first to tip off Mari that a physician named Dr. Peter Hackett (played by Reed Birney), another Oak Beach resident, should be looked at as a prime suspect. Dr. Hackett is a prominent member of this gated community, but Joe Scalise says that the doctor has a weird fascination with helping prostitutes, whom Dr. Hackett treats as his patients in the doctor’s home office.

Dr. Hackett’s backyard also leads to the marsh where many of the bodies were found. Mari puts two and two together and figures that this is the same mystery doctor who called her on the day that Shannan disappeared. Dr. Hackett denied it, but phone records later proved it.

Through her investigation, Mari also finds out that the doctor’s home office has a surveillance camera outside that would have recorded Shannan on the street the night she disappeared. But when Mari shows up at the office unannounced to interrogate Dr. Hackett, his wife/office manager tells Mari that any video recording from that camera on that night was automatically recorded over. Mari personally confronts Dr. Hackett, who is creepy, smug and evasive. Mari is also infuriated when she finds out the police never even asked for the video surveillance footage.

“Lost Girls” repeatedly portrays Mari as someone who uncovers evidence or tips that the police then express skepticism about or completely ignore. The movie implies in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that one of the main reasons why Shannan’s case remains unsolved is because the police have been unwilling to thoroughly investigate the privileged and influential people of Oak Beach. It’s an age-old issue of criminal justice being different for people who can afford great lawyers and those who can’t.

Mari continues to get tips from Joe Scalise (who seems to be a composite of real-life people), and the more she finds out, the more she’s convinced that Dr. Hackett knows more than he’s telling. When Mari pleads with the police to further investigate Dr. Hackett, she’s told that Joe Scalise is a questionable source since Scalise has been feuding for years with Dr. Hackett and appears to have a personal vendetta against the doctor.

Joe Scalise warns Mari: “The good people of Oak Beach live by one thing: Be wary of those who could ruin a good thing. You are the wayfarer they’ve been dreading.” The movie certainly gives the impression that Mari and the victims’ families are fighting an uphill battle against people who are actively protecting the murderer or murderers.

Because it’s a well-known fact that these murders remained unsolved and no suspects were arrested at the time that “Lost Girls” was made, there’s a feeling of doom while watching the movie that Mari and all of the victims’ loved ones won’t get the justice that they’re seeking by the end of the film. People who watch this movie who never heard of these murders before might be surprised that there’s really no cathartic ending for “Lost Girls.” The Gilbert family also suffered another tragedy that’s not shown in the movie but is mentioned in the movie’s epilogue, which includes details on what people can do if they have information that they think can help solve this real-life mystery of the Long Island murders.

Ryan is a very talented actress who excels in every role that she does, so her performance carries this movie to transcend some of its flaws. McKenzie and Kirke also have some standout moments, with McKenzie’s adept portrayal of Sherre’s quiet heartbreak and Kirke’s memorable portrayal of Kim’s fiery cynicism. Byrne and Winters give adequate portrayals of the two cops who have the most contact with Mari. These types of cops have been seen before in many crime dramas, although Byrne’s Richard Dormer character is written to have more compassion than his police colleagues in this investigation.

“Lost Girls” can get faulty when the movie presents an unrealistic depiction of Mari’s sleuthing and how much access she had in the police investigation. A fairly ludicrous scene in the movie is when police allow her to enter a crime scene while they’re investigating, as if she’s law enforcement too. In real life, that access wouldn’t be given to someone like Mari, and it never happened in real life with Mari, who was very antagonistic to the police.

The movie also doesn’t give any room to consider other possible suspects, since the filmmakers make it look like Peter Hackett was the one whom Mari thought was the most likely to be guilty of the crimes. The real Peter Hackett, who has denied any connection to the murders and was never named by police as a suspect, moved out of Oak Beach in 2016, and he reportedly lives in Florida. There’s a scene in the movie where Mari confronts him again when she finds out he’s moving out of Oak Beach—and it’s a scene that looks “only in a  movie” fake.

“Lost Girls” tends to oversimply many aspects of these complicated Long Island murder cases, but the movie admirably doesn’t lose sight of its intent of trying to get justice for these murders. It’s not a typical murder mystery where the killer or killers get caught and punished in the end. And in that sense, it’s the most harrowing type of true crime story that can be told.

Netflix premiered “Lost Girls” and released the movie in select U.S. cinemas on March 13, 2020.

Review: ‘Baby God,’ starring Wendi Babst, Cathy Holm, Quincy Fortier Jr., Jonathan Stensland, Brad Gulko, Dorothy Otis and Mike Otis

December 2, 2020

by Carla Hay

A 1966 photo of Cathy Holm with her daughter Wendi in “Baby God” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Baby God”

Directed by Hannah Olson

Culture Representation: The documentary “Baby God,” which was filmed in various parts of the U.S. but centers primarily on activities that occurred in Nevada, features an all-white group of people discussing the actions and repercussions of the late Dr. Quincy Fortier, who illegally inseminated an unknown number of women with his semen from the 1940s to the 1980s.

Culture Clash: Several of Fortier’s secret insemination children and their mothers found out years later what Fortier did and had varying reactions to these crimes and violations of their family genetics. 

Culture Audience: “Baby God” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about family secrets or true-crime issues that involve medical doctors.

Wendi Babst in “Baby God” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

The advertisements for home DNA test kits paint a heartwarming picture of people finding out great things about their ancestors and other biological relatives. What the ads never show is the dark side of taking these DNA tests, such as when people find out shocking and vile things about their biological heritage. That’s how numerous people discovered that Dr. Quincy Fortier, a Nevada obstetrician/gynecologist/fertility specialist who died in 2006 at the age of 94, was the biological father they never knew they had.

The reason why people would be horrified or ashamed that Fortier is their biological father is because Fortier illegally impregnated (through artificial insemination) an unknown number of women with his own semen instead of the semen of the correct sperm donors, without the women’s knowledge and consent. Based on DNA test results, it’s estimated that Fortier committed these heinous acts from the 1940 to 1980s. The fascinating but disturbing documentary film “Baby God” (directed by Hannah Olson) is about several women and children whose lives were permanently altered by Fortier’s genetic crimes.

Fortier was a prominent doctor who opened hospitals in Las Vegas and later in the rural town of Pioche. He was even named Doctor of the Year in 1991 by Nevada’s Clark County Medical Society. But beginning in the late 1990s, when DNA tests started to become more prevalent and accessible, Fortier was sued several times by people (former patients and/or their children) who were directly affected by his illegal inseminations. In most cases, the lawsuits were settled out of court. And the doctor never lost his medical license.

One of Fortier’s former patients who is interviewed in “Baby God” is Cathy Holm. Her daughter Wendi Babst (born in 1966; Babst is her married surname), who was one of Fortier’s secret insemination children, is also interviewed in the documentary. Holm says that when she first saw Dr. Fortier as a patient, she was a 22-year-old wife in Las Vegas who longed to become a mother.

“All my friends were having babies right off the bat, but we didn’t have one,” remembers Holm. “It wasn’t easy to easy to get pregnant.” None of the fathers who were affected by Fortier’s crimes is interviewed in this documentary. “Baby God” director Olson says that many of these deceived fathers have either died, are under gag order due to settled lawsuits, or they simply weren’t available to be interviewed for the documentary.

Holm adds that even though there was a lot of society pressure on a young wife to become a mother, “It wasn’t just the pressure. I wanted kids. Nobody had any solutions until I went to Dr. Fortier … He was listed in the phone book as a fertility specialist.”

Babst was Holm’s first child. And over time, Holm says, she noticed that her daughter didn’t resemble Holm or Holm’s husband. She also says that her daughter was a lot smarter than the other children in her class at school. Something that’s mentioned repeatedly in the documentary is what people believe are the shared characteristics that Fortier’s biological children inherited from him. These character traits include above-average intelligence, piercing blue eyes and a tendency to be emotionally aloof.

In the documentary, director Olson uses an effective visual technique by showing a close-up montage of blue eyes of the children who are interviewed in the documentary, so viewers can see the ocular similarities. (Almost all of Fortier’s insemination children in the documentary have blue eyes.) And observant viewers will notice that several of the children have a nervous tick of scratching, usually their leg. It’s something that the directors “shows, not tells,” but it’s implied that this scratching habit is a characteristic that the children could also have inherited from Fortier.

“Baby God” includes footage of several of the children meeting each other, some for the first time. The other insemination children in the documentary include Brad Gulko, who has a doctorate in human evolutionary genomics, born in 1966; Mike Otis, born in 1949; Brent Leavitt, born in 1984; and Michael Cleaver, born in 1984.

Babst, who is a retired police detective, put her investigative skills to good use when she found out that Fortier was not only her biological father but also the biological father of numerous other people she never heard about or met before. In the documentary, she describes how she discovered this shocking fact after taking a DNA test that she got from Ancestry.com: “When I noticed that I had half-sibling matches, I knew something wasn’t right. The only name I kept seeing was Fortier.”

Babst was able to find several other half-siblings who were conceived in the same way that she was. By her own admission, she became obsessed with finding out how far Fortier’s crimes went. In one of the documentary’s unsettling scenes, Babst visits the abandoned Pioche Hospital where Fortier had his practice. At this hospital, she finds some of the birth record announcements of babies who were delivered by Fortier. It might never be known how many babies he delivered in his career were his biological children. But based on Babst’s reactions to finding these records, the thought has crossed her mind many times.

During Babst’s investigation, some of which is shown in the documentary, she uncovered a web of lies that went beyond what Fortier did. She also found out that several other people knew for years about the crimes that Fortier was committing, but they did nothing to stop him. These enabling or complicit actions explain why Fortier was able to get away with what he did for so many years.

Dr. Frank Silver and Dr. Harrison Sheld, two retired former employees of Dr. Fortier, are interviewed separately in the film. They say they’re not surprised that Dr. Fortier illegally impregnated so many women because they say that it’s common for male fertility doctors to have a mentality of secretly wanting to spread their genetic lineage to as many people as possible. Silver and Sheld say that they both donated sperm many times in the past, but never illegally inseminated anyone. Sheld begins chuckling when he discusses finding out about the numerous children he fathered through sperm donations.

Silver comments that at the time Fortier committed these crimes, no one had any idea that DNA testing would be invented. Although Sheld and Silver stop short of admitting that they helped cover up any of the doctor’s misdeeds, their attitude seems to be that if they did know about Dr. Fortier illegally inseminating patients, they probably weren’t going to report him because he was their boss. And these two former employees of Fortier don’t seem at all sympathetic to the victims who’ve been hurt by these widespread crimes.

However, one of the self-admitted enablers who’s interviewed in the film is Quincy Fortier Jr., who calls his father a “brilliant man … He understood the human body.” Fortier Jr. says in the documentary that his mother Ruth and the six children (four daughters and two sons) she raised with Fortier Sr. all knew for decades that Dr. Fortier was illegally inseminating his patients with his own sperm. Fortier Jr. says that his father explained it to them by saying that he was helping women conceive because these women were desperate to have children.

But the documentary includes information that not all of the female patients who were impregnated by Dr. Fortier wanted to have a child at the time they got pregnant. Shockingly, one of the patients who was impregnated against her knowledge and consent was Dr. Fortier’s own stepdaughter Connie, who was reportedly a virgin when she got pregnant through artificial insemination. It’s mentioned in the documentary that Dr. Fortier, who practiced other types of medicine even if he wasn’t technically licensed for it, insisted on having his children as his patients. Connie is not interviewed in the documentary, but the movie includes someone reading parts of a letter that Connie wrote years ago that directly addressed her stepfather’s crimes.

The result of that pregnancy was a son, born in 1965, who was adopted. His name is Jonathan Stensland, and he is also interviewed in the film. (As with all of the insemination children who are interviewed in “Baby God,” a DNA test proved that Fortier is their biological father.) In the documentary, Stensland remembers that he had a chance to meet Dr. Fortier and that the doctor was a master of avoiding topics if he didn’t want to discuss them.

“Conversations with Quincy, he doesn’t want to talk about anything that means anything,” remembers Stensland. “I can remember a feeling of mendacity. You try to listen to somebody who’s wiggling away.” Stensland also hints at a dark side to himself that he believes he could have inherited from Dr. Fortier when he thinks about what motivated the doctor to commit these crimes: “I think it was violence … I feel like the consciousness of the violence was born into me.”

“Baby God” also has an interview with Dorothy Otis, another one of Dr. Fortier’s patients who was impregnated by him when she didn’t want to get pregnant. At the time, she was living in Pioche (she now lives in Concord, California), and Dorothy says that she originally went to see Dr. Fortier about an infection. Otis’ son Mike was born as a result of this pregnancy. Just like Holm, Dorothy is a mother who didn’t find out until decades later that Dr. Fortier was the biological father of her child.

Dorothy comments that the man whom she thought was Mike’s father for all of these years was very abusive to her and Mike (her son Mike also confirms these abuse allegations), so she says she has mixed feelings about Dr. Fortier being the biological father: “I’m relieved, because I didn’t think much of what we thought was Mike’s father.” However, she says of insemination crimes committed by Fortier and other doctors: “I think it’s a terrible thing to do to people, but I wouldn’t have had Mike.”

When Dorothy found out that she was pregnant, even though she didn’t feel ready to have a child at that time in her life, Dr. Fortier convinced her that the pregnancy was a blessing. And in those days, Dorothy says doctors were trusted as much as priests. For many people, doctors are still held in such high regard that they can’t fathom the idea of a doctor committing morally reprehensible crimes. This type of blind trust meant that, especially before DNA testing existed, Dr. Fortier’s crimes went undiscovered for a long period of time.

Two of the people who still have this unwavering trust in Dr. Fortier are his adopted daughters Nannette Fortier and Sonia Fortier, whom he adopted in his 50s, after he and Ruth got divorced. Fortier Jr. says that Connie’s pregnancy was one of the main reasons for the divorce. Nannette and Sonia are both interviewed in the documentary.

Nannette didn’t allow her face to be shown in the film, although “Baby God” has archival TV news footage of Nannette accompanying Dr. Fortier to court in a rare situation where a lawsuit against him went to trial. (Before a verdict could be reached, that case was eventually settled out of court too.) Nannette also mentions something odd that can be considered “too much information” about Dr. Fortier: He circumcised himself.

Nannette and Sonia reportedly refuse to take DNA tests to find out if Dr. Fortier was their biological father. And there are other things that they deny in the film too. All they do is praise Dr. Fortier and say what a wonderful father he was to them. But there are hints (Sonia’s facial expressions and the sisters’ body language) that they know more than they’re willing to say in a documentary.

Nannette has this to say to try to excuse Dr. Fortier’s illegal insemination of his patients: “Using his own sperm, to him, was no different than using his own blood.” Sonia adds, “People were so desperate to have a child and wanted it so badly … In his mind, he meant no harm.”

But there was a lot of damage done, not the least of which is that there are unknown numbers of people whose reproductive rights were violated and who now unwillingly have Fortier’s genes in their family. Many of these people still do not know. And considering that Dr. Fortier illegally inseminated women in a relatively small geographic area, it’s very likely that many of these half-siblings have met each other without knowing that they share the same biological father. It isn’t publicly known if any of them unknowingly committed incest by getting romantically involved with someone they didn’t know was a sibling, or going even further by unknowingly marrying a sibling and unknowingly having children with a sibling.

In addition to the physical, genetic and biological repercussions, there’s the emotional devastation. The people who find out that Dr. Fortier’s crimes directly affect their families have feelings of anger and sadness over this cruel violation of their families. Children can feel confusion over their identity. Parents feel betrayed. And in some cases, as what happened with Babst, there are feelings of guilt when a child finds out and has to tell a parent that the father who raised the child isn’t the biological father.

And without revealing any spoilers, some more bombshell allegations are revealed toward the end of the film. These accusations have to do with incest and pedophilia. The person accused of committing these sex crimes was never arrested or sued for these crimes.

“Baby God” director Olson (who makes her feature-film directorial debut with this movie) has a knack for gripping storytelling by showing many examples in the film of how things are not what they first appear to be, which essentially can be a parallel metaphor for how Dr. Fortier conducted his life. In the documentary, the person who makes the allegations about incest and pedophilia seems to be one way in the beginning of the film, but when this person reveals these crimes, this person’s perspective is seen in a much different way.

Thankfully, the movie isn’t stuffed with people who weren’t directly affected by Dr. Fortier’s crimes, such as talking head “experts.” And given the sensitive nature of this documentary’s subject matter, “Baby God” doesn’t feel exploitative because Olson lets the children and their mothers give their candid perspectives without interference of pesky voiceovers or other sometimes-intrusive choices that documentary filmmakers make. While being respectful of the victims, the movie also doesn’t shy away from confronting the awful, complicated and damaging mess left behind by Dr. Fortier.

Although “Baby God” is mostly about how certain people were affected by the illegal actions of one doctor (and it’s chilling to think about how many more doctors have done the same things), this documentary speaks to much bigger problems of people being afraid to report crimes if they think someone powerful is committing those crimes. The movie is also a wake-up call about putting blind faith and complete trust in certain authority figures (such as doctors) who could decide the fates of certain people’s lives. And because the movie responsibly includes different viewpoints, it also shows that when people deny that the problem even exists, that denial is one of the biggest obstacles to getting justice.

HBO premiered “Baby God” on December 2, 2020.

Review: ‘The State of Texas vs. Melissa,’ starring Melissa Lucio

November 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

Melissa Lucio in “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” (Photo by Cyril Thomas/FilmRise)

“The State of Texas vs. Melissa”

Directed by Sabrina Van Tassel

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas, the documentary “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” features a group of Hispanic and white people from the working-class and middle-class discussing the case of Texas death-row inmate Melissa Lucio, who was convicted in 2007 of murdering her 2-year-old daughter Maria, but has proclaimed that she is not guilty of the crime.

Culture Clash: The documentary raises questions about Lucio’s guilt and suggests that Lucio’s race and financial disadvantages played big roles in her not getting good legal counsel.

Culture Audience: “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” will primarily appeal to people who are interested in criminal-justice issues, particularly those affecting women or people of color.

Daniela Lucio and her children in “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” (Photo by Cyril Thomas/FilmRise)

There’s an old saying that prisons are full of innocent people, because so many prisoners claim they didn’t commit the crimes that landed them in prison. The riveting documentary “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” makes a compelling case that Melissa Lucio, the first Hispanic woman sentenced to death row in Texas, is really telling the truth when she says that she didn’t murder her 2-year-old daughter Mariah. Melissa was convicted of this crime in 2007, but the documentary exposes far-reaching and troubling aspects of the case demonstrating that, at the very least, Melissa should get a new trial.

“The State of Texas vs. Melissa” director Sabrina Van Tassel makes a statement in the movie’s production notes that she made the movie with the firm belief that Melissa is not guilty of the murder that landed Melissa on death row. In the statement, Van Tassel (who is from France) says that she originally intended to do a documentary about five women on death row in the United States. Van Tassel remembers: “Oddly, Melissa’s story was the one that I was the least drawn to,” because of Melissa’s troubled past as a drug addict with a history of neglecting her kids.

However, in the statement, Van Tassel says that she changed her mind after meeting with Melissa: “I knew instinctively that she was telling me the truth. That her story was full of facts that had never been explored. In her eyes, I saw all the flaws of the American judicial system which tends to get rid of the most vulnerable defendants.”

Even though Van Tassel admits this bias up front, and even though there are many prisoners who are very skilled con artists and liars, the director approaches the documentary not as a gullible crusader but as an investigative journalist determined to get to the truth, no matter what. The documentary looks at both sides of the argument over Melissa’s guilt or innocence in this horrific crime. And the movie uncovers disturbing evidence and eyewitness statements that were never brought up in Melissa’s original trial.

Melissa (who is incarcerated in Gatesville, Texas) participated in this documentary, as did some of her family members, who are divided over thinking that she’s guilty or not guilty. A few of the family members have never been interviewed on camera. Also interviewed are attorneys and other people who are either involved in the case or have some type of inside knowledge about the case.

Speaking about how her imprisonment has devastated her family, Melissa says in the documentary: “I’ve lost … years without my children. Some of them have memories of me, and some of them don’t. It’s confusing … because I don’t understand how the court system could have done this to me.”

After Melissa was sent away to prison, Melissa’s eldest daughter Daniela took primary responsibility for raising her then-underage siblings. Daniela, who has nine children of her own, is interviewed in the documentary. She is one of her mother’s biggest defenders and advocates.

One person who is not interviewed is former Texas district attorney Armando Villalobos, who prosecuted the case. In 2014, he was convicted of bribery and extortion for accepting more than $100,000 to illegally tamper with cases that happened before Mariah’s death. He was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison.

The details of Villalobos being exposed as an unethical D.A. are included in the documentary, including an interview with assistant U.S. attorney Michael J. Wynne, the lead prosecutor in the case against Villalobos. The implication is clear: If Villalobos was busted for bribery over several cases, then how many other cases did he illegally tamper with where he wasn’t caught? 

Melissa’s case gets even more complicated with what could be shady agendas, because Melissa’s original defense attorney, Peter Gilman, now works for the Texas district attorney’s office. Gilman gets some criticism in the documentary for giving incompetent legal services to Melissa. And now that Gilman works for the D.A.’s office, it raises questions over how much he has invested in not wanting any of his alleged botched legal services to be brought up in court if Melissa gets a new trial.

Who is Melissa Lucio and how did she end up on death row? Born on June 18, 1969, she is a divorced mother of 14 children. She lived primarily in Harlingen, Texas, where the crime occurred. And her life before she was convicted of murder was one filled with poverty, chaos, drug addiction and domestic abuse.

The documentary doesn’t try to portray her as a saint, because it includes details over Melissa’s admitted addiction to cocaine and how some of her kids were temporarily taken away from her by child-protective services. The children were taken away from her after reports that the kids were homeless, neglected, and relying on school for food and hygiene needs. When the kids did have a home, there were also complaints from neighbors that the household reeked of marijuana smoke.

According to what Melissa says in the documentary, temporarily losing custody of some of her kids happened while she and her then-husband Guadalupe Lucio (the father of her five oldest children) were in the depths of their cocaine addiction. Melissa says she was often the victim of domestic abuse by Guadalupe, who is not interviewed in the documentary. Mariah’s father is not mentioned or interviewed in the documentary. Melissa eventually got clean from her cocaine addiction, but her life got turned upside down when she was convicted of murdering Mariah, who died of blunt-force trauma to the head on February 17, 2007.

The prosecution’s main evidence against Melissa was the confession that she made in police custody. That videotaped confession, which is partially shown in the beginning of the documentary, was a false and coerced confession, according to Melissa and her attorneys. The video includes Melissa giving a damning demonstration of how she supposedly killed Mariah. And when a police officer showed her photos of her dead child, Melissa says, “I wish it was me, not her.”

Melissa has recanted the confession and claims that Mariah died after falling down a flight of stairs. Melissa claims she’s not responsible for Mariah’s fatal tumble. However, forensic pathologist Dr. Norma Jean Farley, who examined Mariah’s body, says in the documentary: “This was the worst case of child abuse I’d ever seen. There were bruises everywhere.”

Thomas Young, a forensic pathologist who examined the evidence and autopsy findings of Mariah, says that “the bruising is a result of the brain injury. All of a sudden [previous injuries] started to show up.” Melissa claims that she never abused Mariah. If Melissa didn’t do it, then who did?

The documentary’s most chilling interview is with Melissa’s daughter Alexandra, who was a teenager when Mariah died. Alexandra coldly admits that she was often physically abusive to her younger sister Mariah and was jealous of her. “I guess you can say I didn’t feel like she was my sister,” Alexandra says in the documentary. Alexandra also says that she doesn’t know who killed Mariah.

Litigation specialist Norma Villanueva gave an affidavit that Alexandra admitted to a social worker that Alexandra was responsible for Mariah falling down the stairs. Other family members believe that Mariah’s tumble down the stairs wasn’t an accident and that she was deliberately pushed. However, in her documentary interview, Alexandra claims to have no memory of this confession. Gilman, who was Melissa’s defense attorney at the time, told Villanueva not to disclose Alexandra’s confession to the police or prosecution, according to Villanueva’s affidavit.

Melissa’s family members who believe in her innocence say in the documentary that one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in the case was that neither the defense nor the prosecution bothered to interview the children who were at home at the time of Mariah’s death. And both sides never fully investigated any other possible suspects, even if another suspect or person of interest might be in the same family.

Robert Alvarez, one of Melissa’s sons, was 8 years old when his mother was sentenced to death row. He says in the documentary: “They didn’t actually ask any of us kids who were there when it happened. My mom wasn’t a violent person.” Alvarez believes that his mother suspected Alexandra of being the real culprit, but that in order to protect Alexandra, Melissa made the false confession. 

In the documentary, it’s clear that Melissa regrets the confession and now believes that, at the very least, Alexandra was the one who caused the bruises found on Mariah’s body. Melissa’s advocates say that one of the biggest mistakes that the police and prosecution made was automatically assuming that Melissa could have been the only one in the household to commit that abuse. But that raises another question: How could Melissa not see that Mariah was being physically abused, since the abuse left several bruises on the child?

To understand the mentality of someone who would let this kind of dysfunction take over her life, the documentary includes an interview with Dr. John Pinkerman, a psychologist who has interviewed Melissa. Pinkerman says, “She had a history of really inadequate men entering her life and being exploitative, abusive, and who were very troubled individuals who were doing illegal things, including drug dealing. She was caught up in that maelstrom. She didn’t meet the criteria of mothers who kill their children.”

Melissa also talks about her abusive background. She says that she got married at 16 years old “to escape my childhood. I was molested by my mother’s boyfriend.” Melissa says that when she told her mother about the boyfriend’s sexual abuse, her mother didn’t believe her, and that lack of support devastated Melissa.

Melissa’s mother is briefly interviewed in the documentary. She doesn’t comment on these allegations, of sexual abuse, but she believes that her daughter didn’t commit the murder. Melissa’s brother Rene says that Melissa’s childhood trauma led Melissa down a self-destructive path, and he comments on Melissa’s addiction to cocaine: “Her demons took over everything she had.”

Melissa sister Diane says about Melissa: “She was a very loving person, but she had a rough life. Melissa was a good person. I never had a disagreement with Mel—not that I remember, even as an adult.” Diane also says that their sister Sonya would often fight with Diane and Melissa. It might explain why there’s still some lingering bad blood between Melissa and some of her siblings,

And not all of Melissa’s siblings on her side with this murder case. Her sister Esmerelda, who is in the movie, believes that Melissa is guilty. Sonya stops short of saying on camera that she thinks Melissa is guilty, but she doesn’t exactly praise Melissa either. Sonya says that Melissa was always ashamed of being poor: “I don’t even think Melissa ever owned a piece of new furniture … She felt she was the black sheep [of the family].”

It’s highly unlikely that Melissa is thinking about what kind of furniture she had before she was locked up in prison for murder. Her priority is righting the wrongs that she says happened to her in this case. Melissa’s appellate attorney Margaret Schmucker says in the documentary that there is “no evidence that Melissa was physically abusive.”

But what happened to Mariah still haunts Melissa, who says she sometimes has dreams of Mariah being alive and doing things like playing dress-up with Melissa. “I often think about my daughter Mariah,” Melissa comments. “There are days where I wish I could leave this place and be with Mariah.”

The documentary aims to show that in Melissa’s murder case, it wasn’t just a corrupt prosecutor who was capable of doing damage. Several people in the documentary accuse Melissa’s former defense attorney Gilman of unethically mishandling the case. Some of Melissa’s children who were home at the time of the murder have gone on record in this documentary and elsewhere to give statements about what they saw and heard. However, Gilman never called any of Melissa’s children to testify in her trial.

Lynn Marie Gracey, a private investigator who worked on Melissa’s appeal has this to say about Gilman: “I think the guy knew that he sabotaged the case so bad that he didn’t want anybody to rework it, re-investigate it. My gut told me that it was all messed-up.”

In the documentary, Gracey claims that she once confronted Gilman about why he didn’t further investigate Melissa’s admittedly abusive daughter Alexandra as a likely suspect. Gracey says that Gilman told her, “Why would I want to ruin a teenager’s life? She wasn’t my client anyway.” And then Gracey says that Gilman abruptly ended the conversation.

Gilman is interviewed in the documentary, and he doesn’t adequately explain his actions in the case. For example, during the trial, he didn’t raise any reasonable doubt by showing evidence that someone else could have committed the crime. It’s a strategy that any good defense attorney is supposed to have. In the documentary interview, Gilman doesn’t even attempt to hide that he didn’t respect Melissa as a client or as a person. These negative feelings probably affected how he handled the case.

Gilman describes Melissa as “very docile” but adds: “It was very difficult to defend somebody who didn’t seem to want to have a defense attorney there. She was not a good mother. Did she kill her child? I don’t know.”

As for why he never called any of Melissa’s children to testify on her behalf in the original trial, Gilman gives this excuse: “I didn’t feel that any of the children would be helpful.” He also describes the children as undisciplined. Gilman says that he figured that if the kids were in the courtroom, they would probably be running around the courtroom and they would upset the jury.

And when it comes to reports that at least one of Mariah’s siblings was physically abusive to her, Gilman would only say “that sounds about right.” But he also says that he “doesn’t remember” all the details of those reports, and he claims that he didn’t have access to the family’s social-services records.

People who know about criminal-justice cases know how hard it is for someone convicted of murder to be exonerated. That’s because most prosecutors don’t want to admit that the case could have been mishandled by overlooking evidence or even tampering with crucial evidence. The state also usually doesn’t want to spend the money to re-try a case.

Alfredo Padilla, a prosecutor in Texas’ Cameron County, is one of the people who thinks justice was served with Melissa’s murder conviction and sentencing to death row. Padilla says in the documentary: “The case was defended well. The system worked … Don’t blame the decision. Don’t blame the attorneys … She has no one to blame but herself. She put herself there. Whose fault is it that she’s there, if it’s not hers?

An update to Melissa’s case is mentioned in the movie’s epilogue, and it’s a clear indication that there are indeed serious questions being raised over Melissa’s conviction. This update won’t be revealed in this review, but there are plenty of news reports about what happened after this movie was filmed, if people want to find out the latest developments.

“The State of Texas vs. Melissa” does an impressive job of presenting different perspectives of this very complicated case. It’s a cautionary tale of how difficult it can be for defendants to overcome a recanted confession, even if there’s evidence suggesting that someone else committed the crime. It’s also a sobering example of how someone’s socioeconomic status determines the quality of their legal services and therefore the outcome of a case. This documentary about Melissa Lucio is completed, but her case represents a quest for justice that will never be over as long as there are convicted prisoners who are appealing their cases.

FilmRise released “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on September 3, 2020, and on digital and VOD on October 20, 2020. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is January 19, 2021.

Review: ‘Time’ (2020), starring Fox Rich

October 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Fox Rich and Rob Rich in “Time” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“Time” (2020)

Directed by Garrett Bradley

Culture Representation: Taking place from the 1990s to the 2010s, the documentary “Time” features a predominantly African American group of working-class and middle-class people discussing Louisiana woman Fox Rich’s quest to get her husband Rob released from prison and reunited with his family.

Culture Clash: Rob Rich was sentenced to 60 years in prison without the possibility of parole for a botched armed robbery, which is a sentence that Fox Rich and others in the documentary say is a punishment that is too harsh for the crime and rooted in racism.

Culture Audience: “Time” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about people who battle against systemic racism in the U.S. criminal justice system.

Fox Rich in the 1990s (above) and Fox Rich in the 2010s (below) in “Time” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The gripping and emotionally moving documentary “Time” doesn’t follow the usual formula in a movie about someone on an against-all-odds quest to get someone else released from prison. The convict in this case isn’t someone who proclaims to be innocent of the crime. Nor is there a crusading lawyer who is the hero of the story. Instead, this movie takes a raw and intimate look at the journey of a convict’s wife named Fox Rich, who fights to get her husband Rob G. Rich freed from prison while he’s serving a 60-year sentence without the possibility of parole. It’s a story that’s a true example of extraordinary persistence, love and hope.

“Time,” directed by Garrett Bradley, consists of a great deal of video footage that Fox Rich filmed herself during the family’s ordeal that began in the late 1990s and continued through 2018. In the movie, she also has the names Sibil Verdette Fox (which is her birth name) and Sibil Richardson. Fox (who was born in 1971) does most of the voiceover narration in “Time,” but most of the six sons she had with Rob also narrate the film.

There are no “talking head” legal experts, journalists or other pundits who are interviewed in this documentary. “Time” is essentially a family video album that chronicles the ups and downs of Fox’s determination to emancipate her husband over the course of 21 years. Although the original footage from the early years was filmed in color, everything in “Time” is entirely in black and white. There’s also some footage of the family in happier times before Rob was incarcerated.

The movie is not shown in chronological order, and the year that footage was taken is not shown on screen, although the year is sometimes mentioned by the people in the footage. Viewers can also tell the periods of time that the footage was filmed by how Fox looks and the ages of the children. In the 1990s and early 2000s footage, Fox’s is wavy-haired and more idealistic. In the later footage, her hair is straight and she’s more realistic but still hopeful. She’s also become a businesswoman at a car dealership, as well as a passionate public speaker about reforms in the criminal justice system. In her public speaking, Fox shares her personal stories about how Rob’s incarceration has affected the family.

What happened to cause this prison sentence to devastate the family? In 1997, Fox and Rob were a married couple in their mid-20s who met when they were in high school. They were on their way to living the American Dream, with three sons, their first purchased home and a plan to open the first hip-hop clothing store in Shreveport, Louisiana.

But, as Fox tells it in the documentary, they ran into financial problems in trying to launch the business. And they got desperate. On September 16, 1997, their lives changed forever when they committed this crime: Rob, Fox and Rob’s nephew robbed the Grambling Credit Union in Grambling, Louisiana. Fox says she remembers that her motivation for committing the crime was she didn’t want the business to fail and she was going to do what it took to get the money that they wanted.

Fox was the getaway driver, while Rob and his nephew committed the botched armed robbery in the bank. They ended up with about $5,000 from the robbery, but they were quickly apprehended and pleaded guilty. While Fox pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison (she was released from prison after serving three-and-a-half years of that sentence), Rob lost out on a plea bargain where he would be sentenced to 12 years in prison if he pleaded guilty. Instead, through some bad luck and bad legal advice that are not detailed in the movie, he ended up facing trial and was sentenced to 60 years in prison. By any standard, it’s a very harsh sentence, considering that there are many people who get lesser sentences for murder or rape.

Just like many other people who think the U.S. criminal justice system is corrupt and flawed, Fox believes that the system is very racist, because people of color are more likely to get worse punishments than white people who commit the same crimes. She comments in the documentary: “Our prison system is nothing more than slavery. And I see myself as an abolitionist.”

Fox’s mother, a retired educator who’s not identified by her name in the movie, also says that prisons are another form of slavery. She doesn’t excuse the crime that Rob and Fox committed that landed the spouses in prison, but she believes that Rob’s punishment should have fit the crime. She says, “I’ve always been a firm believer: Right don’t come to you doing wrong.”

Fox’s mother also adds that she always thought her daughter would marry “a doctor or a lawyer or an Indian chief.” She comments, “I’ve got nothing against Rob. I just don’t know him.” Viewers also don’t really get to know Rob either, since Fox doesn’t really describe what her husband’s personality is like, and the movie only shows brief snippets of her talking to him on the phone while he’s in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola.

However, “Life” does have a lot of footage over the years of Fox with her and Rob’s six children, who are all sons: Mahlik, Remington (also known as Remi), Laurence, Justus, Freedom and Rob II. Justus and Freedom (who are identical twins) and Rob II were born while Rob Sr. was in prison. The most heartbreaking parts of the movie have to do with the children not being able to grow up with their father in the home.

But the movie also has plenty of inspirational moments. Defying the negative stereotype that children of prison inmates are doomed to become uneducated criminals, Mahlik, Remi and Laurence (the three oldest sons) are all college-educated and thriving. Remi is shown graduating from dental school. Laurence graduated from high school two years earlier than his classmates and is shown to be an aspiring law student who wants to become a public advocate for criminal justice reform.

Remi comments in the documentary: “My family has a strong image, but hiding behind it is a lot of pain … Time is influenced by a lot of our emotions. It’s influenced by our actions.”

And Fox is the most inspirational of all, with her steely determination to never give up on her goal to get Rob out of prison and reunited with his family. There are moments of despair, hope, defeat and triumph. “Time” shows how Fox evolved into a charismatic public speaker, whether she gives speeches at places like Tulane University or stands up in front of a church audience and asks for forgiveness for the crime she committed.

In one of these speeches, Fox also mentions that she made amends with some of the bank robbery victims when she met with them personally to ask for their forgiveness. In private, she gives pep talks to Rob, their kids and to herself. And she’s often seen on the phone doing what she has to do to get Rob back home with the family.

One thing that might surprise people who watch this movie is that there is very little footage of any lawyers. There’s a brief scene of Fox in a meeting with attorneys in an office, but that’s about it. There are hints that Fox has become disillusioned with lawyers and the legal system in general, because she does as much as she can on her own. Fox says at one point in the movie that she paid a previous lawyer (whose name is not mentioned) about $15,000 in cash for his services, and he ended up telling the family that there was nothing he could do for Rob.

Besides being entirely in black and white, “Time” isn’t a conventional documentary about the U.S. criminal justice system because of director Bradley’s musical choices for the movie. There is no cliché musical score with rousing orchestral music, no traditional gospel songs that chime in at emotionally charged moments, no stereotypical hip-hop music with angry anthems. Instead, the jazzy score by Edwin Montgomery and Jamieson Shaw (taken mainly from 1960s piano compositions by Ethiopian nun Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou) is a lot like the frequently meandering tone of this film: “Time” flows along with no distinct “acts” or “chapters” because of the non-chronological order of the film.

However, there is a “crescendo” to the film that is an absolute must-see. People who know the Rich family’s story might already know how this film ends, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of seeing certain defining moments captured in this film. As Fox says at one point in the movie, “I came from a people who had a strong desire to have something, to make something of ourselves.” Her unshakeable loyalty to her husband and family in the face of overwhelming obstacles can be an unforgettable inspiration to people who believe in the power of love and the human spirit.

Amazon Studios released “Time” in select U.S. cinemas on October 9, 2020. Prime Video will premiere the movie on October 16, 2020.

Review: ‘Driven to Abstraction,’ starring Patricia Cohen, Martha Parrish, Luke Nikas, M.H. Miller, Hongtu Zhang, Victoria Sears Goldman and Laura Gilbert

August 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Luke Nikas in “Driven to Abstraction” (Photo courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

“Driven to Abstraction”

Directed by Daria Price

Culture Representation: The true-crime documentary “Driven to Abstraction” features a predominately white group of people (with a few Asians) discussing the art forgery scandal that shut down Knoedler Gallery in New York City and resulted in lawsuits and criminal prosecution.

Culture Clash: The scandal was an example of how the world of fine art (where one painting can be worth millions) is susceptible to forgeries, with art dealers as knowing or unwitting accomplices to the forgeries.

Culture Audience: “Driven to Abstraction” will mostly appeal to people interested in true-crime stories or the inner workings of the fine-art world.

Patricia Cohen in “Driven to Abstraction” (Photo courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

The documentary “Driven to Abstraction” (directed by Daria Price) takes a fascinating look at how greed and the often-secretive world of art dealing collided and exploded into one of the biggest art scandals in history: Knoedler Gallery, which was New York City’s oldest art gallery, was accused of selling about $80 million worth of forged paintings from 1994 to 2009.

The scandal led to the abrupt closure of Knoedler in 2011, after being in business for 165 years. It came out during the investigation that Knoedler had been in serious financial trouble in the final decade before it closed. The money from the forgeries had been keeping the business afloat and was the main reason why the business hadn’t shut down sooner. All of this is such a compelling story that another documentary film has been made about the scandal: director Barry Avrich’s “Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art,” which has been making the rounds at film festivals in 2020 and is expected to be released in 2021.

One of the people at the center of the scandal was Knoedler’s longtime director Anne Freedman, who was accused of selling 40 forged paintings for about $60 million from 1994 to 2009, the year that she resigned from the company. Freedman received these paintings from an obscure art dealer named Glafira Rosales, who was based on New York’s Long Island. Rosales said she was selling these rare paintings on behalf of a wealthy friend who wished to remain anonymous.

This mystery seller claimed that he inherited the paintings, which were bought by one or both of his parents directly from the artists in the artists’ homes in “top secret” sales. The mystery seller also insisted that the paintings be acquired by private collectors, because it was supposedly his parents’ wish as part of the inheritance. Alfonso Ossorio, who died in 1990 at the age of 74, was a well-known artist from the Philippines, whose name was given as the supposed liaison who gave access to the art world to the mystery seller’s parents, whose names were also kept a secret from buyers.

All of the paintings that Rosales sold to Knoedler were forgeries. The artists whose paintings were forged included Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Richard Diebenkorn, Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, Lee Krasner and Sam Francis. Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz, the live-in boyfriend of Rosales, would be exposed as the ringleader for the forgeries, according to law enforcement.

Why did these forgery sales go on for so long? And who was creating these forged paintings? The forgeries turned out to be work of Pei-Shen Qian, a Chinese immigrant/former art student who had been in the United States since the early 1980s. At the time of the forgery sales, Qian was living in the New York City borough of Queens, where he created all of the forged paintings in his home.

As news reports, court documents and this documentary point out, there were many red flags that could have prevented these forgery sales from continuing as long as they did. For starters, the story kept changing about the mystery seller. Rosales and Freedman told different people different things about this mystery seller.

The contradictions included that the mystery seller’s country of origin was either the Philippines or Mexico and that he was living in Mexico or Switzerland. One story was that he got the paintings as an inheritance from both of his parents, who were actively involved in buying the paintings directly from the artists. In another story, it was only the father, not the mother, who had anything to do with the paintings.

And even the story kept changing about why this seller wanted to remain anonymous. People heard that the seller wanted to keep his family’s financial situation private. But another story was that the seller’s father had a closeted gay lifestyle that was connected to Ossorio, and the seller didn’t want this secret to be revealed to the public. Ossorio’s longtime partner Ted Dragon, who was still alive when the paintings were sold, was one of the people who sounded an unheeded alarm that the paintings were fake and that the “mystery seller” was lying about Ossorio being connected to the seller’s father.

Another big warning sign that the paintings were fake was that there had been no previous record of these paintings ever existing before. Most of these famous artists kept meticulous records and documentation of their work and had people who’d seen these paintings, even if these paintings were sold directly to a private collector. To suddenly have a large collection of these “lost, never-seen-before” paintings emerging in the possession of one person was very suspicious, to say the least.

However, Freedman was able to convince people that the paintings were real by providing lists of known art experts who vouched for the paintings’ authenticity. Apparently, none of the duped buyers seemed to have checked with the experts themselves before buying these paintings. If they had, they would have found out that the people on Freedman’s lists had only casually looked at the paintings in Freedman’s office but hadn’t authenticated them. Freedman put their names on the list anyway, allegedly without their knowledge or permission. And the buyers trusted Freedman because of her exalted and influential position in the art world.

The scam got exposed as buyers who purchased the forgeries would get them tested by art forensics experts and find things such as a Pollock painting that would have a certain type of paint that wasn’t invented until 1970, which was years after Pollock died in 1956. Another Pollock forgery sold by Knoedler had Pollock’s signature misspelled on the painting. Imagine the embarrassment that these buyers felt that they didn’t have these things checked out before they forked over millions for these paintings.

Patricia Cohen, the journalist who broke the story for The New York Times, says in the documentary: “If it hadn’t been for Jack Flam [president/CEO] of the Dedalus Foundation, none of this scandal would have come to light.” The foundation was launched by Motherwell, who kept such detailed records of his own work that Flam knew immediately that the suspicious Motherwell paintings being sold by Knoedler were forgeries. Flam sounded the alarm, which set off a chain of events leading to buyers taking closer looks at the paintings they purchased from Knoedler.

Not surprisingly, Freedman and all the other defendants who faced lawsuits or criminal charges in this scandal are not interviewed in the documentary. Billionaire couple Domenico and Eleanore De Sole’s lawsuit against Freedman and Knoedler (whose owner Michael Hammer was a defendant) went to trial. One of the centerpieces of the lawsuit was that Domenico De Sole—a chairman of Tom Ford International and Sotheby’s and a former president/CEO of the Gucci Group—had unknowingly purchased a fake Rothko painting in 2004 for $8 million from Knoedler, which refused to give him a refund when he discovered it was a forgery.

Although cameras were not allowed in the courtroom, the documentary includes a few courtroom illustrations, as well as brief video clips of Freedman, Hammer and the De Soles outside the courtroom. The plaintiffs and defendants make no comments in these archival video clips, but Freedman’s attorney and the De Soles’ attorneys who were involved in the trial are interviewed in the documentary. Even though the outcomes of these cases have been widely reported, they won’t be revealed in this review, in case people who see “Driven to Abstraction” want to find out what the outcomes were by seeing the documentary.

However, it’s enough to say that Freedman has maintained all along that she did not knowingly sell forgeries. It’s a denial that many people interviewed in the documentary say they find hard to believe, given that these paintings seemed to come from out of nowhere and there were no records that they had existed before this “mystery seller” wanted to unload these paintings. Freedman also fell under suspicion for being part of the scam because she purchased these paintings from Rosales for well below what would have been the paintings’ market value.

The documentary’s production notes have a director’s statement, in which Price comments: “Attending the De Sole v Freedman/Knoedler trial, I met all the players and later interviewed witnesses who were willing to go public. But I also encountered the same reluctance to go on the record that the trial itself exposed—the very same silence that allowed this scam to continue for 15 years. While there are brave insiders, like art consultant and witness Martha Parrish, willing to spill the beans in this film, there are others for whom legal or just plain embarrassing predicaments inhibited their participation.”

However, “Driven to Abstraction” does round up a good range of people from the art world to interview for a lot of insightful perspectives. Parrish, a former board member of the Art Dealers Association of America, comments on the forgeries and why any legitimate art expert should have suspected from the beginning that these paintings were fake: “There were no reproductions in any books. There were no exhibition records. There were no records with any of the dealers that represented those artists. There were no shipping receipts to show how these works … got back to the United States. There was nothing.”

In addition to The New York Times’ Cohen, the documentary’s interviewees include several journalists, such as The Art Newspaper’s Laura Gilbert; ArtNet senior market editor Eileen Kinsella; Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Shnayerson; Art and Auction and Robb Report writer Judd Tully; art critic/author Blake Gopnik; The Art Newspaper writer Bill Glass; and M.H. Miller of The New York Times and formerly of Art News Magazine.

Hongtu Zhang and Andy Chen—two artists and former friends of forger Qian—are interviewed in the documentary and offer some insight into why he turned to a life of crime. Zhang attended the Art Students League (an art school in New York City) with Qian in the early 1980s. He says that Qian was very talented and thought his art education would lead to professional opportunities, but Qian became frustrated and disillusioned when he found it difficult to make a living as an artist. At one point, Qian (who is described as quiet and introverted) was selling his art on the street for very little money.

Chen says he noticed that Qian became more content over time when Qian’s financial situation improved enough that he was able to buy a house. Qian told people, including Chen, that a gallery was paying for his artwork. In essence, that was true. But what Qian left out of those stories was that his art that the gallery was buying were all forged paintings.

The documentary also mentions that after the scam was exposed, Qian claimed that he was making commissioned “tribute” paintings and wasn’t aware that it was illegal. “Tribute art” is common in Chinese culture. However, it’s pointed out that because the artist’s signatures were being forged on paintings, those forged signatures crossed a line into illegal territory. And because Qian received his art education in the U.S., it would be hard for him to convince people that he was a naïve Chinese immigrant who didn’t know that what he was doing was illegal.

Several people in the documentary marvel at how closely Qian was able to convincingly replicate the styles of so many diverse artists. Ironically, the forger who made it possible for these fake paintings to be sold for millions per painting was the one who got paid the least out of all the people accused of being involved in the scam. Qian reportedly got paid only a few thousand dollars per painting. It was only after the scammers got busted that he found out what his forgeries had been sold for, and Qian was reportedly very shocked.

The documentary’s interviews include several experts in art deals, such as art dealer/art advisor James Kelly, provenance researcher Victoria Sears Goldman, gallerist Doug Walla and Center for Art Law founder Irina Tarsis. Kelly had recommended that the De Soles buy the Rothko painting that turned out to be a forgery and the center of the De Soles’ lawsuit. In the documentary, Kelly admits he was fooled because Freedman showed him a list of known art experts whom she said had authenticated the painting. “Nothing really struck me that it was not an authentic painting,” Kelly comments in retrospect. “It was a beautiful classic.”

Freedman’s attorney Luke Nikas says about Freedman in the documentary: “Not a single person in the art-dealing world came to her and said to her: ‘These are fakes. You can’t sell them.'” As far as Freedman was concerned, Nikas says, she thought that the paintings from Rosales really were long-lost paintings that had been kept a secret from the public.

De Sole attorneys Emily Reisbaum, Gregory Clarick and Aaron Crowell (who are all interviewed in the documentary) obviously disagree. The say that even if Freedman believed that the paintings were real, she just took Rosales’ word for it, which is highly irresponsible for a gallery director on Freedman’s level. And the amounts she paid Rosales were suspiciously low (in some cases, less than $1 million per painting) for these “rare” art pieces.

The Art Newspaper’s Gilbert says that Freedman did get several warnings that the paintings were forgeries but that Freedman was “extremely resistant” to those warnings. Gilbert got the first exclusive interview with Freedman after Freedman’s trial. Gilbert says that Freedman insisted that the interview (which was published in April 2016) be a conversation instead a rehash of the trial. Gilbert describes Freedman having this attitude about the accusations against her: “It’s the art world. Get over it. I didn’t slay anyone’s first-born.”

Art forensic specialist Jeffrey Taylor gives his opinion in the documentary on why Freedman sold forgeries for so many years, regardless of whether or not she knew they were forgeries at the time of the sales: “Hubris is a good word. She began to believe in her own infallibility. Before her fall, she really was the queen bee of the art world.”

When it comes buying and selling fine art, the real price isn’t the market value but rather what someone is willing to pay for it. Anonymous buyers and sellers are not unusual. The business of art dealing at the highest level is fueled by the possibility that wealthy buyers will pay above and beyond what would be considered a reasonable asking price—and it’s the same reason why the business is so susceptible to forgeries. Cohen sums it up in the documentary by saying of the Knoedler scandal: “To pull off a forgery like this, it takes a village … The art world lacks transparency.”

“Driven to Abstraction” director Price also wrote and edited this documentary, which does a very good job of bringing the story together in a cohesive and engaging style. The main area where the documentary needed improving is the sound mixing, which is at times very uneven. However, you don’t have to be an art collector or a fan of these painters to enjoy this movie, because the documentary shows the pitfalls of being dazzled by a famous name and assuming that the name automatically equals authenticity.

Grasshopper Film released “Driven to Abstraction” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on August 28, 2020.

Review: ‘Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn,’ starring Diane Hawkins, Amir Hawkins, Freddy Hawkins, Christopher Graham, Al Sharpton, David Dinkins and Joseph Regina

August 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Yusuf Hawkins in “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” (Photo courtesy of Hawkins Family/HBO)

“Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn”

Directed by Muta’Ali

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the documentary “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” features a predominantly African American group of people (and some white people) discussing the 1989 racist murder of 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins and the controversial aftermath of this hate crime.

Culture Clash: Yusuf Hawkins was murdered by a mob of young white men just because Hawkins was an African American, and there were many conflicts over who should be punished and how they should be punished.

Culture Audience: “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” will appeal primarily to people interested in true crime stories that include social justice issues.

Yusuf Hawkins, Amir Hawkins and Freddy Hawkins in “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” (Photo courtesy of Hawkins Family/HBO)

The insightful documentary “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” gives an emotionally painful but necessary examination of the impact of the 1989 murder of Yusuf Hawkins, a 16-year-old African American who was shot to death in New York City’s predominantly white Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst. He was killed simply because of the color of his skin—and it’s a tragedy that has been happening for centuries and keeps happening to many people who are victims of racist hate crimes. This documentary, which is skillfully directed by Muta’Ali, offers a variety of perspectives in piecing together what went wrong and what lessons can be learned to help prevent more of these tragedies from happening.

One of the best aspects of “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” is how it has interviews with many of the crucial people who were directly involved in the murder case and the subsequent controversy over how the perpetrators were going to be punished. The people interviewed include members of Yusuf Hawkins’ inner circle, such as Yusuf’s mother, Diane Hawkins; his younger brother Amir and older brother Freddy; Yusif’s cousins Darlene Brown and Felicia Brown; and Yusuf’s friends Christopher Graham and Luther Sylvester, who was with Yusuf during the attack. (Yusuf’s father, Moses Stewart, died in 2003.) They are all from the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York.

The documentary also has the perspectives of some Bensonhurst residents or people who allied themselves with the accused perpetrators. They include Joe Fama, who was convicted of being the shooter; Stephen Murphy, who was the attorney of Keith Mondello, who was accused of being the mob’s ringleader; and Russell Gibbons, an African American who was a friend of many of the white men in the mob of attackers. Gibbons was involved in providing the baseball bats used in the attack, but Gibbons ended up testifying for the prosecution.

And in the aftermath of the murder, several people became involved in the investigation, court cases and public outcry seeking justice for Yusuf. The documentary includes interviews with activists Rev. Al Sharpton, Dr. Lenora Fulani, Rev. Conrad Tillard (formerly known as Conrad Muhammad) and Rev. Herbert Daughtry; Douglas Nadjari, who was New York’s assistant district attorney at the time; former New York City mayor David Dinkins; publicist Ken Sunshine, who was Dinkins’ deputy campaign manager at the time; Joseph Regina, a New York Police Department detective involved in the investigation; and journalist John DeSantis, who covered the Yusuf Hawkins story for United Press International.

There have been many disagreements over who was guilty and who was not guilty over the physical attacks and shooting, but no one disputes these facts: On August 23, 1989, Yusuf and three of his friends—Luther Sylvester, Claude Stanford and Troy Banner (who are all African American)—went to Bensonhurst at night to look at a 1987 Pontiac Firebird that was advertised in the newspaper as being for sale. Banner was the one who was interested in the car.

When they got to Bensonhurst, all four of them were surrounded by a mob of young white men who were in their late teens and early 20s (it’s estimated that 10 to 30 people were in this mob), who attacked them with baseball bats and yelled racial slurs at them. Yusuf was shot to death during this assault. (A handgun was used in the shooting.) The attack was unprovoked, and several people involved in the attack later admitted that it was a hate crime.

Nadjari comments in the documentary: “Yusuf and his friends walked into what I call ‘the perfect storm’ … They [the attackers] didn’t want black guys in the neighborhood.” And even defense attorney Murphy admits: “You’d have to be stupid to not determine that there was a racist element to the whole thing to begin with.”

Furthermore, Yusuf and his friends were not “thugs” with a history of violence. All of the people who knew Yusuf describe him as a thoughtful, caring and good kid. He was the type of person who looked out for his friends to steer them away from trouble. It was consistent with his personality that he would accompany a friend who wanted to look at a car for sale. As journalist DeSantis comments in the documentary about Yusuf: “He was perceived by many to be a martyr.”

It came out during the investigation that a lovers’ quarrel was the spark that ignited the viciousness of the attack. Mondello’s girlfriend at the time was Gina Feliciano. During an argument between Feliciano and Mondello earlier that evening, she said that she was going to have a bunch of black guys come to the neighborhood to beat up Mondello and his friends. Feliciano lied in that threat, but apparently Mondello believed her. According to testimony in the trials, Mondello and the rest of the mob wrongly assumed that Yusuf and his friends were the (fabricated) gang of black thugs that Feliciano had said was coming to assault Mondello.

The documentary points out that even though New York City has an image of being “liberal” and “cosmopolitan,” the city is not immune from racism and racial segregation. East New York and Bensonhurst are just 13 miles apart, but these two very different Brooklyn neighborhoods might as well have been on other planet, because the people in these neighborhoods rarely mixed with each other. East New York has a predominantly working-class black population, while Bensonhurt’s population consists mainly of middle-class white people, many who are Italian American.

According to Amir Hawkins, who was 14 at the time his brother Yusuf was murdered, even though he lived in Brooklyn for years, all Amir knew about Bensonhurst was from “The Honeymooners,” one of his favorite sitcoms. He says of Bensonhurst: “Nobody told us, ‘Hey, that’s off-limits You can’t go there.'”

Amir also gives a chilling description of how his grandmother Rosalie seemed to have some kind of premonition that something would go horribly wrong when Yusuf was in Bensonhurst. According to Amir, when his grandmother found out that Yusuf had gone to Bensonhurst, Amir says he never saw his grandmother more upset in his life. Sadly, her apparent premonition turned out to come true, when the family got the devastating news about Yusuf’s murder later that night.

As an African American and longtime Bensonhurst resident, Gibbons admits in the documentary that he has experienced a profound racial identity crisis and still has deep-seated inner conflicts about race. He says that even though he was bullied by white racists in Bensonhurst, he also wanted to be friends with them. Gibbons was the only “black friend” of the mob accused of attacking Yusuf and his friends.

In the documentary, Gibbons downplays his role in providing the baseball bats used in the attack. Just as he said in trial testimony, Gibbons claims that all he heard on the night of the incident was that some black and Latino men were coming to Bensonhurst to attack some of his friends and he wanted to assist his friends in defending themselves. He says in the documentary, “I wasn’t thinking about race. I was just there because my friends were there.”

As for Fama, he says nothing new in the documentary that he hasn’t already claimed during his trial in 1990. Although he didn’t testify during his trial, Fama admits that he was part of the mob of attackers, but he claims that he’s not guilty of shooting Yusuf. Fama went into hiding after the murder, but he eventually turned himself in to police a little more than a week after the murder. During the documentary interview, Fama is shifty-eyed when discussing the case and seems more concerned about trying to appear innocent than expressing remorse about the circumstances that led to Yusuf’s murder.

Yusuf’s father (Moses Stewart) had been mostly an absentee father who left the family when Yusuf was about 17 months old. Walter Brown, a friend of Stewart’s, says in the documentary, says that Stewart was “stupid” for being a deadbeat dad, but Stewart wanted a chance to redeem himself. In January 1989, Stewart and Yusuf’s mother Diane reconciled, and so he was back in the family’s life. Seven months later, Yusuf was murdered.

After the murder, Stewart reached out to Sharpton who, along with other activists, spearheaded the protests and rallies demanding justice for Yusuf. Yusuf’s mother, father, brothers and other family members participated in many of these protests and rallies, but it’s mentioned in the documentary that Yusuf’s father was more comfortable than Yusuf’s mother with being in the media and public spotlight. There’s archival footage showing that Yusuf’s mother was often very reluctant to make a statement when there was a crowd of media gathered around asking her to say something.

In the documentary, Yusuf’s mother gives heartbreaking descriptions of her nightmarish grief. Its sounds like she had post-traumatic stress disorder, because she experienced panic attacks and became paranoid of going outside at night and was afraid of doing simple things such as taking the subway. She and other family members and friends confirm that losing Yusuf is a trauma that they will never get over.

Yusuf’s murder happened to occur in an election year for New York City’s mayor. The incumbent mayor Ed Koch was widely perceived by his critics as too sympathetic to the accused attackers. (Koch died in 2013.) Dinkins, who defeated Koch in the primary election and would go on to become New York City’s first black mayor, openly supported the Hawkins family before, during and after the trials took place. Dinkins comments in the documentary about how Yusuf’s murder affected the mayoral race that year: “I knew that Yusuf Hawkins would be a factor in my contest, but I’d like to believe that we treated it as we would have had I not been seeking public office.”

The protests also came at a time when filmmaker Spike Lee’s 1989 classic “Do the Right Thing” had entered the public consciousness as the first movie to make a bold statement about how racial tensions in contemporary New York City can boil over into racist violence against black people. It’s not a new problem or a problem that’s unique to any one city, but in the context of what happened to Yusuf Hawkins, “Do the Right Thing” held up a mirror to how these tragedies can occur. The documentary mentions that Lee and some other celebrities became outspoken supporters of the Hawkins family.

The documentary also offers contrasting viewpoints on the protests, which included protestors going into Bensonhurst on many occasions, sometimes to protest at other events happening in the neighborhood. There’s a lot of archival footage of the protestors (mostly black people) and angry Bensonhurst residents (mostly white men) clashing with each other, with many of the Bensonhurst residents and counterprotestors hurling racially charged and racist insults at the protestors.

While Sharpton and other activists involved with the protests felt that the protestors were peaceful and law-abiding, critics of the protests thought that the protestors were rude and disruptive. It’s part of a larger issue of how people react to racial injustice. Some people want to stay silent, while others want to speak out and do something about it.

In fact, it’s mentioned in the documentary that Yusuf’s family was initially told by police to not speak out about the murder because the police were afraid that news of the murder would cause civil unrest. But after the media reported that Yusuf’s murder was a racist hate crime, the crime couldn’t be kept under the radar. According to several people in the documentary, the media helped and hurt the case.

The documentary mentions that although the media played a major role in public awareness of this hate crime, the media (especially the tabloids) got some of the facts wrong, which distorted public opinion. One of the falsehoods spread by the media was that Yusuf or one of his friends in the attack was interested in dating white girls they knew in Bensonhurst, and that was one of the reasons for the attack. In fact, Yusuf and the three friends who were with him didn’t know anyone in Bensonhurst and were really there just to look at a car for sale.

And even though Dinkins publicly gave his support to the Hawkins family, the documentary reveals that there was tension behind the scenes between Dinkins and Sharpton. Dinkins wasn’t a fan of the protests because he felt that they were too disruptive, while Sharpton and many of his supporters thought that Dinkins and other local politicians weren’t doing enough to help with the protestors’ cause. The documentary shows that although Dinkins and Sharpton were at odds with one another over the Yusuf Hawkins protests, many people in positions of power (including Dinkins and Sharpton) used the murder case to further their careers.

Sharpton was also controversial because of his involvement in the Tawana Brawley fiasco. In 1987, Sharpton publicly supported Brawley (a teenager from Wappinger Falls, New York), who claimed that four white men had raped her and covered her in feces. But her story turned out to be a lie, and the hoax damaged Sharpton’s credibility, even though he claimed he had nothing to do with the hoax. Many of Sharpton’s critics pointed to the Brawley hoax as a reason why Sharpton couldn’t be trusted.

In the documentary, Fulani makes it clear that she thinks that it’s enabling racism when people are told to keep silent about it: “I think the problem is that the people who aren’t involved in being racist pigs couldn’t get it together enough to make a different kind of statement.” The documentary shows that a huge part of the controversy in cases such as this is that a lot people can’t really agree on what kind of statement or response should be made.

Gibbons, the African American who was a friend to the Bensonhurst mob of attackers, has this criticism of Sharpton and his protests: “Men like that, they do more damage, and maybe they think they’re doing good.” NYPD detective Regina adds, “Yusuf Hawkins did lose his life because the color of his skin, but not because Bensonhurst is a racist, vigilante neighborhood trying to keep colored people out … There was justice. And after that justice, there should have been peace.”

But considering the outcome of the trials, it’s highly debatable if justice was really served. And is there really peace when people are still getting murdered for the same reason why Yusuf Hawkins was murdered? As long as people have sharply divided opinions on how these matters should be handled by the public and by the criminal justice system, there will continue to be controversy and civil unrest.

“Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” could have been a very one-sided documentary, but it took the responsible approach of including diverse viewpoints. “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” is the well-deserved first winning project of the inaugural Feature Documentary Initiative created by the American Black Film Festival and production company Lightbox, as part of their partnership to foster African American filmmakers and diversity in feature documentaries. And the poignant ending of this documentary makes it clear that Yusuf will be remembered for more than his senseless murder. The positive impact he made in his young life goes beyond what can be put in a news report or documentary.

HBO premiered “Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn” on August 12, 2020.

Review: ‘Athlete A,’ starring Maggie Nichols, Rachael Denhollander, Jamie Dantzscher, Steve Berta, Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Jennifer Sey

June 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Maggie Nichols in “Athlete A” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Athlete A”

Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk

Culture Representation: The documentary “Athlete A” interviews an all-white group of people to discuss how officials and survivors handled the crimes of convicted sex offender Larry Nassar, the disgraced former doctor who worked for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University.

Culture Clash: The documentary examines how Nassar’s crimes were actively covered up by officials and how a team of Indianapolis Star investigative reporters exposed the Nassar scandal in 2016.

Culture Audience: “Athlete A” will appeal primarily to people who like true-crime documentaries, but the movie doesn’t uncover anything new and leaves out some important details.

Rachael Denhollander in “Athlete A” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

There will be inevitable comparisons of Netflix’s 2020 documentary film “Athlete A” (directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk) and HBO’s 2019 documentary film “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal” (directed by Erin Lee Carr), because both documentaries essentially cover the same topic. Neither film uncovers anything new about the 2016 scandal that exposed Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of hundreds of female patients while he worked as a doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. “Athlete A” takes a different angle from “At the Heart of Gold” by giving more of a spotlight to the Indianapolis Star newspaper team that broke the story.

“Athlete A” gets its title from the alias that was given to gymnast Maggie Nichols when she filed a formal complaint with USA Gymnastics in 2015 to report that Nassar had sexually abused her numerous times, in the guise of administering “medical examinations.” Nichols’ complaint was one of several that USA Gymnastics actively covered up and did not report to police. Michigan State University also did the same thing when it received numerous sexual-abuse complaints about Nassar, whose known abuse spanned more than 20 years.

Maggie Nichols is among the survivors of Nassar’s abuse who are interviewed in “Athlete A,” which also interviews former gymnasts Rachael Denhollander, Jessica Howard and Jamie Dantzscher, who are also survivors of Nassar’s abuse. “Athlete A,” which focuses more on how the scandal went public, has a much smaller number of people interviewed, compared to “At the Heart of Gold,” which has a broader look at the aftermath of the scandal. And ultimately, taking a much narrower view might be why “Athlete A” provides a less complete picture than “At the Heart of Gold.”

The Nassar scandal exposed the culture of cover-ups, abuse, silence and intimidation that many female gymnasts (who are usually underage when the abuse starts) have had to endure in their quest for athletic glory. Several media outlets and documentaries have already done in-depth investigations and reported their findings of the Nassar scandal, but the Indianapolis Star was the first to break the story.

“Athlete A” gives a lot of screen time to the Indianapolis Star team members who broke the story: investigations editor Steve Berta and investigative reporters Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Tim Evans. They all give a step-by-step replay of how they uncovered how deep the scandal was and how far back the cover-ups were, as more and more women started coming forward to the Indianapolis Star with their Nassar horror stories.

Berta says of the culture of female gymnastics: “What the culture was like was new to me, and we were sort of plunged into it.” Kwiatkowski explains that the Indianapolis Star (which is nicknamed the Indy Star) somewhat stumbled onto the Nassar story when the newspaper was investigating a broader story on why people don’t report sexual abuse in schools.

The Indianapolis Star got a tip to look into USA Gymnastics, and that led the reporters down the path to find out about Nassar’s sex crimes and what officials did to cover up the complaints against him. (Nassar has now been stripped of his medical license. In 2017 and 2018, he received numerous prison sentences that will ensure that he will die in prison.)

Curiously, “Athlete A” paints an incomplete picture by focusing mostly on USA Gymnastics as the chief perpetrator of the cover-ups, and the documentary largely ignores Michigan State University’s similar cover-ups of Nassar’s crimes. Several officials from USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University have since been fired or have resigned because of the Nassar scandal. Many of these disgraced officials are facing criminal and/or civil cases because of their involvement in the scandal.

As many people who are familiar with the scandal already know, USA Gymnastics had a policy to not report a sexual-abuse claim to the police unless the alleged victim, the alleged victim’s parents and/or an eyewitness signed the complaint. Most of the accusers were underage children, so this policy goes against most U.S. state laws that require companies and organizations to report complaints of underage sexual abuse to police.

Nassar certainly wasn’t the only one to be accused, and when his sex crimes were exposed, the media also uncovered that over a period of 10 years, USA Gymnastics had received sexual-abuse complaints against approximately 54 coaches (most of the crimes were against underage girls), but those complaints were never reported to police. USA Gymnastics often transferred many of those coaches to other locations.

Steven Penny Jr., who was president/CEO of USA Gymnastics from 2005 to 2017, is portrayed in “Athlete A” as the king of the Nassar cover-ups. The documentary includes some brief commentary about him, including people who say that Penny abused his power and that his marketing background caused him to give more priority to image and sponsorship deals for USA Gymnastics instead of the safety and well-being of the athletes.

Berta says, “They [USA Gymnastics] were so busy trying to sell that brand that they didn’t have time for these girls.” The documentary also includes archival news footage of Penny’s pathetic appearance in a 2018 U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing, when he invoked the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in his refusal to answer any questions.

Gina Nichols and John Nichols, the parents of Maggie Nichols, say in “Athlete A” interviews that they had trusted Penny when he told them that USA Gymnastics would be handling Maggie’s sexual-abuse complaints against Nassar. The Nicholas parents say that when Sarah Jantzi, Maggie’s coach at the time, first reported the abuse to USA Gymnastics in 2015, the company ordered the Nichols parents and Jantzi not to go to the police and were told that the matter was going to be handled internally by USA Gymnastics.

A human-resources consultant hired by USA Gymnastics interviewed Maggie, but when her parents followed up to find out the status of the investigation, they were stonewalled by USA Gymnastics and told that they couldn’t reveal any details because it was an ongoing investigation. Meanwhile, Nassar continued to be a USA Gymnastics doctor, and several gymnasts later testified that he abused them before, during and after the 2016 Olympics.

Maggie Nichols eventually went public in 2018 about how Nassar abused her. But her experience is strikingly similar to others who survived his abuse. (Nassar is believed to have sexually abused at least 500 female patients.) All of his survivors, and even people who weren’t abused by Nassar, say that he easily fooled people into thinking he was the “nice guy” in a sea of gymnastic coaches and officials who were tough and openly abusive to athletes.

If people are wondering why all these parents of underage kids didn’t take it upon themselves go to the police after finding out about the abuse, it’s explained in “Athlete A” (and other documentaries/news reports about the Nassar scandal) that USA Gymnastics had the power to decide who would be selected to go to the Olympics. These parents naïvely trusted that USA Gymnastics would do the right thing in handling the abuse complaints, but there was also fear of upsetting Penny and other people at the top who could make or break their daughters’ Olympic dreams.

Gina Nichols and John Nichols believe that Maggie was blackballed from being on the Olympic team because she was a “whistleblower.” Maggie was a bronze medalist at the 2014 USA Gymnastics National Championships and a silver medalist at the 2015 USA Gymnastics National Championships. She was considered a top contender to be chosen for the USA Gymnastics women’s team for the 2016 Olympics.

Despite a having a knee injury at the 2016 Olympic tryouts, Maggie performed well, but didn’t make the Olympic team, while some Nationals team alternates were chosen instead. Gina Nichols and John Nichols say in the documentary that they saw signs that USA Gymnastics had blackballed them because the organization treated them differently after Maggie’s abuse was reported to USA Gymnastics, but the complaint against Nassar hadn’t been made public yet.

After the abuse was reported, Gina Nichols and John Nichols say that at the 2016 Olympic tryouts, they didn’t have reserved seats and there weren’t TV cameras following them, as there normally would have been for all the other USA Gymnastics televised events where star gymnast Maggie previously participated. The Nichols parents don’t come right out and accuse anyone specific for causing this blatant snubbing, but it’s obvious that they believe several people’s claims that Penny demanded it. The good news is that Maggie went on to achieve gymnastic championships in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, while she was a student at the University of Oklahoma.

“Athlete A” includes archival video footage of Denhollander being interviewed in 2016 by the Indianapolis Star when she came forward to expose Nassar, 16 years after he abused her. She says at one point: “I wish I had dealt with it 16 years ago. I don’t think I could’ve dealt with it, but I can now.”

The documentary also shows the toll that this abuse took on the survivors, many of whom were ridiculed and not believed when they first came forward. Denhollander, who looks painfully thin in her 2016 interview with the Indianapolis Star, says that she had trouble eating because of all the stress. Dantzscher, who was on the USA Olympics team in 2000, says that gymnastics was her “first love,” but she tearfully admits that it took her years to be proud to be an Olympian because Nassar abused her at the Olympics and she associated the Olympics with the shame of the abuse.

“Athlete A” also delves into the history of women’s gymnastics to explain how it went from being a sport that had mostly regular-sized adult women prior to the 1960s but it eventually changed into a sport dominated by underage girls, and a height of 5’4″ was considered “tall” for female gymnasts. This “little girl” aesthetic for female gymnasts coincided with the rise of Romanian gymnastic coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi, a husband-and-wife duo whose Karolyi Ranch training facility in Texas was where Nassar committed a lot of his sexual abuse.

Beginning with Russian gold-medalist gymnast Olga Korbut at the 1972 Olympics and especially with Romanian gold-medalist gymnast Nadia Comăneci at the 1976 Olympics, the trend moved in the direction of underage, very petite girls being pushed to compete in gymnastics at the Olympics. Comăneci was only 14 when she became a gold medalist at the 1976 Olympics. Her victory made her coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi highly in demand to train female gymnasts.

In 1981, the Károlyis defected to the United States with their choreographer Geza Poszar, who is interviewed in “Athlete A.” The Károlyis also went on to coach Olympic gold-medalists gymnasts Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug. “Athlete A” spends a little too much time going off-topic by rehashing the Olympic victories of Comăneci, Retton and Strug. These gymnasts had nothing to do with Nassar.

Poszar says that the Károlyis’ method of working with gymnasts was “total control over the girls.” He says that Károlyis (and coaches just like them) often abuse the gymnasts verbally, emotionally and physically. It was common for the gymnasts to be slapped and be told that they were fat animals, says Poszar. That type of abuse was “acceptable” in his native Romania, he says, and it apparently was acceptable in the United States too.

Károlyi Ranch, a training facility near Hunstville, Texas, closed in 2018. The Károlyis are no longer USA Gymnastics coaches (Béla retired in 1997, while Márta retired in 2016), and they have both been sued for being part of the Nassar cover-up. “Athlete A” includes a clip from a videotaped deposition of Márta Károlyi admitting that she knew about complaints of Nassar’s abuse that was happening at the ranch.

People familiar with Károlyi Ranch describe it as an oppressive, isolated compound where parents weren’t allowed to visit, gymnasts were forbidden to call people outside the ranch (where cell-phone reception was difficult anyway), and people were punished for reporting abuse. The Károlyis, just like everyone else accused of covering up for Nassar, are not interviewed in “Athlete A.”

Giving her perspective on coaching techniques is former U.S. Nationals Team gymnast is Jennifer Sey, author of the 2008 memoir “Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams.” Sey, who competed as a gymnast in the 1970s and 1980s, says that coaching methods for female gymnasts haven’t changed much over the years: “You could be as cruel as you needed to be to get what you needed out of your athletes.”

Sey adds, “The line between tough coaching and abuse gets blurred.” She and other people in the documentary (including Dantzscher) mention something that’s commonly known in the gymnastics world: Gymnasts are often forced to compete with serious injuries, including fractured or broken bones. As an example, “Athlete A” shows Strug’s 1996 Olympic victory, which happened despite her severely injuring her ankle during the last stretch of the Olympic match.

Tracee Talavera, who was on the USA Women’s Gymnastics team at the 1984 Olympics, says she remembers how the Olympic gymnasts from Eastern Europe always looked scared and they never looked happy. Mike Jacki, who was president of USA Gymnastics from 1983 to 1994, adds his perspective, by saying that the popularity of Mary Lou Retton and more American female gymnasts starting to win at the Olympics, was the start of USA Gymnastics becoming a bigger business.

“Athlete A” clearly discusses Olympic gymnasts from the 1970s and 1980s, as a way to put into context the culture of abuse that enabled Nassar. But this detour into the history of female gymnastics ultimately takes up too much time in the documentary, which should have kept its focus on the Nassar cases.

And for a documentary about the investigation of a sexual abuser who had hundreds of victims, “Athlete A” has a surprising scarcity of interviews from people in the fields of law and law enforcement. Only one personal attorney is interviewed: John Manly, who is Dantzcher’s lawyer. From law enforcement, Michigan State University Police detective lieutenant Andrea Munford and Michigan state assistant attorney Angela Povilaitis are interviewed, and they describe their involvements in the Nassar case. (Again, nothing new is revealed here.)

“Athlete A” also includes the expected news archival footage of the survivor impact statements that were read during Nassar’s 2018 sentencing hearings, after he pleaded guilty to numerous charges. Denhollander and Dantzscher were among the survivors who read their statements while a shamed Nassar sat in the courtroom. Maggie Nichols did not attend these hearings, but her mother Gina read Maggie’s statement in court. “Athlete A” does not have interviews with Nassar’s most famous survivors, including Olympic gold-medalists Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and McKayla Maroney.

Former USA Gymnastics president/CEO Penny was arrested in 2018 on charges of  evidence tampering. His criminal case is pending, as of this writing. Video footage of his arrest is included in “Athlete A.”

But in an apparent myopic zeal to make Penny look like the top evil overlord of covering up for Nassar, “Athlete A” oversimplifies and overlooks the fact that a cover-up of this magnitude and length wasn’t just orchestrated by mainly one person. “Athlete A” fails to mention two of the toxic enablers who were given some scrutiny in “At the Heart of Gold”: John Geddert (former USA Gymnastics coach) and Kathie Klages (former Michigan State University gymnastics coach). Geddert is under criminal investigation, as of this writing.* In February 2020, Klages was convicted of two counts (one felony and one misdemeanor) of lying to police.

There have been other people who’ve been accused of actively covering up for Nassar’s crimes, including former Michigan State University president Lou Anna Simon, who resigned in 2018. In 2019, Simon was charged with lying to the police, but in May 2020, those charges were dismissed. In 2018, Scott Blackmun resigned as CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee. That same year, Alan Ashley was fired as U.S. Olympic Committee chief of sport performance over his involvement in the Nassar scandal. Simon, Blackmun and Ashley are not mentioned in “Athlete A” or in “At the Heart of Gold.”

“Athlete A'” does mention Rhonda Faehn, who was a USA Gymnastics vice president at the time that Maggie Nichols filed her complaint against Nassar, but Faehn did not go to police with the complaint. In yet another example of omitting information, “Athlete A” never mentions what happened to Faehn: She testified against Nassar in 2018 in grand-jury proceedings, then she was hired by the University of Michigan in 2019 (and then fired after one day, due to public backlash), and later that year, Faehn was given a temporary job as an international team coach at Waverley Gymnastics Centre in Australia.

“Athlete A” certainly has good intentions to put the spotlight on the serious issue of abuse, as it pertains to American female gymnasts. However, the documentary ultimately just recycles information that other people already reported. The documentary’s interviews are compelling, but the filmmakers’ lack of original investigative reporting and omission of crucial details are ultimately a letdown for this important subject matter.

Netflix premiere “Athlete A” on May 24, 2020.

*UPDATE: John Geddert committed suicide on February 25, 2021, the same day that he was indicted on 24 counts of abuse-related crimes, including human trafficking and sexual assault.