Netflix’s ‘Girl in the Picture’ Is the Most Twisted True Crime Documentary of the Year
There is so much crazy and evil in the world that streaming platforms will never run out of material for true crime documentaries. Girl in the Picture (July 6) is the latest chapter in Netflix's never-ending investigation of all things depressing, shameful and baffling, telling a breathtaking saga of kidnapping, sexual abuse, murder and multiple identities that's chock-full of outrageous twists and turns. What it tells us about mankind's propensity for misery won't open anyone's eyes, but that doesn't take away from the fact that the details of its story often threaten to blow your mind and move you to tears.
Directed by Skye Borgman, whose recent Hulu documentary Dead Asleep told another murderous tale, Girl in the Picture begins in April 1990 with the discovery of the body of a blonde, 20-year-old woman on the side of an Oklahoma City street . The victim was Tonya Hughes, a Tulsa stripper who was married to a man named Clarence Hughes, with whom she had a 2-year-old son, Michael. Posthumous medical examinations revealed numerous bruises and injuries on Tonya that didn't quite square with the idea that she had died in a hit-and-run accident. Infinitely more puzzling, however, was that when Tonya's exotic dancer friends used the phone book to look up and call their relatives, they found out from a woman that Tonya was her daughter, but that she had died 20 years earlier - at most 18 months old.
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It was an amazing development, and her friend Karen Parsley - who she worked with at OKC adult entertainment club Passions - says it wasn't the only thing special about Tonya, who had loved her son but clearly lived under her thumb - wife Clarence, a "strange" and menacing older man who Karen suspected was responsible for the bruises on Tonya's body. After that tragedy, Michael's bizarre behavior forced the Department of Human Services to place him in the foster family of Merle and Ernest Bean, who loved the boy for the four years they had him in their home. Unfortunately, Clarence (whom Michael referred to as "that common man") retained visitation rights with his son, at least until DHS ordered a paternity test that confirmed Clarence had no biological connection to the boy.
The subsequent termination of Clarence's parental rights was the fuse that ignited the psycho's fire. On September 12, 1994, Clarence visited Michael's elementary school, took principal James Davis and Michael hostage at gunpoint, then tied the principal to a nearby tree and fled with the child. This caught the attention of the FBI, who sent Special Agent Joe Fitzpatrick to OKC to work the case, and his initial detective work led to another bombshell: in 1990, Clarence had attempted to collect Tonya's life insurance with a Social Security number associated with a person by the name of Franklin Delano Floyd. A look into Floyd's past revealed a stint in a transitional home in 1972 and before that, a 1962 kidnapping of a little girl and a 1963 bank robbery that landed him behind bars for nine years. He's also been on the run since 1973 after missing a court date for assaulting another woman.
It exposed Franklin as a sex offender and a con artist, and yet that's kind of just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Girl in the Picture. After recognizing Tonya's photo on TV, the murdered girl's high school friends from Forest Park, Georgia turned to Fitzpatrick to identify her as Sharon Marshall, a bright, feisty, beautiful, gifted college student who had a full trip to the Georgia Tech University to study got aerospace engineering. Worse, however, was what they had to say about Sharon's troubled personal life with her father, Warren, a creep who wouldn't have her on the phone and paid for risqué yearbook photos that rubbed her all the wrong way.
Most important of all, Sharon's classmates immediately recognized Clarence/Floyd - Sharon's husband at the time of her death - as her father, Warren.
Incest, rape and multiple children all become part of the back half of Girl in the Picture, which details his devil's villainy in great detail. When teenage Sharon became pregnant, she and Warren married and moved to Tampa, where Warren took his new wife to work at the Mons Venus strip club. There, friend Heather Lane recalls, Sharon asked for sex for money on her husband/father's orders. Their babysitter, Michelle Cupples, is open about the strangeness of this household, as well as the budding relationship between the two and dancer Cheryl Commesso, who has been promised a future as a Playboy model by Warren. In 1989, the couple fled Florida for Oklahoma City, although the reason for their sudden departure was not revealed until 1995, when a woman's body was found by police and through a fortuitous series of events was identified as Commesso.
There are additional explosive elements in Girl in the Picture, and director Borgman reveals them via a rewind-forward structure that ties everything together in a clear way. Their dramatic re-enactments are largely unnecessary and seem like superficial embellishments that merely confirm what their motifs convey. Better are the many first-person interviews she conducts with those involved in this nightmare, be it Fitzpatrick and the Beans or Sharon's friends and Choctaw Deputy Chief of Police Billy Carter. Her comment hammers at the shock, awe and horror that characterized this whole affair, and underscores the desire of so many for justice — not just for Floyd, who eventually ended up on death row for the Commesso killing, but for Michael as well (who was never found) and for Sharon, whose real name was derived thanks to the efforts of Fitzpatrick and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
In the end, there isn't much to learn from Girl in the Picture, other than that some people are vile sociopaths who do unspeakable things to satisfy their own insane urges, and that innocent people are often unable to escape the traps, where they are they find themselves. That might make it more of a disheartening reminder than a revelation, but it doesn't lessen its heartbreaking potency.
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