There’s 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 into all things depressing, shameful and baffling, recounting a jaw-dropping saga of kidnapping, sexual abuse, murder, and multiple identities that piles twist upon outrageous twist. What it tells us about mankind’s penchant for wretchedness won’t open anyone’s eyes, but that doesn’t change the fact that the particulars of its tale often threaten to blow one’s mind and bring one to tears.
Directed by Skye Borgman, whose recent Hulu documentary Dead Asleep detailed another out-there homicidal story, Girl in the Picture begins in April 1990 with the discovery with the body of a blond-haired, 20-year-old female on the side of an Oklahoma City road. The victim was Tonya Hughes, a Tulsa stripper who was married to a guy named Clarence Hughes with whom she had a 2-year-old son, Michael. Posthumous medical exams revealed numerous bruises and injuries to Tonya that didn’t totally align with the idea that she’d perished due to 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 her relatives, they were told by a woman that Tonya was her daughter, but that she’d died 20 years ago—at only 18 months old.
This was a stunning development, and her friend Karen Parsley—with whom she worked at OKC adult entertainment club Passions—relays that it wasn’t the only peculiar thing about Tonya, who’d loved her son but clearly lived under the thumb of her spouse Clarence, a “weird” and menacing older man whom Karen suspected was responsible for the bruises dotting Tonya’s body. In the aftermath of this tragedy, Michael’s bizarre behavior compelled the Department of Human Services to place him in the foster care of Merle and Ernest Bean, who loved the boy during the four years they had him in their home. Unfortunately, Clarence (whom Michael referred to as “that mean man”) maintained visitation rights with his son, at least until DHS ordered a paternity test that confirmed that Clarence shared no biological connection to the boy.
The ensuing termination of Clarence’s parental rights was the fuse that lit the psycho’s fire. On Sept. 12, 1994, Clarence visited Michael’s elementary school, took principal James Davis and Michael hostage at gunpoint, and then bound the principal to a nearby tree and absconded with the kid. This attracted the attention of the FBI, who sent special agent Joe Fitzpatrick to OKC to handle the case, and his initial sleuthing led to another bombshell: in 1990, Clarence had attempted to collect on Tonya’s life insurance policy with a Social Security number that belonged to a person with the name Franklin Delano Floyd. Looking into Floyd’s past unearthed a stint in a halfway house in 1972 and, before that, a 1962 abduction of a little girl and a 1963 bank robbery that had netted him nine years behind bars. Moreover, since 1973, he’d been on the run after skipping out on a court date about an attack on yet another woman.
Franklin was thus outed as a sexual predator con-man fugitive and yet somehow that’s 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, reached out to Fitzpatrick to identify her as Sharon Marshall, a smart, vivacious, beautiful, gifted student who got a full ride to Georgia Tech University to study aerospace engineering. Worse, though, was what they had to say about Sharon’s troubled home life with her dad Warren, a creep who didn’t want her on the phone and paid for risqué yearbook photos that rubbed them 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 wind up being a part of Girl in the Picture’s back half, which lays out its fiend’s villainy in comprehensive detail. When teenage Sharon became pregnant, she and Warren got hitched and moved down to Tampa, where Warren put his new wife to work at the Mons Venus strip club. There, as friend Heather Lane remembers, Sharon would solicit sex for money on the orders of her husband/father. Their babysitter Michelle Cupples speaks candidly about the strangeness of this household, as well as the budding relationship between the two and dancer Cheryl Commesso, who was promised a future as a Playboy model by Warren. By 1989, the couple was fleeing Florida for Oklahoma City, although the reason for their sudden departure wouldn’t become known until 1995, when a woman’s body was found by police and, through a fortuitous series of events, identified as Commesso.
There are additional explosive elements to Girl in the Picture, and director Borgman discloses them via a rewinding/fast-forwarding structure that ties everything together in lucid fashion. Her dramatic reenactments are largely unnecessary, coming across as perfunctory embellishments that merely corroborate what her subjects are imparting. 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 assistant police chief Billy Carter. Their commentary hammers home the shock, awe and horror that defined this entire affair, as well as underscores the desire by so many to see justice done—not only with regard to Floyd, who eventually landed on death row for the slaying of Commesso, but for Michael (who was never found) and for Sharon, whose real name was deduced thanks to the efforts of Fitzpatrick and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
In the end, there isn’t much to glean from Girl in the Picture other than that some people are abhorrent sociopaths who’ll do unspeakable things to satisfy their own demented urges, and that the innocent are frequently incapable of escaping the traps in which they find themselves. That may make it more of a disheartening reminder than a revelation, but it doesn’t diminish its gut-wrenching potency.