Spoilers ahead. It all starts with a photograph. A seemingly normal family photograph of a little blonde girl sat on her father’s knee, his arms draped around his daughter. Both stare off to the side, but the expression of the girl is particularly haunting: vacant and filled with sadness. It is this photograph, and the elusive identity of both people in it that is the basis for Netflix’s latest true crime documentary Girl In The Picture, directed by Skye Borgman, the filmmaker behind Abducted In Plain Sight. What ensues is a truly disturbing and tragic decades-spanning story of kidnapping, murder and sexual abuse – all orchestrated by one man. But arguably, the saddest part of it all is the woman – in the photograph – who suffered unspeakable horrors throughout the entirety of her life, and the many others that will never be brought to justice.
The photo was sent to investigative journalist and author Matt Birkbeck back in 2002, flagged as material of interest by a friend who came across it on Doe Network, a missing persons website. It detailed the stomach-churning information that the little girl in question had been kidnapped, raised as the man’s daughter, then married as his wife, bore a child, and then was killed. Birkbeck began delving into the case, meeting with FBI Special Agent Joe Fitzpatrick who had worked on the case for years before retiring. It led to the case reopening, spawning a saga committed to discovering the truth, and later the publishing of his bestselling book: A Beautiful Child.
Over a decade before, in Oklahoma City back in 1990, a group of men had alerted an ambulance when they discovered a woman on the side of a road in critical condition – seemingly a victim of a hit-and-run. It transpired that the woman was 20-year-old Tonya Hughes, a stripper working in Tulsa. Her husband Clarence Hughes, was described by her friends as “a weird guy”, refusing visitors to her hospital room. Nurses were convinced that her injuries were more conducive with being beaten severely, rather than a car accident. Soon after, she mysteriously passed away and friends set about alerting Tonya’s family, finally tracking down who they believed to be Tonya’s mother. But Tonya’s mother disputed this, saying that her daughter Tonya Hughes had died 20 years ago when she was only a toddler. So then who was the woman really, and why was she using a dead woman’s name?
Another flashback takes us back even further to the mid-1980s in Georgia, where friends speak lovingly of Sharon Marshall – a friendly, beautiful and intelligent teenager who had received a full scholarship to Georgia Tech college to become an aerospace engineer. She was a promising young woman and those who knew her spoke glowingly of her, but noted that her father – Warren Marshall – was an odd man, unusually strict and she feared him. He was a sociopath and predator – her own stepfather that had abducted her when she was just five years old, later abusing her. Before she could leave for college, Sharon became pregnant, which is when her and her father upped and left. By the time they moved to Oklahoma, they had shed their identities – Sharon’s name was now Tonya, Warren had changed his name to Clarence – they had married, and had a son named Michael. After years of subjecting her to sexual abuse, he eventually sexually exploited her, forcing her work in strip clubs in Las Vegas and offer sex acts as a way to earn money for him.
The documentary attempts very diligently to manoeuvre through the entanglement of deceit of Franklin Floyd/Warren Marshall/Clarence Hughes or whichever of the five aliases he was using throughout the decades of pain inflicted on Tonya/Sharon. Through intimidation, manipulation and likely trauma bonding, she accepted her life, and never found a way to escape in the years leading up to her death. As Matt Birkbeck and the investigators in charge of Sharon’s case detail the years of abuse, it’s hard to not feel a great deal of sadness at the tragic events she endured.
“I don’t know anyone who had as miserable a life as she had, for as long as she had it,” says FBI agent Joe Fitzpatrick at one point of the documentary. “I hurt a lot for her... the goodness, how people talked about her, her accomplishments – it was just this beautiful young woman who was trapped in evil.”
Where the documentary falters at times, is this repetition of her “beauty”. Even Birkbeck’s book is named tellingly A Beautiful Child, emblazoned with a glossy haired image of Sharon, with the book’s description reading: “popular blonde-haired Sharon Marshall… was the ultimate girl next door, sweet, generous, and well-adjusted.” It feels problematic that Sharon is almost painted as a perfect victim, as if her hair colour and innocence should incite all the more outrage and anger. This repeated focus on her “blonde and beautiful” appearance diminishes the fact that no one – regardless of what they look like – deserved the atrocities that Sharon endured.
Ultimately, there’s no denying that justice was served due to the tenacity of the involved law enforcement and investigative journalist Matt Birkbeck, but as the documentary's credits roll you can’t help wonder if it raises questions of which victims it believes is deserving of our indignation. Towards the end, a disproportionate amount of blame also seems directed at Sharon’s birth mother – that she allowed her daughter to slip through the cracks of the system and eventually end up in the hands of a man so deplorable (despite the fact we hear she was suffering from PTSD and was also threatened at knife point). It is clear this anger should instead be directed at the monstrous amount of violence and suffering that was dealt by the hands of a man.