It has been a while since I’ve watched a true crime documentary where somehow the story kept getting worse, and worse, and still, somehow worse. But such was the case with Netflix’s recently released documentary, Girl in the Picture.
The documentary follows the story of Tonya Hughes, a stripper in Oklahoma City who was found dead near the highway from an ostensible hit-and-run at the age of 20. Weird aside, but the introduction to the documentary is that two men were driving along in their truck at night, noticed “debris” along the side of the road, decided to investigate, and then came upon Tonya’s body. I wonder what the “debris” was that made them curious enough to stop? We’ve all been driving and seen “debris” along the road, and as litter-conscious as we may be, that doesn’t typically implore us to stop.
As the documentary unravels, we learn:
- Tonya was married to a much older man named Clarence Hughes. Fellow strippers reported regularly seeing bruises on Tonya’s body, and thought Clarence was abusing her.
- Tonya had a son named Michael, who I think would have been about two-years-old at the time of her death.
- Turned out, Clarence Hughes is actually Franklin Delano Floyd, a longtime criminal with a sordid past of abducting and raping a four-year-old, and he skipped out on probation 17 years prior in Georgia. So, he had been on the run ever since (although “being on the run” implies that the authorities were actively searching for him, which I don’t believe was the case).
- Because of Franklin’s past, Michael was sent to foster care.
- A paternity test revealed that Michael wasn’t even his son.
- Even so, Franklin went to the elementary school where Michael was at and by putting the principal at gunpoint and kidnapping him as well, was able to kidnap Michael.
- One of the biggest shockers … Franklin wasn’t Tonya’s husband; he was her dad, and used marriage as a way to continue to evade the law.
- Her “dad” was making her strip, and even attempted to prostitute her at those strip clubs.
- After Franklin was arrested for the Michael kidnapping sometime in 1994 (and where he laughably had the narcissism and hubris to defend himself in court), they connected him to the killing of Cheryl Ann Comesso in 1989, a friend of Tonya’s, who also stripped. Worth pointing out, just like with Tonya, Cheryl’s body was left on the side of the highway. Also worth pointing out, Franklin claimed to Tonya that her mother was killed in a hit-and-run near a bridge, the same way she would later die (again, ostensibly).
- Franklin was then found guilty in Cheryl’s murder and was sentenced to death.
- When Tonya’s friends attempted to contact her parents for a proper burial, they learned she isn’t actually Tonya, hence the name of the documentary, which leads to …
- … the revelation that Franklin wasn’t actually Tonya’s father (the timeline didn’t match up since he was in prison when she would have been born), and instead, had kidnapped a young girl sometime between 1973 and 1975, and was calling her Sharon Marshall. But for all intents and purposes, it is worth pointing out, Sharon thought of him as her dad and called him daddy. The same daddy who sexually abused her regularly, and then later forced her to strip. So, it’s still incestuous in that sense, and abhorrent.
- We learned that Tonya/Sharon had a daughter, who was able to learn about the fate of her mother due to an author’s book on the subject. Tonya/Sharon likely even had a third kid dropped somewhere else in the foster care system.
- Through death row interviews the FBI conducted with Franklin, we learned that Tonya/Sharon is actually Suzanne Marie Sevakis, and …
- … get this, her parents are still alive! And interviewed for the documentary, astoundingly. What is bittersweet here is it’s like, hey, we finally uncovered what happened to your daughter, but, she’s dead.
- Floyd had married the biological mother under an alias, and then kidnapped Suzanne once the mother was sent to jail. Her real father was in Vietnam for much of Suzanne’s life, and when he got back, the mother had gone off with Floyd, and then when she was in jail, the authorities gave him the option as an unemployed 23-year-old living with his parents to take Suzanne (and two other kids the mother had) or they all would go into adoption. He obviously chose the latter.
- Franklin also confessed to shooting Michael in the back of the head twice “to get it over with quickly” and burying his body somewhere on the interstate in Oklahoma. The FBI was unable to recover the body.
If you’re wondering, as I was, if Franklin was put to death yet, he has not. He is still alive and is 79-years-old:
As far as I can tell, he doesn’t have a “death date” (helluva phrase) set.
Two outstanding questions remain, one that seems obvious and one not so much. First, did Franklin kill Tonya/Sharon/Suzanne? I think the answer seems obvious enough, but it was never fully confirmed at least. As the doctor interviewed in the documentary pointed out, her injuries didn’t seem consistent with being hit by a vehicle. She was in “good condition” for someone supposedly hit by a vehicle.
Suzanne’s story is made all the more tragic by hearing from three of her high school classmates who doted upon her, and her 15-year-old babysitter. Particularly harrowing was one of the classmates talked about spending the night with Suzanne, and Franklin raping Suzanne with the classmate right next to them. But anyhow, the classmates recounted how Suzanne actually received a scholarship to go to Georgia Tech with plans to earn a degree in aerospace engineering. That reflects what everyone kept saying about Suzanne: she was a smart kid.
Which brings us to the second question. The reason Suzanne didn’t end up going to Georgia Tech is because she got pregnant and moved to Arizona to have the baby. Paternity tests showed that Franklin wasn’t the father, right? I had assumed he was, but if he wasn’t the father, then who is Michael’s father? Did someone at one of the strip clubs get her pregnant? Did some other sort of prostitution situation Franklin coerced Suzanne into result in a pregnancy?
Thanks to an intrepid, persistent FBI agent — I give the police a lot of deserved crap, especially in true crime situations, but the police, especially the FBI agent on the case, did a truly commendable job, particularly with how invested they stayed in the outcome of the case all these years later — and an author who interviewed Franklin on death row, along with Suzanne’s daughter, they gave her a proper headstone with her name (she was previously buried simply under “Tonya”) in 2017, I believe. That is how long it took to rectify what had happened to her. So, there is at least some lovely closure to come out of this horror.
The other happiness of a kind is that Suzanne’s father seems interested in being a grandfather to the daughter. I felt terribly sad for him. The guy was messed up as a kid by Vietnam, comes back to his high school sweetheart leaving him, and he basically loses his daughter in the process (and then loses her again when she is kidnaped, and then again when it is learned she was dead). Meanwhile, a few people in the documentary throw the biological mother under the bus. She didn’t seem to be at the headstone unveiling, didn’t seem interested in Suzanne’s daughter, and was castigated for not doing more to get Suzanne back from Franklin. The mother explains some of the roadblocks she encountered at the time, which I think seemed fair! It was the 1970s and she was a woman. But to not seemingly care about the granddaughter is unfortunate for sure.
One of the most remarkable things about the documentary from a production standpoint is that the filmmakers were able to track virtually everyone pertinent to the case down to interview them. I mean, we’re talking about events that happened 30-some years ago, and we have not only high school classmates, a babysitter, the police and FBI, but Suzanne’s biological parents. I find that extraordinary. (But also interesting to have gotten the biological mother’s participation, but then the filmmakers throw her under the bus, even with the way they produced her introduction to the documentary.)
Suzanne grew up with a monster, and yet, against those odds, she not only made a clearly indelible impression on her high school friends, but was on her way to a career in aerospace engineering. As one of the strippers pointed out, if she could have just survived Franklin and gotten away from him, maybe she would have had a chance to bounce back, to be a survivor, and then importantly, be more than just a survivor.