You've probably never heard of Chillicothe, Ohio, the small suburban town that is the focus of Academy Award-nominated documentarian Joe Berlinger's latest project, Gone: The Forgotten Women of Ohio, but after feasting on this harrowing series via Spike TV, its name will be cemented in your mind.
The eight-part docuseries illuminates the disappearance of six Chillicothe women who vanished over a 16-month period, and aims to uncover truths that the victims' families believe to have been brushed under the carpet by law enforcement. While four bodies have been found, two are still missing and the investigation is still open. There is no one suspect; there is no finite trial.
As the series weaves through conversations with the family, friends, potential suspects, law enforcers, social commentators and the like, viewers are gifted insight into a case stamped with question marks. It doesn't take long before, as an audience, you discover that these women all knew each other; that they were all enveloped in the opiate epidemic currently ravaging small, poor towns throughout the country; that they resorted to prostitution to feed the habit; and that the show's title relates not only to the aforementioned six, but to all the women who've tread the savage path of addiction and had their plight ignored.
Movie Pilot recently sat down with Gone's director, Joe Berlinger — the acclaimed talent behind Oscar-nominated #documentary series Paradise Lost — to discuss the most powerful moments from the show, and discover the logistics of investigating cases of multiple (potential) homicides in parallel with the police.
Movie Pilot: When reporting on an open case of multiple homicides, was it hard to remain unbiased?
Joe Berlinger: "Our main objective was to find the truth: If you try to inject your own opinion you might miss the story, so you have to be very open to how it unfolds. Initially, what brought us to Chillicothe, Ohio was a serial killer investigation, yet in the end we discovered something totally different.
"What appealed to me was that these families believed they were being ignored by the police, and that nobody cared about the plight of their daughters because they were living risky lifestyles — they were taking drugs and in turn resorting to prostitution. They felt that the police were writing these girls off, and not giving them answers. That's what people wanted from us and from the situation; to unearth answers no matter what."
MP: Were you able to work closely with the police handling the cases, or did you carry out most of the detective work yourself?
JB: "[The police] weren't thrilled that there were filmmakers in town doing their own investigations. We had cooperation initially, but that diminished as our interest started to diverge. On face value, even if there were no suspicions of police mishandling the case, this was still an open investigation and they had to do their thing. It was a delicate dance of building a rapport, while simultaneously not being afraid to unearth potential misconduct. We worked with the understanding that if we came across evidence — which happens — that we are not law enforcement. We had a moral obligation to share information with the police, so we had to have a open and positive relationship — but at times it became very tense.
MP: For you personally, what was the most disturbing discovery?
JB: "We started off thinking that there was a literal serial killer, but over time we came to the conclusion that a lot of the death and destruction ravaging this small town is the abuse of heroin. It was disturbing to realize how damaging the opiate epidemic has become, and not just in this town — it affects many across America. We discovered a criminality that goes beyond abuse.
"These young women were all leading normal lives but then got hooked on prescription medication; then those meds get taken a way, and black tar heroin comes flooding in. The women became hooked, and to serve that addiction they resorted to prostitution. That was the most distressing thing: To see how normal young women fall into this horrible pattern that exposed them to the dangers they encountered."
MP: Do you think this drug epidemic is being swept under the carpet, too?
JB: "I think people are starting to realize what a horrible epidemic we are going through, but still not nobody is doing anything about it. We're going through a major crisis largely fueled by the overprescription of painkillers. In the old days, you were just given Tylenol, now it's opiate-based painkillers and bam: addiction created. There's a linkage now between drug traffickers and human traffickers, and that's a large hint to some of the stuff we uncover in Gone.
MP: What are the logistics of tackling an open case — i.e. with out a conventional beginning, middle, end structure — on TV in terms of time frame?
JB: "This was very challenging. I've covered a lot of crime in the past. Usually there is one aspect of the storytelling that is defined and gives you a schedule to work around. With Paradise Lost, for example, even though our investigation discovered the kids' innocence, there was still a murder trial that gave the show a beginning, middle and end. Before that I documented the trail of Whitey Bulger; while delving into his legacy of crime, his multi-decade realm in South Boston, I had the trail to pin the story to.
"Here we had no trial and no suspect; just a murder victim and an open ended investigation. It was extremely difficult. Luckily, I believe our investigation uncovered a lot during the production schedule; the body count increased while we were making the series. But yes, not having a definitive time-marker to peg the series to is quite the challenge."
MP: Were there any moments when you feared for your own personal safety and the safety of those you interviewed?
JB: "Yes, at times my crew and I were a little concerned for our own safety, mostly because we were sticking our cameras in a situation that involved drug trafficking, human trafficking, and possible police corruption. I definitely felt we were exposing ourselves to some risk. We also were very concerned about the welfare of those participating and appearing on the show, so our producers would take great pains in letting people know what the risks are so they could make an intelligent decision."
New episodes of Gone: The Forgotten Women of Ohio premiere on Saturdays at 9/8c on Spike.
Watched the series? Anything to add? Sound off in the comments!