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10 Disturbing True Crime Documentaries You Can Only Watch Once
Over the past few years, true crime has hit its peak with more people than ever before streaming documentaries all about serial killers, murders, and unsolved mysteries. Long gone are those late nights where you would have to stay up till 1 am to watch anything about the morbid and the macabre. Now, it’s completely normal to stream documentaries about death and misery whilst sipping your morning cup of coffee.
Yet, these following true crime documentaries all went far beyond what was considered casual true crime viewing. They managed to disturb audiences so greatly; that it was near impossible to stream them more than once. Watch at your own peril.
(SPOILER WARNING: Many Major Plot Details Ahead)
10 The Keepers (2017)
‘The Keepers’ is a dark, disturbing investigation into the unsolved murder of a nun named Sister Catherine Cesnik. Netflix launched its marketing campaign for this seven-part documentary series as if ‘The Keepers’ was your typical true crime murder mystery – but all was not as it seemed. In 1969, 26-year-old Cesnik was teaching at Baltimore’s all-girls Archbishop Keough High School when she went missing. Her bludgeoned body was found a few months later at a garbage dump close to her apartment.
What unravels is a story of murder, molestation, clergy abuse, and probable cover-ups. This deeply disturbing series sent viewers hurtling down a rabbit hole that left many nauseated long after the credits finished rolling.
Former students at the school narrate the story as they detail horrifying acts of sexual abuse suffered at the hands of the school priest who was eventually found guilty of these crimes. Vice magazine reported, “It’s harrowing and upsetting, and it will haunt you for a long time, which is part of what it makes it necessary viewing.”
9 Goodnight, Sugar Babe: The Killing of Vera Jo Reigle (2013)
‘Goodnight, Sugar Babe: The Killing of Vera Jo Reigle’ details the tragic life of 24-year-old Vero Jo Reigle who had the mental capacity of an 8-year-old.
Vera Jo, unfortunately, met Cheri Brooks, a domineering mother of nine children, who convinced her to fall pregnant with one of her sons. After Vera Jo had the baby, she lived with the Brooks family as their personal slave and Cheri cashed in the vulnerable new mother’s disability checks.
In 2011, Vera Jo was found brutally mutilated and covered in stab wounds in Findlay, Ohio. Daniel Bixler, a cousin of the Brooks family, and his teenage girlfriend Nicole Peters were charged with the murder although they claimed they were under the influence of the “others”, meaning the Brooks family.
Viewers were enraged at Cheri’s quite blatant psychopathy as she manipulates and commands those around her. One of Cheri’s sons even compares his mother to Charles Manson. From start to finish, this documentary is truly heart-breaking and one you can only watch once.
8 Abducted In Plain Sight (2017)
‘Abducted In Plain Sight’ is well-known as one of the most frustrating and strangest true crime documentaries of all time. In the small town of Pocatello, Idaho, the Broberg family meets the Berchtold family when they move into the neighborhood. Then in 1974, Broberg’s teenage daughter, Jan, is kidnapped by the superficially charming patriarch of the Berchtold family… twice.
This 90-minute documentary packs in so many twisted themes including child molestation, kidnapping, grooming, Stockholm syndrome, and the culture of silencing sexual abuse victims. After Netflix aired the documentary, the internet went wild with memes and Reddit threads trying to make sense of these crazy events.
The case of the Broberg family is so frustrating that filmmaker Skye Borgman even had to pause the entire filming project for six weeks. Borgman told Vanity Fair, “It is incredibly challenging to understand why and how these people went through this, but that’s part of the story.” Adding, “There were times when the family was just so frustrating to me.”
7 There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane (2011)
In 2009, eight people were killed when 36-year-old Diane Schuler was driving her minivan in the wrong direction on the Taconic State Parkway before colliding head-on with an SUV. The victims were Schuler and her daughter; Schuler’s three young nieces; and also, the three adults in the SUV.
‘There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane’ details all of the events in the lead-up to the accident. It is suggested through toxicology reports that Schuler was under the influence of alcohol (more than twice the legal limit) and marijuana when she got behind the wheel. A vodka bottle was also found in the minivan after the crash.
Still, Schuler’s family refuses to accept this explanation as they believe Diane never used drugs or alcohol and that other possible medical complications were the real cause for her erratic driving.
Lead investigator Tom Ruskin told CNN, “I’ve never seen a case like this. No one has seen this woman drunk and we have interviewed over 50 people—relatives, friends, colleagues and former employees from her company.” There are many disturbing questions left unanswered once you’ve finished watching.
6 Time: The Kalief Browder Story (2017)
16-year-old Kalief Browder was on his way home from a party when NYPD officers suspected him of stealing someone’s backpack. Browder was interrogated then imprisoned without trial, between 2010 and 2013 at Rikers Island. He spent 1,000 days behind bars, 800 of those days were in solitary confinement, before the charges were dropped.
In 2015, Browder was restarting his life at Bronx Community College whilst suffering from depression. He said, “I’m mentally scarred right now. That’s how I feel. (There) are certain things that changed about me and they might not change back.” He took his own life at the age of 22-years-old.
The six-part documentary is produced by music mogul Jay-Z and ‘Orange Is the New Black’ actor Nick Sandow. Jay-Z said, “(Browder’s) death is here to teach us to save a generation of kids. It’s hard to watch, but important to see.” Since the release of the documentary, then-President Barack Obama eliminated solitary confinement for minors.
5 Cropsey (2009)
Imagine if an urban legend you believed in childhood actually turned out to be true? This is the exact reality for ‘Cropsey’ directors Josh Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio who grew up on Staten Island. There was an urban legend that an escaped mental patient was on the run from the hospital; it turns out that a former janitor at the local high school named Andre Rand had actually escaped from Willowbrook Mental Institution. Rand kidnapped and killed five young children in the area.
Throughout the documentary, both directors launch into an investigation and connect the ‘Cropsey’ urban legend with Andre Rand’s sinister crimes.
Talking about his investigation, Zeman said, “The police didn’t have (our) opportunity. They were busy looking for the children, they were focusing on the people of interest, but being able to interview neighbors, friends, people that even knew the children, the families, and so forth, we were able to put together an entire history of what had transpired and I think, for us too, it was clear that Cropsey and that urban legend was very connected to Andre Rand specifically because we had laid it out and it was clear.”
This documentary is more like a horror film but the events are disturbingly real.
4 Don’t F**k with Cats (2019)
‘Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting An Internet Killer’ is a three-part docuseries that shook the internet. This is the twisted true story of Luka Magnotta who uploaded videos of himself torturing and killing felines to the internet. Then sleuths John Green and Deanna Thompson worked together to help track Magnotta down and put an end to his sickening crimes.
In 2012, Magnotta murdered student Jun Lin in Montreal, Canada, before he fled the country. He posted a video of Lin’s killing and dismemberment online and he also cannibalized her remains. Magnotta was arrested in Berlin after visiting an internet cafe to check how famous he had become and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Thompson revealed that hunting down the cat killer was an emotionally difficult job as Magnotta would communicate with her online in a twisted game of cat and mouse. Thompson revealed, “(Magnotta sent) me a Nietzsche quote that really rattled me and was very prolific. The quote was, ‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.’ Meaning that, ‘Hey, be careful that you don’t get so involved that you become me.’”
3 Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
Filmmaker Anthony Jarecki initially set out to make a documentary about popular New York City entertainer David Friedman titled ‘Just A Clown’. However, instead of the fun, behind-the-scenes showbiz film that he had in mind, Jarecki captured a more sinister and disturbing story. He uncovered both Friedman’s brother, Jesse, and Jesse’s father, Arnold, had pleaded guilty to child sexual abuse.
In 1987, police intercepted a package containing child pornography addressed to Arnold Friedman who was working as a teacher. Following a search warrant, they found further disturbing material and began questioning Arnold’s young students. Next came a mass panic amongst parents and immense press coverage of the family. Using home video footage of the Friedman family from the days leading up to the trial, Jarecki explores the conflicting stories of the accused and survivors.
The low-budget documentary was a hit worldwide grossing more than $3 million at the box office and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature.
2 The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez (2020)
Few documentaries are as heart-breaking, horrifying, and disturbing as ‘Trials of Gabriel Fernandez’. Filmmaker Brian Knappenberger began documenting the trial of Pearl Fernandez, and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirrem in 2018. They both stood accused of neglecting, abusing, and torturing Fernandez’s eight-year-old son, Gabriel. Eventually, the abuse ended in the murder of the young boy after he suffered a fatal beating. They were both convicted of first-degree murder with special circumstances of torture.
Many people took to the internet to share their horror and frustration with the child protection services. Neither of the convicted contributed to the six-part documentary and many viewers were left with unanswered questions. How could this have happened to Gabriel? Why didn’t social services step in? Why did everyone look away when Gabriel needed to be saved? Knappenberger explained, “Nobody listened to Gabriel when he was alive. A lot of people failed him, and there’s a lot of reasons that this happened. But when you get to the end, it’s about: how do you want to treat kids?”
Since the death of Gabriel, the social services department in California has hired more than 3,000 new workers who are now trained workers on how to interview children that are suffering abuse and detect physical injuries.
1 Dear Zachary (2008)
In 2001, 28-year-old Dr. Andrew Bagby’s body was found in a park in Pennsylvania. Later, it was discovered he was shot and killed by his ex-girlfriend; who then fled to Canada, where she was able to walk free on bail. Then she revealed she was also pregnant with Bagby’s son. His enraged parents campaigned to gain custody of their grandson and finally convict their son’s killer.
Bagby’s best friend Kurt Kuenne set out to make this heart-breaking film that pairs home movies and interviews with relatives. Kuenne said of his motives, “(When) his ex-girlfriend was charged with the murder, she fled to Canada, then revealed she was pregnant with Andrew’s son, whom she named Zachary – I realized that my movie had a greater import than just being a memory album for those who knew him; it would likely be the only way that little Zachary could one day see and get to know his father.”
This is a real tear-jerker of a documentary and a disturbing look at failures within the justice system.