Stephen Pandos was a freshman in school when, in February 1987, his 15-year-old sister, Jennifer, went lacking from their household house in Williamsburg, Virginia.
The main points of her disappearance had been hazy. Stephen’s mom, Margie Pandos, claimed that she had grown involved one morning when she didn’t hear Jennifer having a shower and located her door locked. Probably she ran away. However on her mattress, Margie claimed to discover a unusual be aware messily scrawled in giant, block handwriting, during which an unknown third occasion claimed Jennifer was “having some issues and desires time away”. The be aware allegedly transcribed Jennifer’s needs: don’t name the police, don’t inform her associates, deposit cash in her checking account.
Margie and her husband, Ron, didn’t name the police for 3 days and informed Jennifer’s associates she was both sick or out of the home. By the point they contacted police, the case was near chilly. Jennifer by no means returned house, nor had been any arrests made in her disappearance.
For years, Stephen was at a loss over what occurred to the sister he barely knew – three and a half years aside, the 2 had been “simply naturally in several orbits”, he informed the Guardian. The opening minutes of Burden of Proof, a brand new HBO docuseries on Stephen’s quest for reality many years after his sister’s disappearance, supply contrasting variations of Jennifer, becoming for a teenage lady barely on the cusp of maturity. How folks remembered her – humorous, severe, lighthearted, troubled, open, shy – trusted who was telling the story. And as Burden of Proof examines in 4 hour-long episodes filmed over practically eight years, that story shapes which particulars get remembered, whose discrepancies are highlighted and which doubts pull weight.
The sequence begins from some extent of close to certainty, if not closure: by the point Stephen Pandos contacted director Cynthia Hill in 2015, he was satisfied his dad and mom had been chargeable for Jennifer’s disappearance. In keeping with his idea, backed by a file of proof if not any authorized motion, Ron Pandos, a Vietnam vet with a historical past of PTSD and home violence, unintentionally killed Jennifer throughout a battle, and Margie, below menace, both regarded the opposite manner or lined for him. Stephen suspected that his mom, in a haze of abuse and stress, composed the weird non-ransom be aware together with her non-dominant hand.
It was Stephen’s greatest try, because the sequence outlines and investigates over a number of episodes, to make sense of his dad and mom’ confounding habits. Why had Ron and Margie Pandos taken three days to contact authorities? Why, as one in every of Jennifer’s associates recollects, did they not appear distraught by her disappearance? Why did each fail polygraph checks when the case was reopened twenty years later? Why did it take years for Ron Pandos to even inform his prolonged household that Jennifer was lacking?
Estranged from his father, whom Stephen says was terrifying and bodily abusive throughout his youth, Stephen’s frustration principally trains on Margie, a disconcertingly passive determine. At one level, Margie produces for Hill the unique be aware from Jennifer’s bed room, which ought to’ve been filed with police proof. It took her two and a half years to inform police when she moved. Her explanations for why she went to work after discovering Jennifer lacking (“it was the place I used to be imagined to be”, based on the be aware) or contacted Ron, by then her ex-husband, as a substitute of responding to calls from police investigators within the mid-2000s (“I believed he was driving this bus”) show baffling deference to unreliable, murky authority.
A documentary, Stephen hoped, would “inform a narrative in regards to the nuances and problems of trauma” in addition to the home violence he suspected was on the root of Jennifer’s disappearance and his mom’s seeming reticence to debate particulars. He thought, on the time, that Margie had compartmentalized and “buried this someplace. And within the absence of context, it’s a tough factor to clarify. And it was about justice for my sister.”
Hill, in the meantime, was compelled by the lengthy shadow of doubt splintering via the Pandos household; as evidenced in a single scene within the first episode, even Margie’s sisters suspected she was concerned. “What does that do to you?” she questioned. “To suppose that your dad and mom are chargeable for probably the most horrific factor that’s ever occurred to you in your lifetime – what does that imply? And the place do you go from there?”
At first of filming round Stephen Pandos’s house in Charlotte, North Carolina, “it appeared prefer it was a foregone conclusion that his dad and mom had been accountable”, mentioned Hill. Although Ron and Margie Pandos adamantly denied any involvement, to police and on digital camera in Burden of Proof, each James Metropolis county police investigators and personal ones consulted by Pandos suspected they had been hiding one thing.
Burden of Proof, nevertheless, performs out not a lot an investigation of the Pandos’ potential guilt as a reckoning with the heaviest of allegations inside a household – Stephen and a few aunts and uncles on one aspect; on the opposite, Margie and Ron, who moved to Oklahoma and served jail time for firearm possession after a felony conviction. Margie remembers Jennifer fondly; all three profess a hope that she is going to return, that the reality can be revealed or justice delivered. Stephen interacts along with his dad and mom for authorized or investigative functions with chilly cordiality – they’re his household and in addition the folks he suspects took his sister away.
Over three years into filming (and about midway via the sequence), issues take an sudden, if extra conventionally true crime-y flip: police reopened the investigation and started pursuing leads apart from his dad and mom, specifically Jennifer’s on-again, off-again ex-boyfriend on the time. The ultimate two episodes seize Stephen, years into his conviction that his dad and mom had been chargeable for his sister’s demise, reeling from the painfully gradual trickle of reports from the police division, which nonetheless has not amounted in an arrest or an official suspect.
“We at all times coined it as an ‘anti-true crime true crime’,” mentioned Hill of the sequence. “We didn’t know after we bought into this that the case would change into energetic once more and we simply occurred to be there for all of that.” On digital camera, Stephen Pandos slowly comes round to the thought of different potential narratives, significantly as outdated letters – ones conjured, in a sometimes unusual Margie manner, from a field apparently sitting in her home for over 30 years – reveal Jennifer’s tempestuous teenage relationship and handwriting pattern analyses seem to rule out his dad and mom for the be aware. It’s not sufficient for an arrest, not even near conclusive. However it’s sufficient room for doubt, and for Stephen’s purgatory to shift from searching for extra info from his estranged dad and mom to searching for extra info, interval.
Which makes for an much more shapeless understanding of what occurred; the over seven-year arc of Burden of Proof bends not towards certainty however cloudy inconclusiveness. “I don’t know what occurred,” Stephen Pandos mentioned on the place he’s landed now. However the sequence, for all its open ends and weird household moments and unconfirmed suspicions, is “about by no means giving up”, mentioned Pandos. “Within the absence of justice for Jennifer, closure is me being comfy with understanding that I’ve carried out my perfect for her.”
“On the finish of the day, as Stephen says, we nonetheless don’t know,” mentioned Hill. After practically eight years following lead after lead, query after query on Jennifer’s case, the reality of her disappearance “shouldn’t be one thing that I’m comfy speculating on at this level”, she mentioned. “However we do consider that somebody in all probability is aware of extra. And hopefully as quickly as this sequence comes out, any person is compelled to speak about it.”