Gianna Toboni is the director of the new three-part series Small Town Secrets: The Disappearance of Denise Pflum, which premieres on Vice TV on January 11. She is a multi-award-winning filmmaker with more than 40 films that have aired on HBO, Showtime, Hulu and VICE. She serves as a senior correspondent and producer for VICE News. Toboni was one of the first journalists in the world to interview ISIS fighters on the frontlines in Iraq. She’s covered escalating cartel violence and political corruption in Mexico, embedded with two Saudi sisters as they escaped their abusive family, forced marriages and country’s archaic guardianship system, interviewed the founder of Hamas in Gaza during the 2014 Palestinian uprising, tracked down Nigerian pirates at their illegal oil refineries, and interviewed an American death row inmate hours before his scheduled execution. Before joining VICE News in 2013, she worked as a correspondent for Al Jazeera and as a producer for ABC News. Toboni was named to Forbes‘ 30 Under 30 list for Media, is a TEDx Speaker and Peabody Finalist. She’s received an Emmy, GLAAD, Front Page, Gracie, and Webby Award for Best Documentary Series.
I’m a news correspondent. The stories I cover range from embedding with Saudi girls as they escape their abusive government to investigating unneeded gynecologic surgeries on migrant women in U.S. custody. In 2018, my co-director, Nicole Bozorgmir, and I stumbled upon a different kind of story. One that would consume us for the next three years and lead to us making the three-part documentary series Small Town Secrets: The Disappearance of Denise Pflum.
We were drinking margaritas in rural Indiana one weekday night, enjoying the end of a long shoot day. It was nearing 10 p.m. and we could tell the woman sitting across from us, Melissa Haaff, who we had just met, was starting to pitch us on a story.
A girl went missing in 1986, and the Sheriff’s department still hasn’t solved the case …
We had heard this story before. I remember thinking, I’m too tired. We don’t do true crime. How do I politely get out of this?
But Haaff had given us so much of her time, connecting us with survivors of domestic violence for our documentary. All she wanted was for us to stop by the detective’s house on the way back to the hotel and check out the evidence. We wearily agreed.
On the drive over, Haaff was cracking us up with her one-liners, before admitting that the detective wasn’t actually at the house. She was 2,000 miles away at Disneyland with her son. Next thing we knew, we were sitting in a random small-town detective’s living room, while she was on FaceTime walking us through the binders on her dining room table.
We were immediately struck by what we saw.
Persons of interest still live in the town.
The ex-boyfriend has a long history of domestic violence.
Another two people have allegedly confessed.
I remember reacting the way any true crime viewer does while watching a series about a missing person: This is crazy! He’s confessed to people? And he’s not been arrested? Who do you think it is?
America is obsessed with true crime. True crime podcasts dominate the top of the charts each week. Netflix continues to commission a steady stream of true crime series. Some of the biggest shows of the last few years – Making a Murderer, The Jinx, The Staircase, The Keepers – all fall into this genre.
The enthusiastic conversation around these podcasts and series usually focuses on the perpetrators, the crime, the evidence. It’s easy to forget that at the center of these stories is a human being.
I wonder what it would be like to be the person who was brutally murdered, looking down on rabid true crime fans dissecting their death? How strange is that? How strange are we?
While investigating the disappearance of Denise Pflum for Small Town Secrets, I started to care about her. I spent more time thinking about her and what she would’ve been like today and how she probably would’ve had a family of her own. One reason I started to experience this is because one of the detectives, Stacy Reese; she always brought the story back to Denise. She told us over and over, I care about Denise Pflum. I’m not leaving her behind.
Denise seemed like an incredible person. She was strong and confident and told her friends exactly what she thought. She was smart and athletic and accomplished. Denise was accepted to Miami University of Ohio and was planning to become a scientist. As Denise’s mom told us, she was an extroverted child. I imagine toddler Denise walking up to people in town just to have a chat.
Denise’s parents, Judy and David, have lived every day of the past 35 years wondering what happened to their daughter and waiting for any answers, any leads. At times, I couldn’t believe they were able to talk about Denise and what might have happened to her. Their pain is immeasurable.
I became a parent while making Small Town Secrets. My son is a toddler now, the age that Denise was in some of the home video footage we play throughout the series. As a parent, that video punches my gut a little harder.
Over the countless hours we spent with the Pflums and Detective Reese, we started to really care about Denise and her family. It changed the way I think about true crime and the way I react while watching or listening to it.
I felt conflicted about venturing into the true crime space because it felt … gross? After finishing this series, I think true crime is an important way to raise awareness about missing and murdered people, if it’s done with integrity, and with the victim front of mind.
But next time I feel myself wanting to gossip about the latest true crime podcast, I’m going to stop, reflect on the victim and remember: We’re talking about a human being.