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Dear Zachary: The Most Heartbreaking True Crime Documentary You’ll Ever See

It has serious heart, and its unusual approach makes it all the more heartbreaking.

In a market awash with true crime docs, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is unique. This documentary has serious heart: and its unusual approach makes it all the more heartbreaking.

In 2001, Kurt Kuenne’s childhood friend Andrew Bagby was murdered by his estranged girlfriend, Shirley Turner. So Kurt set out to make a documentary about his beloved lost friend. We’re introduced to Andrew through a series of home videos, from Kurt and Andrew screwing around with a camera to Andrew delivering a speech at Kurt’s wedding.

Narrative duties are split between Kuenne and Andrew’s many friends and his wonderful parents, David and Kate. Not all of the memories are positive, of course. In one particularly heartbreaking scene, Andrew’s father David describes identifying his son’s body in the morgue. “Kate [Andrew’s mother] went to kiss him,” he cries, “and the plug came out where he’d been shot in the left cheek.”

dear zachary The Bagbys
  • The Bagbys. 

  • Photo Credit: Photo from Dear Zachary via MSNBC Films

Andrew’s doomed relationship with Shirley Turner began in Canada, where Andrew attended medical school at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Turner was 40 at the time, Andrew was 28. The coupling didn’t make sense to Bagby’s friends. “There was just something off about her,” one family friend explains.

The pair were together for a while back in the States, but their relationship soon grew rocky. Andrew tried to leave Shirley entirely in November 2001. But just days after they separated, Turner showed up at Andrew’s front door, having driven 16 hours overnight to confront him. Andrew told a friend he was going to meet Shirley the following day to finally end things. Afterward, he’d come over for a beer. “Andrew was never late,” the friend said. “So when he didn’t show up at 7:30 P.M., I knew something was wrong.”

Related: 10 Terrifying True Stories of Killers Who Knew Their Victims

The next morning, Andrew didn’t show up for work. Police discovered his body in a parking lot at Keystone State Park. He had been shot five times. When police obtained a warrant for Turner’s arrest, she fled the States, back to Canada.

Dear Zachary, which unfolds chronologically, has not one but two major twists. After the murder, Turner, now accused of killing Andrew, announces she is four months pregnant with Andrew’s child. Kuenne’s film transforms into a visual letter to the child that Andrew never got to meet. He travels the country finding footage of Andrew and interviewing his family and friends, eventually making it all the way up to Newfoundland where he meets Andrew’s newborn son, Zachary.

dear zachary
  • Zachary.

  • Photo Credit: Photo from Dear Zachary via MSNBC Films

Turner, meanwhile, is living as a free woman in Newfoundland. Andrew’s parents, David and Kate Bagby, have relocated to Canada to be closer to Zachary—and pursue justice for Andrew.

The next twist is like a punch to the gut. It’s best not to read up on the case until after you’ve seen Dear Zachary if you want the documentary to work its intensely affecting charm on you.

Related: The 13 Best True Crime Documentaries Streaming on Netflix Right Now

There aren’t many documentaries like Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father. What could have been a dry analysis of a broken justice system is instead a deeply touching commentary on love and friendship. The documentary’s vulnerability and its unique mix of joy and sadness remind us that some true crime stories are not just about the perpetrators—they can also be a moving tribute to their victims.

Feature photo of Andrew Bagby from "Dear Zachary" via MSNBC Films

Published on 18 Jan 2017

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