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Film / Dear Zachary

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Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father is a 2008 documentary detailing the life and death of one Dr. Andrew Bagby, a resident at a family practice in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Bagby was found dead under suspicious circumstances in November 2001; suspicion immediately fell on an ex-lover, Shirley Turner, whose shoddy alibi was compounded when she fled to her home on the isle of Newfoundland. Shortly after being taken into custody, Turner announced that she was pregnant with Andrew's child, a boy she named Zachary. Initially, Andrew's close friend Kurt Kuenne, a filmmaker, intended the film as a personal memorial and scrapbook so that Zachary could know the kind of person his father was. However, as events transpired, the focus shifted to the incompetence of the Canadian courts in keeping Turner behind bars, as well as the plight of Bagby's parents, David and Kate, as they battled to get custody of Zachary—the last living thing they had of their son Andrew—and justice for their slain boy.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Shirley's behavior towards the men in her life, even before meeting Andrew.
  • Abusive Parent: Zachary preferred the company of his grandparents over Shirley, which makes you think how she was treating him. She ends up killing Zachary in a murder-suicide. Shirley also had troubled relationships with her other children, according to the Turner Report.
  • Adult Fear: Your children could be taken away from you and given to their abuser by the court, which finds it OK because she's their mother. Just as bad is having to play nice with your son's murderer to even really get to see your grandson.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Shirley Turner has never been diagnosed with anything specific (or, if she has, Kuenne chose not to include it in the documentary), but her behavior speaks for itself.
  • Author Tract: Understandably.
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  • Babies Ever After: Cruelly subverted. The baby in question was murdered by his wicked mother.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Shirley Turner kills both Bagby and his son, and is never held accountable thanks to the incompetence of the Canadian courts.
  • Bad Liar: Turner claims that she was "home sick" on the day of Andrew's death despite a mountain of evidence proving that she had been driving for miles, and continued to try to assert this claim.
  • Bail Equals Freedom: Played terrifyingly straight. Canadian law allowed Shirley to post bail and walk free despite being a wanted fugitive and proven flight risk. She didn't even have to pay a dime of her bail. Shirley eventually exploited the excessive freedom given to her by killing herself along with Zachary.
  • Big Bad: Shirley Turner.
  • Canada, Eh?: A rare negative example.
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  • Decoy Protagonist: The film is presented as if Zachary is its main focus. Once you learn about Zachary's fate, it becomes clear that the real focus is Bagby's parents.
  • Department of Child Disservices: Applies more to the Canadian courts than the child services agency, but yes.
  • Dies Wide Open: Zachary, as you see why...
  • Downer Ending: OH GOD YES. Zachary is slain by his own mother ala murder-suicide all because she played the Canadian justice system like a fiddle. The only silver lining is the Bagby's activism and the eventual turning of a bill they drafted actually becoming law, but it's still meddled by the fact Zachary had to die for the Canadian Justice System to actually do something about it...
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Averted. Shirley was a mortal danger to everyone, even Zachary.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Shirley's demeanor when the cops phone her about Andrew's death.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Since the subjects of the film made televised news and even have articles about them on Wikipedia, it's entirely possible for people to have gone into the movie already knowing how it ends.
  • From Bad to Worse: Not only does Turner kill Bagby and makes the extradition and custody cases drag on, but she kills herself and Zachary during one of the court-ordered visitations.
  • Idiot Ball: The Canadian justice system, especially the judge that disproportionately favored Turner, collectively carried one. Turner was let go because said judge decided that she wasn't a threat now that her one target was dead and posed no danger to society at large; Kuenne angrily repeats these words over and over again in-between proof that Turner was anything but no danger to society; she had an inordinate number of restraining orders against her, she had a history of abuse, and a psychiatrist once put her on a suicide watch every fifteen minutes. Nope, nothing suspicious there.
  • If I Can't Have You...: Shirley Turner's MO in a nutshell. With a side of murder.
  • Infant Immortality: Averted. Shirley ultimately kills Zachary and herself by jumping into the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Ironic Echo: Used towards the end of the film, as Justice Gail Welsh's analyses of Shirley Turner's behavior are repeated aloud, alongside evidence of just how terrifyingly wrong she was.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Shirley Jane Turner gets away with murdering Andrew and their son without spending a minute in jail.
    • The film doesn't mention what consequences Justice Gail Welsh faced for enabling Shirley's murder of Zachary.
  • Manipulative Bitch: Playing the Canadian legal system like a fiddle proved how Shirley was a master at being one.
  • Manly Tears: Seen throughout by Andrew Bagby's male relatives and friends. Kuenne himself almost breaks down as he describes how Andrew and Zachary died.
  • May–December Romance: Shirley Turner was twelve years older than Andrew Bagby. It turned out to be the least troubling aspect of their relationship...
  • Narrator: Kuenne himself (he also wrote, directed and composed the soundtrack).
  • Never Speak Ill of the Dead:
    • Discussed by people interviewed about Andrew.
      You know how loved ones you've lost take on sort of a rosy glow in your memories? That's not what's happening here.
    • Strongly averted with Andrew's parents talking about Shirley. At first it seems a bit uncomfortable, though totally understandable, that they're furiously trashing Zachary's mother in a film intended for his viewing. Then you find out...
  • Offing the Offspring: Zachary ends up killed by his wicked mother to spite his family and the Canadian courts, while also getting away with murdering his father.
  • Posthumous Character: Andrew and Zachary were murdered by Shirley, and their deaths play a role in the film.
  • Plot Armor: You would think this would apply to Zachary since he becomes the main focus of the movie and Kuenne addresses him directly in the narration. You would think that, but you would be sadly, sadly mistaken.
  • Plot Twist: Admittedly a realistic and incredibly cruel one, but a plot twist nonetheless.
  • Precision F-Strike: The only swearing in the movie is Dave Bagby, talking about Shirley.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Andrew's murder occurred prior to filming, obviously, and the film was originally intended as a private home movie for the boy. The story took an extreme turn midway through when Shirley and Zachary died, and Kuenne eventually decided to release it publicly.
  • The Sociopath: Shirley Turner, in spades.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: Zachary, though in this case, his mother happens to be the villain who kills the father.
  • Stalker with a Crush: A fatal example. Turner had eight restraining orders against her, and in one case tried to commit suicide on an ex-boyfriend's porch. In Bagby's case, she drove thousands of miles after Bagby put her on a plane to return to him and kills him upon meeting him.
  • There Should Be a Law: And now, there is.
  • Trauma Conga Line: The Bagbys' ordeal in a nutshell. First, Andrew Bagby is murdered in premeditated fashion by Shirley Turner; then just as U.S. law enforcement gets an arrest warrant, Turner flees to Canada; then the Bagbys find out that Turner is pregnant with Andrew's child, turning the extradition case into a custody battle as well; then the Bagbys are forced to stand by while the Canadian courts ignore Turner's history of emotional disturbances and let her walk free (with the U.S. still seeking her extradition, mind you) and then give her unsupervised visitation rights to Zachary; and then endure another round of grief when Turner has another psychotic episode and drowns herself in the ocean along with Zachary.
  • The Unfair Sex: Apparently the rationale behind the Canadian legal system's decisions relating to Shirley. They were more concerned with protecting her parental rights than with determining whether she was capable of hurting Zachary.
  • They Look Just Like Everyone Else!: If you looked at pictures of Shirley you wouldn't assume she was someone with an Annie Wilkes-level psychosis. This allowed her to get away with a lot when she was sent to court.
  • Unreliable Narrator:
    • Kurt Kuenne's narration implies that the film is intended for Zachary and repeatedly addresses him in the first person. It was intended for him, before one of the cruelest Real Life Writes the Plot twists ever turns it into a memorial piece.
    • There's a scene at the very beginning of Kuenne chatting with a cute little boy. He's never at all stated or implied to be an older Zachary, but the viewer would be forgiven for casually assuming so before learning the truth later in the film.
    • One of the few negative criticisms of the film is that Kuenne is too much of an unreliable narrator—the entire film is skewed to paint Turner as an unmitigated villain without presenting any other viewpoint that would allow the audience to reach their own conclusion. This is a valid criticism as far as documentary filmmaking goes...but far more critics agreed that in this case, Some Anvils Need to Be Dropped.
  • Wham Line: "Turner, son found dead."
  • Yandere: Shirley Turner. The sections about her history in the extensive government report here make her look like a walking poster child for dangerous manifestations of borderline personality disorder, for years even before the tragedies depicted in this film.


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