REVIEW: Docuseries Offers New Look at Carl Drew and ‘Satanic Cult’ Murders of Fall River, Massachusetts
I wasn’t prepared for the emotional rollercoaster I was going to ride throughout the four-episode duration of Fall River.
The docuseries from director James Buddy Day and executive produced by Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Television premieres this Sunday, May 16, at 10 p.m. Eastern on cable network Epix.
It tells the story of the Fall River “cult murders” of 1979-80, in which three women were killed in supposed ritualistic fashion. Carl Drew, a known pimp operating in the city, was portrayed as the leader of a Satanic cult that was controlling all the young women on the streets, and Drew was convicted of the murder of one of women and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The docuseries presents a new theory that could potentially exonerate Drew, who has been in prison since his 1981 conviction. The idea that Drew may not have committed the murders is not a new one; ever since the trial gripped Bristol County, Massachusetts and the nation 40 years ago, many have speculated and even suggested that the true mastermind behind the murders was Robin Murphy, a then-17-year-old girl who was also allegedly a pimp running prostitutes on the streets of Fall River.
Murphy pleaded guilty to second degree murder and received a reduced sentence for testifying against Drew in the murder of 20-year-old Karen Marsden. Murphy claimed she slit Marsden’s throat on Drew’s orders, because she was a witness to Drew killing 17-year-old Doreen Levesque a few months prior. She said Drew then decapitated the corpse and ordered her to do other things to the body that we can’t print here, while he kicked around Marsden’s head.
Murphy was released from prison in 2004, but a parole violation landed her back in prison, where she remains today.
The details of the murders and the lives of Drew and Murphy have been recounted numerous times, perhaps most famously in the book Mortal Remains. I thought I knew all there was to know about the two, and had made up my mind that, no matter which one of them was responsible for the murders, both were heinous people and deserved to be in prison.
However, the Fall River docuseries presented a far more complete picture of Drew and Murphy than ever told before – including in-person interviews with each of them in prison – as well as the circumstances of their lives that shaped them into the people they became at the time of the murders.
It also gives us a more complete story of the three women who were murdered, perhaps for the first time really telling their story as people rather than as just murder victims. Levesque is more than just the girl found under the bleachers at Diman Vocational; Marsden is not just a prostitute caught up in some Satanic cult. Barbara Raposa, a 19-year-old sex worker, was killed in between Levesque and Marsden, although her murder was not pinned on Drew – instead, Murphy helped to secure the conviction of another man, Andre Maltais, in her murder. Here, Raposa is a key part of the story because it is not just the story of Carl Drew and his crimes, but rather of the seedy underworld of Fall River at that time.
By the end of the four episodes, I knew I had to believe something different than I believed before, and I had to feel differently about the people involved. Drew and Murphy, while far from innocent, became more sympathetic figures. While she certainly appears to be everything that investigators said she was – cunning, manipulative, and a liar who has changed her story multiple times over the years – Murphy especially comes across as someone who fought against years of abuse, only to be abused and railroaded by prosecutors seeking convictions.
The loss of Levesque, Raposa and Marsden was felt even deeper, having a better idea of who they were as people doing what they had to in order to survive.
The Fall River Police and Massachusetts State Police who investigated the murders – and whose investigation was later criticized by one of their own who was involved – leave viewers wondering if they were chasing down real leads or chasing down a narrative.
And Ronald Pina – the Bristol County District Attorney who managed to attract a national spotlight by prosecuting the Fall River murders, the Big Dan’s rape case and the still-unsolved New Bedford highway murders all during his 12-year tenure – comes across as someone just looking to get a win rather than getting to the truth.
As a piece of filmmaking, Fall River certainly delivers what all good true crime documentaries must have these days: a case you may not have known or thought you knew; a deeper, well-researched understanding of the people and circumstances involved; interviews with subjects you’ve never seen interviewed before; and a bit of a twist ending that makes the case suddenly relevant again, 40 years later.
While the reveal isn’t nearly as shocking as the one in Blumhouse’s previous true crime docuseries The Jinx, it will nonetheless send shockwaves throughout the SouthCoast, as a decades-old narrative is chipped away – and the real story is far less satanic, but far more sad.
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