The Dolly Madison Murders (2023)

Rating: B+

Dir: Aaron Mull
Star: Desiree Werth, Marty Keenan, Aimee Wangberg, Reggie Kern

Despite what TV crime shows tell you, around 40% of murders in United States are unsolved. Each one has its own story, of sudden loss and months, years or even decades without closure. Mull’s documentary takes a look at one such crime: a double homicide in 2002, at the Dolly Madison bakery, located in the small town (population around 15,000) of Great Bend, Kansas. 79-year-old customer Mary Drake and 24-year-old employee Mandi Alexander, were found dead in the back of the store. The killings were brutal: according to Alexander’s sister, “The only thing holding her head on was her spinal cord.” A witness saw somebody leaving and locking up the bakery, but over 20 years later, nobody has even been arrested for the crimes.

It’s intriguing, right from the get-go, with a sharply edited montage that does a very nice job of setting the scene and laying out the basic elements of the case. The film then cranks back to 2002, the discovery of the bodies, and the subsequent investigation. It’s a maze of dead ends and contradiction. The savagery of the assault implies a very personal motive – but Alexander was a late stand-in for the scheduled worker. There had been a previous robbery at the store, yet there were better targets on the same corner. Surveillance footage from a next-door business creates a person of interest, only for them to be ruled out. I can only imagine how disheartening it all was for Mary and Mandi’s relatives.

Not helping matters there, are rumblings of discontent in regard to the way the police handled the case. Complaints and allegations include not securing the initial crime scene, mishandling evidence, and failure to acquire comprehensive DNA evidence. Then, 20 years after the event – while Mull was making his documentary and asking awkward questions – it’s suddenly announced by the police they have DNA. Just “not a profile that we can place into a national database and search.” Hmm. That’s basically where the story ends. It’s a frustrating viewing experience, with nothing resolved: yet that’s exactly the way life is. Most of the time, things don’t end, all neatly tied up with a fade to black, as we go into the commercial break.

It runs a brisk 52 minutes, and it feels like there was room for expansion in some areas. Mull has a “deep dive” on his YouTube channel, which fills in additional background plus updates, and is very much worth a look. It definitely makes the authorities seem, at best, recklessly irresponsible. But the documentary stands perfectly well on its own, opening a door to a dark corner of Americana, one I hope never to experience personally. In 2021, there were over 70 homicides a day in the US. The vast majority don’t make national news, and even locally, are quickly forgotten. But for those affected by murder, life will never be the same again. That may be what I took away from this, more than anything else.

The Dolly Madison Murders is available on Tubi and Apple TV.