Film gives a shocking look at killing
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The 2001 murder was shocking -- Dr. Andrew Bagby, a medical resident at Latrobe Area Hospital, was gunned down by Dr. Shirley Turner, an obsessed former lover who drove from her home in Iowa and lured him to his death in Keystone State Park in Derry Township, Westmoreland County.
The two-year aftermath was equally stunning -- Dr. Turner, then 40, drove back to Iowa immediately after the killing and fled to her native Canada when she realized she was about to be charged. There, months later, she delivered a baby, Zachary, fathered by the victim. After a prolonged legal battle, she lost her fight against extradition to Westmoreland County to face first-degree murder charges but, free on bail and awaiting an appeal, she drowned 13-month-old Zachary and herself in a frigid bay in Newfoundland.
Friends of Dr. Bagby, 28, and those who never knew of the beloved, gracious and funny California native get to experience the unfathomable tragedy through a gut-wrenching yet inspiring documentary, "Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son" which opens a week-long run tomorrow at the Regent Square Theater. It was named as one of 2008's five best documentaries by the National Board of Review.
Kurt Kuenne, Dr. Bagby's friend since childhood and the film's writer, director and composer, and Dr. Bagby's parents, David and Kate, were at an invitation-only screening of the film in November at St. Vincent College for Latrobe Area Hospital medical staff, public officials and college students. As the film played, the crowd of about 100 people was hushed -- except for the sobbing.
"I think even if you knew nothing about the situation it's a really hard documentary to watch. It's very moving," said Dr. Carol Fox, director of the Family Medicine Residency Program at Latrobe Area Hospital, who was a faculty member when Dr. Bagby was a resident. "I talked to a lot of people who weren't here at the time and didn't know him and they cried. It just makes you cry.
"But in some ways it is very cathartic. It makes you feel that maybe things can change if people have a cause and don't give up. I felt somewhat hopeful from that perspective."
Mr. Kuenne, who grew up with Dr. Bagby in California's Silicon Valley, started the project simply as a memorial to his best friend that would be given to Dr. Bagby's parents, now of Gilroy, Calif., and friends. When Zachary was born, Mr. Kuenne changed the focus of the film to a "letter" so the child would know the father he never knew.
But when Zachary was killed, Mr. Kuenne abandoned the project. A year later he went back to work on the film, now as a theatrical release, at the urging of the Bagbys, who during Dr. Turner's fugitive years moved to Newfoundland and found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to negotiate with her in order to spend time with Zachary, for whom they sought custody. The Bagbys wanted their story of losing their only child and then their only grandchild to be a cause celebre to change Canada's liberal bail laws.
Proceeds from this film are being split between the Dr. Andrew Bagby Scholarship in Family Medicine at Latrobe Area Hospital and the Dr. Andrew Bagby and son Zachary Bursary at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where he attended medical school and met Dr. Turner.
The film pulls no punches, including as it does crime scene photos, gruesome details, and the Bagbys' unfiltered grief, anger and resilience.
"The most common reactions people have are being shocked, horrified and furious," Mr. Kuenne said from his home in Burbank, Calif. "There are two things they want to do afterwards -- they line up to hug Kate and David and express their affection and they write the government of Canada because they are so furious about this.
"Government officials in Canada need to look at what their policies did to this family, who are good, decent people," said Mr. Kuenne, who hopes to screen the film for Canada's Parliament soon.
"It was definitely hard to watch," said Dr. William DiCuccio, a friend and fellow resident with Dr. Bagby who appears in the film.
"What I took away from it is that we're all interconnected. When one of us is extinguished, it affects everyone else," said Dr. DiCuccio, who now is in a group private practice in Butler. "And you need to value every day and realize life is very fragile. Hopefully, some form of bail reform will come out of this."
"It is an extremely powerful movie," said Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck, who was stymied in his attempts to have Dr. Turner jailed and extradited from Canada. "It brings to light the devastation that homicides have on the family of the victim."
Unlike in other murder cases, he said, the documentary provided an opportunity for him to get to know a victim as a person.
"I came away thinking he was a person I'd like to have as a friend of mine," he said. "For me it was very difficult to watch, realizing we were charged with the responsibility of being part of the extradition and arrest and not being able to get her returned to Pennsylvania.
"It brings back all of the frustration with the Canadian government," he said, noting he continually stressed to Canadian authorities, to no avail, that in Pennsylvania, anyone facing a charge carrying a sentence of life in prison or the death penalty cannot receive bail.
Still, he said, "At the end of the movie I felt hopeful rather than depressed. The Bagbys are making a very important contribution to a society they didn't even live in."
Dr. Clark Simpson, a friend and fellow resident of Dr. Bagby who appears in the film, said the movie resurrected for him "anger and sadness."
Dr. Simpson, now director of emergency services at Punxsutawney Area Hospital, said his friend's "legacy is the scholarship that was founded in his name that allows students with his same passion for family medicine to pursue it."
"His other legacy is the hope that this terrible loss of his life and his son's life will effect change in the Canadian laws to prevent this from occurring again."
First Published January 8, 2009 12:00 am