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Brothers in Arms

Indy film offers fictional solution to real-life murder


In these days of DNA sampling and detailed crime scene investigation, it's hard to imagine that there are still such things as unsolved murders. But they happen, more than we want to think about. A "cold case" (a case that remains unsolved) -- especially if it's a murder -- leaves family and friends frustrated by many unanswered questions. While some police departments have cold case task forces, many, especially small departments, can't afford it.

Several years ago, Tom Morgan, a Charlotte resident, turned his frustration with his sister's unsolved murder into a screenplay. Starting in mid-September, Fourth Ward Productions began turning his script into a movie.

The Murder
Morgan's screenplay, titled Brothers, is based on the true story of the November 1994 death of his sister Jennifer Anne Morgan in Florence, SC.

"My sister Jennifer was murdered one month before she was supposed to have graduated from Frances Marion University," Morgan says. He explains that due to a lack of off-campus apartments, she shared a mobile home near the campus with a friend. "She was killed in her trailer at around 10 o'clock in the morning, her body was doused in gasoline and she was burned beyond recognition. There was an investigation that was done for a while and they say it's ongoing, but it's probably not."

According to Morgan, the police first told the family that her death was probably an accident. An early account in the Myrtle Beach Sun News quotes Florence County Coroner M.G. Matthews as saying "foul play is not suspected in the death."

However, Morgan says that it was Matthews who also "insisted that an autopsy be done" because he told them, Morgan says, that, "something's not right about this fire." He adds, "The police department wasn't going to do an autopsy."

The autopsy revealed that no smoke was in her lungs -- meaning of course that she died prior to the fire. Further investigation revealed that the fire had probably been set to cover up the murder.

No one has ever been charged in the case and it remains open. The sadness comes through in his voice as Morgan continues. "It'll be 10 years this November -- the 10-year anniversary of her death."

"And really I started writing the screenplay because there was no closure to the story," he says. He pauses and continues, "The basis of the screenplay is not typical in that it's from the other point of view. I thought to myself at the time, how could somebody do this to my sister? And then, under what circumstances could someone rationalize such a thing?"

As Morgan was pursuing this line of thought, he talked about it with a friend. "You know, he said, things happen," Morgan continues. "People go out and get drunk and they hit somebody -- it could happen to somebody like you or I, where in that one second you panic, and you make a bad decision and then you make another bad decision -- a series of bad decisions to cover it up."

He shakes his head, "And that's kind of the take of the screenplay -- from the perspective of the killer, the person who killed my sister."

Once he wrote it, he says, he "threw it in a drawer." Later, though, an old childhood friend Joey Albright, who is now an actor, read it, and gave it to his friend, actor Jeff Daniels of Dumb and Dumber fame. Daniels, Morgan reports, liked the script and gave him some tips on how to improve it. "And I realized," Morgan continues, "how much I liked writing and what a great escape it was for me. And how I like the way you can craft these stories and go back and tear it all apart and change it. It was very therapeutic at the time. Then it just kind of grew to this point. I had a number of opportunities to do something with it (the screenplay), and they just never quite panned out or we were always waiting for one more thing."

Then a year or so ago, Morgan met John Schwert, who read the screenplay and wanted to direct it. Morgan thought it was a good fit because at that point both were first timers.

"In a strange way," he says, "this is kind of what my sister would have wanted. She was always rooting for the underdog. So it just felt like the right time and the right situation, so we put it together, and we'll see how it goes. I hope for the very best. I think it's in very capable hands -- he's (Schwert) a smart guy and very dedicated and we'll see what happens."

The Movie
In the big space at Extravaganza Depot, the props and events facility on N. Tryon Street, the people who are making the film look more likely to be attending a formal fraternity party/dance than staging one. The youthful energy in the room is palpable. Despite the serious subject of murder, it's a happy set, too -- people smile and laugh a lot as they wait between takes. Extras swarm around to watch scenes being filmed. In fact, the day I visited the set, the first assistant director, Jason King, had to ask everyone to move further back because they were having trouble with the sound. Even though everyone was trying hard to be quiet, stray sounds kept filtering through.