February 16, 2018 — Not good, but not nearly as bad as it might have been

By accident I managed to catch the episode of Betrayed last night on Investigation Discovery. The show chronicled the 1979 murder of Janet Chandler via a highly speculative first-person point of view. We were supposedly hearing Janet’s postmortem thoughts about what was going on and how long she had yet to live or her descriptions of how she died.

The show was not good, but not as bad as it might have been. It could have been as ugly at the case itself; the producers toned down a lot of what actually happened.

We were approached last year about taking part in this, as were all the primary investigating officers, the prosecutors (Assistant Attorney General and Ottawa County), the family. Janet’s family wanted nothing more to do with this and certainly didn’t want her death to wind up as entertainment. All the rest of us respected that and we declined. So, the producers went searching far and wide and scooped up mostly peripheral players. A “friend.” A “teacher” (certainly not from Hope College). Lt. John Slenk (retired), who had served as the commander for the Michigan State Police had the lion’s share of time and was most knowledgeable. And we heard from Bob DeVries, who had been the public information officer in 2003 when he and I first talked about the case. At the time he was preparing to leave the Holland Police Department to take over as chief in Kingman, Arizona. I had been meeting with him and some of my broadcast journalism students to talk about the complicated  relationship between police officers and reporters. When he said he was leaving after 30 years, I asked him if there was one that got away. Janet Chandler. “That’s the case that keeps us all awake at night.” I had the impression that he was passing it over (he was long gone by the time the cold-case team got to work in 2004). The result was the result: the film, the cold-case investigation, the arrests, pleas and prosecutions. Finally, the producers tossed in Rich Harrold, a former managing editor and reporter with the Holland Sentinel. Rich was certainly not around when Janet was abducted and murdered. He came to Holland in the early ’90s from Mt Pleasant. (He and I both had the honor of editing the Morning Sun there in different decades.) And he left shortly after the trial concluded. I viewed his participation in the Betrayed show with coolness.

There were many things factually correct about the show. After all, John Slenk had his recollection and probably some records. And there was the film we made, the Dateline piece produced by Jack Cloherty after the trial, all the news coverage, and the material on this website. But there were lots of mistakes, little ones, that cropped up when the storytellers were trying to put together a cogent narrative. They were jarring and discordant. For one, you can bet the police talked with Carl Paiva long before he left town (per the show).

So, now it’s entertainment. I’m sure the producers would assert that it’s a production with the purpose: the dangers young women face and the relentless pursuit of justice by law enforcement. Both of those things were true in this case. And in keeping with the premise of the show, Janet Chandler was absolutely betrayed by people she trusted. But never lose sight of the fact that the true purpose of the show is to keep eyes on the screen so that somebody makes money.

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