She Suspected Her Step-Grandfather Was the Zodiac Killer

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Jim Mordecai was a star football player, a high school teacher, a Future Farmers of America bigwig, a landscape architect, and a respected and well-liked presence in his Bay Area community. He was also a tyrannical husband and father who sexually assaulted young girls (including his stepdaughters), manipulated and tortured relatives, and tore his multiple families apart.

Even that monstrousness, however, may have been the tip of the iceberg, since The Truth About Jim contends that he might have additionally been a never-apprehended serial killer—or, perhaps, even the infamous Zodiac.

From prolific true-crime director Skye Borgman (Dead Asleep, Girl in the Picture, I Just Killed My Dad, Sins of Our Mother), The Truth About Jim is a four-episode Max docuseries (Jan. 15) concerning Sierra Barter’s effort to investigate her step-grandfather and, in doing so, finally grapple with the secrets that have plagued her extended clan for generations.

In a vein similar to Great Photo, Lovely Life: Facing a Family’s Secrets and Nuclear Family, it’s a non-fiction act of excavation, with Sierra digging into the past in order to unearth that which has been buried by bitterness, trauma and time. Though it falters during a second half that’s filled with prolonged detours and excessive self-congratulation (not to mention few answers to its central questions), it proves an intimate look at women’s struggles to have their voices heard—especially when they’ve been the victims of heinous crimes—and the painful process of trying to heal grave wounds.

Sierra always knew something was amiss with her step-grandfather Jim, who radiated creepiness and who was more or less detested by her mother Shannon, who went a full decade without speaking to her mother Judy for sticking by the man. Judy was Jim’s third wife, as he’d been married first in 1960 to high-school girlfriend Sharon Yeager (with whom he had one kid) and then, in 1973, to Jeanne Kirkpatrick, with whom he had two daughters—Melissa and Jaime—to go along with Jeanne’s children from a prior union, Christi and Michael. Growing up, Sierra heard various whispers about Jim, but it wasn’t until the commencement of this non-fiction venture (spurred, in part, by her own two sexual-assault ordeals) that she coaxed details out of her family members—almost none of which were flattering.

Jim, it became clear, was a despicable fiend with a fondness for teen girls and a habit of dominating everyone in his household. In the many interviews she conducts throughout The Truth About Jim, Sierra hears about how Jim repeatedly raped Christi and Jaime, attempted to do the same to Shannon, engaged in “deviant” sex with Jeanne, and threatened to slice the throat, hogtie, and dump the body of anyone who dared displease him. Jim is accused of doing these things at home, at the school where he taught, and at the remote cabin that he’d inherited from his parents. And the allegations made by those closest to him are so numerous as to be persuasive.

Thus, when it’s revealed that Jim’s early retirement from teaching was actually motivated by a scandal involving a student he attempted to assault, it merely reinforces the impression that he was a predator hiding in plain sight.

Sierra uses The Truth About Jim to paint an ugly portrait of an individual who tormented her loved ones in myriad ways, and she soon comes to suspect that a man this violent and controlling might have also been one of the Bay Area’s uncaught serial killers. In particular, she fixates on the Santa Rosa hitchhiker murders of 1972-1973, in which at least seven (and potentially as many as 11) young girls were picked up on or around Highway 101, slain at unknown locations, and discarded in rural spots.

Given the similarities between these crimes and Jim’s perverse M.O.—as well as his familiarity with the area, tendency to go on long, mysterious drives with a big knife in his car, and possession of random pieces of jewelry (trophies?) that were posthumously found by Judy and Shannon—Sierra develops a working theory that Jim may have been spending his free time as one of the era’s most notorious homicidal maniacs.

The Truth About Jim makes a reasonably credible argument that this might be possible, and that’s even before Sierra procures DNA evidence that could conclusively link Jim to the murders. Borgman’s docuseries slightly loses its way, however, once Sierra starts speculating that Jim is responsible for both the Santa Rosa hitchhiking atrocities and the Zodiac killings.

This idea certainly lends the proceedings a more explosive, headline-making angle. Yet from the get-go, it comes across as far-fetched. Thanks to lengthy chats with Zodiac expert Mike Butterfield that highlight some of the shortcomings in her hypothesis, Sierra accepts that Jim likely wasn’t the Zodiac, which renders her prior inquiry a case of fanciful overreach. Though she acts relieved to learn that she has no connection to the legendary madman, there’s a sense that everyone involved in this production is a tad disappointed to have missed out on what would have been the true-crime bombshell of the century.

Sierra’s quest to develop a DNA profile of Jim for police—who can then compare it to the semen they still have from the Santa Rosa hitchhiking victims—turns out to be a more promising thread. Unfortunately, after teasing Jim as not simply a domestic terror but a historic Big Bad, The Truth About Jim falls a bit flat with its ultimate (lack of) revelations.

In their place, it refocuses its attention on the therapeutic nature of Sierra’s mission. Bringing together estranged mothers, children and siblings to air grievances, forgive, and face harrowing realities, Borgman’s latest does its best to make itself less about its title subject than about the strong, courageous and united individuals who survived years of his cruelty.

Still, regardless of its heartening depiction of women reclaiming their agency, there’s something mildly deflating about the series’ inability to finish what it began—a fact highlighted by closing text cards that indicate that Jim’s relationship to the Santa Rosa hitchhiking murders is destined, for now (and maybe the future), to remain unknown.

This post was originally published on Daily Beast

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