Crime documentary series takes new look at notorious Alabama sex-trafficking case

Published 7:13 am Sunday, August 29, 2021

One of Alabama’s most notorious cases, involving an incestuous family sex trafficking ring and the unsolved disappearance of a young mother, got a fresh examination Thursday, when a new documentary project hit NBC’s Peacock streaming service.

Across three hourlong episodes, “Monster in the Shadows” explores the unsolved disappearance of 19-year-old Brittney Nicole Wood. Director and Producer Thomas Leader said that he was drawn to the case in part because of the hope that “we can find some answers, find the truth for Brittney’s family.”

On May 30, 2012, Wood left her home in the Theodore area and was believed to be visiting an uncle in south Baldwin County. But a couple of days later that uncle, Donnie Holland, was found shot in the head, fatally injured in an apparent suicide. He died without speaking.

His death lent an ominous cast to Woods’ disappearance. What came next, however, was horrific: Law enforcement authorities began to describe an investigation into a sex ring whose interrelated members provided their children to each other or to other adults for exploitation. Among those at the heart of the ring were Holland and his wife Wendy Holland; her sister Mendy Kent; and Kent’s husband Dustin Kent.

Over the next several years, a series of court cases played out. At least four defendants received long prison terms, capped by 219 years for Wendy Holland and 40 years for Mendy Kent. But none of the trials shed any light on the questions that started it all: What happened to 19-year-old Brittney Wood? And when will someone who knows why it happened finally break their silence?

Tips have continued to trickle in, but none have borne fruit. As recently as summer 2020, investigators dug up a site in Grand Bay, finding nothing.

It has been a long wait, and not an easy one.

“A lot of people told me to just hang on, time will heal it,” Chessie Wood, Brittney’s mother, says early in the first episode. “Time heals nothing. I think it helps you to learn how to cope with the pain. But it does not heal a single drop of your pain.”

“Monster in the Shadows” is to a large extent, Chessie Wood’s story. She spends more time on camera than anyone else, and her voice dominates the narrative. There’s a mix of grief, tenacity and seething distrust of investigators and prosecutors that is echoed by a roster of sources sympathetic to her. (Chessie Wood herself was charged with abuse of a child at one point, though that case was settled with a plea deal on a misdemeanor endangerment charge.)

The Mobile and Baldwin County law enforcement agencies involved in investigating Woods’ disappearance and related matters didn’t participate in the project. The lone voice from that side of things is Eric Winberg, who was a Baldwin County detective at the time.

While he speaks calmly and confidently about the investigation, he’s hardly up to the task of answering every complaint levied against him and the rest of the establishment: That they didn’t act quickly enough, that they didn’t follow up on leads, that they didn’t dig up promising sites, that media coverage tarred and feathered the entire extended family beyond the number of people actively involved in the abuse, that the charges against Chessie Wood were bunk and that the conviction of her brother Randall “Scott” Wood may have been unjust as well. (Prosecutors have said that information from Scott Wood launched their abuse investigation, but he also pleaded guilty to one count of sodomy each in Mobile and Baldwin County courts.)

For better or for worse, “Monster in the Shadows” is a litany of Chessie Wood’s grievances. But it’s also a litany of grief, and Leader lets that play out over the series’ run time. The unhurried pacing and hype-free presentation let the sense of loss sink in.

He doesn’t overplay the lurid aspects of the case: The first hour is almost finished before he broaches the subject of the exploitation ring. But he also doesn’t shy away from it in the second episode, quoting graphic testimony and evidence that leave no doubt about the extent of the crimes against children.

Leader said the goal of his approach was to keep the spotlight on Brittney Wood’s disappearance, something that often got lost amid the horrors of the exploitation ring.

“We wanted to try and change Brittney from that connection to all of the horrendous crimes that her family did,” Leader said. “We wanted to lift her from that missing-poster page and create a three-dimensional character that the audience could understand and care about. We wanted to put the focus back on Brittney.”

“Monster in the Shadows” contains no grand revelations, despite bringing specialists to examine a site Chessie Wood has long suspected might be a hiding place for her daughter’s remains. Still, said Leader, “I hope there’s a little bit of healing in that we have achieved some things she’s longed to do.”

He said he’s puzzled the case hasn’t gotten more attention outside Alabama and hopes that bringing it to a new audience via Peacock will change that. But he still thinks the tip that may reveal the fate of Brittney Wood will come from a local source.

“This will get the word out, this will spread that,” he said. “But I think it’s important for this documentary to be true to having that local Alabama focus because it’s the people of Alabama that will be able to help.”

“Certainly I believe the audience will go on a journey,” he said. “They’ll understand what Brittney was like from people who grew up with her. And we did go on a journey with those people.”