Phony reward poster used in film's ad campaign gets negative reviews

`Murder is not entertainment,' says mother of slain woman

September 12, 2004|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

The poster of a girl bears a chilling message: REWARD. For information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for the murder of Jessica Rogers.

In a city like Baltimore with its triple-digit homicide rates, the case of Jessica Rogers has caught the attention of many who feel sympathy and concern for the child and her family. The reward poster of the Audrey Hepburnish-looking girl is taped to telephone poles and news racks around town.

But she isn't real.

The case of Jessica Rogers is really a case of a successful - if objectionable - advertising campaign. The truth in this advertising is that Jessica is a character in Baltimore filmmaker Francis Xavier's movie, Johnny Come Lately, the story of a criminal profiler on the trail of a serial child killer. More than 700 posters were pinned up around town to create buzz for his independent film. The poster directs viewers to a Web site, which turns out to be a promotional site for Xavier's movie company.

Misleading. Exploitative. A senseless and painful ruse. That's the reaction from those for whom a the murder of a child is reality, not fiction.

"When I really learned its purpose, my knee-jerk reaction was something parents of murdered children say - murder is not entertainment," says Roberta Roper. "You have to walk in someone's shoes to appreciate that journey."

Roper's daughter, Frostburg State student Stephanie Roper, was tortured and murdered in 1982. That same year, out of frustration with her treatment by the courts, Roper founded the Stephanie Roper Committee and Foundation - a victims advocacy group that marked the beginning of the victims' rights movement in Maryland.

She keenly remembers her family's experience when their daughter was first missing. They asked for the public's help for any information on Stephanie's whereabouts. People are often fearful to report crime, but families and law enforcement officers need the public's help. This flier can confuse and mislead people genuinely wanting to help, Roper says. "This does a great social harm."

Xavier, a former Sun pressroom supervisor turned filmmaker, says he didn't intend to mislead or offend. "I was just hoping people would go to the Web site and notice it's a movie." While he has no second thoughts about his ad campaign, he realizes that the poster might make some parents wince. He has a 12-year-old daughter and twin 6-month-old sons. "That picture represents everything that is lost in the city every day."

Getting noticed

He says the poster was an easy and inexpensive way to promote the film. "We're starving artists," says Xavier, 42. "We didn't have any money for any big-time marketing. That poster was the only thing I could really think of to get people to notice the movie."

It worked. He says he has received only one e-mail critical of the poster, which has generated 18,000 hits on his company's Web site since the posters hit the street last month. But for those who work directly with victims' families, the number of site hits couldn't be further from the point.

"It's unfair to real families who have gone through the trauma of a homicide. The poster minimizes their pain and grief," says Deirdre Gardner, victim advocate at the Family Bereavement Center of the Baltimore City State's Attorneys Office.

Since 1998, there have been 727 unsolved homicides in Baltimore. Imagine, Gardner says, if you have lost someone and then see a poster of a girl, only to discover she is actually alive. She asks, what message does a phony reward poster send to a concerned community? Not to get involved the next time?

"A lot of people take a murder on as their own. A hoax like this can cause more pain and anxiety," Gardner says.

Real-life issues

Russell Butler is executive director of the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center in Prince George's County - the renamed victims' rights group that Roberta Roper started in 1982. Though a "good promotional piece," the poster almost trivializes legitimate efforts such as the national Amber Alert system and John Walsh's America's Most Wanted TV program, Butler says.

"I don't think the filmmaker is a bad person who has done anything wrong or illegal. I'm saying, let's just figure out if this is appropriate. Maybe there's a higher societal purpose than selling what, in this case, is a movie," he says.

He and Roper both hope the filmmaker will weigh their concerns and rethink the ad campaign.

"It definitely pushes the envelope," says Joey Buchholz, whose daughter, 10-year-old Madison Buchholz, plays Jessica Rogers. A sixth-grader at Perry Hall, Buchholz is a dancer - and now actress. Her parents, Joey and Grace, are also in Xavier's movie. They say they had no intention of offending real victims' families. They just thought it was a clever strategy to use a reward poster for promotion.

"We prepared our daughter for it. She understands the difference between fiction and non-fiction," her father says.

He has fielded a few calls at work from friends who were concerned about his daughter's welfare. Recently at a gas station, Buchholz ran into a friend who was downright frantic. "He thought I was very relaxed." A little too relaxed given his daughter's apparent tragic fate. Buchholz assured his friend that Madison was fine. It's all about a movie and, in this case, all about a family getting to be in a Baltimore movie.

"I think it's cool. It was kind of freaky, too," Madison says of her poster exposure. She also has had to assure friends she is alive and well.

After a successful movie debut at the Senator last month, Francis Xavier plans to submit Johnny Come Lately to film festivals, including Sundance. This fall, the movie will have its premiere in Washington, where Xavier plans to distribute more posters of Jessica Rogers.

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