Award-winning journalist Gianna Toboni has investigated a number of high-profile stories for VICE, but her latest project is one of her most poignant. Small Town Secrets: The Disappearance of Denise Pflum is a limited series in which Gianna and her co-director Nicole Bozorgmir take a hard look at what happened to an Indiana teenager in 1986. The duo spent years searching for answers regarding Denise’s fate and these three episodes are the end product of their investigation.
I recently spoke with Gianna about what connected her with Denise Pflum’s story, what the process of opening up this cold case was, and what she hopes that TV viewers will take away from seeing Denise’s story as well as her and Nicole’s work brought to the small screen. Learn more about this heartbreaking series before watching the next episode tonight on VICE (find the channel in your area here).
Brittany Frederick: What was it about Denise Pflum’s story that you connected with? How did you become involved?
Gianna Toboni: My co-director Nicole Bozorgmir and I were doing a documentary on domestic violence in Vincennes, Indiana. We met an advocate who was helping us connect with women we’d be interviewing for that documentary. After a long shoot day she said, “I know you guys don’t typically do stories in true crime, but I have this cold case that I really think you should look into.” So that night we went to a small town detective’s house and started going through the evidence that she had, and we were really just blown away by what we were seeing and learning about this case. That launched our three-year investigation into the disappearance of Denise Pflum.
BF: True crime has become a hugely popular and thus hugely competitive space to work in. Did that increased interest, and increased saturation of content, have any effect on you as a filmmaker?
GT: We never looked at this as a true crime series. We looked at this as an investigation into a crime against a woman, and we have a lot of experience in that world. That’s what we do. We care a lot about stories involving human rights and women’s rights, so it actually felt like it was very much in our wheelhouse, although we knew that this would eventually probably be branded as true crime.
BF: You and Nicole have worked on major stories with national and international impact. Did you bring anything specific from those experiences to this smaller, more intimate investigation?
GT: The main thing is to put the human being first. So often with true crime, people focus on the evidence and the twists and turns and who’s responsible. With our work, we’re constantly talking about the focus is the person at the center of this, who in this case was Denise Pflum. So that’s one of the biggest things we learned, and then there’s just the basic stuff.
You have to remain skeptical. Someone tells you they weren’t involved, you don’t take that at face value. You have to check their alibi. You have to be asking several follow-up questions. And then, of course, just listening. Listening to the people who we were interviewing.
BF: Is there anything you want the audience to take away from Small Town Secrets? Whether it’s about this case or even a way they could get involved more in their own communities?
GT: I want people to learn about Denise and who she was, and who she was to her family and her community. That’s the most important thing, but I also want people to know that one of the things that distinguishes this series from other true crime series is that we approach three persons of interest. We knock on their door, we talk to all of them, and in one case we have a 45-minute interview where we bring every single allegation that we know of to him—and he answers for it.
There’s a lot of tense moments. I have done a lot of dangerous work, including interviewing ISIS fighters and cartel hitmen in Mexico, and I was legitimately nervous approaching some of these people. So this isn’t your standard true crime series. It is a very active investigation. We come across confessions, we approach suspects, and we uncover a lot of information.
BF: What was the ultimate effect on you as a journalist? As you said, you lived with this project for literal years, so how are you different now than before you tackled this investigation?
GT: The experience was different from other stories in that it was more consuming. There’s so much that never made air that we’ll probably never talk about—so many leads that we chased, so many people we talked to that nobody will ever know about. It was really something that we were doing every single week for those years. And still, we’re on the phone. Yesterday, we had an hour-long conversation with a source who had new information about this case. So I would say that’s how it’s different. We really invested ourselves at a different level.
BF: Do you have to decompress after an experience like this? Or how do you process the difficult subjects that you deal with?
GT: That’s something I think we have to do in our day-to-day work, because we tell a lot of dark stories, a lot of heavy stories, hear about a lot of violent things. But honestly, more than that, I think I have to bring myself back to the center of this story more often, because there are so many things. You’re checking this trailer, you’re going through these legal notes—I have to bring myself back to feel. I have to remind myself, “Wow, this happened. This person was probably murdered.” I think it’s really important to continue feeling when you’re telling a story like this, so that you deal with the story and the person at the center of it and their family with respect and integrity.
BF: Is there anything you would say, based on your experience, that we could or should do to improve the true crime genre? There’s a lot of content, but very little of it is to the level that this series is.
GT: True crime fans, true crime filmmakers, podcasters—you’re never going to spend too much time talking about the victim or survivor. Really humanize that person. That’s the reason I hope that we’re all doing this.
One thing that we did, [the podcast] Serial really started, which is journalists doing their own investigating. It’s okay to do your own investigating. It’s okay to push law enforcement. It’s okay to, as long as you’re staying safe, push for answers because in a lot of these cases, nobody else is. These cases just die. Think about if you were the person that was strangled or whatever. You would probably want civilians or journalists or whoever to step up and try to find your family justice, particularly when your case has been cold for years.
BF: What should the viewing audience know as they start to watch Small Town Secrets?
GT: I hope that people will watch the series in full. I think we can all fall victim to watching 10 minutes and turning it off. I feel that it’s a really important story. It will carry your attention throughout, but it’s a three-part series. It’s three hour-long episodes, one airing each night. So I would say just watch the whole thing and tweet me. I want to know what people think about it.
Small Town Secrets: The Disappearance of Denise Pflum continues tonight at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on VICE. If you missed last night’s premiere episode, it will re-air this evening; check your local listings.
Article content is (c)2020-2022 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.