Oxygen, once home to reality shows like “Bad Girls Club” and “Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood,” switched entirely to true crime in 2017, a genre that is now so strong multiple cable networks now focus on it including rivals such as ID, HLN and, of course, the True Crime Network.
Atlanta has been home to a variety of true crime series in recent years. A&E did two seasons of “60 Days In” at Fulton County Jail in 2017 featuring regular folks embedded among actual prisoners. TV One’s “ATL Homicide,” which debuted in 2018, features two retired Atlanta detectives recounting old cases and is now shooting its fourth season. A&E in 2018 also released “A&E’s ‘The First 48: Homicide Squad Atlanta,’” which lasted a single season. And there have been multiple series recently that have studied the Atlanta child murders from the early 1980s on HBO, Netflix and ID.
The formula for many of these types of shows is well worn but enduring: a narrator threading the story together, talking heads providing texture, re-enactments of the moments leading up to the crime and the crime itself, photos of the victim shown a dozen different ways and no shortage of ominous background music.
“The Real Murders of Atlanta” includes all those elements.
The first episode, which aired Sunday, focuses on an especially gory 1996 murder of 41-year-old Black tech entrepreneur and computer consultant Lance Herndon. Just days after the Olympics had ended, Herndon’s mother found her son bludgeoned to death in his water bed at his 6,000-square-foot Roswell home, blood splattered all over the walls. There were no fingerprints at the crime scene, no found weapon and no witnesses.
“He was young, he loved to entertain and he was also really smart,” said co-executive producer Alleathea Carter-Perkins. “He was a major contributor to the tech boom. It’s a perfect combination of what was happening at the time and a classic true crime story.” He also had plenty of lady friends and a lengthy list of potential suspects.
The producers talked to Herndon’s son, a close tech friend, a former Roswell police officer and the eventual prosecutor Clint Rucker. (The episode will be available for free on YouTube today through Feb. 2 on the Oxygen TV page.)
Rucker, 57, retired as an executive district attorney from the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office last March after 26 years. He handled about 150 homicide cases during that time. (His first trial partner? Nancy Grace.) He is now working on the other side of the aisle as a private defense attorney.
“I can provide historical context and a little educational value, things I might not have been able to talk when the case was happening,” Rucker said in an interview with the AJC.
He said he built this knack for tight storytelling from his time trying to convince a jury of 12 of a defendant’s guilt.
“Denzel Washington in ‘Philadelphia’ said it: ‘Just explain things to me like I’m 8 years old.’ That’s the mantra I live by,” Rucker said. (Washington in the film as an attorney actually says “2 year old,” but the gist remains the same.)
After every criminal case was complete, Rucker would keep a personal file in case there was an appeal. He appears in three episodes this season and in each, he was able to go back to those files to refresh his memory.
“These cases never entirely leave you,” he said. “Certain details allow my brain to open up and remember specific things about that trial.”
Rucker thinks the Herndon case is perfect for a true crime series. “It’s got sex,” he said. “It’s got power. It’s got lies. It’s got all those questions that leave you on the edge of your seat. It was a true whodunnit for a long time.”
There is no shortage of material about the case in part because Rod Stodghill wrote a 2007 book focused on the homicide called “Redbone: Money, Malice and Murder in Atlanta.” He is a primary expert voice in this episode.
“There are some key elements in the story like the gum wrappers and the wrench that tie the story together,” Carter-Perkins said. “Viewers get the pay off and you’ll get a glimpse of a world you may not have seen before.”
Among the other cases featured in “The Real Murders of Atlanta” includes a 2012 murder of an up-and-coming rapper who went by Lil Phat that involves a Russian mobster and a 1996 murder of judge Josephine Holmes Cook in her upscale home. Another episode hones in on Atlanta businessman David Coffin who was murdered in 1996, then had his house set ablaze. A more recent case features Mitchell Jones Jr., a Marietta man stabbed to death in 2018 by a gay lover.
Drachkovitch said they sought to make sure there was a good variety of cases: “Many of the victims in these episodes are people of color. We wanted to bring more of them to light and show there was diversity among victims as well as perpetrators.”
Carter-Perkins said in terms of story telling, “we tried to focus on the victims and and why it happened as much as how it happened. Hopefully there is a take away in each episode.”
Credit: DWIGHT ROSS JR. (FILE)
Credit: DWIGHT ROSS JR. (FILE)
“The Real Murders of Atlanta,” 8 p.m. Sundays on Oxygen