Murder on Middle Beach (HBO)

A true crime documentary series where filmmaker Madison Hamburg attempts to figure out who murdered his mother.  The series contains several moments that are very moving, while the segments constructed to induce tension come off as contrived.  While only four episodes, the series feels brief and padded at the same time.  Moderately recommended.

Murder on Middle Beach is another entry in the true crime documentary gold rush that seems to define our pandemic age.  (Or at least distract us from it.)  The series is directed by first-time filmmaker Madison Hamburg, and documents his personal investigation into his mother’s murder.  He was eighteen, away at school and heavy into drugs at the time of the murder.   Three years after the murder, with the case still an open investigation, Hamburg got clean and decided to create a documentary on his quest to understand who his mother was, and potentially reveal who killed her.  Murder on Middle Beach is the result of Madison’s six year exploration into the case.

Using his access to members of his own family, Madison attempts to understand the family history before his mother was killed.  Among the things he uncovers:

  • His mother (Barbara Beach Hamburg) and his father (Jeffrey Hamburg) had a good marriage and happy family for several years.  (Members of the extended family confirm this.)  Jeffrey had a well paying job, and Barbara’s family was extremely wealthy.  They have two homes and servants.  Nobody wants for anything.
  • Barbara and Jeffrey had two children:  Madison and Ali.
  • Jeffrey was fired from his position at a regional gas and electric company over perceived illegal activity overseas.  He later won a libel lawsuit against his former employer for $2 million dollars.
  • After winning that lawsuit, his parents’ marriage began to fall apart.
  • Jeffrey apparently became involved in a money laundering scheme involving actors in Russia and Saudi Arabia.
  • Jeffrey began spending most of his time away from home, focusing on his overseas business ventures.  Barbara became an alcoholic.
  • Barbara was questioned by the FBI and Interpol about Jeffrey’s business ventures.
  • Barbara entered Alcoholics Anonymous and stayed sober for a while.
  • Madison’s Aunt Jill introduced Barbara to the “gifting tables”, a pyramid scheme that brought in money while Jeffrey refuses to pay child support or alimony.
  • Members of the gifting tables, rightfully believing they have been scammed, contacted local authorities.  The FBI became involved as well.
  • Aunt Jill and several others involved with the gifting tables were indicted and sent to prison.  Jill received a sentence of six years.
  • Barbara was killed at home on the day she was to appear before a judge on Jeffrey not paying child support or alimony.  Madison was eighteen at the time of the murder.
  • Ali left home when she turned eighteen.  She backpacked through South America and eventually settled in Argentina.

The above is intended as a point of reference for my analysis  For a comprehensive timeline, check out this one on HBO’s website:

Murder on Middle Beach is an interesting watch.  Keeping the episodes down to four was a good move.  Other documentaries on HBO, like The Vow or I’ll be gone in the Dark, felt indulgent to the point of becoming tedious.  However, even at its economical running time, the episodes come off as padded.  The episodes are laced with stylistic tics that become annoying after a while.  Why Madison decided to repeatedly reference a banal documentary from the fifties explaining the roles of each member of a family is a mystery.  It doesn’t relate to the issues at hand, and comes off as jejune.

In a similar vein, clips from the Hamburg home movies are shown over and over again.  Madison shows himself and his sister playing in the snow, or walking over a creek bed many times, when once would have been enough.  Other clips are frozen several times, in an effort to give either menace or sympathy to who is depicted.  Madison’s father is often the person treated this way.

At the outset, Madison conveniently rules himself out as a suspect.  It is generally understood that he was away at college in Savannah, GA at the time of the murder, but we are never offered any proof of that.  The Madison Police Department (MPD) consider him as a suspect in the case.  Granted, the MPD has pretty much blown the investigation from day one, but that is something to keep in mind.

While Madison uses his access to his family to ask highly personal questions, he never applies critical thinking to what he is told.  For example:

  • Why did Jeffrey refuse to pay alimony and child support?  He claimed he didn’t have the money.  I would have thought that his explanation would be in his counter-filing.  He seemingly had the money at some point, with the $2 million settlement.
  • If Madison and Ali’s college tuition was in a joint account, why didn’t Barbara withdraw money before Jeffrey did, or keep tabs on the account?
  • Aunt Jill never acknowledges that she committed a crime, even though she went to prison for years.  She insists she was helping people during the recession.  In actuality, she was helping a few people to a lot of other people’s money.
  • Why did the MPD refuse to release the 911 call made by Aunt Conway?  Releasing a 911 recording would seem routine, even back in 2010.  Releasing it only helps to exonerate Ali and Aunt Conway, either of whom, with their phones on, could not be the MPD’s prime suspect.
  • We never hear the entire 911 recording during the show.  While I understand why it would be difficult for Madison to hear, I don’t understand why we never hear it in its entirety, given how critical it is to the narrative.
  • Aunt Conway had boxes and boxes of incriminating documents on Jeffrey’s overseas business dealings in a storage shed in Florida.  Why did she have that material?  Why was the MPD not aware of it?
  • What happened in the three years from when Barbara is murdered to when Madison begins his documentary?  How Madison was able to afford his college tuition?  How Ali was able to go off on her own at eighteen?
  • The MPD knows of a suspect who had their phone turned off for 24 hours.  Why is that not enough to get an indictment?  Indictments are often made with circumstantial evidence.  The MPD seems to have put the case on hold due to lack of DNA evidence.  Cases often don’t go to trial with DNA evidence, though.
  • The anecdote of Barbara’s anonymous friend from AA of seeing a man in a ski mask in the backyard is not backed up with any evidence.  As far as I can tell, it was not reported to the police.
  • Why would the killer wander around someone’s backyard in a ski mask in the middle of the day?
  • Aunt Conway has it out for Ali.  Aunt Conway lived with Barbara and Ali for a while.  Conway says that Ali was very unstable during that time, treating her mother like dirt.  Madison never asks Ali about her behavior during that time period.
  • Ali’s borderline personality disorder never fully explored.
  • The MPD does not want the case to be declared cold, so that the case files will remain secret.  It turns out that the case file is 1,600 pages long, so clearly they had worked on it extensively for a period.

With the above in mind, I feel that Madison was probably more passive during his interviews that he should have been.  While he was able to get members of his family to open up on camera for him, confessing personal things that eventually the entire world will know, he seemed hesitant to confront them with difficult but obvious questions.  Sure, he does ask several members of his family “did you kill my mother”, but that’s easy enough to say no to (which everybody does).  He never asks, “did you have anything to do with my mother’s death”.  Semantics, sure, but the two questions are not equivalent.

The timeline of the day when Barbara was killed seems to exonerate his father, the prime suspect, from the crime:

  • Barbara drives Ali to school.  The one-way trip is probably 10-20 minutes.
  • Ali checks into school at roughly 8:00 AM
  • Barbara chats with one of the school administrators for probably ten minutes.
  • Barbara drives home.
  • Barbara is assaulted when she is walking back into her home.
  • Jeffrey is at court probably before the actual 9:30 AM appointment time.  His lawyer and Barbara’s lawyer are witnesses.  He likely was either at court or with his lawyer before then, potentially to discuss strategy or just to not be late.
  • Ali tries to contact her mother to pick her up from school starting at around 11:00 AM.  After not being able to reach her, Ali has Conway pick her up.

This doesn’t mean that I believe Jeffrey had nothing to do with the murder.  Jeffrey could have had someone call Barbara and tell her that the court appointment time had been pushed back.  (She certainly would have recognized her husband’s voice.)  Jeffrey then could have paid someone to kill Barbara.  Another possibility is that one of Jeffrey’s shady business associates could have killed Barbara to keep Jeffrey from talking to the Feds.  The latter scenario would explain why Jeffrey is so cagey all the time.  The implied message could have been, you spill to the Feds, you’ll end up dead like your ex-wife.

An important fact to keep in mind is that several people knew the date of Barbara’s appearance before the judge, and even that the time had been pushed back.  (Barbara’s anonymous friend from AA knew about this.)  The possibility that one of Barbara’s AA friends or acquaintances could carried out the murder is given lip service.  (Aunt Jill describes the ladies Barbara recruited from AA as “unstable”.)  The split between Barbara’s table and Aunt Jill’s table is discussed at length.  However, the hypothesis that Barbara could have been killed to keep her from providing incriminating or corroborating evidence to the Feds about the gaming tables  definitely took a back seat to pinning the blame on Jeffrey.  Given the amounts of money involved ($40k when you reach dessert level), I can easily believe she could have been killed by someone in the gaming tables hierarchy, either to eliminate her as a witness, or as revenge from being scammed out of thousands of dollars by someone you thought was your friend.

Aunt Conway definitely comes off the worst in the series, and that says a lot, given that her competition is Jeffrey.  Conway is presented as the near-do-well sibling, with a raging drug habit so bad that she lost custody of her own son.  She also confesses that she tried to pay a hitman to kill Barbara and Ali at one point, although there are no records shown to back that up.  She clearly is the family sponge, living off of her sister Barbara’s largess until she was murdered.  How she has supported herself since then is not explained.

Jeffrey definitely comes off as cagey and circumspect throughout.  He treated his ex-wife horribly after their divorce, by withholding support.  Refusing to pay alimony and child support is a terrible thing to do, but Jeffrey would not be the first father or ex-husband to do that.  Keep in mind that Barbara was the one who filed for divorce, for abandonment.  Husbands typically can be spiteful in divorce proceedings, child custody proceedings, support proceedings, etc.  His behavior was awful, but he would not be the first ex-husband to act like he did.

Murder on Middle Beach rules out Ali, Aunt Conway, Aunt Jill and Jeffrey as the murderers.  All of them have alibi’s that clear them, even though each had motive to do it.  To me, this means that the murderer probably was not a family member.  That person could have either been an acquaintance of Barbara’s (via the gifting tables scam), or someone contracted to kill her (by Jeffrey or someone he did business with).  The cops mention that there was Hamburg family DNA under Barbara’s fingernails, but that could have happened when Conway and Ali found her and touched her.  Or the material could be the result of the botched handling of the DNA by the lab.  (It’s very easy for DNA to become tainted if not handled properly every step of the way, from collection to testing.)

Madison’s decision to record all of his phone calls with his father, and wear a wire when they are together, seems childish, like something out of a Scooby-Doo cartoon.  It was clear to me from the initial conversation we hear of Madison and his father that Jeffrey is well practiced at not to say anything incriminating on the phone or when out in public.  As someone who had been investigated (to an extent not made clear in the series) by the FBI and Interpol, then Jeffrey would be the last person I would expect to let his guard down at any time.  I can understand why Madison would think that he may catch his dad slipping up, but all I think Madison accomplished is destroying the relationship with his father forever.

With the release of the MPD case file to Madison, the ending of the series hints that a follow-up season could delve into any juicy details uncovered in the 1,600 pages.  And that is the hallmark of any successful entertainment venture: a sequel.  It seems strange that Madison has somehow profited off of his mother’s murder, but better him than a stranger, I guess.

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