St. Petersburg Times
April 22, 2001
One pedophile, many broken lives

In a harrowing documentary, one family tells a painful story of childhood abuse and its unending effects.

For a guy who seems to have so much going right in his life these days, James Ronald Whitney isn't having the greatest morning.

Talking to a reporter about Just, Melvin: Just Evil, his intimately personal film about the grandfather who sexually molested his 10 children and stepchildren (including Whitney's mother), the filmmaker finds his cell phone connection from Manhattan to Florida constantly cutting out.

When the reporter calls back for a third time, there's more bad news: Part of the hotel where Whitney has housed his eight aunts and mother, who last week attended HBO's lavish screening party, is on fire. All he knows so far is that one of his relatives caused it.

Still, once Whitney determined that nobody was hurt and the fire was under control, he was ready to finish the interview.

After all, for a guy who's seen his own mother attempt suicide too many times to count, a stray hotel fire barely breaks his stride.

"Well, there's lots of things that (might seem) pretty traumatic for some people," said Whitney, 37, who initially believed his mother's suicide attempts were rooted in his father's abandoning the family with his wife's best friend. "In our family, that's a Tuesday morning."

Just, Melvin documents the emotional wreckage created by Melvin Just, a mechanic in a small northern California town who consistently molested his own children and stepchildren by two different women.

According to the victims' recollections, Just also prostituted them to other pedophiles, eventually raping and murdering a nurse- social worker who tried to protect them.

Evidence of the fallout unfolds throughout Whitney's film. Each of Just's daughters and stepdaughters has attempted suicide, struggled with substance abuse, fallen into prostitution and homelessness, and more. Few of them can point to many periods of stability or productivity in life.

In one of the film's most telling moments, Whitney's Uncle Jim - one of Just's stepchildren - calmly discusses offering to let one of his half-sisters share his home as his wife to avoid homelessness.

"I think that two consenting adults . . . whatever they deem is right, is right," Uncle Jim tells the camera. "To have sex with a . . . sister, I don't think that's all that wrong."

This is how Whitney illustrates the enduring cycle of abuse that has devastated his family and many others. There's no gravel-voiced narrator to lead viewers anywhere; instead, the voices of Whitney, his aunts and other relatives form the framework of the story.

Whitney's mother, Ann Marie, tells of trying to shoot Just while he was beating her mother, only to discover that the gun was empty. One aunt tells a story of being taken near a garbage dump to have sex with other pedophiles; another says her mother took diapers off a baby sister to lay her in bed with a naked Just.

"Grandpa Just destroyed my family and almost destroyed my mom," Whitney narrates to the camera over footage from one of his Star Search dance competitions (an appearance he made minutes after learning that his mom had tried to suffocate herself with car exhaust). "When I'm finished with him, he'll either be in jail or he'll be dead. That's a promise."

Yet Whitney, who serves as co-writer, co-producer, director and co- composer on Just, Melvin, insists he's not angry about his grandfather's crimes, which earned Just an eight-year prison sentence for child molestation in the late '70s.

"Instead of being angry, spinning around in circles going nowhere, I have disgust that I've turned into something positive," says the filmmaker, who also works as a stockbroker for a Wall Street firm. "I have much more satisfaction."

Just, Melvin caught HBO's eye during the Sundance Film Festival, where Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert championed the film (on his TV show At the Movies, Ebert called it "one of the angriest, most painful documentaries I have ever seen . . . and it's one of the best."). Though it didn't win a prize at Sundance, it did take honors at film festivals in Santa Barbara, Calif.; Austin, Texas; Vancouver; and others.

Sheila Nevins, the executive who heads HBO's America Undercover documentary series and helped shape Just, Melvin for TV, says Whitney's documentary exemplifies the kinds of films she's planned for America Undercover's first regular time slot on HBO's schedule.

In the past, Nevins' documentaries might air any time on the pay cable channel. But executives decided to give America Undercover a regular home after The Sopranos for 11 weeks, funneling viewers from HBO's biggest hit into documentaries about dwarfs, killers of abortion doctors and Melvin Just.

"It's sociology meets archaeology meets television," says Nevins, noting how Just, Melvin fits into HBO's vision of documentary filmmaking. "It's not a newsmagazine piece, and it's not interrupted by commercials. You can stay with this family until it's unbearable."

Whitney blends in kitschy clips of himself (in full, feather- haired, 1980s mode) competing in Star Search's dance contests and game shows, breaking the tension from his family's harrowing tales. Using surround sound, he sprinkles shards of sonic touches throughout the film, re-creating the sounds of Just yelling at his children or assaulting the nurse in the background of certain scenes.

But even though he often faces the camera himself to relate matter- of-fact stories of abuse - including his own molestation by an unnamed uncle at age 5 and a sexual encounter with a 9-year-old cousin two years later - Whitney accepts no praise for his family's painful honesty.

"Getting to the heart of an issue is what my family is about," he says. "We're okay going down in those valleys because, ultimately, we're going to find a top."

According to Whitney's relatives, Just would make a game of his molestations, telling the children to "play horsey" or giving them money, which he would increase according to the child's actions.

According to several of Whitney's relatives, when nurse Josephine Spegel threatened to take away the children during an unannounced visit in 1969, Just raped and killed her as some of his children watched, burying the body in a remote location. He was never charged in that incident.

By the time Whitney confronts Just, he's in a wheelchair and living in a nursing home. For the price of a McDonald's Big Mac and fries, Whitney lured his grandfather to a waterfront boardwalk, peppering him with questions about the abuse allegations.

Just denied it all. And a few weeks later, he was dead.

"My mom said the most satisfying thing for her was seeing me get in Melvin Just's face," says Whitney, who runs the film's credits over bittersweet footage of his aunts getting drunk and insulting Just during his funeral. "All those years later, he was finally called on it."

Just, Melvin also presents a horrifying picture of poor, rural family dysfunction that lives down to the worst stereotypes. But Whitney, who counters that he can't bother with being "politically correct," simply rolls the camera and lets his relatives speak.

The filmmaker denies feeling any anger, but Just, Melvin nevertheless seemed drenched in frustration and pain, fueled mostly by Just's cruelty and the inability of any adults to stop it.

Whitney, a former Chippendale's dancer, is a talented pianist who says he stumbled into a finance career while helping successful friends manage their money. These days, he juggles a Wall Street career with work writing musicals and completing a new film,, about children whose mother is a porn star.

And even as he admits that his tragic past fuels his competitive drive, Whitney hopes Just, Melvin educates adults about the unending, destructive cycle of abuse one brutal pedophile can spark. (Whitney includes a link to the charity Childhelp USA on his Web site for the film,

"The idea for this is to serve as a wake-up call to society," says Whitney, noting that April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. "We call it child abuse, like (the effects) end at childhood. But even now, (none of his aunts) have had clean or sober or functional lives."

In the documentary Just, Melvin: Just Evil, Melvin Just's family says he sexually molested his nine daughters and some of his stepchildren. Just, above, with his daughter June, was sentenced to eight years in prison in the 1970s.

With the bribe of a McDonald's hamburger, filmmaker James Ronald Whitney lures his grandfather, Melvin Just, above, to a pier for a confrontation. When peppered with questions about his crimes, Just denied everything. A few weeks later, he was dead.
                                                        -- Eric Deggans

DIRECTOR'S FILMS: GAMES PEOPLE PLAY: New York, GAMES PEOPLE PLAY: Hollywood, Telling Nicholas, Just, Melvin,
Find out more about James Ronald Whitney's Productions at the Fire Island Films website
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