Radford Photographer Bob Shell is going to jail for a long time. The jury that found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter Friday recommends a minimum sentence of 32 years. Judges in this part of Virginia seldom deviate from jury recommendations.
Shell’s descent into the dark side of art, bondage and kinky sex photography should serve as a warning to both photographers who venture into that realm and young aspiring models who see such "art" photography as a path to a modeling career.
Marion Franklin’s death of a drug overdose in Shell’s studio during a photo shoot that featured bondage and kinky sex left all involved in the case feeling like they needed a shower — many showers.
Writes Shawna Morrison of The Roanoke Times:
It took the jury of seven women and five men more than 12 hours of deliberating Thursday and Friday to reach verdicts on the eight charges against Shell and another three hours to agree on sentencing, finally returning just after 8 p.m. Friday.
Shell faced a minimum of six years in prison and a maximum of 131 on the eight charges. Circuit Judge Joey Showalter will decide at a hearing Oct. 26 whether to accept the jury’s recommendation of a total of 32 years and six months and a $5,000 fine.
The jury recommended Shell serve eight years for involuntary manslaughter, seven for attempted forcible sodomy, four each for two counts of attempted animate object sexual penetration, five years for one count of distributing morphine and six months on another, three years for possessing morphine and one year for distributing diazepam.
The verdict ended one of the most bizarre trials ever in Radford. As Morrison wrote in a sidebar feature:
From the start, Bob Shell’s case was about sex, drugs, adultery and a death, all of which was interesting enough.
And then the trial began.
The court proceedings would end up including testimony from medical and camera experts, models from across the country, even a former member of The Allman Brothers Band. And hours upon hours of pure pornography was shown to everyone in the courtroom as part of the evidence.
The trial was going to be about sex and drugs, Jonathon Venzie, Shell’s lawyer, had told potential jurors. Shell, a then-56-year-old man, who had been married more than 30 years, fell in love with a 19-year-old — a "little girl," Venzie often said.
But Shell wasn’t on trial for adultery or for pornography, Venzie told them. Shell, in fact was on trial for causing the accidental death of model Marion Franklin, who died from a morphine overdose June 3, 2003, after a photo shoot in Shell’s Radford studio.
Venzie told the jurors they might be disturbed by what they saw during the trial, but they couldn’t be tempted to punish him for his lifestyle.
"It’s going to be legs wide open, bigger than life up on that screen, hour after hour," Venzie told potential jurors as they were interviewed. "There are points in those pictures that are important for both the commonwealth and the defense." Those who sat on the jury couldn’t be so disturbed that they would be compelled to look away, he added.
Some of the potential jurors said they couldn’t do it. One cried about it. They were excused from jury duty in the case.
Shell’s fall from the ranks of respected photographer and lecturer to just another dirty old man with a camera will be fodder for photography forums, classes and panel discussions for years to come but it is just another sad tale of a man with a camera taking advantage of a young woman who was willing to do just about anything in front of a lens.
I wrote about the dangers of teen model web sites in 2002:
In front of a camera, Bobbi Jo is a stunning Alabama beauty with incredible sex appeal.
She has the right look, innocence with a touch of naughtiness beckoning the viewer, a shapely body that looks good in a pair of tight jeans and a bare midriff top and even better in a bikini.
All woman – except for one fact.
Bobbi Jo is 13.
At 13, this Alabama sex kitten has been modeling for two years, has a Yahoo discussion group (called “Beachbabe”) and a web site where those willing to put $19 a month on their Visa can look at dozens of photos of her wearing very little clothing and a come-hither look.
Her parents know what she is doing. Her mother not only approves, but encourages it, saying Bobbi Jo is on her way to becoming a super model.
“Not likely,” says child psychologist Dorothy Grange, who has a lot of experience dealing with kids who are forced to grow up too fast. “More likely, she will be burned out at 16, robbed of any real chance at a normal childhood.”
When I still had a photo studio at The Jacksonville Center, a Floyd mother walked in one day with her 14 year old daughter, asking if I could shoot photos of her "for a web site."
She wanted photos of the girl in a bikini, lingerie and underwear. For one photo she suggested a shot of the young girl wearing just panties and covering her breasts with her arms. The girl looked very uncomfortable as her mother described the photos she wanted. When I pointed out that her daughter was underage, the mother responded: "Oh, that’s OK. She has my permission."
I said "no." The mother then asked if I could recommend another photographer. I said "no" again. She left. A month or so later a teacher at Floyd County High School told me photos of the young girl posing semi-nude were passed around by students at the high school.
Bob Shell is a sexual predator who preyed on young women. He deserves to go to jail for a long time. So the Floyd woman who tried to push her teenage daughter into modeling is no less a sexual predator. Like Shell, she belongs in jail. Unlike Shell, she won’t be punished for destroying yet another young girl’s life.