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A Beautiful Child – Book Review

ABeatifulChildBy: Matt Birkbeck

Copyright: 2004, 2005, ISBN: [9780425204405 ]

Cover: Pyrographics

Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, 27 August 2013


Summary:  Beyond the search for identity of Sharon Marshall, this book chronicles the extraordinary ineptness of the American penal system and our timid efforts as a society to protect our children.

In this rather extraordinary crime book, Matt Birkbeck presents the facts underlying the question of Who was Sharon Marshall:

  1.  Sharon Marshall Hughes was found lying on the service road just off Interstate 35 in Oklahoma City in April 1990. She died on 30 April having never regained consciousness. At the time she was going by the name Tonya Hughes and the name on her grave marker.
  2. Her “husband”, Franklin Delano Floyd was born in 1943, a very intelligent but flawed individual. His father having died three years after his birth and his mother unable to support the four children from the marriage, Franklin was raised in an orphanage in Atlanta, Georgia. He was there from 1946 to 1959 when he was kicked out for repeatedly running away and breaking into homes.
  3. In June 1962, Franklin abducted a four year-old girl from a bowling alley and molested her. Convicted of the molestation charge, he was sentenced to ten years in prison.  He escaped from the Milledgeville State Hospital where he was undergoing psychiatric evaluation. He then robbed a bank in Macon, Georgia.  He was apprehended and sentenced to fifteen years to the Federal Reformatory at Chillicothe, Ohio in 1963. He ended up in the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, a maximum-security prison housing violent criminal from the Washington, D.C. area. We learn that “maximum-security” is an amorphous term. The prisoners at Lewisburg were certainly not experiencing “maximum-security”. Floyd “was regularly raped and beaten” while there.  In February 1965 he was transferred to another maximum-security facility in Illinois—Marion federal prison. There he submitted to a “daddy” and was protected from beatings in exchange for sexual performance. His final prison home was at Reidsville State Prison where he completed his bank robbery sentence and was paroled in November 1971. He went directly to the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta to serve the remainder of his sentence for an attempted escape from Chillicothe.
  4. Author Birkbeck gives us a brief and enlightening history of the Church of the New Song. Federal prisons cannot protect inmates from sexual assault, but they can protect an inmate’s right to establish and practice a religion—said religion being the Church of the New Song or CONS. Floyd became a participant before his release from prison to a halfway house in November 1972. A friend he made in prison and a fellow member of CONS, David Dial, plays a role in the search for the identity of Sharon Marshall as well as for the search for her missing son, Michael. Michael was most likely killed by Floyd after an abduction from the school Michael attended while assigned to foster parents.
  5. After being released from a halfway house in January 1973, Floyd picked up in February 1973 after attempting to kidnap a woman at a gas station. With the help of David Dial, he posed bond. He did not appear for a June trial. Floyd disappears from the earth from June 1973 until the summer of 1989.

According to Matt Birkbeck, it was during the period June 1973 to 1976 that Floyd came in possession of Sharon Marshall.  Like FBI Special Agent Joe Fitzpatrick, St. Petersburg, Florida detective Mark Deasaro and Robert Schock, and National Center for Missing & Exploited Children case manager Gerry Nance, Birkbeck spent time attempting to unravel the identity of the woman known as Sharon Marshall.

As Birkbeck points out, “There was no other case on record where a pedophile, convicted felon, and federal fugitive kidnapped a child and successfully raised her as his daughter . . . that he maintained custody of the child for fifteen to seventeen years.” This is exactly what appears to have happened in the Floyd case. The author devotes considerable space to explaining how it could have happened. In the process, he exposes the evolving attitude the American social and legal systems have toward children and the infuriating ineptness of our prison system in particular and our legal system in general.

In Chapter 27 of A BEAUTIFUL CHILD, Birkbeck lays out the history of America’s evolving legal attitude toward children. He mentions the Charles Linbergh kidnapping case in 1932 as a defining moment.  Then, the FBI instituted its missing-persons database file in 1975. Congress passed The Missing Children Act in 1982. In 1990, The National Child Search Assistance Act became law. All of this was too late to be of use in solving the Sharon Marshall mystery. Birkbeck explores the network of ex-prison inmates with whom Floyd had contact, primarily stemming from the CONS church, after his failure to appear for trial. This raises the prospect that “Suzanne Davis”, aka, Sharon Marshall was simply given to Floyd by a parent. It is a horrifying and incredible thought but possible within the world in which Floyd circulated. In reading the book, you want to believe that she was a kidnap victim, that the parents or parent were killed and lie undiscovered somewhere.

From the time Floyd’s mother gave him and his siblings to the care of the Georgia orphanage, the path to being an aberrant was open to him. The orphanage did not make him an aberrant, it merely expanded the gateway to the possible.  Incarceration in the penal system erected the narcissistic frames of reference that allowed him to justify and remain an aberrant. In the end, for whatever reasons, he chose the path. Whoever Sharon Marshall was, wherever she came from, the one certainty is that she had no choices at the beginning of her life. Floyd, as her would-be-father and then as her controlling husband, shut the door to her path of possible futures.

Franklin Delano Floyd currently sits on Florida death row, awaiting an execution ordered back in 2002 for the murder of Cheryl Comesso in 1989. Meanwhile, the identity of Sharon Marshall remains unsolved.  Birkbeck provides an engrossing account of Sharon Marshall’s life from 1983 to 1985 when she was a student at Forest Park High School in Forest Park, Georgia. The account focuses on the friendship between Sharon and fellow high school student, Jennifer Fisher.

This two year portrait of an extremely intelligent and outgoing fifteen or sixteen year old girl is very difficult to reconcile with the young woman who ended up dead on the service road of Interstate 35 in Oklahoma City in April 1990: From a girl who wanted to go to Georgia Tech and was accepted into Georgia Tech and wanted to become an aerospace engineer working for NASA is a glaring incongruity. Matt Birkbeck does not even attempt to explain it. He merely mentions a few possible explanations. His real focus is on the broader issue of how a pedophile could gain custody of a child and raise the child as his own.  In this endeavor Birkbeck succeeds and we learn some history of child protection laws.

For anyone who gets annoyed at Amber Alerts (which reportedly happened in California recently), they should read A BEAUTIFUL CHILD. For the rest of us, this book serves as a blueprint of how far we have to go to ensure that children can mature in a safe and community nurturing environment.

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