Gail and David Witt live in the tiny hamlet of Tellico Plains, Tenn. A little more than an hour south of Knoxville, it boasts a population of about 800 and is a gateway to the Cherokee National Forest.
Which is to say, life skews slower and friendlier and more placidly there.
But after the Witts began watching Knoxville TV news stations five years ago cover the extremely disturbing story of a murdered couple, Christopher Newsom and Channon Christian, life for the Witts turned into a roller coaster ride that hasn't stopped since.
Christopher and Channon (Credit: Gail Witt via YouTube)
"We originally didn't know the families at all," Gail Witt recalls to TheBlaze. But the more she heard about the last night on earth for Newsom, 23, a carpenter and standout baseball player, and Christian, a 21-year-old student at the University of Tennessee, the more she was compelled to research the case and learn all the details she could.
On January 6, 2007, Newsom and Christian were abducted at gunpoint in an apartment complex parking lot and taken to what Witt calls a "house of horrors" where they were beaten, tortured, sexually assaulted, and murdered. Five people (four men and one woman) were charged and convicted for the crime. But when it was discovered that the judge in the case had a drug addiction, the killers took advantage of the justice system.
"All but one has been repeatedly pursuing retrials and appeals," Glenn Beck explained on TheBlaze TV recently. "The lone female attacker had her sentence reduced by a third. This miscarriage of justice is forcing the family to live this horror over and over and over again each time they are dragged back into a court battle."
Which is exactly how the Witts saw things.
Gail says she began watching the trials in August 2009 then soon got the idea that people outside of Knoxville needed a chance to hear about the couple's story, as well as the terrible legal ordeal their families were going through.
She decided she would make a documentary.
(Credit: TheBlaze TV)
Despite the fact that Witt had never before even aspired to create a documentary, she says she was simply "led to do this." (Plus, noticing how much misinformation had been circulating around the Internet about the case, Witt says she wanted to create something 100 percent accurate.)
So Witt approached the families in January 2010, meeting with them for two hours one day to see if they would be willing to tell their stories about Christopher and Channon...and their own stories, too. And they agreed.
While the crime happened almost seven years ago, Deena Christian--Channon's mother--says she's just starting to be able to sleep at night.
"We wanted the truth to get out," she tells TheBlaze. "There were stories on the Internet that weren't true. So if anybody was going to tell the story, we wanted to be the ones to do it."
Deena Christian speaks on camera in "Forever Changed" (Credit: Gail Witt via YouTube)
"Channon was a good person; Chris was a good person," Christian adds. "I didn't want anybody trying to say otherwise."
When Witt approached her and the other family members, Christian was heartened by the fact that the Witts were from the area and were as interested in the plain truth as the families--as well as the message to be on your guard.
"We didn't want what happened to Chris and Channon to happen to anybody else," Christian says, adding that what the perpetrators did to the young couple was "pure hatred and evil; it's not normal."
"It's just a story that has to be told," Witt says of the documentary, which began production in April 2010. They've titled it "Forever Changed."
(Credit: Gail Witt via YouTube)
It's an apropos name for the painstaking project, as over the course of the years interviewing family and videotaping courtroom sessions on a shoestring budget, something rather unexpected happened.
"Emotionally I'm right in there with the families," Witt says. "When the trials were going on, I was upset like they were upset; I would cry over things they cried over."
But when it came to creating the documentary and doing the work, Witt says she was able to keep her emotions in check.
David and Gail Witt at work on "Forever Changed" (Credit: Gail Witt)
Witt's husband David, who's acting as a producer for the project, noted the obvious racial element to the case, as the convicted individuals are all African-American and their victims were white. But that was never a factor in the documentary, he said: "We're just trying to be as neutral as possible and tell the truth."
Deena Christian agrees, saying she was approached by journalists who wanted to sensationalize the crime as a black-versus-white incident, but the families weren't buying it and wouldn't take the bait.
The main reason the project has taken this long, the Witts say, is because they've been paying for production expenses out of their own pockets. And while they've received a lot of volunteer help, items such as cameras, as well as lighting and sound equipment (and folks to run them) all have costs attached to them.
"We had two editors before, but they stopped," David Witt notes, because the unimaginably gruesome details of the couple's deaths were too much for the editors to bear emotionally. "It's a sad story and very hard to take," he agreed.
The Witts have reached the "rough cut" stage of the documentary's creation, but it's far from finished. Gail wants more interviews with the families, and then the lengthy process of post production begins...and lots of editing. She says they hope a DVD will be available by the end of 2013.
Gail works with an interview subject (Credit: Gail Witt)
In the end, Gail wants "Forever Changed" to spur on viewers to "really start to pay attention" to what happened to Christopher and Channon. Witt adds that the target age group for the documentary is between 15 and 30 "because they are the ones who think they are the most invincible. This happened in a nice neighborhood. They never suspected anything."
The Witts add that proceeds from sale of DVD, after production expenses are covered, go to scholarships the families have set up in the names of Christopher and Channon.
You can keep up to date on "Forever Changed" by visiting the project's Facebook page, where you can also communicate with the Witts and many others who've taken an interest in seeing the best outcome result from this senseless crime. (And be sure to tune in next Tuesday, Aug. 27, as Glenn Beck is scheduled to interview the parents of Chris and Channon on TheBlaze TV.)
The following is a rough preview of the upcoming documentary, although there's more the Witt's are looking to capture on video before they complete it: