PLEASE NOTE: There are graphic details in this post and it is not recommended for children or the easily disturbed.
In 2000 I was working at the one-hour photo inside Walmart in Raymore, MO as a lab technician. Digital photography was a thing but a niche market at this point and there was still a steady demand for development of pictures from film. My position included sales of photography equipment, support of the scanning kiosks and operation of the minilab processing equipment.
I enjoyed using the scanner/printer as it was the newest piece of technology but a bulk of the demand was from luddites unable to operate the software so I usually jockeyed to work the processing equipment. It was pretty straightforward for the most part taking 35mm film and putting it through two at a time into the chemical baths then previewing and color correcting the images before they were printed and sorted by the machine. Occasionally someone would bring in some old 110 film and we would have to use a popup dark room in the corner to safely unseal it and convert to a cartridge that would fit in the minilab machine.
One day while retrieving a camera for a customer from the back room my manager approached me with a couple of angry looking suit clad gentlemen in tow. I assumed that they were from corporate as we would get inspections from time to time but the look on her face told me it was something more serious.
"These gentlemen have some film for you to process", she said matter-of-factly.
"I thought Rhonna was on the minilab?" I countered.
"I'd really rather you do it, this is of a serious subject" she countered with a sense of urgency.
As it was my boss asking and I was happy to swap job I easily accepted (additionally the silent visitors behind her told me refusal wasn't really an option). I was the only man working in the small department and my boss later explained to me that she didn't feel comfortable with anyone else taking on the project.
I followed my manager back to the lab trailed by the suites to find a couple of armed police officers waiting for us. At this point panic set in. While I had no reason to believe they were there for me my youth had taught me to fear uniformed police. I was taken to the back corner of the lab where it was explained that they had 27 rolls of film of a sensitive nature that needed to be handled with the utmost confidentiality.
Despite the obvious show of force (and lack of subtlety on their part in a busy Wal-Mart) I pushed for more details. They were vague but explained that I would see graphic images and I would be monitored to ensure I did not make duplicate copies. When I asked why they needed a One-Hour photo and couldn't get them processed themselves I received no answer.
All the other orders were placed on hold as I sat there and one by one prepared and fed the film through the machine. Two officers stayed with me, one relaxing in the corner clearly unhappy with the assignment and the other next to me like my shadow intently watching my every move. The rolls began as wide views of a storage facility with a local address and moved into close ups of locks, foot prints and even patches of rust inside a unit. It didn't make much sense for such a big fuss over something so benign but I kept color correcting, printing and placing them in an envelope before handing them to the posted sentry.
Eventually I looked through my viewfinder and saw a black 55 gallon barrel positioned in the corner of a storage unit with the other items shoved to the side. Like a flipbook out of a nightmare the images moved from wide shot to that of a detective opening it and finally glove clad hands removing the lid. Inside was a murky soupy mess with the distinct image of a human head and hand floated on top. Both were decomposing and waterlogged but there was no mistaking it. I stopped for a moment and pulled back blinking my eyes. Seeing this the two police came in and took turns leaning over and looking at the site before exclaiming.
After they had had their fill I went back to work, color correcting this horrific sight and advancing the images. Unprompted the attentive cop shared, "we don't have photo processing in Raymore and the chief didn't want the government to have the only copies". I just nodded as though it made perfect sense but couldn't really focus on anything beyond the shocking images before me.
In the bottom drawer of the storage cabinet we had a Rubbermaid container with images that we couldn't return to customers. They were mostly nudes and while a few were of adults awkwardly a bulk were of little kids just taking baths. Clearly taken by well intending parents trying to capture a cute moment. Regardless Walmart's rules were strict and no nudity of any kind could be given back to the customer. I once asked why we didn't destroy them (or how they got printed anyway when we reviewed each image beforehand). No satisfying answer was ever given. Till that day those were the worst images I had ever seen. While most of the film brought to me that day was boring I will forever remember those few that weren't.
I later learned that John Edward Robinson known to some as "the Internet's first serial killer" had used the nearby storage unit for one of his victims. From 1987 to 1993, Robinson was incarcerated, on multiple fraud convictions and parole violations. At Western Missouri Correctional Facility, he met 49-year-old Beverly Bonner, the prison librarian, who upon his release left her husband, a prison doctor, and moved to Kansas to work for him. After Robinson arranged for Bonner's alimony checks to be forwarded to a Kansas post office box, her family never heard from her again. For several years, Bonner's mother continued forwarding her alimony checks, and Robinson continued cashing them. It is believed that her remains were found in that storage unit.