Everyone has heard that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, but that’s never been more true than in Finders Keepers, the new documentary about the years-long custody battle over a severed limb.
The conflict began when Shannon Whisnant of Maiden, North Carolina, purchased a smoker grill at a local storage-locker auction and then found an embalmed leg inside. Whisnant saw the discovery as a ticket to stardom, something he’d desired since his troubled childhood. What Whisnant didn’t consider was that the limb might belong to someone else and that he might want it back.
Though the tale has the ring of a folksy local legend, the true story is much more tragic. John Wood, the body part’s original owner, lost both his father and his left leg on the same day when the small plane they were flying in crash-landed. The event triggered Wood’s downward spiral into drug addiction and poverty. Wood had had his limb embalmed as a way to memorialize his father. Prior to the accident, the two had not been on good terms, but they briefly reconciled before the crash. Wood misplaced the leg after an eviction forced all of his possessions into a storage locker and he moved out of state, leaving his family to pick up the bill. When Wood heard that his leg had turned up at the auction, he expected to claim it and be done with it, but unfortunately for him, Whisnant had kept his receipt.
The proceeding battle became a minor comic TV news sensation, but the filmmakers — one of whom, Ed Cunningham (The King of Kong), says he first overheard the story from “two guys in an Oklahoma pig joint” — soon discovered that there was something deeper at work. “If you look at The World’s Dumbest Hillbillies or the CNN segment, it seemed like a pretty over-and-done story,” says one of the film’s directors, Bryan Carberry. “You have a good chuckle, and you move on. But talking to John and Shannon, we realized all of the darker stuff that didn’t fit with the funny headline.”
The messy details, the ones that didn’t jibe neatly with the image of Southern simpletons, were exactly what interested them. “Having spent so much time with these people in intimate circumstances — sleeping on the floor of their place while shooting, having every meal with them — it’s hard to look at them as characters after a while,” Carberry says.
The custody battle for the leg, by the way, was finally resolved thanks to an appearance on Judge Mathis, but the men who fought for it still share an eerie connection. At press time, Whisnant (the guy who bought the grill) had fractured his own left leg and, because of complications, was facing the possibility of amputation. “It seems like the circumstances between these two guys could go on forever,” says the film’s other director, Clay Tweel. The good news? Franchise potential!