HBO’s Burden of Proof: What happened to Jennifer Pandos?

Daisy Phillipson
Stephen Pandos in Burden of ProofMax

Here’s the true story behind Burden of Proof, the poignant documentary series from HBO, as we examine what could have happened to Jennifer Pandos, who Tony Tobler is, and if Stephen Pandos finds the answers he’s looking for.

What makes director Cynthia Hill’s Burden of Proof a unique true crime documentary is the time scale of events. The four-part series is shot over the course of seven years, as Stephen searches for answers on the disappearance of his sister Jennifer – who went missing all the way back in 1987. 

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As per HBO’s synopsis: “His investigation into the case threatens to destroy his family as he becomes strongly convinced that his parents are both implicated in the crime. As time passes, more threads unravel and new evidence comes to light, Stephen starts to question everything he has come to believe.”

Each episode brings shocking new twists and turns in Stephen’s painful search for closure, bringing new suspects into focus. So, with the arrival of Burden of Proof on Max, here’s what you need to know about the ending of the series and what happened to the key figures in this case. Warning: some may find this content distressing.

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Does Burden of Proof find what happened to Jennifer Pandos?

Sadly, we still don’t know for sure what happened to Jennifer Pandos – but people have their suspicions after watching the Burden of Proof, especially with the revelations in Episode 4. 

Jennifer disappeared from her home in Williamsburg, Virginia back in 1987, aged just 15 years old. The first two episodes focus on Stephen’s belief that their parents, Margie and Ron Pandos, were responsible. What’s heartbreaking is how the case has torn the family apart, with Margie never having met her grandkids – and Stephen continuing on his quest to find out what happened in a bid to make sure his own daughters live in a safe world. 

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Both Margie and Ron are interviewed throughout the docu-series and deny any involvement. However, we discover that Ron – a Vietnam veteran with PTSD and a history of domestic violence – used to get angry and violent with his kids, with Stephen claiming his mother would turn a blind eye to the abuse. 

“My mother never protected my sister or me from my father, ever,” he says. “When my father would get angry and violent, my mother, she stayed away.” Both Stephen and police in the initial investigation suspect that Ron’s angry and violent temperament led him to lash out and kill Jennifer, while Margie helped to cover it up. 

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Much of this is down to the parents’ strange behavior. When Jennifer first went missing, they discovered a note at the end of their daughter’s bed written in messy handwriting. It instructed Margie and Ron not to worry and to go about their day. 

Ron Pandos is interviewed in Burden of ProofHBO
Ron Pandos is interviewed in Burden of Proof

Starting off in third person, it said: “Your daughter’s with me. She’s fine. She’s having some problems and needs some time away.” It then switches to first person but in the same handwriting, stating: “I’m fine, I just need time to think. 

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“Both of you please go to work tomorrow ‘cause I will try to call you. I won’t call you at home, only at one of y’all’s work. Do not call the police. I can easily find out if you do. I may never come back home. Don’t tell my friends about this. Just tell them that I’m sick.”

A number of other details were amiss too, including that she left behind many of her belongings. For most parents, finding their teenage daughter had vanished from her bedroom in the middle of the night with a note instructing them to not tell the police would raise major alarm bells. 

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But what transpires in the earlier portion of the docu-series is that Margie and Ron didn’t call the police for three days, telling friends and family that Jennifer was sick or not home. “We really don’t know what happened in those three days,” says Sergeant Wendi Reed of the James City county police investigators, who was assigned the case from 2006 to 2009.

While Ron claims he handed out flyers, Reed goes on to say: “I have yet to find a friend that has said that they saw any flyers.” In Episode 2, we’re shown Margie being interrogated by police in 2007, and it’s discovered that both Margie and Ron failed a polygraph test about their knowledge over their daughter’s whereabouts when the case was reopened years later. 

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Margie Pandos was interrogated by policeHBO
Margie Pandos being interrogated by police in the 2000s

Ultimately, Stephen’s initial belief is that Ron killed Jennifer and forced Margie to write the note and help him cover up the crime. 

However, as the series develops, so too does the case, and it’s shown there are a number of issues with the investigation. In the 2000s, it’s found that the original missing persons case file is missing. We also learn that Margie is in possession of Jennifer’s letter, despite the fact that it should be with the police. 

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In 2018, a new twist unfolds when the missing case file is uncovered, bringing to light new suspects. As for the failed lie detector test, Stephen’s lawyer Butch Barr highlights that polygraphs aren’t reliable, especially when carried out so many years after an incident as stress and confusion can impact the results. 

Although the focus shifts from Margie and her now-estranged husband Ron as the suspects, there are still many questions about their behavior. When they moved home, it took them two and a half years to tell the police – despite the ongoing investigation into their missing daughter. And these baffling and often frustrating details continue to unfold when suspicions turn to a new figure in the saga. 

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Burden of Proof: Who is Tony Tobler?

After uncovering the missing case file, a new suspect is identified: Tony Tobler, Jennifer’s on-and-off again boyfriend who she went to Lafayette High School with. Both Tony and his current wife Cori are interviewed in Episode 3 of Burden of Proof, claiming that they had dated before going on a break, during which time they claim Tony began hanging out with Jennifer. 

Although their relationship is downplayed on their side, we discover that Tony had gotten Jennifer pregnant. She had an abortion, and her parents ensured she stopped dating him as he was two years older than her – although Tony suggests that it was because he “lived in a trailer park.”

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Clearly the pair were fond of each other, with one letter from Tony to Jennifer, dated to June 1986, stating: “As long as we work out our problems, we will stay together. Unless you cheat on me or I cheat on you. Don’t think nothing like that will happen though, because we love each other and you know I would kill you and whoever it was.” By October that year, he was back with Cori. 

Tony Tobler and his wife Cori in Burden of ProofHBO
Tony Tobler and his wife Cori

After investigators identify Tony as a potential suspect, Margie’s baffling actions come to the fore once more; when they ask for handwriting samples, she reveals that she has an old shoebox filled with notes allegedly written by and exchanged between Jennifer and Tony. Why she didn’t hand this to the police as soon as she discovered it, no one will know. 

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What ensues is more murky speculation. When Tony’s handwriting is compared to Jennifer’s note, no definitive answer is reached, and the same goes for a DNA test carried out on the original letter. 

Although Tony denies any involvement in Jennifer’s disappearance, it’s revealed that a former friend of his, Charlie May, came to the police in recent years claiming that Tony had confessed to him back in 1987 that he killed Jennifer and dissolved her body in a barrel filled with acid stolen from a construction site. Charlie was also mentioned several times in Tony and Jennifer’s letters.  

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Despite the damning statement, at the end of Burden of Proof, Tony is dropped as a suspect due to lack of evidence. Other potential perpetrators come to the fore, including an elderly man who had become “like a father figure” to Jennifer, as stated in her note, and an ex-felon named Hendrix. Some have speculated whether Tony wrote the note, and the “father figure” referred to Charlie. However, with no concrete evidence, these ideas were dropped and no arrests have been made. 

As all of this transpires, Stephen is faced with a heartbreaking possibility: has he been falsely accusing his parents of the murder of his sister all of this time? Though he clearly harbors a lot of guilt, you can’t help but sympathize with his situation. And while police and Stephen’s investigation team dropped his parents as suspects, they certainly didn’t help the case, and there’s no denying Ron caused a lot of trauma to their family. 

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In December 2022, while speaking to Hill about the DNA analysis of the note, Stephen explains: “My understanding is that there were four different Y chromosome DNA samples on the note. When they compared them to Tony’s and Charlie’s, there wasn’t a match on three of the four, and on the fourth it was inconclusive.

Stephen Pandos in Burden of ProofHBO
Stephen just wanted to find closure over what happened to his sister

“It could’ve been bad sampling on the note, or it could just mean it’s not him.” Elaborating on his feelings about the results, Stephen says: “I feel like I waited all this time for nothing. My life kept on hold. It was really, really hard to let go when I believed it was my parents for a decade, because that’s something I could not live with. But knowing that it’s not them and it’s someone else, maybe that will make it easier in time.”

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Sadly, what happened to Jennifer remains a mystery, although the case remains active – all we can do is hope that Stephen finds answers in the future and, if not, that he at least finds peace in his life knowing he did all that he can do. 

Burden of Proof is available to stream on Max now. You can check out some of our other true crime coverage below: 

Russell Brand most shocking moments | Scouts Honor | The Lucie Blackman Case | The Isabella Nardoni Case | Where is Natalia Grace? | Who are the Duggars? | Victim/Suspect explained | Missing Dead or Alive explained | The Playing Card Killer | Take Care of Maya | How to watch David Fuller: Monster in the Morgue | How to watch Hart family murders documentary | The Deepest Breath | True story of Last Call

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About The Author

Daisy is a Senior TV and Movies Writer at Dexerto. She's a lover of all things macabre, whether that be horror, crime, psychological thrillers or all of the above. After graduating with a Masters in Magazine Journalism, she's gone on to write for Digital Spy, LADbible and Little White Lies. You can contact her on daisy.phillipson@dexerto.com