This May 30th – the day Montreal police held a press conference naming Canadian Luka Rocco Magnotta as the fugitive suspect for the filmed murder of Chinese international student Lin Jun – I happened to end up in a North London pub enjoying a drink with David Kerekes, co-author of Killing for Culture, the definitive study of death on film. Kerekes (who is currently completing some extensive revisions for a new edition of that 1994 work) has the apparently-not-mutually-exclusive distinction of being both the nicest chap you could hope to meet and perhaps the world’s leading authority on snuff cinema.
So, I was hardly going to neglect to bring up this Magnotta character, whose 1 Lunatic, 1 Icepick (the title of his filmed killing – reportedly featuring dismemberment, decapitation, necrophilia, cannibalism and more) sounded something like snuff’s Citizen Kane.
The mention of Magnotta, however, got more than it bargained for, as Kerekes instantly lowered his voice and – making a large show of not naming any names – regaled me with an incredible account of a long term friend and associate of his who had been on Magnotta’s trail for months, a member of a secretive cabal of amateur online sleuths incensed by Magnotta’s earlier series of kitten-killing films (there were three prior to 1 Lunatic, 1 Icepick). Weeks later, and with Magnotta safely offline and behind bars, I asked Kerekes if his friend might consent to an interview for Dangerous Minds. The next day I received an email from a certain “Alex DeLarge” – a Kubrickian pseudonym we’ll have cause to revisit – informing me that the so-called “Animal Beta Project” were happy for him to go substantially on-record regarding these events for what amounted to the first time (previously two ABP members had given just one short interview for Canadian news).
A relative latecomer to the cause, DeLarge’s odyssey began towards the end of 2011, when he first stumbled upon one of Magnotta’s kitten films while looking for soccer news online. Appalled, DeLarge found a likeminded Twitter feed on the subject, then a Facebook group, “For Great Justice,” where to his amazement he saw that the individual in these videos had been identified by thousands as Luka Rocco Magnotta.
“The Facebook group was initially set up by someone known as ‘R’ around December 2010 when Magnotta released the first video – that video’s known as “VKK,” which stands for Vacuum Kitten Killer. In that, Magnotta puts two kittens inside a vacuum-sealed bag and then attaches a vacuum cleaner to it and sucks in the air until they die. You’ve got to understand how horrendous this shit was. I mean, I’d seen Faces of Death. I think that when they’re eighteen everyone wants to test themselves by watching the grossest thing possible. But this was no accident – and it was no act. This guy was actually killing and doing so for some demented reason.”
For most, presumably, membership of For Great Justice was a case of adding their own “boo” to the wider chorus. DeLarge, however, was not satisfied at just registering disapproval, and began to investigate Magnotta in earnest, the emergent obsession coinciding with a long-awaited month off work, holiday he half-ruefully recollects was spent doing little other than “search for Luka Rocco Magnotta.” Primarily, this entailed DeLarge (who works in film and video) trawling through Magnotta’s hundreds of Youtube accounts for leads and information. “You’d be amazed by how much you can find out from people just through a Youtube account. Sometimes, for instance, you’d be able to track back through comments – you’d search a username and the username would reveal stuff through Google etc etc.”
Unbeknownst to DeLarge, his dedication and professionalism had alerted the attention of certain persons behind the scenes at For Great Justice, who asked if he would be willing to produce a video identifying Magnotta for the general public. Collaborating with two others from the group admin, DeLarge had the video ready in just sixteen hours, and it rapidly received upwards of 150,000 views. These efforts earned DeLarge an invitation to join a secret Facebook group he hadn’t even suspected existed and has since assumed the name Animal Beta Project.
Upon admittance, DeLarge’s own obsession with stopping Magnotta was put into perspective, as he came into contact with data analysts, animal rights activists, and others who had been assiduously tracking Magnotta much longer than a few weeks. The group – “20 or so persons, half of them active,” and guided by key members such as “Baudi Moovin,” “Nicee Punk” and “John Green” – characterize themselves as “miners” (they “mine for information”) and DeLarge was now confronted by the remarkable and sophisticated wealth of excavated data: it had enabled them, among other things, to correctly pinpoint Magnotta as then residing in Montreal.
One fascinating aspect of this hunt was Animal Beta Project members’ inevitable online acquaintanceship with Magnotta himself. This was mostly due to For Great Justice activists and supporters lavishing him with the kind of obsessive scrutiny craved by his omnivorous narcissism, meaning there was no more dependable presence lurking about its pages than Magnotta, albeit under a vast succession of fake Facebook profiles, behind which he would slander, spread rumors, and generally muddy the investigative waters with endless false leads and double bluffs. (Suspicion was so ubiquitous that, when DeLarge was first admitted into the secret group, members apologetically instructed him to ignore a recent thread theorizing that he was another Magnotta dupe.)
I asked DeLarge how members could usually go about seeing through a Magnotta mask. The answer is telling. “Every comment Luka Magnotta made was about himself, was pro-Luka Magnotta, that was the first thing to look out for. If someone thinks he’s ‘hot,’ that’s usually him.” This familiar phenomenon resulted in an especially memorable incident on Christmas Eve 2011. DeLarge, sensing that this kitten-torturing Über-narcissist might not be wading in festive cheer, intentionally smoked him out with a cheeky post musing aloud what Magnotta might be doing that evening – “I’m sure it’s a joyous occasion” and so on.
Duly stung, Magnotta (at that moment hiding behind a female profile that had joined the group the previous day) fired back: “No, I think you’ll find he’s out with his friends, visiting family, having a great Christmas…” Magnotta then proceeded to compulsively post an unprecedented couple of hundred times over the next twenty-four hours. “He was on his own,” DeLarge remembers, “he had nothing better to do than talk to people that hated him. The whole of Christmas Day he stayed online and posted and posted and posted.” (Which goes to show it’s possible to pity just about anyone.)
When he wasn’t being painfully pathetic, however, loopy Luka could be ingeniously elusive, disruptive and – at times – outright intimidating. One day, conducting one of their regular Social Media trawls, Animal Beta Project came upon a new Magnotta account.
“Magnotta knew he was communicating with us through his videos on Social Media accounts, but this one time was particularly scary. He had just set up a video account in which he’d favorited a load of videos – and in the videos he’d favorited a video of the exact workplace of one of the ABP group, and all five or six films in the account related to the personal locations of secret group members.”
Magnotta’s message was clear. When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back…
DeLarge defines this entire tragic course of events as one in which “the general public tried to help, and the system knocked them back every time.” The overall purpose of the Animal Beta Project’s efforts had always been to amass enough concrete information regarding Magnotta’s crimes and location so that certain inherent obstacles impeding the intervention of the proper authorities could be removed (such as the issue of jurisdiction that arises with any ostensibly anonymous online film).
Accordingly, the group had been in contact with various authorities “since day one.” Thanks to the ABP’s establishment of Magnotta’s identity and location, in early 2012 the case was finally assigned an officer from Toronto police. But it was, stresses DeLarge, “one officer.” Worse still was when local police submitted their conclusion that it “seemed” as if Luka Rocco Magnotta “doesn’t exist.” This triggered something of an epistemological crisis in DeLarge.
“All the members of the secret group had communicated with Magnotta at some point: if the police can’t find him, then what the hell is going on? There are certain areas I can’t say anything about right now, but sometimes I’d wake up and think, ‘It’s like we’re dealing with more than one person, or as if we’re dealing with some really weird, fucked-up troll story – someone just playing with our heads on the internet.’ I was just starting to think, ‘what have I done – I’ve put to much into this,’ and then…”
And then, one of the ABP members received a Google Alert. It was 1 Lunatic, 1 Icepick. They posted it to the ABP Facebook group: DeLarge and a couple of other members immediately clocked the still frame of Magnotta crouching in his purple hoodie, Casablanca poster behind him on the wall. “I was just waking up,” DeLarge recalls. “It was 11’o’clock Sunday morning, the sun was shining: I was looking forward to a nice chilled day.”
After skimming through the footage DeLarge attempted to back out, telling his fellow members he wanted nothing to do with this film… even though he was entirely convinced that 1 Lunatic, 1 Icepick was “a very well made fake” (a presumption initially shared by the entire ABP). Another group member, however, reminded DeLarge that they at least needed to ID Magnotta. DeLarge, being the “video guy,” felt obliged: “I felt I had to stand up and be counted for.” So he dragged himself upstairs, drew the curtains, locked the door, logged onto Skype with other ABP analysts, and spent the next forty-eight hours going over the film “frame by frame by frame” – everyone horrified by what increasingly seemed to be its irreducible authenticity…
Here let us momentarily pause this footage to acknowledge, with some superstitious awe, the high irony behind Alex DeLarge’s pseudonym, plucked out of thin air months prior to those days during which he would so closely resemble his namesake in the defining scene of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange – “the” Alex DeLarge strapped to a chair, eyes raked open, compelled to ogle ultraviolent films while choking back horror and disgust. 1 Lunatic, 1 Icepick itself is mired in weird intertextuality, the icepick a nod to Basic Instinct, the soundtrack – New Order’s “True Faith” (in place of Beethoven’s Ninth) – a wink to the opening strains of American Psycho. Killing for culture indeed!
“Magnotta murdered the guy while filming it, so he’d have to set up the camera, get the video going – afterwards he’d have had to turn to his laptop, with all the body parts lying around, and think, ‘I’ve got to edit this.’ Now, there’s dodgy sound in this video. We think it’s because he tried to use the music in the background, but realized it sounded shit and decided to put a soundtrack on it. Then he had to upload it onto the Internet… can you imagine what it must’ve been like in that room? And all you’re focused on is getting your video out there.”
While Magnotta slipped out of Canada, the Animal Beta Project’s growing conviction that the film was bona fide began to be echoed in a run of mainstream media reports: body parts were being mailed to various Canadian institutions… a torso had turned up in Montreal. DeLarge felt himself sink into a dream world of foreboding. Then came that May 30th press conference.
“I was stood there after a job with a bunch of camera equipment, and my partner phoned and said: ‘he’s on the news.’ At that time, it was as close as you can get to a feeling of a family member dying. Just that feeling of when your heart hits your feet and carries on through the floor.”
Magnotta existed alright. Belatedly, the ABP had everyone’s complete attention. “I was actually quite paranoid and just had a feeling the police were going to close the whole group down. Thankfully they didn’t.” On the contrary, a police division now approached them (via PETA, who DeLarge is quick to credit and praise for their involvement throughout), seeking to join the Animal Beta Project. Within hours, a solitary “amazed” representative was admitted and gifted what amounted to a comprehensive foundation for what had overnight become a global manhunt. “You know it’s serious when Interpol release a code red notice saying ‘Magnotta has not been apprehended.’”
Months later, and with Magnotta awaiting trial in Montreal, it sounds as if some of the benevolence the ABP extended to the police has waned: particularly when the police not only seem to have taken the evidence and ran, but can appear to be presenting it all to the wider public as the fruit of their own professional diligence.
“Look, we were never looking for glory in this. We just wanted to get the guy the help that he needed, but if it’s getting to the point where the police start claiming credit for it… that’s wrong. I’d just hope that at this point the police could be cool enough to say, ‘You know what, we really had no idea that the guy was going to do what he said, and we were contacted many times. We did screw up and the general public needs to be credited.’ It’s ultimately the system that’s failed. I just hope they do the decent thing and admit that this guy should have been looked into a long time ago.”
It is the proper investigation into those who document animal cruelty online that the ABP continues to instigate and advocate. “People who post videos of themselves torturing animals on the Internet usually have abuse associated with them one way or another.” It is, in short, “a big red flag,” as the case history of Luka Rocco Magnotta quite egregiously demonstrates. In July alone, the ABP could claim credit for identifying and locating two such perpetrators of online animal abuse – both are now facing appropriate charges.
“If people are gonna post these videos online – we’re gonna look for them. You’re traceable. Look, I’m a liberal. But I’m an extreme liberal. Do as you wish, as long as you don’t hurt others.”
Which sounds like a threat, in a really, really good way.