Steve Lillebuen, author of The Devil’s Cinema, talks about his gripping investigative account of the stranger-than-fiction case of Mark Twitchell, a man with a startling plan to turn his life-long love of fantasy and desire for fame into reality.
What initially drew you to the Mark Twitchell case?
I was a police reporter in Edmonton when Mark Twitchell was arrested, but after my initial news articles were written and published, I felt there were still so many unanswered questions. Why did this happen? Who is Mark Twitchell? The psychology of such a man drew me in. I wanted to know how a Star Wars-loving filmmaker and young father could become a wannabe serial killer at the centre of an international news story without anyone ever noticing he had this other, very dark side to him.
Although the Twitchell case was covered extensively by the media, your book contains a number of exclusive, never-before-revealed details. Can you give us a hint about one of the many surprises in store for readers?
I think readers will be surprised to see just how elaborate the origins of this crime really are, with some details that can be traced back to his early childhood and others coming from movies like The Dark Knight. A lot is also revealed about how Twitchell thinks, with the book tracing the transformation of dark fantasy into disturbing reality. There are also good stories in the book about the life of his victims that have not previously been told.
One thing that really surprised me was how Twitchell had created fake online profiles for years before he used them in luring strangers to his kill room. In fact, he had previously pretended to be a woman online and also used quite ominous online identities for himself, from “Psycho Jedi” to “Kill Mill” and “Night Stalker.”
Social media played a pivotal role throughout the case and during the trial. Can you give us an example or two of how integral social media was to the case?
A murder like this couldn’t have happened even five years earlier. Facebook and other social-networking sites weren’t around back then, and Twitchell used them to lure his victims and cover up his crime, and even in the planning and preparation. Friends of the murder victim, Johnny Altinger, also used Facebook to connect with each other, which led to the discovery of the most significant piece of evidence that, for the first time, directly linked Johnny to Mark Twitchell.
Like the best kind of police procedural, the first part of the book takes the reader right into the heart of the police investigation, as the detectives gradually piece together the puzzle of what happened to Johnny Altinger. Can you describe how you were able to reconstruct the police investigation in such vivid detail?
I spent a great deal of time with the detectives on the case, including interviewing them multiple times. I also visited key locations in the story with the detectives and had them go over events as they happened at the scene. Attending the trial helped a great deal too, as did pouring over thousands of pages of court documents. I think my background knowledge of Edmonton was a big asset, from being born there to later working on the police beat at a newspaper, witnessing crime as a journalist before this all happened.
You spent years conducting interviews and researching the case before writing the book. What were some of the things that most surprised you during your research?
It was difficult to see just how terrified and shocked everyone who knew Mark Twitchell continued to be months and years after his arrest. It was like they had all been through a war. I made sure to include their stories in the book since I felt they were victims too. They had no warning before discovering they were friends with a monster, having played video games with him or helped him make a movie only a few weeks before the crime was committed.
You are the only journalist who was in direct contact with Mark Twitchell before, during, and after his trial. How did that interaction begin? Can you tell us more about your exchanges?
It began with a phone call — from him — as he awaited his murder trial while in custody. “Hey, it’s Mark,” was how he began, before adding, “If you’re going to be writing a book about me, it’s probably best for both of our interests that you come straight to the source.” We spoke for about 20 minutes and I agreed to come down to the remand centre to discuss his participation further.
He then agreed to my ground rules — no money would exchange hands and he’d have no editorial control — and we began a year of contact that included face-to-face meetings, phone calls, and more than 350 pages of letters that he wrote in response to my questions.
In the end I got to know the man behind the headlines and discovered how he was clever but also dominated by a morbid personality. He had this odd mix of intellectual bravado, dark humour and curiosity about everything around him, and was actually quite funny and oddly charming at times.
His letters were always very persuasively written and quite detailed, often with a heavy focus on sex and fantasy, or littered with rants about pop culture, from the latest movies to his frustration with how he felt George Lucas had ruined Star Wars.
In the book, you quote from an opinion piece that Jeff Lindsay, the author of the Dexter series, wrote in response to accusations that the series had inspired acts of violence: “If you are not already capable of killing another human being in a cold, cruel, deliberate way, no book ever written will make you capable of doing so. There are no magic worlds that will turn you into a psychopath.” Do you agree?
I agree. You can’t blame Dexter for this crime. But you also cannot deny that Dexter played a pivotal role and proved to be one of Twitchell’s greatest inspirations. I guess the problem with shows like Dexter is how disturbed minds can take something from it and construct their own toxic brew that eventually explodes into an event of their own creation.
You were in the courtroom every day of Mark Twitchell’s trial. What was the atmosphere in the courtroom like throughout the trial?
Some days were riveting, others traumatic. I remember people lining up to get inside the courtroom long before the doors were opened, and moments with tears, shouting, and disbelief. There were a lot of bombshells too, even on opening day. Every spectator, journalist, and member of the public was astonished at what they were witnessing. It really did feel strange, like it was straight out of a movie.
What is the biggest misconception about the case?
I sometimes heard people commenting on how stupid Mark Twitchell must have been since the police caught him at the very beginning. But I think that does a great disservice to how hard the detectives worked (and how skilled they really were), and it also fails to understand just how wickedly clever Mark Twitchell can be.
There’s a lot of evidence pointing to how Twitchell’s arrogance was his downfall, not his intelligence. He had constructed an incredibly elaborate plan with a unique cover story and no real way of linking him to his victims. But it all fell apart because of a few unexpected developments. It’s scary to think that the entire murder plot could have remained secret if it wasn’t for those tiniest of threads unraveling.
One of the most heartbreaking details included in the book describes something Johnny Altinger’s mother did for years after his disappearance, so she could continue to hear his voice. Can you tell us about what she did?
She used to call his phone just to hear the sound of his voice on his voicemail message. I hope that the phone number is never reassigned so she can keep calling to hear Johnny for as long as she needs.
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