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Media monsters: is the online world a breeding ground for sensational killers?

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They are the rarest of Canadian killers: seemingly remorseless souls motivated by a thirst for attention as they document their deadly acts and dominate headlines around the world.

And as the focus remains on this week's videotaped dismemberment case in Montreal -- and the manhunt for a publicity-seeking fugitive -- some justice experts question whether the quest for infamy and notoriety combined with the vast online world we now live in might be creating a breeding ground for those seeking a platform and harbouring murderous rage.

"This sort of thing feeds right into vulnerable people. This sort of event can feed into the vulnerabilities of others," Dr. Fred Shane, a well-respected Vancouver-based criminal psychiatrist who has testified at dozens of trials across Canada, told the Free Press.

Shane admits he was stunned by details of the killing allegedly carried out by former Canadian porn star Luka Magnotta, including a 10-minute video showing the death, decapitation and cannibalization of the bound male victim, Jun Lin, 33, that was posted on the accused's Facebook page and an Edmonton-based website for days before police even discovered the killing had occurred. The fact two of the victim's body parts were then mailed to the federal Conservative and Liberal parties only added to the belief the culprit was seeking maximum attention.

And that's exactly what has transpired, with the case making global headlines and more than 20,000 people viewing the video by mid-week, while Magnotta, 29, continues to evade arrest, after possibly fleeing to Europe.

"What you're likely dealing with here is a brutal psychopath who doesn't care who sees it. In fact, he gets a rush; for him, this is profoundly rewarding and exciting," Shane said. "For him, the adulation and attention and exhibitionism is very crucial. He likely has no concern, no remorse, no guilt. The more it gets out there, it reinforces his belief he's important."

And that is where Shane and others say media coverage of the case -- and the public's obvious fascination with it -- gets dicey. Like the old chicken-and-egg argument, the question is whether a flood of publicity might actually cause others to act or even expand upon their disturbing fantasies.

James Jewell, a longtime Winnipeg homicide detective who recently retired, said the "copycat" concern is legitimate. He noted there have been a handful of similar cases in Canada, in which the killers seemed to thrive on the attention they generated.

"The concern is relative to the heightened type of press these cases generate and the potential for someone who is already on the edge to become fascinated by the coverage and cross the line themselves," Jewell said.

Shane doesn't believe cases like Magnotta's will lead to an epidemic of similar ones, but he said it's clear more people than ever are isolating themselves from the real world and finding comfort in an online community. That includes those who may be on the verge of something truly sadistic.

"Online, you have access to all the dark stuff, and you get ideas. It appeals to the dark side of those. The issue of attention is a component of it all. It may be related to a perverted sense of wanting attention," Shane said. "But what you have in cases like this is a profound sense of murderous rage these people have been harbouring, probably below the surface, for a long period of time."

Jewell said cases such as Magnotta's are quite rare: The vast majority of homicides in Canada are more spontaneous acts, often fuelled by drugs, alcohol and momentary rage.

"Beyond the obvious concerns regarding the over-the-top grotesque violence that is typically used by these types of killers during the commission of their crimes, police are always concerned regarding the potential of a (not criminally responsible) finding in theses types of cases," he said.

Shane said the lengths these types of thrill-seeking killers often go to -- including publicizing what they did, trying to cover it up or going on the run -- likely negates a future not criminally responsible argument. There may also be ample warning signs, such as the videos of cats being tortured and killed that Magnotta reportedly posted online over the past couple of years.

"It is my experience that these types of killers are cold and calculating and put a significant amount of premeditation and planning into their crimes and definitely appreciate the quality and nature of their murderous acts," Jewell said.

One such example occurred in Edmonton, where amateur filmmaker Mark Twitchell was so infatuated by a fictional television serial killer that he wrote his own morbid screenplay and brought it to life in chilling fashion.

Twitchell lured his unsuspecting victim, Johnny Altinger, into a rented Edmonton garage in 2008 by posing online as a woman looking for a date. Twitchell repeatedly stabbed Altinger, then dismembered his body, tried to burn the remains and throw them off a bridge before eventually dumping them down a sewer. Twitchell had previously tried to attack another man in a similar fashion, but the victim had escaped.

Twitchell also changed Altinger's Facebook account to claim he had gone on an exotic trip with a woman he met. Following his arrest, police seized a 42-page document called SKconfessions from Twitchell's laptop, which chronicled the aspiring filmmaker's plan to kill Altinger and the crime itself. Twitchell later claimed at trial the document was loosely based on his life, but filled mostly with fiction. He claimed the killing was done in self-defence after Altinger attacked him -- a story the jury clearly rejected in finding him guilty of first-degree murder.

Police also reviewed a low-budget film Twitchell had just completed about a serial killer, modelled after the popular TV show Dexter, who targets men who meet women on dating sites and gets away with his crimes by updating his victims' email and social-media accounts. Twitchell had also adopted a new online identity, creating a Facebook profile for the fictional character with cryptic status updates about searching out victims.

While Twitchell serves a life sentence with no parole eligibility until 2033, his story continues to be told around the world. An Edmonton journalist recently wrote a book about the case called The Devil's Cinema, and Dateline NBC devoted a two-hour special last year to the events.

Like Twitchell, Winnipeg resident Sidney Teerhuis believed committing a heinous crime would be his ticket to fame and fortune. Teerhuis befriended a stranger in a downtown bar, invited him up to his seedy hotel room for sex and proceeded to stab, behead, castrate, disembowel and dissect the victim into eight pieces.

Following his 2003 arrest, Teerhuis wrote a series of chilling letters to a freelance Winnipeg writer in which he boasted about the slaying and provided extensive details about what he called his "human trophy." There were also a series of drawings, diagrams and graphic descriptions of what he did to the victim, Robin Green, inside the Royal Albert Arms Hotel.

In his letters, Teerhuis admitted to being fascinated by celebrity and wanting his name to go down in infamy along with serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer. He also revelled in the fact the case gained international attention when it was learned a necklace belonging to actress Susan Sarandon had been stolen from the Winnipeg-based movie shoot for Shall We Dance and found at the crime scene. Teerhuis claims he first saw Greene inside a Main Street bar trying to sell the stolen jewelry for $15.

The writer who communicated with Teerhuis admits he offered to pay Teerhuis a 30-per-cent cut of profits from the book he planned to write on the case. He said Teerhuis even came up with the working title Trophy Kill and sent several drawings of possible covers. Teerhuis wanted creative control and his own picture to be on the front, along with at least 10 pages of photos inside, and suggested they sell T-shirts at his criminal trial.

The writings ensured a rock-solid prosecution against Teerhuis, who was convicted of second-degree murder. Jurors rejected his claim the letters were fictional accounts meant to sensationalize his story to help get a book deal. Teerhuis also claimed he was intoxicated at the time of the killing and should be convicted of a lesser charge of manslaughter. The Crown called Teerhuis the personification of evil and said it was impossible for a person to be so intoxicated he wouldn't remember stabbing a man 68 times and cutting up his body with "surgical-like precision" over several hours and disposing of his organs.

He is currently serving a life sentence with no parole eligibility until 2028.

There has been a handful of other Canadian cases in which killers videotaped their acts, including former Canadian military Col. Russell Williams and notorious sex offender Paul Bernardo. But unlike Twitchell and Teerhuis, the evidence presented at their cases suggested it was more about a personal keepsake of what they'd done than an attempt to become famous.

Of course, one thing all four have in common is they are currently serving life sentences -- a world away from the public spotlight they once occupied. Justice officials now hope it won't be long before the media-starved "monster" responsible for the Montreal dismemberment slaying joins them, behind bars.

www.mikeoncrime.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2012 A6

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