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Sleuths on web identified Magnotta

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The volunteers who have been tracking a kitten killer for a year and a half-believe Luka Magnotta has been playing cat and mouse with them from the beginning.

It started on Dec. 21, 2010, when someone called Uonlywish500 uploaded a video to YouTube showing a young man suffocating two kittens in a plastic bag using a vacuum cleaner.

On Dec. 22, a group of animal lovers formed a Facebook group dedicated to finding the person they called Vacuum Kitten Killer.

They realized whoever posted the video was playing games with them from the start because the only other YouTube video that Uonlywish500 "liked" was the opening credit sequence of Catch Me If You Can, a 2002 film about a man who eludes police for years using assumed identities.

Within weeks, Vacuum Kitten Killer uploaded pictures and another video featuring the dead kittens.

The Facebook group looked through the pictures and video seeking clues to his identity, hoping to alert the authorities, in part because they were afraid he would kill a person.

In January 2011, they received an anonymous message identifying the kitten killer as Luka Magnotta, and saying, falsely, that he lived in West Hollywood.

They believe Magnotta -- now being sought on a global warrant as the suspect in the slaying and mutilation of a Chinese college student in Montreal -- tipped them off.

"It was him," said Baudi, a female member of the Facebook group.

"He wants the attention. We're doing exactly what he wants. It's been a cat-and-mouse game with him," said John, another group member. "He wants us to chase after him. So he leaves information, little clues, that lead us to him."

Three members of the group -- none of whom are Canadian -- agreed to an interview on Friday on condition their real identities not be revealed, because they are afraid of Magnotta.

After a lot of online searching, the volunteers discovered an Ontario legal document that showed he had changed his name from Eric Newman to Magnotta in 2006.

A core group of about a dozen volunteers -- aided by hundreds of others -- spent thousands of hours trying to find him, meticulously analyzing his sprawling Internet presence, going over pictures and videos for clues, while he toyed with them, leaving false trails, interacting with them using a wide variety of social-media sock puppets, hiding his IP address.

When they discovered how to decode date and location data from photos he posted, he learned from that, and started altering the codes before he posted photos.

By February of 2011, the volunteers tracked him to Toronto, and working with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, approached the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which approached Toronto police.

A detective in Division 55 of the Toronto Police Service took the information and worked the file hard, trying to find him in Toronto. But by that point, group members now believe, Magnotta had moved to Montreal.

In January 2012, they discovered a photo of him posing on a set of steps with a lamp post and greenery behind him.

"We analyzed the stuff like crazy," says Baudi. "We're looking at light posts, which are unique to a certain city. So we're like, let's look at Montreal, let's look at Toronto, let's look at Russia. So we just went to Google Maps and literally went street to street and started looking for street lights."

After many hours of searching, they determined he was in Montreal, then eventually figured out where the photo was taken, at the corner of Rue McTavish and Avenue du Docteur Penfield, on the McGill campus.

"We really honestly thought that if we gave police information on his location that he would be apprehended," says Baudi.

"We thought that if he wasn't apprehended he would move on to humans. We were very public about that. It's not like we were obsessed but we were determined to get him apprehended. Spending all night going down Google Streetview wasn't out of the question."

They never figured out his Montreal address, but a Montreal member of their wider group took what information they had to the Montreal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which took the case seriously, and to the Montreal Police Service, which said it could do nothing.

Another group member, Alex, contacted a psychiatric facility where Magnotta was previously a resident.

"It was all, 'We can't do anything because they won't be able to do that. And they won't be able to do anything because somebody else can't do that.' There was nothing they could do."

The group members, who are doing their best to help investigators in Montreal, are very upset their efforts were in vain.

"He's either the greatest genius in the world or the craziest person we've ever encountered, and there's a fine line between those two things," says John.

"As crazy as we think he is, he has been able to somehow evade the police for a while. We're seeing that evident right now."

"We don't want Luka harmed," says Baudi. "We want him to get help. He is severely sick, like severely sick. He's a sick ****."

Stephen Maher is a columnist

for Postmedia News.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 4, 2012 A11

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