Book offers new insight into Edmonton filmmaker killer
Edmonton filmmaker Mark Twitchell is shown in an undated photo from his MySpace page. (HO/ THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Saturday, March 31, 2012 12:50PM EDT
It was a murder case that blurred the line between fiction and gruesome reality.
Last year, a young Edmonton filmmaker was convicted of a savage killing that mirrored the plot of his low-budget horror movie.
The details were almost too disturbing to be true.
In 2008, Johnny Altinger, a 38-year-old pipeline worker, was lured to a residential garage for a supposed date with a girl he had met online. Altinger was then bludgeoned and stabbed to death before his body was dismembered and discarded, piece by piece, in a city sewer.
The unlikely perpetrator was Mark Twitchell, then a 29-year-old married father of a baby girl, and a Star Wars geek who dreamed of becoming a big-shot Hollywood director.
As soon as the story broke, journalist Steve Lillebuen knew he wanted to find out more about the man whose actions stunned even the most seasoned Edmonton detectives.
As he began researching for a book about the bizarre case, the former Edmonton Journal police reporter didn't think Twitchell would ever talk to him.
But months before his trial started, Twitchell called Lillebuen with an offer: "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."
Several jailhouse interviews, hundreds of letters from Twitchell and three years of dogged reporting culminated in "The Devil's Cinema: The Untold Story Behind Mark Twitchell's Kill Room."
Released this week, Lillebuen's book offers a detailed account of the police hunt for Altinger's killer and an exclusive glimpse into Twitchell's mind as the justice system closed in on him.
"This case was just so out of this world, with so many elements," Lillebuen said in a phone interview this week. "I was interested to know the man who could have done this …and primarily the psychology of this man."
"He was just a suburban dad with no criminal record and he had this whole secret life that he was somehow able to hide from everyone he knew."
At the start of his trial, Twitchell pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, claiming he killed Altinger in self defence as the two men struggled inside a detached garage Twitchell had been renting for his movie shoots.
But the Crown presented enough evidence to convince the jury that Altinger's murder was planned out well in advance.
Twitchell had created a fake female profile on an online dating site to lure Altinger to the garage, dubbed the "kill room" in the media.
The kill room was a central feature on the hit TV show Dexter about a forensic specialist who moonlights as a serial killer. Twitchell was a huge fan, and the series inspired his own movie scripts.
Shortly after he was sentenced to life in prison, Twitchell appealed his conviction, arguing that "sensational" media coverage influenced the outcome of his trial. But Alberta Justice confirmed this week that he withdrew the appeal last month.
Lillebuen said he was surprised by how charismatic and funny Twitchell could be during their face-to-face meetings. But he never forgot who was sitting in front of him.
"Meeting Mark Twitchell and talking with him filled me with a lot of different emotions, often conflicting emotions," Lillebuen said. "At moments, I felt like he was trying to befriend me, but I reminded him several times that I'm the author and he's the subject."
Twitchell came across as a "complex character" and a convincing salesman who seemed unable to empathize with others, Lillebuen said.
"I found meeting him fascinating because in the media, I only knew him as this monster. And I didn't know the personality behind that monster," he said.
Lillebuen said he made it clear to Twitchell that he would have no editorial control over the book. Lillebuen also went to great lengths to verify what Twitchell told him. If a story or a detail couldn't be corroborated by a third party, it didn't make it into the book, Lillebuen said.
But while Twitchell was forthcoming, his family and friends, especially those who worked on his film projects, were at first reluctant to speak to Lillebuen.
Caught in an international media storm, most of them were worried that doing so would forever link them to Altinger's horrifying death, Lillebuen said.
Others were concerned that the author was looking for someone or something to blame for Twitchell's crime – a troubled childhood, an abusive parent or some other trauma.
But by all accounts, Twitchell had a normal, loving upbringing.
"Readers will be able to relate to Twitchell's family and his friends and see how much of an enigma he was," Lillebuen said.
"This book shows you how they were victims as well."