Death by Text: Michelle Carter Found Guilty

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By C.W.S.

By now, most people are familiar with the case of Conrad Roy III’s suicide, which came while he was texting and speaking on the phone with his girlfriend, Michelle Carter. Carter is famous now for encouraging Roy to end his own life in a far, dark corner of a Kmart parking lot, using a hose to pump carbon monoxide into his truck. With the guilty verdict announced this week, Carter faces up to 20 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter, a conviction that sets a new and controversial precedent in Massachusetts’ courts. Critics argue that though Carter’s text messages and comments were reprehensible, they do not add up to manslaughter, as she was not physically present at the time. “This is saying that what she did is killing him, that her words literally killed him, that the murder weapon here was her words,” noted lawyer Matthew Segal of the state’s ACLU.

As the psychological profile has been created and spread through the media, we have 21-year-old Michelle Carter, who was 17 at the time of 18-year-old Roy’s suicide. The defense presented thousands of text messages from Carter to Roy and other friends, and alleged that Carter was planning on using Roy’s suicide as a platform to gain attention and sympathy from the popular girls at her high school.

Conrad Roy III

Conrad Roy III

Roy and Carter initially connected on issues of mental health after meeting in Florida while on family vacations. They discovered that they both lived in Massachusetts, about an hour apart. They had only met in person three times when Roy ended his life, but they had a rich, intense text and phone relationship that including many conversations around Roy’s depression and suicidal ideation, as well as Carter’s own struggles with bulimia and depression. In earlier texts, Carter attempted to encourage Roy to get help, including these sent in June: "You need professional help like me” and “Have you thought about getting professional help? I think it will really help you.”

The defense argued that Carter underwent a dramatic personality shift in early July due to a new regiment of anti-depressants started months before. Because of the switch from Prozac to Celexa, psychiatrist Dr. Peter R. Breggin testified on the stand, “She was enmeshed in a delusional system. She’s thinking it’s a good thing to help him die.” They argued that Roy was already well underway in his personal plan to end his life, citing his four previous suicide attempts, including one that Carter experienced.

Starting in early July, here are some of the text exchanges used as evidence by the defense:

Carter: "Are you gonna do it tonight?
Roy: "I'm gonna try."
Carter: "How hard are you gonna try?"
Roy: "Hard."

Roy: "How was ur day?"
Carter: "When are you doing it?" 

Roy: "What if the suffocation doesn't work?"
Carter: "Well how bad do you want it? Because if you want it bad, you should succeed."

Carter: "I thought you really wanted to die but apparently you don't. I feel played and just stupid." 

Carter: "I still don’t think ur gonna do this so you have to prove me wrong." 

Carter: "I'm tired of you not taking this seriously, like if you aren't really gonna do it then stop pretending that you are."

Carter: "Hang yourself, jump off a building, stab yourself. IDK there's lots of ways."

Carter: “I think your parents know you’re in a really bad place. I’m not saying they want you to do it but I honestly feel like they can accept it.” 

And then Carter, speaking with Roy the night of his death, as he fills his car with toxic fumes: "I'm not going to sleep until you're in the car with the generator on." Roy hesitates, gets out of the car. He calls Carter.

The exact moment that Carter tells Roy to get back into the car is not recorded through the text exchanges that night. This is because Roy and Carter spoke on the phone. In a text sent after she became aware of the investigation against her, Carter said this to a friend, as recounted by the prosecution: “Conrad got out of his truck. he got scared. The defendant 'f------ told him to get back in.”

This was the key piece of evidence, a confession to a friend that Carter had push Roy to the final act of dying.

"If they read my messages to him, I'm done," she texted to another friend later in the week.

Soon after his death, Carter then set up an anti-suicide memorial baseball game in Roy’s honor. Even though I could not save my boyfriend’s life,” she wrote the Facebook page, “I want to put myself out there to try to save as many other lives as possible.”

BuzzFeed noticed something strange—many of Carter’s texts and social media posts seemed to mirror the dialogue of her favorite show, Glee, especially Rachel’s (Lea Michele) dialogue in “The Quarterback,” a 2013 episode about the death of Rachel’s boyfriend Finn (Cory Monteith). 

Monteith was Michele’s boyfriend off screen as well as on, and the episode held much real emotion, as Monteith had overdosed and died months before, prompting the episode to be made. Carter spoke often about her love of Lea Michele, and her sympathy around the tragic death of her boyfriend. 

"We were endgame we both knew it, he didn’t need to tell anyone that," Carter wrote.

In Season a season four episode titled "I Do," Finn tells Rachel, "We are endgame. I know that and you know that."

Like Dee Dee Bancharde, who convinced the world that her daughter, Gypsy Rose, was extremely physically and mentally challenged (and was subsequently murderer by her daughter, read more here), it appears that Carter was also seeking attention through harming someone close to her. Psychologists diagnosed Dee Dee Blancharde with Munchausen by proxy, a disorder characterized by fabricating or inducing illness in someone under their care for the purpose of attention and sympathy. The prosecution claimed that Carter wanted these things from her peers, and was willing to demand a suicide from her boyfriend to get it.

It appears that these types of cases will become more and more prevalent as we more forward in our virtual world. As our access to one another changes, the ways we communicate, as well our collective psychology, psychological disorders and the crimes they create will change form as well.

The images we are able to create through online profiles have changed the way some young people see themselves and the world. Plenty of people lie online to gain attention, but Michele Carter took that idea and applied it to her real life. She was willing to help someone die so she could be seen as a grieving girlfriend, much like her hero, Lea Michele. Michele herself experienced a heartbreaking clash of reality and fiction when she acted out her real grief on Glee. She was a fictional character mourning a real boy. Sound familiar?

Carter is facing up to 20 years in prison, and will be sentenced in August.

Europe's Cat Serial Killer

By C.W.S. 

In a small seaside village in southern France, residents are reeling after a month-long reign of terror by an unknown killer. The target? The town’s cat population. Over 200 cats have been killed in Saint Pierre la Mer, most likely from ingesting some kind of poison, authorities believe. The responsible party has been dubbed the “cat serial killer.”

Both stray cats and those who live with locals have fallen ill since early May. In an interview with La Depeche, a resident told of her cats’ deaths: "They vomited something blue, they mewed and died.”

Cats have been found dead in homes and along sidewalks, many with blue tongues. The Association of Stray Cats has contacted police in an attempt to have autopsies carried out.

Saint Pierre la Mer

Saint Pierre la Mer

Birds and small rodents have also been found poisoned by the same substance, leading to growing fears in the community of just what, or who might be responsible. "The atmosphere has become hateful, nobody trusts anyone," a villager who identified herself as Geneviève was told the Ouest-France, “We're all afraid a child might ingest some of this mystery poison.”

The London Cat Serial Killer

The recent events in France have reminded Europeans of a previous cat killer who brutally murdered at least 230 cats in a South London borough called Croydon. The person or group responsible has still not been identified.

The murderer has become known through the media as the the M25 Cat Killer, the Croydon Cat Killer, and the Cat Ripper of Croydon. The cats' bodies were found near their homes, out in the open, as if left to be discovered. News reports continuously use the term “eviscerated” to describe the condition of the bodies, and often the cats were decapitated and their tails were removed. The bodies have also been found with a mysterious lack of blood, leading investigators to believe that the bodies were transported somewhere else and then returned.

A forensic analysis of several corpses by police showed a precision of cuts, with the removal of the head, tail, intestines, leading them to believe a knife was used, rather than a string of unconnected attacks by larger animals, as some reports were alluding. The autopsy showed that the cats died initially of blunt-force trauma, either hit with a tool or a car. The leading officer on the case told The Independent in 2016, “It is possible that the six cats we have examined were killed accidentally, but equally it could have been intentional. But once they were dead it seems that heads and tails have been removed by human hand.”

London Borough of Croydon

London Borough of Croydon

Fears spread through the London area that the M35 Cat Killer might be moving toward human victims. However, professor Vince Egan of Nottingham University, who teaches in the field of forensic psychology, told The Independent in 2016, “In some individuals we have seen animal cruelty as part of a broader pattern in which humans are also harmed. It is far more likely that this reflects a rather more banal pattern of anti-social behaviour, such as drunkenness or something that doesn’t go further. But when we have so little to go on you have to keep your mind open.”

2017 Portsmouth Cat Killings

Police have linked recent cat killings in Portsmouth to the M25 Cat Killer. In April 2017, police discovered three cats have had been beheaded in the Southsea area.

A Hampshire Police spokesman said: "We believe these incidents may be linked to Operation Takahe, a series of cat deaths in the Croydon/M25 area, and is being investigated by the Metropolitan Police Service."

Tim Sparkes was the owner of Poppy, one of the cats that was killed. He spoke to Portsmouth News about his fears: “It’s really about getting the message out there that this person has been around the Portsmouth area now and he appears to be doing it in clusters. He’s becoming more brazen, usually it’s not in a road, normally it’s in someone’s garden. It seems to be a step up in his way in killing.”

Police have been warning locals to keep their pets safe: "Our advice is not to let cats out at night, most of the deaths are happening at night. If anyone finds bodies please call us and we will come out and get the police out if necessary.”

Link between Killings in England and France

So far, there has been no link between the cat slayings in England and those in France. The M.O.s are very different, the killings in England being from blunt-force trauma and mutilation, and those in France being from an unknown poison. Police are still shaky on whether, certainly, these cats have all been killed intentionally by a person or persons. But the autopsies of those killed in France have yet to be carried out, so perhaps the French public will soon know more about this mysterious poison, and who, exactly, might want to harm their beloved pet.

BTK Killer Worried Over the Fate of his Remains

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By C.W.S.

When thinking about serial killers, one of the first traits that come to mind is a complete lack of empathy, and that is usually the case. However, serial killers sometimes do show empathy, but it is most often for themselves. Dennis Radar, known as the BTK killer because of his method of murdering his victims (bind, torture, kill), has been in the news once again, this time over his concerns about his remains. After a cancer scare prompted him to move forward with the writing of his will, the Wichita Eagle received letters from the incarcerated Rader about his current state of mind. “I had two relatives died of colon cancer and I was sure it had found me,” he wrote.

Who is the BTK killer

Dennis Rader was by most accounts a family man living in Park City, Kansas with his wife and two children. He had previously been in the US Air Force, and had since worked at grocery stores, warehouses, and as a security guard. His childhood was relatively normal, however he was known to torture animals, both by outside reports and his own.

Between 1974 and 1991, Rader would murder at least 10 people, sometimes taking long breaks between the killings. Rader became infamous for the strange, taunting letters he would send to police and the media, often attempting to control what they were calling him.

Dennis Rader

Dennis Rader

The first letter was discovered inside an engineering book at the Wichita Public Library in October 1974 and it detailed the murder of the Otero family by Rader. On January 15th, he broke into their home and cut the phone line, going on to kill by strangulation or suffocation Joseph and Julie Otero, as well as two of their children, Josephine and Joseph Jr. Rader later claimed that he was able to derive sexual pleasure from the murders. "It's hard to control myself. You probably call me 'psychotic with sexual perversion hang-up,’” he stated in the note, also proposing the name BTK killer. He stole a radio and watch from the scene, as he was prone to taking souvenirs from his victims. The family was discovered by their other son, 15-year-old Charlie.

In April 1974, Rader stabbed and strangled Kathryn Bright to death after hiding in her apartment. Rader also attempted to kill her brother Kevin, shooting him twice. Kevin survived and became the first witness to describe Rader, calling him in an interview with Time Magazine "an average-sized guy, bushy mustache, 'psychotic' eyes." 

In March of 1997, Rader murdered Shirley Vian in her home after locking her children in the bathroom. She was bound and strangled to death, fitting the MO of Rader. Then in December he strangled Nancy Fox to death, also inside her home. Rader than called the police to report the murder he had committed. He sent the following poem to a local newspaper [sic]:

Oh! Death to Nancy
What is this tahtI can see
Cold icy hands taking hold of me
for Death has come, you all can see.
Hell has open it,sgate to trick me.
Oh! Death, Oh! Death, can't you spare me, over for another year!
I'll stuff your jaws till you can't talk
I'll blindyour leg's till you can't walk
I'll tie your hands till you can't make a stand.
And finally I'll close your eyes so you can't see
I'll bring sexual death unto you for me.
B.T.K.

Rader also sent a package shortly after a failed murder attempt on the life of 63-year-old widow, Anna Williams in April of 1979. He broke into her home, stole and few things, and waited for her to get home. When she did not arrive in the time frame he expected, he grew frustrated and left. Two packages were sent a month later, one to her home and one to a local news station, including the poem below [sic]. Anna moved away from the Kansas area shortly after the package was received.

Oh, Anna Why Didn't You Appear

Oh, Anna, Why Didn't You Appear
T' was perfect plan of deviant pleasure so bold on that Spring nite
My inner felling hot with propension of the new awakening season
Warn, wet with inner fear and rapture, my pleasure of entanglement, like new vines at night

Oh, Anna, Why Didn't You Appear
Drop of fear fresh Spring rain would roll down from your nakedness to scent to lofty fever that burns within,
In that small world of longing, fear, rapture, and desparation,the game we play, fall on devil ears
Fantasy spring forth, mounts, to storm fury, then winter clam at the end.

Oh, Anna Why Didn't You Appear
Alone, now in another time span I lay with sweet enrapture garments across most private thought
Bed of Spring moist grass, clean before the sun, enslaved with control, warm wind scenting the air, sun light sparkle tears in eyes so deep and clear.
Alone again I trod in pass memory of mirrors, and ponder why for number eight was not.
Oh, Anna Why Didn't You Appear

By 2004, the cases for these murder were cold, but the media would receive 11 more letters from Rader that would eventually lead to his capture. The Wichita television station KAKE received a letter in May that contained proposed chapters to a book called the “BTK Story.” The letter included fake IDs and a word puzzle. Then in June, a package was found taped to a street sign, containing incredibly graphic details about the murder of the Otero family. It also containing a drawing labeled "The Sexual Thrill Is My Bill." Then in July a package was put into a public library book return slot, and then another in October dropped in a UPS box. This one contained pictures of bound children pasted on them, a death threat poem for lead investigator Lt. Ken Landwehr, and autobiographical details of Rader that were later proven false.

Then a package was found in nearby Murdock Park. Inside was the real drivers license of Nancy Fox, and a doll that bound at the hands and feet, with a small plastic bag over its head. He was later arrested when surveillance footage caught him dropping off another package in a parking lot, driving a black Jeep. Then metadata on a floppy disk he sent led police led them to Rader’s home, where they found a black Jeep.

With DNA evidence provided by his daughter, Rader pled guilty and sentenced to several life sentences. He gave a rambling monologue at the end that prosecutors likened to an Oscar’s acceptance speech. He has been in solitary confinement since he entered prison.

Rader writes to the Wichita Eagle

The recent cancer scare shook something up in Rader, obviously, as he made the decision to send more strange, unsolicited correspondence over to the Wichita Eagle. He wrote to them that he was “back to normal now,” once doctors had cleared him. However, the cancer scare was enough to push Rader to make plans for his own “a kick-the-bucket scenario.” The Wichita Eagle points out that the word “scenario” is also a word he used to refer to the murder plans for his ten victims.

The BTK killer, the man who created his own serial killer moniker, meaning “bind, torture, kill,” is worried about his own body and what will happen to his belongings. He appears almost tenderly worried about himself, especially his poetry and art. Of course, this is typical of those with cluster B personality disorders which are extremely common among serial killers. Even those who have victimized people in the most heinous ways are still able to position themselves as a primary victim.

He continues: “I did write [my daughter] and ask her and the family if they would like my left-over art, poetry, papers, log books, journal, etc. I gave them a couple of months to decide. I thought perhaps Kerri might like to work with someone to ‘chap book’ or a bio on me.” Yes, the BTK killer would like a poetry chap book made after his death. 

Artwork included in the letter

Artwork included in the letter

“The family knows I want to be cremated and where to scatter the ashes, assuming they claim my body,” he wrote last week. “If not, the [prison] facility will have it done, and I think the ashes [will be] place in a ‘niche’ at Hutchinson, KS. Which will greatly disappoint my soul or ghost!” Rader continued.

However, his daughter isn’t too interested: “That’s the normal BS from him.” She went on to say “…we told him, as early as 12 years ago, that we’ll do what he wants us to do when the time comes,” she said. “I don’t understand why he keeps bringing it up. Except I think my dad is just trying to get attention. He’s a controller, and what he still has left is boxes of stuff he wrote, so he’s trying to control that.”

 Rader’s daughter and wife all but disowned him after they found out about his crimes. His daughter communicates to him rarely, and only through writing. “I don’t know of anyone who has a father like mine,” she said. Although they are willing to honor his request for cremation, the one thing that his former family are unwilling to do is to cause anymore harm to the victims’ families, so they won’t be selling any of this poems or art.

Looks like the BTK killer will have to deal with never knowing what will happen to himself or his belongings, a fair price to pay for doing the exact same thing, in a much more horrifying ways, to ten victims without consideration. And he will probably never be able to see the contradiction.

Understanding the Angels of Death

By C.W.S.

With the return of serial killer nurse Genene Jones into news with new charges, as well as the death of prolific serial killer and orderly Donald Harvey’s death in March, the term ‘Angel of Death,’ or sometimes ‘Angel of Mercy’ has been heard frequently in the media to describe both of these murderers. An Angel of Death is defined by their role as a medical professional and their use of this role to kill those under their care for various psychological reasons.

Quietly terrifying, this type of crime strikes the most vulnerable populations, especially the elderly and infants: those who cannot speak out and cannot stop the abuse. It’s hard to imagine that a place where one goes to heal can be turned into just the opposite, a place that kills people before their time and without their consent.

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Attempting to find the origin of the term ‘Angel of Death’ proves difficult. While there is no Angel of Death specifically mentioned in the Old or New Testaments, there is an angel that has come to be known as such. Azrael, who’s Hebrew name translates to “Help of God,” or “One whom God Helps.” This angel, though not considered canonical, has been known in lore to be the one who is forever writing in a large book and then forever erasing what he writes. He writes the birth of a man, and then erases the name of the man at death.

More likely, the idea of the modern Angel of Death comes from many testimonies over time by people from various religious backgrounds. Many of those who have had near-death experiences claim to have seen an angel-like being or beings that had come to facilitate their passage to the other side. The most popular modern representation of this being is the Grim Reaper, the skeleton cloaked in a black holding a scythe. These beings are considered personifications of death; they represent our attempt as mortals to make death into an understandable form.

These types of serial killers take the power of death into their own hands, decidedly ‘playing God,’ likening them to these religious and psychological characters. These victims are almost never known personally to their killer, instead they are used as pawns in their strange grandiose delusions.

Investigators and psychologists have illustrated three primary motivations for crimes of this kind:

‘Mercy killers’ are those that purport to kill to ease a patient’s suffering. They believe that their patients cannot be healed, though this is often not the case, regardless of the delusion of the caregiver.

Jane Toppan

Jane Toppan

‘Sadistic’ HSKs find pleasure, whether sexual or otherwise, from exerting power over and causing pain and suffering to those that are unable to advocate for themselves. An example of this is Jane Toppan, nicknamed "Jolly Jane," a HSK who was arrested in 1901 after confessing to 33 murders. Toppan admitted to enjoying the process of nearly killing her patients and then bringing them back to life. When she did kill them she would lie in bed with them and hold them while they died. She told authorities that she derived a sexual thrill from this experience. 

The ‘Malignant hero’ is one who purposefully endangers a patient’s life, often causing harm to the point of imminent death, so that they can bring them back to life and receive praise and accolades from family and coworkers. 

Professionals studying this type of crime call Angels of Death by a different name, Healthcare Serial Killers, or HSKs. Professor David Wilson and Dr. Elizabeth Yardley conducted a study to seek out common behaviors in HSKs in 2014 out of Birmingham City University. The study investigated 16 nurses that had been convicted of killing their patients.

In the study, Wilson states, “The authorities and law enforcement agencies should look for a cluster of factors – red flags – to indicate if there is a murderer at work. Healthcare serial killers are an extremely rare phenomenon, contrary to public perception.”

Here are the the behaviors that the study determined were “red flags:”

- Higher instances of death on shift
- History of mental instability/depression
- Makes colleagues anxious
- In possession of drugs etc at home/in locker
- Appears to have a personality disorder

Most commonly, HSKs use injections of poisons to kill their patients, the type that only shows up on toxicology reports. Elderly patients are often the easiest to target, as their deaths can be attributed to a variety of natural causes, almost always without serious questioning.

Donald Harvey

Donald Harvey

Donald Harvey, who claims to have killed over 50 of his patients, used this very tactic when he was an orderly at the Drake Memorial Hospital in Cincinnati. He was sentenced for 37 of these murders, and was recently beaten to death in prison. He often used arsenic or cyanide, hiding it in his patient’s food. He was able to conceal his crimes until a coroner noticed a strong smell of almonds after opening the corpse of one of Harvey’s patients, a smell associated with cyanide poisoning. Harvey claimed to be an Angel of Mercy, killing his patients to put them out of their misery.

Genene Jones, who was sentenced to 99 years in prison for injecting three separate shots of succinylcholine into an infant named Chelsea McClellan, killing her in 1982. The drug causes muscle relaxation and short term paralysis, and it stopped her small heart. Authorities, however, believe that Jones probably killed dozens more children, as there was a spike in infant deaths whenever she was on shift.

When Jones was almost released from prison due to an old law meant to relieve overcrowding, police worked hard to compile evidence for new charges against her. They were able to successfully charge Jones for the murder of Joshua Sawyer in 1981. Investigators believe that Jones wanted to create emergencies so that she could appear as a hero, qualifying her as a 'Malignant hero.'

These types of crimes are incredibly rare, so there really isn't anything to worry about. Because they are so rare, psychologists are only breaking the surface of this terrifying phenomenon. However, even though they are uncommon, these types of killers are nothing new. Abusers often exploit the most vulnerable of populations, and all we can do is be aware of the warning signs.

The 1908 Murder That Inspired Twin Peaks

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By C.W.S.

We all have that story, the story that haunted and intrigued us as children, the story that opened us up to a different world, to a darkness that many of us still seek out in true crime and horror. Hometown legends, urban myths, famous murders read about in a tattered paperback or followed in the hard flash of the evening news. Twin Peaks was a bizarre, brilliant ‘whodunit’ television series that aired in the early 90s, and the first episode of the new season has already premiered. That’s a whole 25 years later. Something about Twin Peaks also stuck in our psyche, lit up something in us, and so the cycle continues.

Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost was loosely inspired by a certain story his grandmother used to tell him as a child while he spent summers with her in rural New York, a place called Sand Lake. "The inspiration… sprang from a nightmarish little bedtime story my grandmother Betty Calhoun planted in my ear as a young boy,” Frost wrote. She told him that a ghost haunted the area of the lake they lived near. But was it just a story?

Known locally as the Teal Pond Mystery, this story comes from the real murder of a 20-year-old woman named Hazel Drew in 1908. Much like the central character of Twin Peaks, murdered teenager Laura Palmer, Hazel Drew’s body was also found washed ashore. However, Hazel was not “wrapped in plastic” the way that Laura was in the pilot of Twin Peaks, instead she was found with a corset string tight around her throat, her death caused from blunt force trauma to the back of her skull.

Hazel Drew

Hazel Drew

It was this woman, Hazel Drew, that Mark Frost mentioned to co-creator and now-famous surrealist director David Lynch. It isn’t hard to tell from Lynch’s films that he has an obsession with young women and their secret lives. The story of the beautiful, young Hazel Drew piqued his interest, especially when Frost revealed what he had found while doing research on a trip back Sand Lake, hoping to fill in the details he never knew.

At the time of her death, no one knew that Hazel had a vibrant, chaotic personal life. Last seen picking raspberries on the side of a local road, this image of innocence was shared by her community, and so what was to follow would come as an enormous shock. She had no known boyfriends, but after her murder police uncovered a great deal of correspondence between Hazel and several different men. Just like in Twin Peaks, a lot of what authorities had to go on were simply initials of those people Hazel was meeting in the night or writing to secretly. And just like Laura Palmer, the evidence showed that Hazel Drew lived a complicated double life, perhaps even as dark as Laura Palmer’s. Almost daily it seemed, new leads were announced by the police, creating a sensational tapestry of suspects.

There was Frank Smith, a farmhand Hazel had known, but he was cleared with an alibi. Then came Hazel’s uncle, William Taylor, who lived within a mile of the lake where Hazel was found and was there to help pull her body from the water. Though the town found him particularly suspect because of his odd behavior (he was known as 'suicidal and melancholy'), he was eventually cleared as they could find no evidence linking him to Hazel’s death. Then were was another local man, known as a ‘half-wit,’ who was said to torture animals, and a professor said to have employed Hazel. Hazel’s mother also mentioned a man from Troy who she believed possessed “hypnotic powers,” which served as vague inspiration for some occult elements of the Twin Peaks storyline.

Twin Peaks' co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost

Twin Peaks' co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost

The characters kept coming. A dentist that proposed to Hazel, a train conductor she may have been dating in secret, and local millionaire Henry Kramroth who ran the nearby establishment that has echoes of Twin Peaks’ insidious brothel/casino, One Eyed Jack’s. Rumors of orgies and women being held against their will flew about Kramoth’s resort, as well as rumors about Hazel’s romantic involvement with Kramroth, but ultimately he was also let off, despite witnesses hearing screams from his establishment around the time of the murder.

Although her injuries were consistent with homicide, authorities put forth a different theory, probably meant to placate the community. A newspaper article contained this statement from police: "After five days of careful investigation. in which many theories have been advanced, a motive for the murder is lacking. Nothing has been learned that would warrant the authorities in making an arrest in connection with the crime. This being the case, the accident theory is advanced. The Macadam road between Troy and Averill Park is popular with automobilists. A reckless chauffeur speeding along at night, may have struck the girl with his car, causing her death. Rater than face the consequences, and knowing the country well, it would have been a comparatively simple matter to have taken the girl's body in the car up the lonely road toward Taborton and to have thrown her body into the mill pond."

The murder of Hazel Drew is still officially unsolved. Frost told the Washington Post, “It seemed to be kind of a hastily conducted investigation, and because she was a person from not a prominent family, I think you could fairly say, and because there was very little sympathy for female victims of that sort in this time she may have gotten the short shrift.”

Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks

Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks

Although the story of Hazel’s death and the subsequent case served as the basis of Twin Peaks, it is certainly far from the actual story. It was more the feeling of the story, of the feeling of a small town that felt foreign to Frost, the secrets, the gossip, the closeness of the community that made for even more shocking revelations. The characters.

“I always lived in either big cities or suburbs in my life,” Frost wrote. “I’d grown up hearing about people in the mountain who were out of the ordinary, who were a little off-kilter sometimes. So I think all of those stories had an impact on my thinking about folks like this, and I definitely can remember feeling like, ‘Yeah, this is a little bit like the guy who used to live out by the sawmill’ or ‘This is one of the hermits that I’d hear about.’ ”

The area of Sand Lake has been crowded with a new surge of tourists since the announcement of Twin Peaks’ return for season three, but by now the community is used to people poking around the woods near the lake, hoping to piece together clues of what happened to the woman who served as inspiration for one of the more iconic victims in television and cinema history, Laura Palmer.

The new season of Twin Peaks is airing weekly on Showtime and seasons one and two are available on Netflix.

An Interview with Director Erin Lee Carr of HBO’s Mommy Dead and Dearest

By C.W.S.

The genre of true crime, and the media at large, thrive on the simplification of their subjects. We love fitting people into easy boxes: evil, good, innocent, guilty, but human beings are infinitely more complex than that. The media tends to take what is three dimensional and turn it into two, into a digestible narrative that doesn’t leave much room for critical thought. As director Erin Lee Carr told me, while paraphrasing a quote from Liz Garbus, “We are not equal to our best or worst actions.” And this idea is exactly what her new documentary, Mommy Dead and Dearest, seems to describe to an audience hungry to make sense of it all.

The documentary explores the case of Dee Dee Blancharde’s murder by her daughter, Gypsy Rose, and her daughter’s online boyfriend (see the in-depth article I wrote about this case here). What made this story a national fascination was that Gypsy had been in a wheelchair since she was a small child, sick with a dizzying array of physical illnesses, including cancer, and had the mental capacity of a seven-year-old, though she was apparently 18.

Before the murder, Dee Dee appeared to the world as a caring, devoted mother, and Gypsy Rose, her very helpless, very innocent child with disabilities. In old home movies, photos, and news reports, both wore bright, child-like clothing, Dee Dee always jolly and always very near to Gypsy, usually holding her hand, Gypsy always speaking in a high, infantile voice, bald under her rotation of hats, ribbons, wigs. They were given free trips to Disneyland, received a house from Habitat for Humanity in the Ozarks, as well as monetary donations and services.

But as the story of Dee Dee’s murder unfolded in the media, family, friends, doctors, and those who had followed the sympathetic pair on social media saw that everything, down to the wheelchair, had been a façade. Gypsy could walk. Gypsy did not have cancer. Gypsy was 23.

Factitious disorder imposed on another, known more commonly as Münchausen syndrome by proxy, is a mental disorder in which a person fabricates symptoms of physical or mental disorders for someone under their care, usually to gain attention or sympathy. Dee Dee had convinced the world that her daughter was sick, shaving her head, intimidating her with emotional and physical abuse. Dee Dee had tricked doctors as well, changing offices the moment that someone questioned the laundry list of ailments. 

Mommy Dead and Dearest is a direct, unflinching look at Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose, constructed around interviews that Carr conducted with Gypsy from prison, where she is serving an eight-year sentence for second-degree murder. Carr knew that to tell this story, she would need Gypsy Rose. “I immediately wrote to Gypsy Rose in prison,” she told me, the excitement still present in her voice, “and I was in my apartment in Brooklyn and I got a letter back with this sort of shaky handwriting and it was from Gypsy Rose… and it’s very superstitious, but when I get prison mail that could make or break my next movie, I treat it in a very sort of special way. And I opened it and it was like ‘I would like to talk to you, thank you so much for your interest, I am going to talk to my lawyer’… and then she signed her name with a rose, and that is a very promising start.”

It would take a year of waiting and hoping, of small disappointments, but ultimately Gypsy and her lawyer would agree to participate and HBO would green light production. When I asked what Gypsy thought the documentary would do, Carr told me, always being careful not to speak for Gypsy, “Press was a part of Gypsy’s—it was a small part of Gypsy’s life and she was taught to lie. And she’s a pretty moral person, I know that seems like a weird thing to say given the circumstances. She wanted to tell her side of the story, and not in a tabloid way... it was like ‘I want to talk about how this happened, what were the warning signs, and can I talk about this in a way that prevents other children and other young adults from suffering.”

All her life, Gypsy was seen as innocent, sweet, weak, and helpless. She was obsessed with Disney movies, especially Tangled, the story of Rapunzel and her imprisonment by a faux mother who is eventually killed by Rapunzel and her one true love, freeing Rapunzel forever. Mommy Dead and Dearest shows that late at night, Gypsy was exploring and becoming enmeshed in online sexual practices that she was both interested in and intimidated by. Spurred on by her online boyfriend, Nick Godejohn, who is currently awaiting trial for first-degree murder, Gypsy took on several different personas, sending Godejohn various sexual photos from these alternate personalities. Gypsy confided in Godejohn the situation with her mother, and Godejohn, who Gypsy saw as her prince charming, came to his version of the rescue, meeting Gypsy in her home late at night and then stabbing her mother to death in her bed.

Gypsy did send violent text messages. Gypsy did want her mother dead. The evidence is clear. Gypsy helped to carry out the murder, though she stayed in the closed bathroom, in a fetal position with her hands covering her ears. Through interviews with friends and family, with her lawyer and doctor, Mommy Dead and Dearest patchworks the life of a severely abused child that did not have the ability to advocate for herself, in a world where no one took the time to put the pieces together for a child in desperate need.  However, that is not the read that everyone has. Some wonder how complicit Gypsy Rose was in this life-long scam. “People question her motives,” Carr told me, speaking of the comments people have made to her after a few select screenings, “and I think that’s real. Her as an unreliable narrator was a difficult thing for me to watch as the edit turned into the final copy of the film, but it rings true to me.”

Carr is known previously for her HBO documentary Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop, a look at the trial of former NYPD officer Gilberto Valle, who was charged with conspiracy to kidnap because of his chats on a fetish website. In these chats, he detailed his desire to murder and cook women, going as far as to make what appeared to the prosecution as actual plans for a kidnapping. Valle never wavered from his defense that it was all role-playing, all a dark interest he indulged late at night. The case inspired a national debate about thought crime, about the line between fantasy and action, and whether Valle should have been prosecuted. Carr was right there, interviewing Valle and his mother from their home while he was on house arrest, watching him cook strange meals for his mother, in his sleepy, sweet way. It’s disorienting at times, the whirl of personality in Carr’s work. Just tell me how to feel! You sometimes want to yell.

Personhood is the word that kept coming to mind while I watched Mommy Dead and Dearest and re-watched Thought Crimes, as well as Carr’s previous documentary work at Vice. She and her team of filmmakers have a remarkable talent for taking the two dimensional and translating it back into three. Instead of manufacturing villains and heroes, Car’s work helps us remember that people can hold inside them both cruelty and violence, as well as care and love. Nothing is ever simple. Though they are ripe with moments of tenderness, pain, and revelation, and crafted with the color and light of a careful artist (a title Carr is wary of claiming), I leave Carr’s films not feeling as much as thinking. This seems like a step in the right direction when trying to form an opinion as frighteningly vague as guilty or innocent.

Gilberto Valle in Thought Crimes

Gilberto Valle in Thought Crimes

“I think there are so many stories like Gil Valle, like Gypsy Rose,” Carr told me, “people throw these men and women away because they did something unconscionable. And that’s just not true, these are human beings that breathe and feel and love and they feel pain, and it felt deeply important to me to add dimension to the story.”

Her work is clearly dedicated to an impartial view of the human condition, however, Carr was not shy in letting me know how she felt about this case: “I have a lot of bias, I do believe that Gypsy is a victim, that she should not be in jail. I don’t explicitly say that in the film.”

Carr said it is the work of her editor, Andrew Coffman, that gives the film its neutral feel. “I find the story. I get the story, and I curate what I think is the story. It’s really important to work with an editor who is unbiased, who is going to look at the material and see what rises to the top.” I asked Carr about the hopes she had for her film, the way she wanted her audience to feel. She told me simply that she didn’t want to answer that one. Then after a pause, “However they want. If they are angry, if they’re creeped out. I want it all.”

It was Carr’s father, renown New York Times columnist and author David Carr who died in 2015, that Carr believes imprinted on her an understanding of the nuance of her subjects. “I was raised by my dad, who’s a journalist, who led a pretty wild life before he had me and my twin sister. We grew up knowing that we are not responsible for the worst thing we ever did…We knew that there was gray in this world of black and white.”

Carr continued to tell me about her father’s influence: “I was raised without gender. I didn’t understand that women couldn’t do certain things. I grew up in this household where my sisters and I were told constantly by our dad that we were unstoppable, that we were brilliant, that we had things to say. And then when I got into the real world and people stopped saying that to me, I was like, Wait a second! I have so much gratitude that my dad was a feminist in a real way.”

True crime is a genre that is statistically consumed by a female majority, some theorize because women are overwhelmingly the victims of these types of stories. True crime could be a way in which we prepare ourselves for a world that victimizes women at a constant rate. Carr calls herself “a very proud feminist,” so I asked her to tell me more about the development of her feminism: “Basically I was a cult fanatic of the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Rooting for the underdog, knowing that women are powerful, and knowing that there is evil in the world to be explored.”

“It seems like a very simply premise,” Carr said of Joss Whedon’s Buffy. “A girl walks into an alley at night, and that’s how Joss felt about it, he wanted her to fight back. When we shift and flip these story archetypes, it just becomes so much more interesting.” Buffy echoes Mommy Dead and Dearest in this way, in the flipping of archetypes, the weak suddenly becoming strong, imbued with some new force, for better or for worse. Buffy was also a show of character depth, of character complication, of the murderous vampire with a soul, of the power of a love that even the evil can sometimes feel.

I asked her to tell me more about her influences inside the true crime genre: “I love My Favorite Murder. I watch all the HBO documentaries… they have a really great legacy, with the Paradise Lost series, with The Cheshire Murders, with There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane, with The Jinx, so incredible… I’m trying to take in as much media as I put out, and luckily there is so much to choose from.”

Erin Lee Carr

Erin Lee Carr

She credits a well known true crime book as her root. “I think it was Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. I was obsessed with that book. It was so well-written, it was so heavy, it was so complex, it was so comprehensive. It started the love affair that I have with true crime.”

Carr is only 28-years-old, a fact that she can never seem to get away from. “I was asked how old I was every day this year.” Pitching Thought Crimes at just 24, the brilliance and courage are clear, so I decided not to ask anymore about that. Instead, I asked Carr to tell me a little about herself outside of her work, “I love to hang out with my dog, Gary. He’s a 12-year-old Jack Russell Terrier who is mean as a bag of snakes, but he loves me. I go to be at 10:30 at night and I say, ‘Gary it’s time for us to go to bed,’ and he hops in and spoons me. He’s the little spoon, obviously. But that is one of the great joys of my life. That’s about all I do.”

The highly anticipated documentary, directed by Erin Lee Carr, will be premiering May 15 on HBO.

HaK Review: Casting JonBenét Turns the Camera Around

By C.W.S.

The story of JonBenét Ramsey’s 1996 murder and the subsequent investigation has crystalized into something that feels closer to fiction than fact. It has become a movie of itself: there are characters, costumes, quotes; there are moments we know are coming. This story has become an American legend, a dramatic, sequined mystery in full red, white, and blue. We wait for the moment that Patsy says through tears, “Keep your babies close to you.” We know the exact way she says it.  

But it isn’t a movie line, at least, it wasn’t at first. If you even occasionally give in to your sensational side, you will have see a dozen Patsy Ramseys say this line, a dozen John Ramseys run into the wine cellar and fall to their knees beside JonBenét’s covered body. You will see a dozen little Burkes eating pineapple and milk. You’ll see a dozen creepy John Mark Karrs slouched in a jail cell. You’ll see it over and over again. If the question is whether or not Netflix's  Casting JonBenét is an exploitive film, Manohla Dargis, reviewing for The New York Times, said it best: “The question of whether the movie exploits JonBenét’s death is obvious; of course it does. The better question is whether it’s meaningful exploitation.”

Australian director Kitty Green spent a year in the town of Boulder, Colorado making Casting JonBenét. She put out a casting call for a movie about the JonBenét case, and told the actors they could audition for any role they would like. When they arrived, she let them in on the real project, or at least, the loose idea.

In an interview with Vox, Green told writer Alissa Wilkinson, There's so many JonBenét Ramsey TV specials, with actors playing her mother and father. I'm always thinking, how do you play Patsy Ramsey if you don't know if she's guilty or innocent? How do you approach that role? I basically wanted to focus on the community.”

She warned them that anything that they chose to share in interviews could be used in the film. She told them “It's an experiment, basically. And will you jump down the rabbit hole with us?” Those that stayed are featured in a series of interviews, some speaking of what they knew of the case as local in Boulder during that time, as well as playing out famous scenes from the narrative of the case.

Director Kitty Green

Director Kitty Green

Casting JonBenét assumes that you already know everything you need to know about the case. The goal is not to present new evidence or a new angle on old evidence. The goal, it seems, is to understand the ways in which we can’t help but project ourselves into the American mysteries that unite us, perhaps in an unfortunate way, but unite us nonetheless.

One of the most illuminating parts of this documentary was the way each actor showed empathy or suspicion toward John and Patsy. At times, their projections felt clear. One man spoke of his previous admiration for the successful CEO John Ramsey, and several other men seemed to soften at the thought of him, claiming that Patsy was the murderer, and John was just solemnly swept along.

Another man spoke softly of the idea that perhaps Patsy’s cancer, and disease itself (or dis-ease as he said, as if he had come up with that himself) is created by our emotional experiences. He cited that because Patsy killed JonBenét, the child she had carried in her womb, her 2006 death from ovarian cancer may have had a direct link to the guilt of that action.

Many of the women also seemed to find fault in Patsy, citing the likelihood that it was her who wrote the ransom note, her who seemed to be acting during public interviews (though to me, it seemed like she was usually on a cocktail of different anxiety medications). Patsy’s jealousy over her beautiful young daughter was mentioned at one point as a possible motive. One woman flipped through Patsy’s memoir, finding an apparent narcissism she missed the first time she read it.

Many women attempted to understand how a mother could kill her child. One recalled a time when her child had frustrated her so much she screamed at him. She felt remorse about it to this day. She noted that, even during the weakest moment of anger, she could never see herself killing her child.

At one point, a woman who is auditioning for Patsy tells us of her own loss of three children, while breaking down. Another conjures a single genuine tear for the purpose of the role, while thinking of finding her own daughter the way JonBenét was found. This is what makes Casting JonBenét a different kind of true crime documentary. It turns the camera around, it asks, What does this mean to you? Who does this make you?

So, who do we empathize with and why? How does this color our idea of guilt and innocence? These are questions that Casting JonBenét asks, without ever having to ask them. Green is absent from the film entirely, never heard asking questions or narrating a scene. The actors don’t seem to need much leading,

Green noted the American compulsion to open up, stating that in general, Australians are much more private people. Something else: American culture wants to know. We love a mystery but we can’t leave it at that, we have to be confident in our solution, even without the evidence needed for certainty. All one needs to do is watch this film to see the ways in which we create answers from the ether. The ways we may choose an answer based on who we are and what we already think of the world. Successful morose CEO John Ramsey, Patsy’s cancer of guilt, her jealousy-induced rage over her beautiful (six-year-old) daughter. What do these visions tell us about who we are?

We want to understand. We want to understand partially out of a morbid curiosity of course, but also because until we can understand, how can we stop this type of violence? Perhaps it is this case, the murder of a six-year-old girl that filled tabloids for most of my childhood, this case that has so many more questions than answers, so many holes and so many blank spaces. The lack of answers, of hard evidences, of reasons why, gives us a screen to project ourselves inside. Because when we do not understand something, what do we innately do? We try. For better or for worse.

 

HaK Viewers Guide: Netflix’s The Keepers

By C.W.S.

Caution: Descriptions of child sexual abuse

By now you’ve probably heard that Netflix is set to release a new true crime docuseries that is being compared to Making A Murderer. The subject is a still-unsolved murder that took place in Baltimore in 1969, the victim a 26-year-old Catholic nun named Catherine Cesnik. The show also covers the influence that the Catholic Church may have had in covering up Sister Cathy’s murder, because the person (or persons) responsible were their own.

It would be inaccurate to say that the Catholic Church, as an institution, has been free of scandal and corruption, free of cover-up. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the institution has a clear history of purposefully hiding the truth of what some of their higher ranking male members are doing behind closed doors. The Keepers appears to shed light not only on a single murder, but also on a history of sexual abuse of students at the all-girls Archbishop Kenough High School as well as the violent cover-up that came later.

Background on the case

Sister Cathy was a well-liked English and Drama teacher at Archbishop Kenough High School, a popular private school for lower-income families in Baltimore with an annual tuition of $200 (about $1200 today). After a Roman-Catholic upbringing, she set out to become a nun in 1960 when she entered Convent School of Sisters of Notre Dame in Baltimore. Seven years later, after several years of teaching, Sister Cathy took her vows.

She had requested, and was granted, the option to live off campus with another nun, Sister Helen Russell. Her flat was a popular place for students to spend evenings talking and playing music. Sister Cathy had a very friendly relationship to her students, and by all accounts influenced them positively and with great care.

Sister Catherine Cesnik

Sister Catherine Cesnik

On November 7th, 1969, Sister Cathy left the flat to run some errands. It was the last time she was seen alive. When she did not arrive home by 11:00pm, Sister Helen contacted Father Gerry Koob and Father Peter McKeon, and when they arrived at the flat at 1:00am, they decided to call the police.

The next morning, after a long night of questioning, the three would take a walk and discover Sister Cathy’s car parked near the apartment building, not in its usual place.

Two hunters would find Sister Cathy’s frozen body two months later on January 3rd, 1970. Autopsy results showed that she had been choked and hit over the head with a blunt object.

Suspicion was immediately cast upon Father Koob, who had had an intimate relationship to Sister Cathy. He claimed their relationship was not romantic, but a love letter was discovered by investigators that Sister Cathy had written to him. Nonetheless, Father Koob had an alibi for the night of Sister Cathy’s disappearance.

The case was handed over to county police after Sister Cathy’s body was discovered outside the limits of the city's jurisdiction. The detective that handled the case for the first three months, Nick Giangrasso, had this to say 47 years later: “The Catholic Church had a lot of input into the police department. A lot of power.” The case went cold for 22 years.

1992 Allegations of sexual abuse

A former student of Archbishop Kenough High School, Jean Wehner, attended during the time of Sister Cathy's murder. She came forward in 1992 with a civil lawsuit claiming that she had been sexually abused by the high school chaplain, Father Joseph Maskell, who was in his late 20s. She also claimed that to keep her quiet, Maskell showed her Sister Cathy’s remains before they were found by police.

She told police that she tried to wipe maggots from Sister Cathy’s face. “You see what happens when you say bad things about people?” Maskell reportedly told her. The detail about the maggots initially made police suspicious of Jean’s story, as they assumed the freezing weather would have prevented maggots from appearing on the body. However, it would turn into corroborated witness testimony when the private autopsy results were found to note their existence on her remains.

“He terrified me to the point that I would never open my mouth,” Jean told Huffington Post. At her attorneys’ appeal, several other women came forward with similar claims of abuse. Teresa Lancaster, another former student, would join the lawsuit against Maskell. The claims also involved co-conspiracy by other powerful community members: Father Neil Magnus (who died in 1988), the director of Religious Studies (who died in 2006), and local gynecologist Dr. Christian Richter (who died in 2006, and who admitted that Markell would often be present in the room during exams). In addition, several of the women claimed that the men targeted more vulnerable girls and forced them to have sex with strangers, often uniformed police officers.

Father Joseph Maskell

Father Joseph Maskell

The Huffington Post wrote an in-depth article on the allegations in 2015. The descriptions of sexual abuse and rape by Maskell and others are incredibly disturbing, as are the means by which he silenced the victims. Jean recalled being terrified in his presence, but being unable to show it: “He pushed my face into a mirror and he said, ‘You look at who the whore is in the room. Don’t ever act like you’re afraid,’” she recalled.

The lawsuits alleged that the girls did not feel safe coming forward because Maskell routinely threatened them with a gun, with murder of themselves and their loved ones, and with punishments like being thrown out of school for drug possession. It was Sister Cathy that may have been the only one to try to stop the abuse which was becoming a full-blown pedophilia ring. Sister Cathy caught on to what was happening, and Jean says that she would make excuses for her when Maskell would try to call her to his office, where the abuse of her and many others often took place.

The suit was thrown out in 1994, due to a law stating that sex abuse suits had to be filed within three years of the date of the alleged abuse. Nonetheless, police opened an investigation into Maskell, who promptly fled the country, landing in Ireland where he died in 2001.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore was eventually forced to settled claims with at least 12 women who claimed abuse by Maskell.

The creation of The Keepers

In 2013, two former students of of Archbishop Kenough High School who attended the school at the same time as Jean and Teresa, found themselves with free time after their retirement. Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub were not subjected to the alleged abuse but they have long been haunted by questions around what happened to their favorite high school teacher, Sister Cathy Cesnik, as well as what was really happening to girls at their high school. The two women spent a year researching the case and following up with abuse claims. The documentary, directed by Ryan White, follows this experience.

Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins

Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins

The series presents the theory that Sister Cathy was murdered by Maskell for speaking up, or for threatening to speak up, about the abuse. It also looks into the police and church conspiracy surrounding the case, as well as the claims made by what appears to be nearly 100 former students. 

Director Ryan White had this to say about his experience working on the docuseries: "A major theme of this series is justice and injustice, and I believe, as an outsider having witnessed it now, that so many of the institutions and people that are tasked with protecting citizens or protecting children failed these people—and have failed them repeatedly over the last 45 years. And, in many cases, they've buried that truth. So what this grassroots movement has done is to allow some sense of justice—not literal justice or our typical definition of what justice means—but has allowed a kind of community justice for these people who know this has happened to them."

The true crime genre, when done right, can be a tool against oppressive institutions with unchecked power. The institutions that abuse their power in order to take advantage of the less-powerful: in this case women and underage persons. Documentary work like this can shed light not only on specific cases, but on wayward political and religious structures that are designed to protect themselves at all costs, including taking a life that threatens to expose their heinous crimes. It also sheds light on the mysterious way that corrupt structures of power sometimes seem to be in cahoots. It takes courage to challenge these powerful institutions—and it appears that those behind The Keepers, and the victims it hopes to represent, have a lot of it.

All seven episodes of The Keepers will be available on Netflix May 19.