It's five o'clock in the morning on May 26th, 2012, and John Green's iPhone is buzzing with an incoming Facebook message.
"Hey, you might want to see this video," it reads. "I think it's that Luka guy you've been looking for."
Still under his covers, Green clicks on the link.
A man is laying face up tied spread eagle to a bed. He is nude, with a video camera positioned between his feet. New Order's "True Faith" is playing. A poster for the movie Casablanca hangs above the man's head, which is shrouded with a white cloth. And a figure in dark clothing is standing next to him. The figure leans over the man and touches his blindfold. The video cuts. The dark figure is now straddling the man.
Seconds later, the figure gets up, and the bound man shifts slightly. The video cuts at the one-minute mark, returning to the man, now with a black sheet over his head. Ten seconds later, the dark figure reemerges, holding an icepick in a clenched fist. He begins repeatedly thrusting the object in downward motion into the captive's abdomen.
The music continues to play. One hundred times the dark figure stabs the naked man.
"Holy shit!" Green thought to himself, watching on his iPhone. "It's Luka."
He got out of bed and opened the link on his computer so that he could view the video on a bigger screen. He watched as the dark figure began dissecting the man, cutting off his head and arm.
"Holy shit," Green said again to himself. "He really did it."
Green, referred to here by his online alias, logged onto the private Facebook group that he and a few other intrepid citizen sleuths had launched in an attempt to catch the man behind a video titled 1 boy 2 kittens. Posted a year and a half earlier, that video showed a figure in a dark green hoodie suffocating two tabby kittens using a vacuum and plastic bag.
The group, along with others online, had spent thousands of hours trying to track down a man, Luka Magnotta, who they believed was responsible for the video. They compiled pages of evidence, which they delivered to law enforcement — detailed photographic analysis, metadata pulled from numerous photographs, detailed locations of the suspected kitten killer's whereabouts. They were close to catching him twice — but found themselves always one step behind him.
They begged the authorities for help, reminding them that serial killers — from Jeffrey Dahmer to Edmund Kemper — began their reigns of terror by torturing and killing animals. Now, watching the video, Green believed his warnings had come to pass.
"Was I part of this?" Green thought to himself as he watched the video over and over. "Did we drive him to this place in his life?"
Alerted by Green, hundreds of amateur detectives sat transfixed in front of their computers, watching the hooded figure play with the decapitated head, simulate sex with the torso and masturbate himself with a severed arm. Some were attempting to positively identify the dark figure, others trying to see if the body was fake.
No one wanted to believe that what they were seeing was real.
Eighteen months earlier, on the evening of December 21st, 2010, Ryan Boyle had been surfing the web in his wood-paneled home office in Maryland. The Army veteran, who had made a civilian transition into working on aviation electronics for the Navy, was toggling between YouTube and the funny pictures thread on 4chan. "I was just looking for a laugh," he says. "Clicking back and forth."
As he was scrolling, he encountered a still image of a video called 1 boy 2 kittens. Boyle scrolled through the comments, which featured short posts from horrified and disgusted users hoping to ID a man who'd posted a video to the forum that apparently showed him killing kittens. Boyle thought, "Maybe I should watch this.'" So he clicked play, and saw a video of a human figure in a dark green hoodie asphyxiating two tabbies with a vacuum cleaner and a plastic bag. In the background of the horrifying clip, people were speaking in a foreign language. It sounded like Russian.
"Shock. Shock and disgust," says Boyle of his reaction to the video. "I'm a big animal guy. It hit me in a really personal place and I just wanted to see this guy pay." He continued reading comments on the video. "Somebody suggested we ought to do something," he recalls. "I thought that was probably a pretty good idea."
Other than a few gun/constitutional rights rallies, Boyle had never taken up any causes before. "I'm always the guy in the background. I've never stood up and demanded to be the guy with the microphone." But he immediately clicked over to Facebook and started a group called Save Teh Kitteh.
Boyle then clicked back to 4chan to ferry people over to his Facebook page, and noticed that another user had started up a page as well — one which was up to 50 followers to Boyle's 20. He contacted the other pages' admin, a 14-year-old teenager named "Dylan," to ask to join forces. Boyle, under the alias "Save Kitteh" became an admin of the Facebook group Find the Vaccumer Kitten Killer for Great Justice.
Boyle, who'd set up the group as invite-only, was getting a hundred requests for access per hour, furiously accepting each new member. "It was a wild crazy mess," he says.
On the same day that Boyle started Find the Vaccumer Kitten Killer, a woman on the West Coast of the United States, using the Internet alias Baudi Moovan, saw the video in her Facebook feed and found her way to the group. She had been following an animal mutilation case on 4chan and become intrigued at how users were able to identify a Texas Goth girl responsible for posting photos featuring the decapitation of a dog. She "found it fascinating how they used the data from the phone, and the Exif [Exchangable image file format, which contains information such as file format, often along with time, date and GPS] data and then matched up the images from the dog head." With her background in IT, Moovan felt she could help find the person who'd murdered the kittens.
She wasn't the only one. In Sydney, Australia, a 47-year-old accountant originally from the Ukraine using the alias Nicee Punk, had become intrigued with the search. "It was a challenge just to catch the bastard," she says. "I'm not really that compassionate. I've got Asperger's. I don't relate. I am low on the emotions. I don't know what drove me, I just wanted to do it." So she joined the group.
John Green saw 1 boy 2 kittens on 4chan. He was familiar with pet torture videos, having followed the case of Dusty, a cat who was terrorized on video by a teenage boy later identified as an eighth grader from Oklahoma. Green joined the group on December 23rd.
Christy, a 34-year-old a mother and business owner from Texas, joined and solved one mystery — she was the one who made the original plea on 4chan. At the time, Christy ran the gore site ohlookaforum, which was the top search result for a snuff video called 3 Guys, 1 Hammer. A user named babymaggie11 had embedded a YouTube video for 1 boy 2 kittens. (He had uploaded the video earlier that day on YouTube — the only other activity on that account was a "like" for a video of the opening of the movie Catch Me If You Can). "I took the video down immediately as we had a no animal cruelty rule," says Christy. "Since I wanted him to get caught though, I posted the info to the /b/ boards on 4chan."
This crew of avengers began tossing around theories. They started by looking at objects in the killer's room that were visible on the video. The bedspread was decorated with an image of a wolf — where was it sold? The voices in the background — was it actually Russian? The electrical outlets — were they European or North American? They pursued any visual clue that might help them identify the figure in the green hoodie.
1 boy 2 kittens was the group's Zapruder film, only the camera was not turned on a presidential motorcade but was rather staring back at an Internet user trying to get some type of attention.
The concept of the online sleuth is gaining momentum. From Susan Galbreath, a Kentucky housewife who became obsessed with the murder of local woman Jessica Currin, and began collecting clues and eventually getting a tip on a MySpace page to catch her killers, to blogger Alexandria Goddard grabbing screen captures of tweets in the aftermath of the Steubenville rape, the Internet is a breeding ground for budding Sherlocks. As long as citizens do not attempt to be vigilantes, and stick to gathering evidence and not publically identifying a suspect, the police are ambivalent about amateur sleuths — saying two things — don't interfere in the investigation, and information is a one-way street. The sleuths can tell them things, but they will get nothing in return.
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