It was a story so crazy it had to be true: A homeless surfer-dude hitches a ride from a stranger to Fresno, California. During their journey, the driver — 6-foot-4, 300 pounds — introduces himself as the second coming of Christ, confesses to raping a 14-year-old girl during a business trip in the British Virgin Islands, and says that all Black people should perish, before slamming his vehicle into a Black pedestrian in broad daylight, pinning their body against a truck. When an onlooker rushes over to help, the man emerges from the vehicle, traps her in a bear hug and begins choking her — only to have his efforts thwarted by the hitchhiker, who removes a hatchet from his backpack and bashes his head in. A reporter for KMPH interviews the happy-go-lucky hatchet man with the Sideshow Bob ‘do, and the video of his zany retelling (“Smash, smash, SUH-MASH!”) explodes, attracting millions of views and turning him into an internet folk hero.
For many, that’s where the story of Kai ended. But in The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker, a new documentary premiering Jan. 10 on Netflix, filmmaker Colette Camden explores the deadly aftermath of Kai’s viral fame.
A pack of media vultures immediately descended on the 24-year-old drifter, ignoring all signs of his mental instability. Brad Mulcahy, then a human-interest researcher for Jimmy Kimmel Live!, recalls corralling a heavily inebriated (and publicly urinating) Kai for a pair of guest spots on the late-night show. Justin Bieber’s team reached out about a musical collaboration. Lisa Samsky, a reality TV brand manager who worked on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, even recruited Kai for a potential reality show (he signed the contract in hieroglyphs).
“We weren’t exactly sure what the show was gonna be, but I think what people saw at my company was Kai could be a gateway to a world we never saw: homeless people living happily on the streets,” Samsky says in the documentary, unaware of just how tone-deaf that sounds.
Those who knew him describe Kai, born Caleb McGillvary, as prone to fits of rage. In the full version of the KMPH video interview that was posted online, Kai mentions another incident where he supposedly rescued a woman from an abusive man, boasting about how he “smashed him in the head” and “busted out all his teeth.”
“I honestly believe Caleb has mental issues, because he seems well but when it comes to a certain situation of pressure, you either become a diamond or you get crushed,” says his cousin, Jeremy McGillvary Wolfe. “And in this case, Caleb gets crushed.”
Wolfe also claims that Kai had a challenging upbringing in Canada. His mother, he says, wouldn’t allow him to play outside with the other kids and often “locked him in a room for quite some time” with blankets covering the windows. (Kai’s mother offers a weak rebuttal.) Kai tried to start a fire in the family home and was subsequently sent into foster care at the age of 13.
Then there was the matter of the incident itself. Kai began bragging to Fresno locals that he’d handed the driver, Jett McBride, a joint laced with a number of drugs but he “couldn’t handle his shit.” (A toxicology report only found marijuana in McBride’s system.) According to Fresno cop Jeff Stricker, Kai and McBride smoked a joint in the vehicle, prompting Kai to tell McBride that “they were both ghosts,” adding, “I bet we could drive through that truck right now and nobody could see us.”
“He’s not perfectly clean in this incident,” Stricker maintains.
In May of 2013, three months after the viral episode, a 73-year-old lawyer named Joseph Galfy was found dead at his home in Clark, New Jersey. He was wearing only underwear and socks, and his head had been bashed in. Police found a piece of paper tucked under a laptop with Kai’s name and number on it, along with a train ticket receipt, leading them to surveillance footage of Galfy purchasing a train ticket for Kai at the station before hugging him goodbye. The authorities apprehended Kai at a bus station in Philadelphia a few days later.
While Kai did admit to killing Galfy, his version of events painted it as self-defense. Police interrogation footage shown in The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker sees Kai tell a pair of investigators that Galfy picked him up in Times Square, treated him to an Italian dinner, and offered to let him stay at his New Jersey home, which Kai accepted. When Kai woke up, he tells cops that he believed he was drugged and sexually assaulted in his sleep. On May 14, 2013, Kai posted the following message to his Facebook page:
“what would you do if you woke up with a groggy head, metallic taste in your mouth, in a strangers house… walked to the mirror and seen come dripping from the side of your face from your mouth, and started wretching, realizing that someone had drugged, raped and blown their fuckin load in you? what would you do?”
Kai told police that he did not retaliate, instead taking the train to Asbury Park, New Jersey, to meet a fan in the hopes of crashing with her. When the fan didn’t materialize, Kai called Galfy and asked if he could stay at his home again. That night, Kai says he awoke to the septuagenarian attempting to sexually assault him, and struck him repeatedly in the head with his hands and elbows, killing him.
Police pointed to several holes in Kai’s story: There were there no signs of struggle, such as defensive marks. The attack was particularly brutal. His recollections of his interactions with Galfy changed a number of times. He had been captured on video at the train station embracing Galfy and requested to stay with him a second time. And then he cut his hair and fled the state.
At 87 minutes, The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker could have spent more time examining the evidence against Kai, and whether there was any that supported his self-defense case (though its brisk run time is a welcome surprise in this era of drawn-out true crime docuseries). It’s far more effective as an indictment against media rapaciousness, as well as their treatment of the homeless and mentally unwell.
Kai was ultimately found guilty of first-degree murder in 2019 and sentenced to 57 years in a maximum-security prison. He must serve at least 85% of his sentence, and his appeal in Aug. 2021 was dismissed. He continues to appeal the verdict.
At his sentencing, the judge called Kai “a powder keg of explosive rage,” adding, “You created this public image of a free spirit, but underneath that free spirit the jury saw another side of you: a cold-blooded, calculated, callous killer.”