“Craigslist Killer” is not a good title

November 25, 2011

For a few years, I’ve toyed with the idea of making a documentary film. It seems like a good genre/medium for me — visual storytelling without the need for actors or script approval. Not to mention the acceptability of low budget cinema verite’ in nonfiction film would be extremely freeing, I think. But unlike fictional filmmaking, you can’t just come up with an idea and get to work. The idea, I’ve found, needs to come to you. And as someone who is not drawn towards social advocacy, and whose life is not filled with colorful, larger-than-life characters (thankfully), I haven’t found a lot of obvious story ideas to work on.

As a genre film enthusiast, I was drawn to the idea of doing something in the “true crime” realm, but that’s easier said than done. First, how do you know that intriguing crime story is going to turn into something more significant. And if it’s something that catches your attention when surfing through the evening news, what’s to keep Dateline NBC or 48 Hours from jumping on the story with a bigger budget and more clout, and ruining any kind of novelty you hope to discover with it. You need to find a story that’s close to being sensational without attracting too much attention, and seeing a different angle that the mainstream media isn’t going to jump on.

A couple of years ago I thought I had found that with the severed foot story from Vancouver. Over the past several years, disembodied feet had been washing ashore in the Vancouver/Washington state area, without any apparent missing people to attribute them to. It was the sort of Lynchian mystery that would make for a great exploration, I thought, and the fact that there was no cleanly-told ending in sight meant that there wouldn’t be a great rush of journalists or documentarians to the US/Canadian border.

But what’s the angle for me? Not only am I some distance from the location, but I don’t have any real story to tell, other than my fascination with the sort of nihilistic themes I see in a public that assumes there’s a serial killer in the neighborhood when there haven’t even been any victims reported missing.

Today, however, I think I may have happened upon a crime story that has a greater personal connection for me. In the Akron, Ohio area there has been at least 3 killings perpetrated against older, single men who answered an ad on Craigslist to be a caretaker for a large, remote farm and instead were targeted for robbery and murder. The suspects in custody are a middle-aged ex-con who had become a rehabilitation advocate, and a teenager he had been mentoring through a local church.

First thing that jumps out at me about this story, which the papers haven’t explicitly touched upon yet, is that it seems like a pretty weak scheme to rob people who are applying for a low-paying job. How much money are you likely to find on a guy who is ready to work for $300 a week? It seems to me, what is more likely to be the case here is that the killer or killers (the teenager’s involvement is not immediately clear right now) were more interested in killing these men for the “thrill” of it, and that robbery is an excuse used by civilized people to justify an otherwise meaningless exploit.

It also strikes me that these victims are not appreciably different from their killers. Although I don’t know if the victims had criminal records, they do seem to be rather marginalized from society if they are, as reported, older and without wives/families, and interested in living alone at least a mile from their nearest neighbor. Or it could be that this is just a preconceived notion shared by myself and the alleged killer. I think it’s worth exploring what the social role of the farmer/rancher/outdoorsman is in our post-Kaczynski world. Not to mention the internet’s role in this story. Can we question how an outsider can be drawn towards a life living on a remote farm yet still be seeking out job openings on Craigslist, and posting comments about them on Facebook? Is a person really live “off the grid” anymore?

Nevertheless, as somebody who grew up in rural Ohio, and who has occasionally contemplated a life apart from mainstream society, I can see something there in this story. Now I need to think things through and decide if I want to put the effort into working on this story.