In 2008, my brother’s closest friend from high school and his early 20s was killed in a bizarre Craigslist murder that has captured the media’s attention.
Yesterday, the jury came back with a verdict of guilty. Mark Twitchell will, it seems, spend 25 to life behind bars. (Thanks, Jury.)
My brother has obsessed over the case, following it in extreme detail. The murder broke his heart, I guess because Johnny Altinger was one of those quiet dorks that everyone loved because he was able to be himself. John was a little obnoxious, a little sweet, a little clueless. But he was a whole lot of good. He was a good, good, good man, and he trusted people at the blink of an eye.
Their crowd grew up on the computer, they were the original “social media” crowd. They talked on chat systems, came of age as the humble modem grew from 110bps to 300, then to 1200, then 2400… and now at seemingly the speed of light.
It was an oddball mix, back then. Folks too smart for the general population, kids too outside the norm to conform to the school crowd. They found like-minded friends on the precursor to the Internet, the Dial-Up Generation.
Johnny was the kind of guy who, in the ’70s, would’ve been stuck in lockers or mocked senselessly at school. He had a big nose, bad glasses, awkward gait, goofy teeth. But, coming of age in the ’80s, he found his crowd online, and so did my brother. Some of their friendships are as strong now, 25 years later, as they were then — friendships born on ideas and discussions, not just happening to be in the same class or born in the same neighbourhood, friendships that seemingly came from a deeper place and lasted longer on merit alone.
Johnny A and my bro kept in touch when Johnny moved north. They chatted online, stayed in touch, traded book titles to read, shared video files — at length. It wasn’t a surprise to hear that, given his newly isolated northern home, John was meeting more friends off the computer, and even using Craigslist for dating.
All right: I’ll be the first to admit that Johnny annoyed me. A lot.
But he was my brother’s friend, I was 16 or 18 or so, and that’s how it rolls — older brothers and their friends torment the annoying little sister. I think it’s Sibling Rule 72, paragraphs A through C.
That said, there were those rare moments where we both managed to be ourselves, rules aside, and I liked what I saw of him. More importantly, he was always a friend when my brother needed one.
But we were never close, and I don’t want to pretend we were. My brother didn’t live at home when he and Johnny were friends, so I really seldom ever saw him. He wasn’t even someone I’d even thought of in 5 years, aside from my bro’s rare mentioning of him.
Still, when I heard not only of his death but the horrific circumstances behind his death, I rethought many things I assumed to be true in life.
No one I know will ever be bludgeoned, stabbed, dismembered, burned, and dumped in a sewer. Wrong. Internet violence is a myth, it could never happen to me. Wrong. This stuff only happens in the movies. Wrong. Canada is a nice safe place. Wrong.
I’m more skeptical of people I meet now. More dubious of online followers, usually distrustful that they are who they say. When I see X many people in my audience, I now assume, the larger the number grows, that some amongst them are just plain evil. Because now I know it’s out there.
I thought my innocence was shattered in my teens, but the truly heinous nature of this crime, and the fact that it’s even touched the peripheries of my life, gave my remaining innocence a big adjustment.
And it’s so weird.
Now everyone wants to know about John. Everyone wants to hear “what was he like?” My brother can’t even log onto Facebook without a new reporter trying to contact him.
But where were these curiousity-seekers when he was looking for friends and relationships on Craigslist? Sure, now you have a story to file. Now you’re bored and surfing the web at work. Now you’re interested.
That part makes me angry. Now, interested. Now, prying through his life. Always with the sensationalizing. But I was trained as a journalist, so I get it, too. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Sigh. I don’t know. This whole case… the tragic death of a good guy, Johnny Altinger, it’s just so fucking unsettling when I think of the guy I knew, and THIS happened to him. If there’s anything I have, it’s a very healthy imagination. And this turns my stomach every time a flash of an image hits me.
My creative side has always wanted to write macabre books with twisted deaths. Sometimes I think about it now, but I stop at a thought of Johnny and I feel physically ill. It’s straight out of Dexter, ripped from fiction, what happened to him.
There are things that happen that really shake our faith in people, and this chapter has been one for me.
There’s a severe disconnect between the kind of person it takes to commit this kind of crime, and the kind of trusting person it takes to be a victim of this crime, and the idea that they both are in this same world, at the same time, breathing the same air…
When they told me the world was full of possibilities, well, I never for a moment wanted to believe they meant it like that.
Twitchell didn’t get to become the serial killer he dreamed of becoming.
People noticed him. He got caught. That says something, right?
People are horrified by the crime. That says something, too, right?
But I still can’t watch Dexter. It cuts too close to home. I’ve never been able to imagine a victim’s mindset like this before, and I hope I’m never able again.
Rest in peace, Johnny.
I hope it’s the hardest time imaginable that Mark Twitchell serves. I honestly do.
Today, as a testimony against this kind of crime that preys on those who are lonely and looking for friendship, be nice to someone who might not get a lot of attention. Don’t brush off that small-talk-making stranger at the bus stop or store. Give them just a moment of your humanity. You just never know.