'The Devil's Cinema' details the descent of a wannabe Dexter

The new book reveals how Edmonton police tracked murderer Mark Twitchell

Script for murder

St. Albert Gazette

In 2008, Mark Twitchell was a 29-year-old aspiring filmmaker in Edmonton, with a wife and new baby, a fascination with Dexter Morgan—the television character who is both a vigilante serial killer and a police blood-splatter analyst—and a dark secret. Twitchell didn’t just admire Dexter, he wanted to be him. As set out in Steve Lillebuen’s The Devil’s Cinema, Twitchell began posing as a woman on an online dating site, aiming to lure interested men to the rented garage he had set up as a “kill room.” In late October of that year, Twitchell caught the eye of Edmonton police investigating the suspicious disappearance of Johnny Altinger. In this excerpt from The Devil’s Cinema, when police discovered on Twitchell’s laptop the document entitled SK Confessions—SK for serial killer—they thought they had everything they needed.

It was half past five on Oct. 22. After a couple of long days and late-night interviews, Detective Bill Clark was getting ready to head home when one of the steel doors to the homicide unit creaked open.

Clark’s buddy, fellow homicide officer Mark Anstey, walked in with a huge grin. Behind him was Jeff Kerr, another detective on the Twitchell investigation. Clark took his eyes off his desk as the two of them approached. Anstey was beaming. “Bill, you won’t believe what we’ve just found.”

“What?” His ears perked up.

Kerr had a stack of papers in his hands. He lowered them briefly so Clark could read the top of the first page he was holding:

This story is based on true events. The names and events were altered slightly to protect the guilty.

This is the story of my progression into becoming a serial killer. Like anyone just starting out in a new skill, I had a bit of trial and error in the beginning of my misadventures. Allow me to start from the beginning and I think you’ll see what I mean.

Clark’s jaw dropped.

Anstey couldn’t contain his excitement anymore. “It’s a diary of how he killed the guy!”

“Holy s–t!” Clark smacked his head. “Gimme a copy! Come on! Come on!”

Kerr yanked the papers away from Clark. “No, no, no. Hang on, hang on here. This is the original. We’ve gotta be careful how many of these we make.”

Eventually a few photocopies were made—on Clark’s insistence—but only enough for all the major detectives. They wanted to keep this unexpected development very quiet.

The text had been pulled off the laptop found in Twitchell’s car. Const. Michael Roszko in the tech crimes unit had found two temporary files buried in the hard drive and stitched them together. Both files had been made automatically in Microsoft Word by a user logged in to an account titled “Xpress Entertainment.” One temporary file was likely created when the text was copied to the clipboard; the second was likely made during an auto-recovery backup. The original Word document, however, had been deleted. There were 35 pages of writing. The document appeared to have been saved as “SKConfessions.doc.”

Clark huddled around his copy at his desk, reading as fast as he could.

I don’t remember the exact place and time it was that I decided to become a serial killer, but I remember the sensation that hit me when I committed to the decision. It was a rush of pure euphoria. I felt lighter, less stressed, if you will, at the freedom of the prospect. There was something about urgently exploring my dark side that greatly appealed to me and I’m such a methodical planner and thinker, the very challenge itself was enticing to behold.

“This is incredible!” Clark kept repeating as he read, at times covering his face in disbelief or clutching the back of his head. “Wow!”

The first page described the decision to begin killing as the “hand of fate,” an idea taken from a fantasy book by David Gemmell. The second page detailed the method: targeting men through online dating websites. At first, the diary stated, the plan had been to lure cheating husbands, a way of “taking out the trash”—a line borrowed from the fictional Dexter Morgan, who justified his actions because he only killed people society already held in contempt. But the plan of targeting married men was too risky, the diary concluded, so it was changed to luring “middle-aged single men who lived alone.” The writer reasoned it would be easier to get away with killing such men. With no roommates or wives to worry about them, a victim could disappear for longer before people would notice. A fake female profile would do the trick: an attractive girl, using photos of a real woman’s profile living in another city, but under a fake name and fake personal details. The girl would be flirty, toying with the man until he was so eager his guard would drop and he would fall for the trap.

The document revealed that a “kill room” had been chosen: a double-door detached garage with a dirt driveway in the south end of the city. All the killer had to do was remove the address sign from the outside wall of the garage and give out strange directions so nobody would know the physical address. The diary detailed the killer’s disguise: a black hockey mask, the forehead painted with gold streaks. It served the “double purpose of facial protection and identity shield to give the victim a false sense of security in thinking they would be let go.” Then he picked out his “kill knife” from a military surplus store for the “nasty mayhem” about to transpire:

The trap was set, and now it was time to bait the hook . . . My kill room was perfectly prepped. Plastic sheeting taped together and around my table; a large green cloth screwed into the drywall ceiling to shield view of it from my guest’s line of sight, and to shield me too, of course. I now stood but a few feet away from the front door, which I had locked of course. The plan was to wait in the shadow of my curtain until he approached the door and shock him with the stun baton followed by a sleeper hold that would sap away his consciousness so that I could tape him up and set him on my table.

Clark’s eyes flared as he kept reading. He knew what was coming next: Johnny was going to show up at that garage and be killed by Mark Twitchell.

But that wasn’t what happened.

Apparently, Johnny wasn’t the first victim. The document described another attack on Oct. 3, the Friday before Johnny disappeared. During the earlier attempt, the attacker’s stun baton had failed and the victim had fought back, reached for the man’s baton, and somehow managed to escape.

Clark realized they had to find the surviving victim. And the Twitchell file had suddenly become something much bigger: a serial killer investigation. Thank God the detectives had the foresight to order 24-hour surveillance, he thought. Now that the surveillance team had confirmed a positive sighting of Twitchell at his parents’ house shortly after Clark’s visit, he was at least being watched while they gathered more evidence.

Clark took the diary home with him that night, as did every other detective on the file. For the first time in his 30-year career, he was overwhelmed with evidence in a homicide file. Reading the diary was an odyssey, a startling descent into the criminal persona, with the depths of human depravity presented to the reader in the form of entertainment. A detective usually never knew this level of detail about their suspects. Eyewitnesses were unreliable, even an admission from an accused was often embellished or twisted in some way. But what Clark and the team believed they had found this time was a virtual blow-by-blow account, an honest and full confession, relishing in every sordid detail. They had total insight into what the killer was likely thinking. Twitchell had written an extremely comprehensive account of how Johnny Altinger was killed. The descriptions were disgusting, some too graphic to repeat, words strung together about unspeakable and grotesque acts. Twitchell wrote at length about the difficulty in trying to hide the body. He had scoured the river valley for the perfect spot, but there were too many people around so he had to think of another plan.

Clark made it to the last section, hoping for a big conclusion.

Once again necessity is the mother of invention and my need to get rid of this evidence brought the solution to me like a child showing a parent their latest pencil crayon drawing.

The sewer. Of course, how obvious. No one ever goes down there. The body would rot away completely before anyone ever discovered the bones and by then it would be way too late to identify the person.

Clark flipped the page. “Where’s the rest?” he asked out loud, pinching the paper, trying to see if a couple were stuck together. But there was nothing else. “Where’s the body?” Either Twitchell had left out the ending or tech crimes had failed to locate it. “It doesn’t say where the body is!”

Excerpted from The Devil’s Cinema by Steve Lillebuen © 2012. Excerpted with permission of McClelland & Stewart Ltd. All rights reserved.

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