MONTREAL – Before 2012, Luka Rocco Magnotta was a little-known, 4-a.m regular at a Montreal diner, where he munched on poutine and guzzled water to rehydrate after performing at a nearby strip joint.
He ends the year as a notorious international figure — an accused killer charged with stomach-turning crimes that set off a global manhunt and horrified people around the world.
Driven by his headline-grabbing spring, Magnotta has been voted Canada’s 2012 Newsmaker of the Year in the annual poll of the country’s newsrooms by The Canadian Press.
The choice, made by editors and news directors, is rooted in the eye-opening reach of a story that erupted last May after the death and dismemberment of university student Jun Lin.
Magnotta now sits in a Montreal detention centre, where he awaits trial on several criminal counts, including first-degree murder in Lin’s killing. The 30-year-old has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
The Montreal slaying touched regions across Canada after Lin’s hands and feet were mailed separately to four locations in British Columbia and Ottawa.
The bizarre circumstances around Lin’s death also hit the public radar on two other continents.
The news landed in Lin’s native country of China, where his parents still live. He had left his homeland to study computer engineering in Canada.
The story also spread to Europe. The high-profile search by authorities for Magnotta ended with his June arrest in a Berlin Internet cafe, where he was reportedly reading online articles about himself.
The public’s interest was drawn in by the rare horror of the accusations against Magnotta, a small-time porn actor, stripper and escort who was dubbed “Canadian Psycho” by some foreign media.
“The depravity of the charges that Luka Magnotta faces proves truth truly is stranger than fiction,” said Victor Krasowski, CJUK/CKTG news director in Thunder Bay, Ont., who voted for Magnotta.
James O’Connor, managing editor of the Brandon Sun, said the allegations against Magnotta “ripped the lid off the unimaginably depraved underworld” of sadistic sex, mutilation and death.
The 33-year-old Lin’s torso was found in a suitcase outside Magnotta’s apartment building, his hands and feet were mailed to political offices in Ottawa and schools in B.C., and his head was discovered in a Montreal park.
There was also the infamous video posted online that police believe showed the dismemberment.
In the gruesome footage, a person is seen repeatedly stabbing a naked young man with an ice pick. The killer later dismembers the corpse and appears to commit sexual and cannibalistic acts on it.
Magnotta had a prolific online presence, with details about his life embellished and fabricated on Internet message boards and social media.
One of Lin’s close friends believes Magnotta would take satisfaction from his selection as Newsmaker of the Year.
“That’s what he obviously wanted, isn’t it?” Benjamin, who spoke on condition that his family name not be published, told The Canadian Press.
“That’s something he’s been wanting for a very long time and he got it. But just on the cost of a life and our friend.”
Magnotta, a native of Scarborough, Ont., collected 22 per cent of Newsmaker of the Year votes to finish ahead of Vancouver-area teen Amanda Todd, whose video and suicide prompted an international discussion on bullying.
Todd, who was sexually exploited online and subsequently bullied, received 18 per cent of the vote.
Editors who chose Todd highlighted how her story could have a positive impact.
“This tragic teenager whose life ended far too early has the potential to live on in our memories and improve the lives of future tortured teens,” said John Hadley, news director of Vancouver’s CHQM-FM.
Amid the NHL lockout, a combined entry of league president Gary Bettman and players’ union head Donald Fehr garnered 15 per cent of the votes to finish third.
Liberal leadership front-runner and MP Justin Trudeau was the top vote-earning politician of 2012 with eight per cent support. He shared fourth spot with the collective Quebec student protester.
Stephen Harper did not get any votes in what is believed to be the first time in the last two decades a sitting prime minister has been shut out in the survey.
Magnotta was elected Newsmaker of the Year even though he didn’t receive a single vote from a newsroom in Quebec, where much of the story was anchored.
Quebec had several big news stories in 2012, including the months-long student protests, the explosive Charbonneau Commission looking into corruption, and the shooting only metres away from Pauline Marois on the night she returned the Parti Quebecois to power.
“As news goes there were certainly far more significant issues that touched our nation,” Doyle MacKinnon, the Lethbridge Herald’s managing editor, said in explaining why he chose Magnotta.
MacKinnon said it’s a sad commentary that men such as Magnotta and former colonel Russell Williams become household names while many Canadians don’t know who the recently canonized Kateri Tekakwitha is.
“But the fact is,” he said, ”the truly reviled invariably make bigger news than the moderately revered.”
Since the first Newsmaker of the Year poll back in 1946, politicians, diplomats and sports heroes have dominated the selection list — including figures such as John Diefenbaker, Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Terry Fox.
Very few nominees have earned the most votes out of infamy.
Among the rare exceptions are 1965 selection Lucien Rivard, a convict who pulled off a spectacular prison escape, and colonel-turned-killer Williams in 2010.
Even high-profile Canadian killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka — the latter with whom Magnotta reportedly had an obsession — did not reach the top of the list.
Other notable criminals who weren’t voted Newsmaker of the Year include serial killer Robert Pickton, serial child killer Clifford Olson and Marc Lepine, the gunman who killed 14 women in Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique massacre.
So why Magnotta?
One media-studies expert believes the alleged crime had it all from a journalistic and public-interest perspective.
“It had sex, it had murder, it had an ostensibly good-looking (alleged) villain, it had intrigue, it had social media, it had international elements,” said Romayne Smith Fullerton, an associate professor at the University of Western Ontario.
“I can’t think of any of the top-10 news criteria that it would have been lacking, so I can understand why it would have been an exciting story to tell… and a really riveting story for people to want to follow.”
But she warned that while people have the right to know about crimes in their communities, overly intense news coverage can legitimize somebody’s claim to fame.
“It’s a kind of a notoriety that some people, like Magnotta, might actually get a pretty big kick out of,” Fullerton said.
She noted that dramatic media portrayals of suspects also run the risk of dismissing the accused as freaks.
Fullerton said media outlets have options that might better serve the public, such as reminding communities the suspect is indeed a product of their society and examining how services for issues like mental health can be improved.
Magnotta’s name is expected to re-emerge in the public sphere in the coming weeks.
Crown and defence lawyers will get together Jan. 9 to discuss the case, while a two-week preliminary hearing, where part of the evidence against him will be heard, is set to begin in mid-March.
Magnotta has opted for a trial in front of a jury and his lawyer has not requested a psychiatric evaluation.
Along with the murder charge, Magnotta pleaded not guilty to counts of defiling Lin’s corpse, harassing Harper and some MPs, and publishing and mailing obscene material.
His name first came to the public’s attention in the days after Lin’s torso was found on May 29. A janitor found the body part locked in a suitcase in the driveway behind the seedy apartment building where Magnotta lived.
That same day, one of Lin’s hands and one of his feet were discovered after being mailed in parcels to the offices of Conservatives and Liberals in Ottawa.
About a week later, Lin’s other hand and foot were delivered to two Vancouver-area schools. Police told a news conference the body parts had been discovered by school staff when they opened the packages.
Before police named him as a suspect in Lin’s death, Magnotta hadn’t drawn much attention in his day-to-day life in Montreal.
People who interacted with him on the street recall him as polite, yet someone who kept to himself.
“He was a very, very nice client,” said Danielle Cleroux, a waitress who remembers serving “Rocco” three times a week in 2010 at Le Club Sandwich restaurant.
She said he and a couple of fellow dancers ate there after their shifts at a local strip club.
“He was a quiet little guy,” Cleroux said.
Magnotta’s online existence, however, told a different story.
He set up dozens of Internet user names and maintained 70 Facebook pages and 20 websites, police have said.
One rumour surfaced years ago that he had dated Homolka — a tale many believe he started. Magnotta went to a Toronto newspaper in 2007 to deny the rumour and the speculation that he was behind it.
In December 2010, he caught the attention of animal activists and Internet sleuths, who began pursuing him after a video posted on YouTube showed a man, suspected to be Magnotta, killing kittens.
One of the world’s biggest porn stars told The Canadian Press earlier this year that animal-rights groups, including the Barbi Twins Playboy bunnies, even tried to enlist him to help nab Magnotta.
Ron Jeremy said he was asked to lure Magnotta to Los Angeles with a fake job offer to appear in a phoney X-rated film shoot. Instead of meeting Jeremy, Magnotta was to be apprehended by a hard-nosed group of animal-rights activists.
The porn icon, however, got cold feet and the sting operation fell apart in the summer of 2011 — about a year before Magnotta became a murder suspect in Lin’s death.
Following up on tips from animal activists, Canadian police started looking for Magnotta to question him about the kitten-killing videos. Magnotta has denied the animal-cruelty allegations.
Magnotta’s former Montreal landlord told The Canadian Press that a detective inquired about his tenant only weeks before Lin’s death. But the query came about two weeks too late — the landlord said Magnotta had already moved out.
Magnotta eventually relocated across town to the building where Lin’s torso was found.
Benjamin, who spent a lot of time dining out and playing video games with Lin, said he accepts that Magnotta has received more media attention than his friend.
He said many of Lin’s loved ones want his personal life kept private. Meanwhile, they have been depending on news reports and investigations for answers.
“We want to know what was really going on behind the scenes because apparently the prosecution and the detectives can’t disclose anything until (the preliminary hearing) next March,” said Benjamin, who added that part of his recovery process has included visits to Lin’s grave and prayers for his friend.
“Every time his friends get together we still talk about him — he’s still around.”