Inside the twisted world of Luka Rocco Magnotta

From 2012: Nicholas Köhler and Martin Patriquin on the eerily public life and times of a twisted murder suspect

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The new face of evil
Paul Mason

Paul Mason knew the man simply as Rocco. Seeking to beef up his photographic portfolio, the 48-year-old Montrealer had placed an ad on Craigslist in April 2011, seeking models who would work gratis in exchange for free portraits. Soon, Rocco got in touch. Mason agreed to meet the man, who he understood to be a gay model, at Rocco’s apartment in the gentrifying southwest Montreal neighbourhood of Pointe-Saint-Charles. And so it was that around lunchtime on Saturday, May 1 of last year, Mason arrived at Rocco’s apartment, near the Charlevoix metro. Rocco “came out dressed in sweatpants, a tank-top hoodie, and a little bit of facial makeup on his cheeks,” recalls Mason. “The cheek thing was a little much. I said to myself, ‘Ugh, that’s going to be a little creamy on camera—but what the hell.’ I looked at the guy: a very chiselled face, not ugly, by any means. Quite dynamic looking.”

The foundation on his cheeks wasn’t his only idiosyncrasy. “He was speaking in this Russian, sort-of-little-bit-of-an-Eastern-European accent,” Mason says, imitating the Slavic cadence. “He maintained it all the way through. I had no reason to suspect it wasn’t real, but it did cross my mind: is this a real accent? It was just a little bit odd. I said, ‘Where are you from?’ and he says, ‘Half-Italian, half-Russian.’ I had no reason to suspect he was putting on a persona.” Over the ensuing hours Mason took dozens of outdoor shots of Rocco against an urban backdrop of brickwork and graffiti. “I said, ‘Okay, we’re going to do the first shot,’ and he said, ‘I’m ready,’ and I pointed the camera and he went boom: his face went 45 degrees to the side—like a robot, almost—and he froze: no smile, no nothing. Stone-faced. And I said in my head, This guy’s intense. These pictures are going to turn out nice. As freaky as he looks, they’re going to have some punch.’

Rocco mentioned modelling work he’d done in Europe and New York and the fact he had a child. His speaking voice was dry and monotone. When Mason felt he’d run out of things to shoot in the area, Rocco helped him carry his lighting equipment up the stairs to his apartment for an indoor shoot. “It was a mess,” Mason remembers of the place. “Sloppy. One room, a kitchenette, a bed, unmade, with a red bedspread.” A green couch in the room looked more promising. “I said, ‘This could be like a nice studio boudoir-type shot.’ ” They closed the shutters and set up his flash heads. “He said, ‘Do you want me on the bed?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure, let’s start on the bed and we’ll do some after on the sofa.’ He got on the bed and did very laid-back, semi-sensual poses. Nothing erotic—there was no nudity or anything like that—and I shot away. And he maintained this cold face with no smile. There’s only one picture in the whole 90 pictures I took with an inkling of a grin on his face.

“Then he put on the black fake leather jacket and he looked very James Dean,” Mason says. “I even thought that before I knew he had a fetish for him.” Mason was happy with the day’s work, and spent weeks poring over the shots on his computer, whittling them down. He arranged to meet Rocco again to hand over some portraits; Rocco greeted him with that same Eastern European accent, and the two men shook hands. It was the last time Mason would see him until last Thursday. That day, at work, a colleague made a black joke about finding body parts in the trash. Mason had not yet heard of the grisly crimes that for the past week have captivated the world. “Ten minutes later my wife phones me. ‘Paul,’ she says: ‘It’s him! The guy you photographed last year. It’s him, I’m sure of it.’ ”

Eric Clinton Kirk Newman was born in Scarborough, Ont., on July 24, 1982; on Monday, nearly three decades later, following an intense international manhunt triggered by the discovery of dismembered human remains in Ottawa and Montreal, police in Berlin arrested 29-year-old Luka Rocco Magnotta at an Internet café. Wearing sunglasses, Magnotta had been alternating between surfing for pornography—some of it nude photographs of himself—and reading news stories about his alleged crimes back in Canada. There could be no more eloquent a summation of his brief odyssey in the public eye so far as that dual pursuit, hunched over a computer keyboard, a piece of equipment that for so long had been at the centre of his life. “You got me,” he told the arresting officers.

Newman, the kid from Scarborough, and Magnotta, the male escort, low-budget porn actor and aspiring reality-TV star, were one and the same man. But years of online self-mythologizing, plastic surgery, aggressive vamping and an aching for fame had transformed him: those high cheekbones, that practised pout, the perfection of that single cocked eyebrow—these were all choreographed with precision, calibrated to project maximum self-possession, designed to impress. None of it did. Magnotta had been shooting all along for Jimmy Dean; instead, it appears he developed into something foul.

The new face of evil

The story could not be more awful. It broke May 29 with the arrival, by post, of a severed foot at Conservative Party of Canada headquarters in Ottawa. The case thereafter developed according to a relentless, horrifying logic, forcing the daily newspapers to print front-page stories dispatched from a macabre alternate universe—here, suddenly, were pools of blood at the bottom of refrigerators, suitcases filled with headless torsos, unimaginably evil home movies. Now Magnotta is being held in a Berlin jail on charges stemming from the murder and dismemberment, in Montreal, of 33-year-old Jun Lin, as well as the sexual defilement of his remains. A computer science student at Concordia University who in photos sports a pleasantly goofy grin, Lin arrived from his native China last summer. Since August he had worked part-time at a depanneur no more than a five-minute walk from Magnotta’s former apartment, suggesting that the pair may have first met in the neighbourhood.

His slaying is widely seen in Lin’s homeland as racially motivated. If only it were that simple. His final moments were spent sometime between May 24 and May 25, tied to a bed and receiving furiously swift jabs with an ice pick to his abdomen; a video camera captured the scene, and on May 25 a home movie, titled “1 Lunatic 1 Ice Pick,” appeared on Best Gore, an Edmonton website specializing in morbid video of real carnage. The footage goes on to show the mutilation of Lin’s corpse, as well as acts of necrophilia and cannibalism.

The homicide came to light only on May 29, when a mailman delivered a rotting foot to Tory headquarters. That same day, also in Ottawa, at a Canada Post depot, authorities intercepted a second package containing a severed hand destined for Liberal Party of Canada headquarters. Police soon linked these discoveries to a torso found in a suitcase placed outside a low-rent apartment building in Montreal’s Snowdon area—and in turn to Magnotta, who’d lived upstairs in No. 208 for several months. The stench was their first clue. Magnotta’s apartment, opened up to reporters by an affable landlord, offered up such horrors as that bloody fridge, a gore-streaked shower curtain and the soiled bed where Lin had allegedly been butchered.

Meanwhile, Magnotta was nowhere to be found, and was presumed to have fled to Europe. However brief, the ensuing manhunt did what he almost certainly intended it to do: it introduced Canadians, then the world, to a man only a handful of Internet watchdogs had ever heard of before. And the portrait, cobbled together out of his voluminous Internet presence, was otherworldly in its strangeness: a kaleidoscope of alter egos, photographs, blog postings and proliferating Facebook profiles. On the virtual screen is a chameleon man—now with slicked back hair, now shoulder-length locks, now feathery bangs and lipstick. Clips available online of Magnotta engaging in conversation show an androgynous figure with a penetratingly deep voice and a strangely halting gait to his speech. “A lot of people tell me I’m really devastatingly good-looking,” he says in one clip, from an audition for the reality-TV show Cover Guy. (The judges thought otherwise, deeming him too thin.)

As a male escort he was known as Jimmy, after his Rebel Without a Cause hero, and elsewhere as Mattia Del Santo and Vladimir Romanov (he legally changed his name from Eric Newman to Magnotta in 2006). Rambling, ill-lettered blog and social media posts, often written in the third person, along with dozens of photographs, chronicled a fab, globe-trotting life. These sketches betray a boyish, comic-book logic. “My friend Luka Magnotta moved from Moscow to Tolyatti Russia,” begins one, in typically tortured Internet prose. “[S]ince Luka is half Russian he was able to fit in fine, he looks more Russian then Italian. He told me that in the centre of Tolyatti there was a cafe and alot of Mafiosos frequented there and alot of business was done.” Another online tract speaks of disappearing without a trace and assuming new identities. It was as though he was stumbling toward doing in the world what he had already accomplished online.

Magnotta the fabulist cannot be disentangled from the man himself, and that is perhaps the point: if nothing is true, then everything is permitted. Published reports say he grew up in Scarborough and Lindsay, Ont., northeast of Toronto, a cottage-country town with a backwoods edge. To friends he has described a difficult childhood and hinted at abuse. But any early brushes with the law are nothing in comparison to those things he has pretended to online.

Such is the velocity of online gossip-mongering that early news reports last week even resurrected a rumoured romantic link between Magnotta and Karla Homolka, a factoid Montreal police confirmed with some alacrity (they later backtracked). He appeared to have made great efforts to quash the Homolka rumour, speaking on camera with a Toronto Sun reporter and dashing off feverish online screeds. “If you dont like someone, then you dont join their fan page,” someone posting under Magnotta’s name wrote last year. “You have to ask yourself, why are you following and cyber stalking someone you hate?” It now seems clear Magnotta himself was the source of the Homolka story.

Another online rumour Magnotta has raged against may hew closer to reality, and involves a campaign by an animal rights group to link him with a series of videos depicting a man killing kittens. That group prepared a report for Canadian authorities designed to prod them into action with regards to Magnotta, and includes a savvy analysis of his online modus operandi. “He seems to live in a fantasy world where he is a famous model and bisexual porn star,” it reads. “He has written several articles about himself (in the third person, pretending to be a fan, or a reporter). We have been able to cross-reference and check the information, to prove that it was indeed false and created by himself to promote his image, some of which even contradicts information he posts about himself from earlier.”

And yet part of what has made Magnotta an object of fascination in the past days lies in the way he reflects back at us, in uncomfortable ways, something about the culture of the moment: he is a social media monster. His carefully cultivated online identities, his many online selves, grew an Internet presence larger than his tiny existence: Magnotta, someone wrote on a Facebook page in his name, is “a Canadian male model who has become world famous through his photographs and television appearances.” In the way he has lived his online life, Magnotta has pushed to the outer limit the narcissism and self-absorption already inherent in the social media sites—the YouTubes and Facebooks and Twitters and Pinterests—that increasingly govern our lives.

The video clip that is said to depict Lin’s monstrous death and dismemberment, which is so much connected to the manhunt and Magnotta’s arrest, is arguably the first snuff film to go viral, a concept hitherto reserved largely for Saturday Night Live sketches and amusing clips of pets and babies. His online self-aggrandizing is Twitter on steroids; his manic cascade of travel photographs is demonic Facebook parody; his taste for fashion and fast cars is the commodification of taste à la Pinterest. When we view photographs of Magnotta in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris or St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, it is too easy to see ourselves, posting vacation snapshots onto our Facebook walls, projecting ourselves into the ether—just as he has done. And perhaps it was to us that someone wrote, in red ink on the wall inside a closet in the Montreal tenement where Lin died so horribly: “If you don’t like the reflection, don’t look in the mirror. I don’t care.”

In recent months Luka Rocco Magnotta had lived in a one-room apartment located just off the Decarie Expressway in Côte-des-Neiges, one of Canada’s most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods. The apartment was ratty and ill lit, a bracing difference from the jet-setting image Magnotta so meticulously cultivated online. His past was an open secret in the grungy block of flats, where he was known as “the porn star” because of his (rather modest) X-rated film career. The nickname was appropriate for another reason: his alleged atrocities were drenched in pop cultural references both mainstream and esoteric. He selected his Italian name based on his admiration for the mafia toughs of Hollywood. One online pic of himself has a caption reading, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way,” a line from 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Yet Magnotta’s tastes lean also toward the aesthetic netherworld of snuff, a genre that recalls David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, released in 1983, in which cable television and violence become fused into a hallucinatory nightmare. One of the kitten-killing videos Magnotta is alleged to appear in is titled “1 boy 2 kittens.” The video of Lin’s death, meanwhile, is “1 Lunatic 1 Ice Pick.” Both titles are deliberate references to an earlier milestone of snuff, “3 Guys 1 Hammer,” which depicts the 2007 murder of a 48-year-old man by two young Ukrainian men convicted in a series of brutal murders in 2009; a third man filmed their exploits. Connected to the snuff genre is the phenomenon of connoisseurs filming themselves while viewing the grisly clips. In one case a man who identifies himself on YouTube as Robert Gibson is seen with dishevelled hair apparently watching “1 Lunatic 1 Ice Pick” for its entire 10-minute-plus duration; after the video triggers his gag reflex, causing Gibson to dry heave, he lights a cigarette and continues watching. “It was pretty disgusting,” he says in a second YouTube reaction. “I don’t understand why somebody would really want to do this. I thought I was going to throw up in the video.”

Magnotta’s own gore touchstones even found their way into workaday life in Montreal. Living above him in Côte-des-Neiges was Derek Mackinnon, an actor popular on the slasher film circuit for having starred in Terror Train. The 1980 Canadian production is a classic among slasher film enthusiasts; Mackinnon played the deranged frat pledge who revenges a nasty practical joke by slaying his frat brothers and their dates during a party. The two men bonded when Magnotta found out Mackinnon had a moderately successful celluloid career. In Terror Train, which starred a young Jamie Lee Curtis, “I kill 11 people, my appearance constantly changes and I cut up a victim,” Mackinnon told Le Journal de Montréal. “The similarity is pretty huge.”

Magnotta, according to Le Journal, had invited Mackinnon over the night Lin was murdered. The 58-year-old actor was busy, and demurred. Less than 24 hours later, “1 Lunatic 1 Ice Pick” was on Best Gore’s servers, attracting a trickle of interest from site regulars. Many argued about the video’s authenticity, while others were in simple awe of what they’d seen. “It’s like I discovered gore for the first time,” reads a typical comment written in the hours after the clip first appeared.

On May 25, a neighbour saw Magnotta leaving his apartment with a package tucked under his arm. On May 26, Magnotta set out for Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport. Save for a few dedicated gore aficionados, the world remained oblivious to his alleged crimes. According to an online posting written by a fellow passenger, a self-described gay Parisian blogger who goes by the sobriquet Mr. Bitch, Magnotta was the last person to board Paris-bound Air Transat flight 610. He was wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, khaki pants and looked like a “gay extraterrestrial,” the blogger writes. Magnotta sat down and fell asleep. “He stunk,” Mr. Bitch wrote.

Magnotta landed in Paris just after midnight and took up in the city’s 17th arrondissement, a district rich with budget hotels and bars. He was not particularly discreet: witnesses saw him in a bar the night he landed. There he guzzled a Coke in one shot and met an acquaintance. Later, reportedly quite drunk, he tried to crash a party and shoplifted several bottles of perfume. Magnotta apparently imagined he could begin to disappear here. Newspaper reports suggest he was travelling with three sets of government ID to back up his various aliases. The author of the posting “How to Completely Disappear and Never Be Found” (step three: “Acquire false identification”) was a self-identified expert on the subject, yet he either forgot or was compelled to break his own counsel: French police were able to roughly triangulate Magnotta’s location thanks to a cellphone signature.

He was careful to heed his own advice, however, when it came to travelling within Europe. “Get on a bus and ride it to your destination,” he wrote in 2009. “[A]irlines keep much more thorough records than bus lines.” He did just that, riding a bus to Berlin on June 1, leaving little behind in Paris but porn and airsickness bags. Still dropping pop-culture clues, he travelled under the name Tramell, an apparent nod to Catherine Tramell, the murderous vixen from the violent 1992 thriller Basic Instinct.

In all likelihood, taking the bus bought the suspected killer a few more days of freedom. By now, Interpol had issued a “red notice” for internationally wanted persons. But despite being captured on dozens of security cameras in both France and Germany, Magnotta remained a free man as he stepped into Berlin Zentraler Omnibusbahnhof, the city’s central bus station. From there he took the subway to the pleasantly bohemian Neukolln district, in the city’s southeast. At roughly noon on June 4, he emerged from the Karl Marx Street subway station wearing a green hoodie, khaki pants and sunglasses. He crossed the street, walked into the first Internet café he could find and calmly asked the clerk, a skinny fellow named Kadir Anlayisli, for a computer.

For the next two hours or so, Magnotta engaged in the familiar practice of reading about himself on the Internet. Surely, he was happy with the results. His name was on every major news source around the world, often alongside the pictures he himself had posted online. The German news site Bild dubbed him a “porno-killer.” He looked up nude photos of himself.

Anlayisli, who reads a lot of newspapers, felt a twitch of recognition. His suspicions were confirmed when, while walking behind Magnotta, Anlayisli watched as he viewed himself on the Internet. The 42-year-old clerk went out to the street and caught the attention of a seven-man crew of cadet police officers, who entered the café. They approached Magnotta and asked him to identify himself. He first fumbled through an attempt to use one of his aliases before giving up. “You got me,” he said, offering no resistance as an officer put his hands in cuffs.

Magnotta was brought to a Berlin police station for questioning, and was transferred to a high-security state prison. In court, he waived the extradition process, saying he would voluntarily return to Canada to face charges related to Lin’s murder. Yet under the law, he has the opportunity to change his mind, and if Magnotta’s life shows us anything, it’s that he is as fickle as he is willing to subvert the truth. Either way, it seems Magnotta is fully content with the notoriety he spent much of his life chasing—even if he has to take it in from behind bars. He chose to be put in solitary confinement. The night of his capture, he ate a full meal and, according to prison officials, slept soundly until breakfast.