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Murderer's mindset a mystery to crime author

The Devil's Cinema aims for understanding of Mark Twitchell's motives

By: By Peter Boer

  |  Posted: Saturday, Mar 31, 2012 06:00 am

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Review
The Devil's Cinema: The Untold Story Behind Mark Twitchell's Kill Room
By Steve Lillebuen
Non-fiction
McClelland & Stewart
Hardcover
338 pages
$29.99

Journalist and author Steve Lillebuen had just returned home from the dentist one day when his phone rang. It was a 1-800 number that could have been a telemarketer, but Lillebuen picked up anyway. A voice spoke on the other end.

“Hey, it’s Mark.”

“I knew immediately who it was,” Lillebuen said. “I recognized that voice. He has such a distinctive, lower voice.”

That voice belonged to Mark Twitchell, convicted in the murder of Johnny Altinger in 2011 in Edmonton, a serial killer wanna-be and former St. Albert resident whose case captivated not just the Capital region but all of North America. He had heard Lillebuen was writing a book about his case and decided to make contact.

“I was planning on contacting him after the trial, which is standard practice,” Lillebuen said. “He was very curious.”

That phone call, which came before Twitchell’s trial, was the start of visits, phone calls and letters, all of which Lillebuen drew on to write The Devil’s Cinema: The Untold Story Behind Mark Twitchell’s Kill Room, released Wednesday in Edmonton.

Lillebuen says he successfully kept the relationship between himself and Twitchell framed as “subject-author.” He explains in the author’s notes in the book that Twitchell had no editorial control over the book and no money exchanged hands.

Lillebuen, who worked as a crime reporter with the Edmonton Journal at the time of Twitchell’s arrest in 2008, decided early on he wanted to write a book about it. He attended every day of Twitchell’s first-degree murder trial, interviewed detectives, Twitchell’s friends and family as well as those close to Altinger, Twitchell’s only murder victim.

“I was curious about the man behind this crime and continued digging into this story,” Lillebuen said. “I guess I was really stuck on a motive and I guess the psychology. From all I was hearing, this came out of the blue.”

The book is split into several narratives, first approaching the story from the point of view of Edmonton Police Service detectives pursuing the case, then switching over to life from Twitchell’s perspective.

Lillebuen has also reconstructed as faithfully as he can Altinger’s life leading up to the night in October 2008 when, after setting up a date with a supposed woman online, Altinger drove to the rented garage in Edmonton where he would ultimately die at Twitchell’s hands.

“To me, a lot of the story had to do with perspective and I found it interesting because this book examines what’s real and what this fantasy is,” Lillebuen said. “What Johnny thinks is happening is different from what Mark Twitchell is [thinking].”

Lillebuen has spared few details in his recounting of the crime, investigation and trial. He weaves it all together, from Twitchell’s obsessions with Star Wars and fictional TV serial killer Dexter to the instruments used in the crime, Altinger’s brutal dismemberment and Twitchell’s clumsy attempts to dispose of his remains.

The document S.K. Confessions, which police alleged was a diary of Twitchell’s murderous activities, also makes regular appearances. In the end, according to Lillebuen, police were able to verify that 85 per cent of what was described in S.K. Confessions was true.

“I think S.K. Confessions is interesting because there are parts that are and aren’t true. There are embellishments in his truth,” Lillebuen says. “The evidence shows it’s primarily his diary, a blow-by-blow account of his progression.”

Lillebuen’s book reveals some information not revealed at trial, such as another document allegedly authored by Twitchell – Profile of a Psychopath – that was deemed too prejudicial to admit as evidence.

All in all, Lillebuen excels at weaving detail into the larger picture in pursuing his larger goal – understanding the man who committed murder.

“I think he’s still pretty lost,” says Lillebuen, who believes even Twitchell might not completely understand who he really is.

“I think he has big dreams, gigantic dreams, but doesn’t know how to achieve them. Everything falls apart in the details,” Lillebuen says.

“Although I think I filled in a lot of the blanks, the end result is still something of a mystery.”


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