In 2007, a pouting, smirking young man auditioned on camera for a Canadian reality TV show called COVERGuy. Proudly posing topless and declaring that ‘a lot of people tell me I’m devastatingly good looking’, he was seemingly unfazed when the judges criticised him for being too skinny for the modelling competition. To anyone watching, he would have looked like just another vain but harmless celebrity wannabe.
In fact, he was Luka Magnotta, and his name would become notorious after he was revealed to be a cat killer, a murderer, a necrophile and a cannibal. It wasn’t simply his savagery and sadism which would stun the media – there was also his deft deployment of the Internet to hype his own crimes. Driven by a toxic craving for fame, he worked feverishly to forge his own legend in the digital realm.
Born Eric Newman, he had the kind of rocky, painful upbringing common to many of those who go on to kill. His father was a diagnosed schizophrenic, while his mother was a paranoid germaphobe who would make young Eric wash his hands until his skin was raw, and once put his pet rabbits outside in the winter, allowing them to freeze to death. Young Eric was also bullied at school for being gay, and sought solace in his own imagination, developing a particular, obsessive affinity with Marilyn Monroe. As his psychiatrist later wrote, ‘When he was younger he felt quite ugly and when imagining himself being beautiful like her, he felt better.’
This quest to be beautiful, to be adored and to be a legend in his own lifetime would become the driving force in his life as he got older. In his early adulthood he worked as a male escort and stripper, appeared in porn and auditioned for reality shows like COVERGuy. He was also convicted of fraud, after exploiting a woman with learning difficulties by getting her to take out a credit card and using it to rack up over $10,000 of debt. The judge in that case recognised how close to the mental health precipice the young offender was, saying ‘You have got a medical problem and you need to always take medication. If you do not, your life is going to get messed up.’
Despite seeing psychiatrists and taking meds, Newman – by now calling himself Luka Magnotta because he wanted to ‘feel more Italian’ and less like ‘white trash’ – was spiralling into an abyss. In 2010, a video called ‘1 boy 2 kittens’ was posted online. The macabre film showed a man suffocating two kittens to death using a plastic bag and a vacuum cleaner.
The video triggered a frenzy of online detective work, as animal lovers around the world joined forces on social media to work out who the homicidal sadist was. As one member of the community later said in an interview, ‘There’s this unwritten rule of the Internet. It’s called rule zero. And it’s you don’t mess with cats.’
The amateur sleuths were eventually sent an online tip which led them to identify Luka Magnotta, who by this time had used the power of social media to carefully conjure up a kind of A-list, alternative version of himself. A mysterious fan page on YouTube featured video montages of his photos. A poster on a Flickr page asked if it was true that Luka and River Phoenix were cousins. Rumours swirled that Luka had dated celebrities. It later turned out that Magnotta himself was posting all these gushing messages, using dozens of false aliases online.
The animal lovers were flabbergasted by all this bizarre online buzz relating to their prime suspect. Having seen that Magnotta had previously worked in the adult industry, some of the Magnotta-hunters came up with a flamboyant sting operation to snare their man. The idea was to invite Magnotta to star in a porn film, then perform a citizen’s arrest when Magnotta turned up. They even managed to get Ron Jeremy on board for a while, before the porn legend got cold feet and backed out.
Magnotta continued to evade capture, and more horrific videos were eventually posted – including one showing a kitten being fed to a python. Then, in 2012, Magnotta did what many of his hunters always feared. He escalated from animals to humans. The victim was Chinese student Lin Jun, also known as Justin Lin, who had come to study in Montreal.
Magnotta followed his usual MO, setting up the killing as a ritual for the camera. A video dropped online under the grisly title ‘1 Lunatic 1 Ice Pick’ showed the student tied to a bed, and then repeatedly stabbed by Magnotta. The killer filmed himself dismembering Lin Jun before having sex with the ravaged corpse and even consuming some of the flesh. As a grotesque epilogue, Magnotta posted various body parts to schools and the headquarters of political parties in Canada.
Just as grotesque was the fact Magnotta had hyped up the killing before it had even happened. Several days before Lin Jun’s death, anonymous messages were posted on various online forums asking about a mysterious video called ‘1 Lunatic 1 Ice Pick’. Magnotta was attempting to mythologise his future crime, to enshrine his yet-to-be-made video as a kind of tantalising urban legend of the social media age.
If it was infamy he was after, he found it. Magnotta became the focus of an international manhunt, eventually apprehended in a Berlin cybercafe where – fittingly enough – he was browsing for the latest news stories about himself. After a trial in 2014, Magnotta was sentenced to a minimum of 25 years behind bars.
The tragedies of the Magnotta case are numerous. For all his preening narcissism and sadistic self-importance, he was clearly a man wracked with mental illness, whose repeated attempts to seek professional help failed to bring him back from the brink. And, even more tragically, he had been on the radar as an animal-killer long before he met Lin Jun. As one of the online sleuths later said in an interview, recounting how she faced a brick wall when contacting Montreal police about the cat videos, ‘I’m told, ‘It’s just cats.’ I am showing them that it’s been proven that people that abuse animals can turn into serial killers. And they brushed me aside.’