The two boys hid in the ditch in the wilds of Northern B.C. with a stolen rifle, waiting until they saw the car on the desolate Alaska Highway. They fired one as a warning, the second directly into the vehicle.
It was Nov. 12, 1948.
The boys, aged 11 and 13, shot James Watson, a 63-year-old farmer on the way home from a show in Dawson Creek with family. He was seriously injured, and died four days later.
It was a shocking crime, an inexplicable act of violence committed by two youths with no explanation. What could make two boys do such a terrible thing?
Seventy years later, a series of killings allegedly committed by two teens along the same highway is raising the same questions.
Kam McLeod, 19, and Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, are currently wanted by RCMP in connection to the homicide of Leonard Dyck, 64, along Highway 37 in Northern B.C., and the deaths of Chynna Deese, 24, and Lucas Fowler, 23, whose bodies were found along the Alaska Highway.
Mr. McLeod and Mr. Schmegelsky remain on the run, charged with second-degree murder in the death of Mr. Dyck, and described as suspects in the deaths of Ms. Deese and Mr. Fowler, though charges have not yet been laid in those cases.
While RCMP have not talked about possible motives in the case, people around the country are struggling to make sense of the young suspects and the violence they’re accused of. In the absence of any clear motivation, the focus has turned to their histories and online behaviour, which include an apparent interest in Nazi, communist and far-right symbolism, as well as first-person shooter and survivalist video games.
But what are we to make of the fact that Mr. Schmegelsky and Mr. McLeod played Counter-Strike? Or, that Mr. Schmegelsky logged more than 500 hours playing Rust, a game in which the players have to survive outdoors, “protecting yourself from other players, and kill them for meat.”
How much can we draw – if anything – from the relationship between a person’s popular culture consumption and their actions?
“You see this thing happening and you want to know, why did that happen?” says Richard Smith, director of the Master of Digital Media Program at the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver, and a professor at Simon Fraser University. He studies digital media and gaming, as well as society’s relationship with technology. “We latch on to a story that makes sense, and there’s nothing about this that, on the face of it, makes any sense. There’s no obvious motivation … so then we need to reach out, and among the other things is, what video games did they play as children? Kind of clutching at straws.”
In the 1948 murder of Mr. Watson, the focus soon shifted to the young killers’ interest in crime comics. The 11-year-old told Justice C.S. Kitchen he read 50 crime comics a week, the older boy said he read 30.
Crime comics were already the subject of much consternation at the time for their violent content, and the case became a tipping point in the fight to censor the popular publications. Stories ran in papers around North America with headlines such as Blame Lurid Comics for Fatal Shooting.
After an inquest, a jury recommended steps be taken to censor “the more lurid type of comic book which is apt to encourage crime.” Parliament listened. The murder helped inspire a bill making crime comics illegal, a law that remained in the Criminal Code of Canada until last year.
As one editorial published in 1948 concluded: “The cause – vicious crime comic books. The effect – vicious crimes by neurotic children.”
While restrictions on comic book violence didn’t stop acts of violence in real life, in the decades since, similar equations have since been made for everything from cartoons to Westerns to heavy metal music, and, most recently, video games. The debate has surfaced again in the United States in the past week, as President Donald Trump and others have suggested video games played a role in a spate of mass shootings.
But did video games cause the actions of the shooters in El Paso, Tex., or Dayton, Ohio? Or the actions of Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold before them? Was “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski inspired to action by Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent? What about J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which Mark Chapman was reading while awaiting police after killing John Lennon? Mr. Chapman later recited a passage from the book during his trial.
“It’s certainly easier when hearing something that is so frightening to feel that there is a scapegoat, to feel that there is an actual cause, or a singular cause, rather than a range of things,” says Richard Lachman, associate professor in the RTA School of Media at Ryerson University, and director of the university’s Creative Technology Network.
Dr. Lachman, who studies gaming and digital culture and how humans interact with new technologies, says thinking about broad social factors such as the mental-health system and economic disparity can be too overwhelming, so: “We instead end up trying to pick one thing.”
“We want to feel comfortable again,” he says. “So we look for something to blame.”
The 1994 movie Natural Born Killers was linked to multiple murders in the United States and Canada, including in Saskatchewan, where teenager Leroy Linn cited the movie after randomly killing two women at a gas station in the small town of Kyle in 1997. The movie also emerged as a source of inspiration for a 12-year-old girl and her 23-year-old boyfriend after the murders of her parents and brother in Medicine Hat in 2006. During the man’s trial, court heard the couple had used it as a source for “how to kill parents” and had watched the movie the night before the murders.
In the United States, the movie became the subject of a protracted lawsuit after a deadly 1995 crime spree by a young couple. Novelist John Grisham, a friend of a man killed by the teens, accused director Oliver Stone at the time of making a film that “glamorized casual mayhem and bloodlust,” and said it was not surprising the movie had the effect of “stimulating morally depraved young people to commit similar crimes.”
In another lawsuit in the mid-1990s, the parents of a 15-year-old girl sued the band Slayer, alleging the band’s music had driven the girl’s friends to lure her outside of town and stab her to death.
Twenty-years later, two 12-year-old girls in Wisconsin enacted a similar attack, this time in an attempt to appease the fictional internet entity, Slender Man.
But while Slayer or Slender Man or Counter-Strike may be disturbing for some, Dr. Lachman notes these cultural products are consumed by millions and millions of people, most of whom are not moved to any kind of crime or violence. It is not so easy to link inspiration and action.
“If that piece had never existed, can you say the action would never have occurred?” Dr. Lachman asks. “Or would that person have cracked in some other way, or seized on some other focus or focal point?”
Dr. Smith says it’s hard to fathom someone being inspired to horrible deeds purely from exposure to a video game, a movie, a book, an internet legend or a song.
“It’s really almost unimaginable you have a perfectly nice person, and they read this book and then they become a monster,” he said. “There is all kinds of evidence that goes against that … . Psychologically speaking it just doesn’t hold any water.”
In the 1995 trial of Paul Bernardo, the prosecution attempted to enter into evidence a copy of Brett Easton Ellis’s book American Psycho, which had been found next to Mr. Bernardo’s bedside, and was described in pretrial argument as “almost a blueprint.”
Although killer and novel quickly became linked, Canadian director Mary Harron, who made the film adaptation, noted in The New York Times in 2000 that Mr. Bernardo’s first homicide actually happened a year before the book’s publication, and that: “Whatever effect ‘American Psycho’ may have had on Paul Bernardo, it did not turn him into a monster; he was one already.”
She also questioned what it would mean to censor such works, or for creators to self-censor “because a fool or a madman somewhere might get it wrong.”
“If entering this territory is too risky, then what is the solution? Don’t show violence, don’t show evil, don’t show any of the aspects of human nature that most frighten and distress us,” Ms. Harron wrote then, describing an alternative in which cinema, literature and drama would be limited to life-affirming stories. “And does anyone really believe that serial killers and violence against women and teenage shootings would then disappear?”
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