When investigative journalist and MacEwan University professor Steve Lillebuen decided to write a book about Dexter-obsessed killer Mark Twitchell in late 2010, the last thing he expected was to get a call from the killer himself.
“He just directly said, ‘If you’re going to write a book about me, you better go straight to the source,'” Lillebuen told 48 Hours stunned. That call sparked a correspondence with the alleged serial killer that lasted nearly three years. Now, “48 Hours” contributor Troy Roberts recounts those letters and takes a revealing look at what a retired FBI crime profiler believes motivated Mark Twitchell “The Dexter Killer” airs Saturday, April 23 at 10/9c on CBS and streaming on Paramount+.
“He wrote me probably 30 or 35 different letters – up to about 350 pages… “He’s very self-aware, and he has this obsessive-compulsive nature of wanting to write everything down… I would ask him a question… and I would get 10 pages back in response.”
In 2008, Twitchell was a 29-year-old aspiring filmmaker living in Edmonton, Canada with his wife and daughter. Though seemingly unimposing, his writings were grim. They revealed their fascination with the fictional character Dexter Morgan – an obsession that Lillebeun and the police say Twitchell transferred to his real-life crimes.
“If you look at the evidence,” Lillebuen tells Roberts, “there are significant links to Dexter…very similar to what Dexter uses.”
After his arrest on Halloween in 2008, police recovered a deleted file from Twitchell’s computer called “SK Confessions”. While the filmmaker claimed that this document was a script, prosecutors successfully argued that “SK” stood for “Serial Killer” and that the document was actually Twitchell detailing his crimes. In it, he writes, “I diligently set up my kill room,” explaining how it included “several rolls of painters’ plastic sheets” and “a forty-five-gallon steel drum … for the body parts,” as well as a “game processing kit… which contained a butcher knife… a steak knife… and a serrated saw for bones.” These are all items the police would later discover at the crime scene. And while Twitchell states in this document that he doesn’t “copy Dexter Morgan’s style”, he adds character.”
In October 2008, Twitchell posed as a woman on an online dating site and lured a 38-year-old man named Johnny Altinger into a garage. Twitchell spent time turning the garage into a “killing room” before beating and stabbing Altinger to death, after which he laid his body on a table and methodically dismembered it – all actions eerily reminiscent of Altinger’s own fictional character. Dexter.
And yet in a letter to Lillebuen Twitchell he writes: “As you know, Dexter ‘almost nothing’ has anything to do with my case. He has no bearing on what really happened.” Lillibuen tells Roberts, “No one is saying that the people who created Dexter are to blame for a real-life death. That’s ridiculous.” But Lillibuen says Twitchell “completely denies that there is any connection,” adding that “there’s a logical disconnect there.”
In his letters, the convicted murderer also claims that he killed Johnny Altinger not in an act of cold-blooded murder, but in self-defense. At the time of his arrest, Twitchell was working on a film called “House of Cards”, in which an unsuspecting man is lured into a garage and killed. The plan, Twitchell argued in court, was to lure men who thought they were showing up on a date with a woman and then attack them, only to then let them escape — so that when the movie came out, these men would come forward and say this actually happened to them, thus creating a buzz. At his trial, Twitchell claimed that Altinger was furious at being tricked and attacked him. It was as fictional a premise as the real Johnny Altinger murder was, and one that the jury didn’t believe.
Three months after his 2011 conviction for first-degree murder, Twitchell made the same argument for Lillebuen, writing “I killed Johnny Altinger in a terrible self-defense accident… Why did he have to react? how should he?” According to Lillebuen, “he’s still… pushing that narrative… He still blames Johnny for what happened”. Lillebuen tells “48 Hours” that Twitchell is still “trying to argue… that he’s innocent. And to be blunt, he’s – he’s wrong.”
“What I find interesting about Mark Twitchell is that he can know that he didn’t fool people about killing Johnny,” says Julia Cowley, a retired FBI criminal profiler. Twitchell’s own writings, particularly in “SK Confessions” and the letters the killer sent to Steve Lillebuen, which she analyzed in “48 Hours”.
“I think his main motive was sexual,” Cowley told 48 Hours. “If we… look at the case as a whole, what does he do? He goes on online dating sites. He attracts men who think they’re going to come on a date… It’s almost as if Mark Twitchell is Furthermore getting ready for a date. He talks a lot… about how to prepare the room, what he’s going to wear, the weapon he chooses. He… describes it in seductive language.” To make his point, Cowley read Twitchell’s “SK Confessions”: “I wanted the weapon used for the act itself to be simple, elegant, and beautiful.”
Cowley says, “So for him, this is a date. This is something he’s been fantasizing about.” She argues that for Twitchell this is also an “exciting murder”. She adds, “I don’t think he thinks anything is wrong with him… I think he’s self-aware and understands that I don’t have empathy or sympathy like… other people.”
In a July 2011 letter, Twitchell writes to Lillibuen trying to explain himself: “There is… root cause… no school bullies or mind-bogglingly gory movies or video game violence or… Showtime television series to point out the finger. It is what it is. and I am what I am.”
In another conversation, Twitchell expressed dismay at the outrage his case caused. He complains, “I find the whole thing highly hypocritical… There’s something obtuse about someone taking wild joy from watching psychotics brutally murder dozens of people on TV and then suddenly joking as if their stomach is turning inside out when it does.” takes place under totally unique circumstances in an isolated real-life incident.”
In another letter to Lillebuen, in which he lays out Dexter’s character and mass appeal, Twitchell writes, “Dexter, don’t forget, is a monster. No less self-conscious.” Some would argue that the same could be said of Twitchell himself.