Living out in the sticks of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, within five minutes of Avery’s Auto Salvage (two of my old cars are rusting in pieces over there now), it’s quite surprising to see the local phenomenon of the Teresa Halbach case blow up as large as it has, both nationally and internationally. In and around Northeastern Wisconsin, the story of Steven Avery is a saga that seems to be without an end. Avery has been a major news item here for over thirty years now, beginning when he was first (wrongly) convicted of committing a brutal rape along a nearby stretch of the Lake Michigan shoreline. And his 2007 court case for the killing of Teresa Halbach was the local Trial of The Century. Nationally, there seems to be a new “Trial of The Century” every five years or so, but in the Green Bay area, there is without dispute only one.
With all the recent interest in the plight of Steven Avery, different friends of mine from around the country, who know that I live in extremely close proximity to the Avery property, have contacted me to talk about the case. Last week, a friend emailed me a piece that one-time New Kid on the Block Donnie Wahlberg had written on Making a Murderer, comparing it to the O.J. Simpson case. While I thought Wahlberg’s essay was very well thought-out and made a number of good points, it struck me while reading it that a much more apt comparison to the Netflix docu-series would be the story behind the Truman Capote bestseller, In Cold Blood.
In fact, it’s almost eerie how similar Making a Murderer, and all the furor surrounding it, is to Capote’s most well-known non-fiction book. The parallels between the two media sensations (which came out almost an even half-century apart) begin with how they each originated. The creators of the respective projects came to their topics from the same place, in precisely the same way. Author Capote and the Making a Murderer filmmakers, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, were all based in upper Manhattan (Ricciardi and Demos were film grad students at Columbia) when they were looking for compelling subject matter to use for a large-scale project. And all three happened upon their topic by reading articles that caught their attention in the same paper, The New York Times.
The two cases that drew them in were both hair-raising crimes committed in small Middle America farming communities. In Cold Blood is set near Holcomb, Kansas, while the Avery junkyard is located just outside the tiny unincorporated crossroads of Larrabee, Wisconsin. Also, the shock of both these cases was magnified by the backdrop of their rural and sedate surroundings. Things like this just don’t happen ’round here …
Both Capote and the Making a Murderer team came across these NY Times articles in the fall of the year. The Teresa Halbach murder took place on Halloween, while the Kansas crime was committed on November 15th. And when Capote, as did Ricciardi and Demos, sensed the potential magnitude of the story, he immediately packed his bags and hightailed it into the desolation of an oncoming winter in the hinterlands. Also, in each endeavor, the intention was to capture the story as it unfolded in real-time. In fact, Capote left before the killers featured in his book were even apprehended — although they were captured shortly after his arrival in Holcomb. In addition, Capote, also like Ricciardi and Demos, travelled as part of a duo. He did not go to Kansas alone. To help with the research and information-gathering, Capote brought along a close friend from childhood, a pre-fame/pre-published Harper Lee.
Upon embarking on their journeys, neither of the creative teams had any idea of how their respective cases would unravel or what the ultimate outcomes would be. It was easily possible that both of the crimes could turn out to be not-so-newsworthy or even routine. Yet the hope was that maybe their stories would be authentically gripping and contain elements of inherent drama. Both of these ventures were very much of a gamble. However, with each of the teams, they ended up hitting the jackpot. And boy, did they hit it big.
In Cold Blood and Making a Murderer each became instant smash-hits upon their releases. In Cold Blood was the best-selling book in America within two weeks of its publication. Truman Capote did a tireless round of interviews and talk-show appearances to promote it. To date, In Cold Blood is second to only Helter Skelter in terms of sales of a true crime book. And thanks to the internet, Making a Murderer’s success was even more instant, gaining popularity much quicker than any standard tv show, book or feature film has the ability to do. And when each of these two works were released, they both sparked media storms that elevated them into a public sphere that was much more expansive than the projects themselves. Yet both of these true-crime products were released without much in the way of prior anticipation. (Even though just before its publication, two chapters of In Cold Blood were printed in Esquire.)
But back to the beginning …
Once each of the duos arrived in their rural locations, they first got a lay of the land and made uneasy contact with the locals. Early on, the two teams were only able to pick up little tendrils of the full story. One of the most significant similarities between In Cold Blood and Murderer is that for both teams it was ultimately their ability to establish close contact with the accused that made their projects truly come together. And ultimately, in both cases, it became the convicted killers who were the primary focus of their pieces, and this gave the projects the insider perspectives that made them fascinating to the masses. I think it’s fair to say that neither of these projects would’ve had anywhere near the impact they’ve been able to attain without the cooperation of the men apprehended for these crimes.
Capote befriended the two Kansas killers through a series of letters and prison visits. He established a particular bond with the older of the two, whose name was Perry Smith. Capote and Smith quickly formed a trust and an emotional attachment. Speculation exists to this day that Capote also had a physical relationship with Smith, which is something even Capote himself hinted at. And it is without dispute that Capote was able to spend time with Perry Smith within his cell at the Kansas State Penitentiary.
In keeping with the parallels between these two projects, Ricciardi and Demos were at first turned down access by many of the key players involved in the Halbach case, and this included the relatives of Steven Avery. It was only after Ricciardi and Demos established a rapport with Avery that they were able to gain a wider access to his relatives and supporters. There has been much in the way of local conjecture that Avery and the two young filmmaking students had a kind of tacit understanding –that if the filmmakers were granted access to Avery’s family and defense team, they might be more sympathetic to his point of view … hence, some of the key evidence that worked against Avery not being included in their docu-series.
Because Murderer and In Cold Blood placed so much of their focus on the accused, the veracity of both projects has been loudly and publicly challenged by many. As with In Cold Blood, repeated accusations have been made against Making a Murderer as being highly subjective in order to fulfill a desired narrative.
Capote was charged with altering the facts of the case to fit his book’s account, including inventing dialogue and entire scenes which never took place, while Ricciardi and Demos have been met with the criticism of omitting facts to fit their narrative. However, all have denied the charges. Capote stated that his book was, quote, “immaculately factual” and that his critics were just jealous. Indeed, there were also those who gave kudos to Capote’s approach of filling in missing parts of the case with self-created conversations. With In Cold Blood, Capote was largely credited with creating a new narrative form, the non-fiction novel. This was a novelistic conceit that was soon after embraced by Norman Mailer with Armies of the Night, and the lesser-known work (at least to Americans), the excellent, and long out-of-print, Beyond Belief by Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams. The Making a Murderer team have also been forced to defend their work, with co-creator Ricciardi recently telling an interviewer, “We are confident. We stand by the project we did. It is thorough. It is accurate. It is fair.”
Although it is also the controversy of each of these projects which has, without question, helped fuel their enormous success. The built-in, and unintentional, brilliance of Murderer is in its vantage point (some say advocacy) of Avery’s defense. Since its streaming release just before the Christmas holiday, countless viewers have been keeping the series a very hot topic through heated debates involving the guilt or innocence of Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey. This debate very rapidly carried the story into the hothouse realms of social media and cable news.
Also, with both of these true crime presentations, their tone is very similar, being somewhat distant and removed. Making a Murderer is a documentary without a narrator. This flat tone highlights yet another commonality between the two projects — their titles, both of which are non-specific and frankly rather generic banners for such grizzly and horrific crimes. (The two chosen titles are almost as bland as calling a sit-com Friends, or a sci-fi film franchise Star Wars.)
Another glaring similarity between the two cases is that in both instances there were two convicted killers, whereas in the vast majority of murder cases, there is only a single killer. Also in each case, there was one of the accused who acted as a dominant and a planner, with the other being portrayed as a more submissive accomplice.
Yet the two cases certainly do have their differences. Whereas in Making a Murderer there was only one victim, In Cold Blood details the brutal killing of a family of four, the Clutters. And even though both of the locations in these works are remote, the Clutter killings took place on a farm, while Teresa Halbach met her end (according to prosecutors) at the edge of a large scrap yard. However, like the Clutter family, Teresa Halbach herself was raised on her family’s dairy farm, where she grew up doing chores and developing an affection for animals. And at the time of her death, she was still living in a house adjacent to the farm in order to be close to her family. (By every single account, Teresa Halbach was a smart, loving and truly exceptional person.)
One more difference is that the Kansas case was much more cut and dried. After their apprehension, both killers of the Clutter family made full confessions, and were then executed by hanging. In contrast, both of the accused in the Halbach crime maintained their innocence throughout their court proceedings, as they both do to this day. And with the release of the Netflix docu-series, the verdicts in their trials have become even more contested. It seems as if the plight of Steven Avery and his nephew will be argued over for many months, and even years, to come.
With all the above-listed similarities between Capote’s book and the Netflix docu-series, the biggest one, and the one that most fully distances them from most other high-profile crimes, is the fact that both the Holcomb killings and the Avery case only became widely-known long, long after their respective investigations and trials were over and done with. While both the Kansas and Avery cases were heavily covered on a regional basis, neither one fully reached any significant level of national recognition.
With the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, the case was massive news from the get-go. And from the day of her killing onwards, the crime only increased in its infamy, first with the arrest of O.J. Simpson, and then with the media-circus trial which followed. The Holcomb and Manitowoc cases only gained fame after the release of a book and a documentary, each of which were highly detailed true-crime procedurals. It was the accompanying works that made these crimes notorious, not vice-versa.
Both Murderer and In Cold Blood had very long gestation periods. Capote spent six years working on his book. He first travelled to Kansas, just after the Clutter murders, in 1959. And his book did not come out until a full seven years later, in 1966. The killing of Teresa Halbach took place in 2005, and even though nine of the ten parts of the docu-series were shot before the end of 2007, Making a Murderer was not released until 2015. And unlike the O.J. Case, both the Clutter killings and the Avery case would have remained forever obscure to a larger audience had it not been for the late-comer existence of their accompanying procedurals.
When both of these works finally came out, and because the events depicted in them were many years in the past, the blowback from the local communities was similar. This happened so long ago, leave it alone … These New Yorkers come into our town merely to exploit and profit from a tragedy … They’re giving our good community a bad name. And so on …
In keeping with the parallels between these two cases, what will inevitably come next for the Avery saga will be a theatrical re-telling of it. On the web entire lists of casting suggestions have already been floated, one with Paul Dano as Brendan Dassey and Eric Stonestreet playing prosecuting attorney Ken Kratz. The In Cold Blood feature came out only a year after the book, and starred Robert “Baretta” Blake (who was later involved in his own real-life crime drama). And then to follow the pattern further yet, a movie (or two, Capote and Infamous) might very well eventually be made about the creation of the Making a Murderer project (The Making of Making a Murderer).
As a close-by Manitowoc County resident (from my driveway, the directions are simple — take the first left and drive for a couple minutes until you see the big sign that reads Avery’s), I hope that the scrap yard property does not go the same route that the Clutter farm eventually did, when it was opened as a roadside attraction. Gawkers were able to shell out five bucks in order to go through the murder-site home and get an up-close look at the place. Steven Avery’s mobile home is still sitting empty on the junkyard property, still in the exact same spot as it was on Halloween 2005. If anyone is looking to make a buck from all the interest in the location, I very much hope that the mobile part of mobile home is kept in mind. If Avery’s trailer were ever to be purchased by some fanatical collector of the macabre, or by a carny-like opportunist, it could be easily moved to a different location — preferably someplace far, far away … perhaps to an area much more accessible to the morbidly-curious masses than Larrabee, Wisconsin.
Image Courtesy of Bjoern Wylezich / Shutterstock.com