The week of January 24, 2016

One amateur sleuth’s cross-country quest to prove his ‘Making a Murderer’ theory

By Jesse Hicks

Daniel Luke is hunting a killer.

He’s doing so using a laptop and the complimentary Wi-Fi in a cheap hotel room, with off-white walls unevenly lit by a pair of wall lamps with mismatched bulbs. Over the bed—a single, with a blond headboard and vertically striped blanket in alternating purple and black—hangs gold-framed hotel art: a pastel floral scene, an unthreatening riff on Georgia O’Keeffe. The blanket matches the curtains. All the furniture is the same blond wood, dorm-room indestructible. Daniel Luke’s MacBook is open on the desk, next to a disposable paper cup filled with coffee. The room looks inhabited, but barely, the way cheap hotel rooms everywhere become impervious to any lasting imprint by their occupants. A loaf of bread sits on a shelf beneath a floor lamp. In the minifridge he has two containers of squeezable mayonnaise, some sliced ham, and a gallon carton of milk.

It’s a Sunday night in early January, and Luke sits down, ready to begin the story of how he wound up here, hundreds of miles from his life in Portland, Oregon, running down a killer from his computer. It doesn’t seem that nuts to him, but he knows that at 46, like him, most people aren’t eager to uproot themselves and fly across the country—on Christmas Eve, no less—after becoming engrossed in a documentary. He’s 6 feet 2 inches tall, square and broad-shouldered; the word he uses to describe his younger, harder self is “formidable.” He doesn’t really fit into the hotel desk chair, so he kicks it back on its rear legs and crosses his own at the ankle.

“I think I was bored,” he says. “I normally don’t watch Netflix that much. I have a subscription because a friend of mine in California likes to watch it, so she just logs into my account and watches it.” Skimming his Netflix feed, he was intrigued by a new show that reminded him of one of his favorites, Forensic Files.

That show, of course, was Making a Murderer, released two days earlier with little fanfare. The timing now seems like genius: a 10-hour, slow-burn documentary about the intricacies and failings of America’s criminal justice system, released just in time for a holiday binge-watch. Through 10 episodes compiled over more than a decade, filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi tell the story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault in 1985. Avery served 18 years before DNA evidence exonerated him; he then filed a civil lawsuit against the Manitowoc County authorities that had prosecuted his case. Soon after, he was arrested for the murder of a young photographer, Teresa Halbach. Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, were tried separately for the crime, convicted, and both remain in prison today.

Making a Murderer follows the case’s twists and turns and leaves many viewers with the distinct feeling justice has not been done. Since its debut the series has seemingly been everywhere, with the prosecutor and defense attorneys giving interviews, and the filmmakers explaining what they hoped to accomplish (“to try to bring light to this story and to [explore] the American criminal justice system and to start a dialogue about how we can do better”) before taking to Twitter for further clarification. Opinion pieces have argued over the verdict, the process, and the documentary itself; others have used it to draw attention to the wider problems of unreliable witness identification and police interrogation techniques that can lead to false confessions, particularly among young people. Anonymous was reportedly conducting an “op” in support of Avery and Dassey—until it turned out that was a hoax. Crowdfunding got trial transcripts from the cases copied, scanned, and put online, providing ample reading material for the online investigators that have filled a Websleuths forum and a dedicated subreddit with theories about the case.

The armchair investigators have produced reams of speculation and have even drawn attention to potentially overlooked evidence. But none of them have done what Daniel Luke did: get on a plane, fly halfway across the country, and start a crowdfunding campaign to help him investigate who he believes to be the real killer.

People call him crazy—often on the very Web page he set up to document his progress—but he receives support and encouragement, too. So the most obvious question seems to be: Why? What inspires a man to set aside his life and devote himself to a cause that perhaps only he fully understands?

“I don’t know what it is. It’s just me. Whatever the hell that thing is, it’s just me.”

He’s not totally sure he has an answer. He can talk about how Making a Murderer brought attention to what he sees as a corrupt and failing criminal justice system—about how it exposes the power of the state at work, a truth he’s known from his own experience but one he could never fully express to others. About how there are two innocent men in prison, a murderer walking free, and a community torn apart by injustice. About how he recognizes parts of himself in his suspect, about how he wishes people weren’t so inclined to remain passive spectators, and about how unlike many of us, he has nothing to lose. Sometimes, even, about how if he can right the wrong before him, he’ll prove himself a good man. He’ll show that someone like him—marginalized, hated, and in isolation, as he describes it—can hasten his own redemption.

“It’s almost like it’s part performance art,” he says, “part, you know, like, carnival sideshow, you know… I don’t know what it is. It’s just me. Whatever the hell that thing is, it’s just me.”

Daniel Luke outside his hotel
Daniel Luke outside his hotel

It was around 10pm on Dec. 20 when he started watching Making a Murderer. He’d probably been studying JavaScript that day before coming back to his mother’s studio apartment, where he’s been staying. That’s against the lease—he figures once someone catches on, he’ll be thrown out. Sometimes his mom gets angry and threatens to throw him out; at one point he’d slept in a car for a year. He made money cleaning houses for wealthy Portlanders, using his mom’s car to get around, but then she took a job as a substitute teacher, leaving him without his own transportation.

He says most of the housework money went to classes from Treehouse, Lynda, Code School, and several others; he worked enough to cover basic expenses, then devoted himself to learning programming and Web design, hoping for a more lucrative career in technology. He shared one of his mockups for “reinventing how we use the Internet”—“one of literally dozens of ideas I have every day.” He describes his future Internet as a Zuckerbergian dream where everything is shared by default, and instead of isolated netizens surfing away in isolation, we’d be connected to one another through our devices. “What if we could open up the online experience so that we could bring others in?” the mockup asks. “What if others could peer over our shoulders, virtually, so that they could see and interact with what we are doing online as we are doing it?”

Home from a usual day of studying code, he turned on Netflix. He says it’s now hard to re-create what it felt like to watch
Making a Murderer, but he describes his anger as “incandescent.” He couldn’t believe that Avery and Dassey were in jail; he was shocked and upset. But he knew the prison system better than most, and that complicated his response. He was angry, and yet, “sort of happy at the same time because I don’t think the general public knows how it works and how it can happen. This whole thing was really an exposé.” He describes Making a Murderer as a meteorite that’s just struck the Earth; now it sits molten and hot and glowing, and it may be 20 years before we fully understand it.

After he’d finished watching, he says, he called the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department. Told he couldn’t speak to a sheriff, he recalls telling a receptionist, “’I watched this documentary—why are you guys fucking with this guy? He’s clearly innocent.’ Something along those lines.” He does that a lot, considers it important to speak up when he sees wrongdoing. He compares it to voting: a way of making your voice heard. “I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do it. It’s rare, I guess,” he says. He wishes people were more active, more willing to demand a hearing. “I don’t really think that I do it to get a reaction. I do it because I want to be heard, and I want that person to know that at least one person cares about what has happened.”

He compares it to using Twitter or Facebook to reach someone, and soon enough he was tweeting about the documentary. “Right. This is not entertainment. It is a call to action,” he wroteAnd: “There is nothing unusual about this case. This is our justice system. It happens every day in every courthouse.”

It wasn’t until his second watching, though, that he tweeted, “I think I solved the Teresa Halbach case!”

On first viewing, he says, he hadn’t really paid attention to Ryan Hillegas, the ex-boyfriend who’d help organize a search party for Teresa Halbach (and, more controversially, helped to access her phone records while she was missing). “I’m very keen on words,” Luke says. (This is true. You’re unlikely to hear many other people describe their “lucubrations” about the case, declare Ken Kratz a “mountebank,” or self-deprecatingly refer to this tendency to elevated diction as the habit of a “pedantic wretch.”) He’s attuned to words and language, and something about Ryan Hillegas—the way he talked, the words he chose for his testimony—struck Luke. He recognized something. He recognized a certain kind of man.

And, he says, “I just related to him, because, you know, I strangled my wife.”

Avery Road in Two Rivers, Wisconsin

Daniel Luke says he hasn’t tried to hide his past. Under the title “A little about myself,” he’s posted an arrest report from the Portland police dated Dec. 05, 2010. It features his mug shot, height, and weight, and then a list of 28 charges, including assault, attempted murder, menacing, burglary, coercion, and mischief. “We can talk about this if you want,” he writes. “You’re free to call me names, or accuse me of whatever, but none of that is going to stop me from talking about what I want to discuss: Who killed Teresa Halbach?” He suggests the arrest and his subsequent time in prison is an asset, writing, “People want to know what experience I have, or how I’m qualified. I believe I know EXACTLY how criminals think, and if I’m around YOU long enough, I’ll probably be able to figure out how you think too.”

His website doesn’t explain the particulars of what happened; there’s simply the arrest record. But in the the story he tells of his life, it is perhaps his greatest failing, the act for which he most wants redemption.

After a childhood he describes largely as one of neglect—an alcoholic father, a mother “trying to unburden herself” of her children—that saw him shuffled between parents, passed off to family friends, and placed in an orphanage, he says, “I finally achieved familyhood.” He had a wife and two kids. “I wasn’t the best steward of that station in life,” he says. “I could have been at least a better husband—but I was a good father. A really good father, in fact.”

When his wife filed for divorce in 2007, he says he went into a tailspin. He had seen the damage divorce had wrought on his own family and didn’t want to perpetuate a cycle. He describes a “psychological blow that was devastating,” an emotional wound that couldn’t be healed. He imagined his children trying to look up to a father who’d failed. He felt psychologically disabled. He was homeless for a while—”and still am. I guess you could call me semi-homeless at this point,” he says. The years that followed were his lowest point, and he didn’t get better. “I just felt like a colossal failure. In fact I still do. I’ve never really succeeded at anything, particularly.”

His absolute low, he says, came in 2010. Their children were visiting with him. “My ex-wife had a boyfriend, and that was just making me crazy,” he says, “I went over to the house, I kicked down the door, entered the house. I physically assaulted my ex—actually by briefly putting my hands around her neck and squeezing. You know, ‘strangulation’ is the term for that. Although, you know, she didn’t lose consciousness, I didn’t…you know, she wasn’t injured in any way. Uhm. There were a few areas, a few marks here and there that were caused by just the, you know, physical tumult of the situation. I’m not trying to lessen it. I’m simply trying to give you an idea of how severe the assault was.”

What really led to prison time, he says, was that he kicked in the door, making the crime a burglary. “Otherwise,” he says, “it really would have just been a 90-day trip to the county jail and probably not much more.” Instead, he served two years. He says his wife has legally blocked him from seeing his children for the past five years.

He admits the assault wasn’t his first brush with the law. There was the altercation with a Florida cab driver who pulled a gun after a drunken Luke failed to pay him, for which he eventually pled guilty to theft of cab fare. And there was a woman, one with whom he says he was madly in love, and who he—again, drunkenly—assaulted at a party after she snatched a cigarette out of his mouth. He also attempted to choke her. “She did not lose consciousness,” he says. “I’m not trying to defend my actions, but it wasn’t like—it was just horrible.”

“This is a story as old as time—rageful boyfriend.”

“I honestly don’t go around feeling hatred for women,” Luke says. “At all.” He more consistently describes himself as a weak man. But, he says, “Weak men are dangerous men. Men who have been humiliated, who have nothing to lose, who have been rejected, all those things—that’s what makes a man dangerous. To a woman, particularly.” He sees many of his own problems as driven not by misogyny, but by his temper. He hopes he’s mellowed with age, matured beyond the man who’d kick in a door to vent his anger. (Anger management classes didn’t help, he found; antidepressants Lexapro and Wellbutrin did.)

While watching Making A Murderer, though, Luke believed he saw a familiar anger. “I have always seen myself as kind of a weak person in a lot of ways,” he says. “Certainly not your typical alpha male or whatever. And I began to see Ryan [Hillegas] that way, too.” He kept seeing parallels. He saw Hillegas as a man rejected, as Luke himself had once been. Hillegas was a nurse; Luke has also been a nurse (his legal issues almost derailed that career). Even today, Luke sees that job as compromising his masculinity—why hadn’t he become an ironworker, or something more traditionally masculine? They’d even owned the same make of car,  Hillegas and Luke: a Toyota Corolla. “This is a story as old as time,” he says. “Rageful boyfriend.”

He soon tweeted his theory about Hillegas. Hillegas, he believed, likely had access to Halbach’s phone account; they’d dated for five years, and spouses often share accounts. That could have given him unique insight into Halbach’s whereabouts. And as a nurse, maybe he’d had access to Steven Avery’s blood, which would have allowed him to plant it at the crime scene. “It’s kind a weird when you know the truth about something the whole world is confused about and you can’t get through,” he tweeted, and soon he was making plans to get to Wisconsin.

Luckily for him, he found a cheap flight to Milwaukee, landing there on Christmas Day. (Along the way, he acquired a furry trapper’s hat that he says goes over really well with Wisconsinites.) He planned to visit Steven Avery’s family at their salvage yard and explain that he knew who’d really killed Teresa Halbach. Proving it, he figured, was the only way to free Avery.

The buses from Milwaukee to Manitowoc would have put him on their doorstep too late at night, so he convinced a friendly cab driver to drive him the 90-odd miles. Arriving after dark (the sun set after 4pm),  took a picture of the “Dead End” sign marking Avery Road, which leads to the Averys’ salvage yard. As he later wrote, the family welcomed him in, only to later ask the police to escort him from the premises. He complied—and he posted the police report online. (In it, the family tells police they’ve already begun receiving phone calls until 4:30am.)

After searching him, the police dropped him at a hotel in downtown Manitowoc, free to pursue his investigation as long as it didn’t involve setting foot on the Averys’ property.

Downtown Manitowoc
Downtown Manitowoc, Wisconsin

Downtown Manitowoc is quaint and welcoming, home to a Family Video store, the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, and a bar called The Fat Seagull, among other attractions. A post-Christmas blizzard left the town blanketed in snow; when I visited in early January, the sky ranged in color from gunmetal to slate, and a huge bank of clouds rose ominously over Lake Michigan. Driving north to the Avery salvage yard, I passed skeletal trees clutching at the air and fallen-down barns with silos made of stone. It’s the kind of landscape that reminds you that environment is destiny.

Daniel Luke stayed until Jan. 10, when his money ran out. As he tells it, he spent most of that time in his room, researching online. (Though with field trips to Capone’s Pub and Grill and the county jail.) He posted on the Sheboygan Craigslist, writing, “If you know Ryan Hillegas, or knew him, I would like to talk to you confidentially. I would like to establish his alibi for October 31, 2005. And I have many other questions as well.” He collated information and spun theories.

His website has received tens of thousands of hits; his GoFundMe campaign, though, currently sits at $155. Meanwhile, Steven Avery has secured a new lawyer, Kathleen Zellner, with an outstanding reputation for freeing the wrongly convicted. She’s taken to Twitter to declare his innocence, saying outright that he was framed.

Now back in Portland, staying with his mother, Luke has vowed to continue his work. He’s constantly updating his website, constantly looking for new information. He’s hopeful but realistic—even a little fatalistic at times. He has nothing to lose, he figures, and everything to gain by being the man who helps to right this wrong. It would prove something—to the world and to himself. He wants to make a point about how power and justice function in America, about how we can all choose to let injustice happen simply through inattention. And, for himself, he wants to prove that he can do something good. “I have very complex motives for being here,” he says, “that go well beyond the certainly legitimate motive of finding a killer and all of that stuff. This is a very personal odyssey for me.”

“I expect to fail,” he says, “but if I don’t, it will be very exciting, and I’ll be pleasantly surprised for a change.”

Illustration by J. Longo | Photos by Jesse Hicks