Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mark Twitchell: Canada’s ‘Dexter’ wannabe

By Gary C. King

A Man Mysteriously Disappears

Johnny Altinger and his bike

Johnny Altinger and his bike

Johnny Altinger, 38, an Edmonton, Alberta resident who worked in the pipeline industry, mysteriously disappeared on October 10, 2008, a Friday, after he told friends that he was going out to meet a woman with whom he had become acquainted on the Internet, a practice that he may have engaged in before. A motorcycle enthusiast, Altinger had also made plans to take a close friend, Dale Smith, for riding lessons the following Sunday, October 12, 2008. However, after the supposed Internet date Altinger was believed to have had two days earlier, if it had in fact actually occurred, the scheduled appointment with Smith never materialized. People close to Altinger quickly became concerned for his well-being.

When he failed to return home, his friends noticed that his motorcycle was parked in one of the spaces he used at the apartment building where he lived. It had been left uncovered, something his friends knew he wouldn’t do. They also noted that his red Mazda wasn’t there and concluded that he must have driven it to meet his purported date. Later, after it became apparent that Altinger wasn’t coming home, at least that’s how it appeared to his friends, Smith told the authorities about the last time he had spoken with his friend. Altinger had apparently explained to Smith that he was meeting a woman on the aforementioned Friday evening, but something about the arrangement had seemed strange to Smith.

“The instructions (for the meeting) were out of the ordinary,” Smith said. “It didn’t have an address. It was instructions to meet behind the back of a garage. I wasn’t too happy about the instructions and I told John to give me a call when he got there, and to give me the address before he went into the place.”

Later that night, Altinger called Smith just as he had been requested to do. He explained to his friend that the woman hadn’t shown up at the garage, but that a man had appeared instead. Altinger told Smith that the man claimed to be a filmmaker, and had shown him props for a movie that included a replica of a handgun. Smith said that the last time he heard from his friend was when Altinger sent him an email later that night in which he indicated he was returning to the garage to meet the woman he had gone there to meet in the first place. Altinger had provided directions to the garage for his friend, likely as a just in case informational directive that could be used later if it turned out things weren’t on the up-and-up.

A few days later the mystery deepened when a puzzling e-mail was sent to some of Altinger’s friends and relatives from Altinger’s account that said he’d “met an extraordinary woman named Jen” and that the woman had “offered to take me on a nice long tropical vacation.” The e-mail said that Altinger was going to Costa Rica with “Jen,” and said that Altinger would call family members at Christmas — more than two months away.

Something just wasn’t right about the e-mail, and his friends and relatives felt that such an extended trip on short notice wasn’t in Altinger’s character. They also questioned the email’s authenticity. In part because of Altinger’s disappearance and in part because the recipients did not believe he had actually sent the e-mail, his friends contacted the police.

“Where is he? What’s going on?” a relative began to ask. “He wouldn’t do this to us. Not a message, nothing….And then not showing up for work? Totally out of character. John was very, very responsible…I thought right away that’s gotta be the weirdest message I’ve ever received.”

Altinger’s friends who had received the same identical email felt much the same way, and next insisted to police that a missing person investigation was in order.

Investigation Opened

When friends and family first contacted authorities with information about Altinger’s mysterious disappearance, the police did not think there was any cause to warrant an investigation, at least not yet. In a desperate effort to try and learn something significant — something the police might be interested in — a group of Altinger’s friends broke into his apartment to see what, if anything, they might find useful, according to CBS News.

“They found his passport,” a relative told a reporter for CBS News. “And they found dirty dishes…and everything was just…as if he were going to return an hour or two later.”

Detective Bill Clark in the interrogation room

Detective Bill Clark in the interrogation room

Friends and relatives returned to the police and presented Det. Bill Clark, a veteran homicide investigator, with the new information, along with the strange e-mail they had received announcing Altinger’s supposed trip. They also turned over the directions to the garage that Altinger had forwarded to Smith, where the meeting with “Jen” was presumed to have taken place.

Their efforts resulted in a police investigation into Johnny Altinger’s mysterious disappearance, officially opened on Friday, October 17, 2008, a week after he disappeared.

Clark told reporters that their top priority was to find Altinger, and that the way to do so would be to look for Altinger’s missing car.

“His red Mazda was missing,” Clark said. “He had taken his vehicle, (and) it couldn’t be found. So obviously that’s what we’re gonna look for first. Easier to find a car than a person.”

“Based on the emails,” Clark continued, “they talk about Costa Rica, (so) the officers search(ed) all the parking lots at the airport. It’s not found…everything’s turning up negative.”

Altinger’s email with directions to the garage, it seemed at this point, was the biggest clue from which to work. Although detectives didn’t know it at the time, they would later conclude that Altinger had ultimately likely saved the lives of possible future victims by e-mailing his friend the directions to the garage.

“Well, John’s friends were concerned,” Clark said to a reporter for CBS News. “And his friend even questioned him in the email. You know, ‘You…be careful…’ And John (had) said, ‘Yeah, well, here are the directions. And if anything happens to me, you’ll know where to look.’”

Using the directions Altinger had sent to his friend, Clark and several other detectives and uniformed police officers converged on a garage located at 57th Street and 40th Avenue in Edmonton, Alberta.

The garage, they learned, was being rented by Mark Twitchell, 29, a married father and an aspiring filmmaker who liked to brag about his work. He had titled his latest project House of Cards, a suspense thriller about a serial killer who uses the Internet to lure a man to a garage where he ultimately killed him. At the very least the prospect of the garage being used to make a film about carrying out a murder was chilling — at its worst it could be a chapter out of the life of a deranged man who was determined to carry out such a killing in real life.

The Garage

Mark Twitchell

Mark Twitchell

Twitchell met the cops at the garage at an arranged time, and said that the lock somehow appeared odd and suggested that it had been changed. He denied knowing anything about Altinger’s disappearance and the missing Mazda. He said he did not have a problem allowing the police to search the garage, but kept going on about the lock “being changed,” perhaps hoping the cops wouldn’t break in since he didn’t have the key. However, police officers, with little effort, pried off the lock and entered the garage.

According to Clark, they looked around and discovered a substance that had the appearance of blood. Twitchell explained that it wasn’t blood, but was only a movie prop — food coloring and corn syrup. He said that he had made a film about killing a man inside the garage, and that he’d been there cleaning it up for the past couple of weeks. Clark later revealed that he had been thinking that something was not right about Twitchell, the garage, and Altinger’s disappearance.

“It’s a missing persons case,” Clark told CBS News. “We don’t know if foul play has happened here. We don’t have a body. We don’t even know if we have a crime.”

Clark’s gut feelings, however, were telling him otherwise.

For the next few weeks, police maintained control of Twitchell’s garage, and police officers, detectives, and criminalists were the only people allowed access.

A metal pipe found in the garage during the aforementioned time frame was examined by Dr. Graeme Dowling, the Chief Medical Examiner, who conducted a microscopic examination because investigators believed the pipe held evidence such as “tiny fragments of skin, fat, skeletal muscle, fibrous tissue, and bone.” However, although Dr. Dowling believed that the tissue samples in question could have been of human origin, his determinations were inconclusive. On the other hand, a tooth fragment recovered from the garage floor was identified as a human incisor tooth.

Forensics technicians used the chemical Luminol, which detects traces of hemoglobin in blood, to examine the garage walls and floor. Constable Fons Chafe found more than 200 “impact stains” inside the garage, many of them on the large garage door and most in the door’s lower half. “Impact” bloodstains are caused when a source is struck by an object such as a pipe or other similar object. It wasn’t long before laboratory tests concluded that some of the bloodstains contained Altinger’s DNA. Police theorized that Altinger had been killed in the garage that Twitchell rented, and that his body had been subsequently dismembered and disposed of at an as yet unknown location. At this point, however, it was only a theory.

Next: ’Altinger’s’ E-mails and Facebook Page

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