Exploiting Kai: Did The Netflix “Hitchhiker” Documentary Forget To Ask The Bigger Questions?
AN OPINION PIECE
Tw: Rape, childhood abuse, murder
After the recent release of Netflix documentary The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker, it seems many viewers have been left with more questions than answers. While the frightening and unnerving chain of events that were described on the show certainly bought fresh attention to the case, there seemed to be a reluctance on the part of the documentary-makers — and the mainstream press as a whole — to ask some of the bigger questions about what transpired in 2013, and what role they themselves perhaps played in the process.
Why did the press, like a hungry pack of wolves, descend so ruthlessly on a homeless individual who was unused to such relentless attention? Why did a certain producer of a reality show try to bribe him to do as she wished by offering him “weed in the back of a limo?” Why were members of the media who saw, early on, that there were perhaps vulnerabilities surrounding Kai Lawrence (real name Caleb Lawrence McGillvary) seeking to create a money-making cash-grab out of him? It is hard not to look back at those series of events and wonder if Kai (like many others over the years) was the victim of a cold world which increasingly seeks drama over truth, money over morals and publicity over well-being.
For those unfamiliar with the story explored in the new documentary, it was back in February 2013 that Kai Lawrence (who eventually became known as “Kai the hitchhiker”) became famous nationwide and soon after, the world. He became a viral internet hero after saving a woman from the clutches of a 300 pound man who had, moments before, pinned an innocent bystander against the rear of a truck with his vehicle. The man — later identified as Jett Simmons McBride — would not let go of the woman who had been trying to help the trapped pedestrian. Worried for her safety, Kai intervened, using a hatchet to hit the offender until he finally released the woman. He saved her. After the dramatic event, Kai was interviewed by a local Fox reporter and the resulting video soon became a huge hit across the internet.
When questioned by the reporter, the first thing Kai did was look into the camera and say:
“No matter what you’ve done you deserve respect, even if you make mistakes you’re loveable… it doesn’t matter your look, skills or age, your size or anything, you’re worthwhile… no one can ever take that away from you.”
Such inspiring words may have taken the journalist by surprise, but they made an impact on the viewers who saw the video in their millions over the ensuing days, weeks and months following the broadcast of it online. Kai also went on to describe in detail how he had saved the woman from the clutches of the man who was holding her against her will, and it wasn’t long before he became known for the heroic act. Kai — known at that time as a “homeless” free spirit — became hot property overnight. He was, suddenly, a much sought-after individual by shows, reporters and websites, who saw him as an easy ticket to get clicks and views — and therefore, money.
The Seeds of Fame
It was an unusual situation from the start. Kai appeared to be living a simple life on the fringes of society, emboldened by the idea of living “home free” and travelling the world through hitchhiking. Kai himself has said in interviews that he had experienced a troubled childhood, and it may have been this that served as a catalyst for his thirst for such freedom.
Maybe it was this somewhat unusual choice of lifestyle that seemed to be a selling-point for those in the mainstream media, who were used to only those who were hungry for material things, fame and money in the bank. Here in front of them was an individual who seemed to be drawn to everything that the rest of the world wasn’t. Indeed, when US TV presenter Jimmy Kimmel gave Kai an envelope of $500 before he starred on the show, instead of pocketing the money, Kai handed it to a security guard to keep. In much the same way, a reality TV producer in the Netflix documentary described how Kai saw a homeless man on the street and proceeded to hand him his bag of belongings — he literally handed him the bag off his back. It was examples like this which seemed to intrigue people; he drew much attention from the public who seemed to love this hippy-loving-free-spirit who appeared far more comfortable giving than receiving.
A Dark Corner
It was in May 2013 that things took a dark turn when Kai was arrested on a murder charge. Joseph Galfy, a New Jersey attorney was found dead in his home. CCTV showed that Kai had been with the attorney and it soon transpired that Kai had been in his property. After the arrest, Kai claimed that he had killed Galfy in self-defense after the attorney had drugged and sexually assaulted him. A jury found Kai guilty of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to 57 years in prison.
The subsequent fall-out was instantly notable, unsurprisingly. Kai went from being seen as a hero to be being reviled by many. The press were all over the story of a fallen hero. While there are those that think Kai committed the murder in cold-blood and therefore believe justice has been served, a significant portion of his supporters (many of who are trying to help raise legal funds for him) point to what they perceive as shortcomings in the investigation and trial. They believe Kai’s testimony that he was sexually assaulted and that the murder was an act of self-defense.
The murder of the attorney itself has been the subject of many articles and YouTube videos. Yet while true-crime buffs are focusing on the details of the night of the murder, there are many who, after watching the recent Netflix documentary about Kai, are also taking a long, hard look at the culture of social media, mainstream press, reality TV and society’s thirst for “the next big star.” Indeed, there are those that think the huge influx of true-crime documentaries are exploitative in themselves (making profit out of death and violence is not an easy one to justify) but The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker is also a study of how people can be used, chewed up and spat out by a system willing to exploit for gain.
At a time when Kai was living a humble lifestyle of his own choosing (surfing, hitchhiking, travelling) he was instantly a target for those who saw the potential to gain from using him and his image. His life became a commodity, his face became a viral meme-machine, his image became a selling point; the hippy-loving-free-spirit was instantly something that TV hosts and producers wanted to market. They wanted a piece of him, they wanted to own him, and yet when they saw his vulnerabilities come to light as he opened up about his troubled childhood, they ignored the further damage they might cause — not just by the endless attention and publicity they threw his way, but also by looking the other way at a time when they could have offered him some kind of help. Could things have been different for Kai if he was offered help instead of money, drugs and free drinks? Safety and security instead of publicity?
If he hadn’t become such a viral sensation, if the media spotlight on him had never happened (in the dramatic way that it did) is there a chance that the chain of events that eventually occurred may never have happened? Did Kai being used as click-bait by press sharks possibly lead him down a path with more problems than he’d ever faced before? It’s impossible to know for sure, but it’s worthy of examination.
Whatever one thinks of Kai and the events surrounding him, he didn’t seek fame whatsoever; attention was thrust upon him and just three short months after he went viral, his life unraveled — dramatically. The bigger question perhaps is this: Kai was responsible for Galfy’s death, but to what degree was he himself a victim of those around him who were using his eccentricities and vulnerabilities to gain profit and attention?
Whilst many in the Netflix documentary appeared happy to talk about how they pursued Kai and wanted to gate-keep him or make him their star, few — if any — seemed to dwell on how they could help him move on from his past or recover from trauma. It is not as if these individual’s hadn’t seen and understood the issues surrounding his life and past (Kai himself disclosed details of his abusive childhood and sexual assault) yet did anyone truly care about him or was he merely a product and image they felt they could sell? It is too late now, but in hindsight, what Kai possibly needed more than anything was support and help, not to become a high-rise star or television personality.
Ultimately, there is not one single person who is responsible for what happened to Kai, but the media certainly tried to gain from him when they could. They used him to fill their segments, reports and TV slots, not once asking if he could use help rather than fame. There were signs early on signaling that he should not be exploited in this way, but the temptation to use him was obviously too much for some. The entertainment world seems to care little for the human behind the headlines, and Kai’s experiences are a prime example of this.