True Crime Tuesdays: The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker
Helen Archer | On 07, Feb 2023
Just over 10 years ago, on 2nd February 2013, some footage was uploaded to YouTube by Fresno-based reporter Jessop Reisbeck. He had been interviewing a hitchhiker, known at the time only as ‘Kai’, who had intervened in an assault being committed by Jett Simmons McBride, the driver who had picked him up some time earlier. Beginning his interview with words of love (“No matter what you’ve done, you deserve respect”), Kai explains the way in which he had disabled McBride by hitting him three times on the head with a hatchet. “Smash, smash, smash,” he said, and a meme was born.
Director Colette Camden picks up the story from there, in a documentary that somehow reveals more about its interviewees than it does about the subject they are brought together to talk about. Using a mixture of talking heads, footage taken of Kai during his three months or so of ‘fame’ and clips of the shows he appeared in, the story is told in chronological order, beginning with the race to sign Kai up for world stardom. As he became the subject of a skit on Colbert, and Jimmy Kimmel Live! wanted to feature an interview with him, television ‘human interest researchers’ and ‘brand managers’ were hot on his trail, and Reisbeck appointed himself as Kai’s gatekeeper. Meanwhile, Lisa Samsky, who had previously worked on The Kardashians, saw in him the next reality TV star. But Kai proved elusive, thanks in no small part to his lifestyle.
Evidenced within the documentary is a baffling lack of understanding about the realities of homelessness. “Kai could be a gateway into a world we never saw: homeless people living happily on the streets,” says Samsky, while later, Brad Mulcahy explains that, while it Kai is living a life most people would want, free of the mundanities of bills and taxes, homelessness is in fact “a much more sad existence than maybe the exhilarating or free experience people think”. Needless to say, no one could understand Kai’s willingness to turn his back on the opportunities the media-industrial complex were ready to bestow on him.
Kai voiced his preference to travel to the Bay Area to smoke marijuana rather than go to LA to do the rounds of talk shows. Promised a limo full of weed, he eventually succumbed. But the TV people were soon repulsed by his antics – which included downing the room service Jack Daniels and urinating on Julio Iglesias’s star on the Walk of Fame – and, apparently, by the dawning realisation that they could not control him. Yet they persisted, getting him to do film reviews even as they voiced their disappointment that he couldn’t even focus on a three-minute trailer.
Kai’s endearing but chaotic energy was, it turned out, concealing deeper demons – a fact that should have been obvious from the outset. Indeed, Reisbeck admits later in the documentary that in the very interview that made Kai ‘famous’, he had divulged the abuse he suffered in childhood, and the sexual assaults he had endured during his time on the road. It was only when Kai became the prime suspect for the murder of 72-year-old New Jersey attorney Joseph Galfy – who had picked Kai up from the streets and invited him to stay at his house – that the full story of his life became public knowledge.
It all leaves a rather foul taste in the mouth, as those who were originally keen to make money from the ‘happy hitchhiker’ line up to voice their disgust at the crime he committed. Kai – otherwise known as Caleb McGillvary – is not interviewed; instead, his mother, who freely admits to locking him in his room as a child, with blackout blinds covering the windows, defends her actions. Kai’s voice is filtered through his handlers, who attached themselves to someone in desperate need of support and attempted to monetise his homelessness. While the film does subtly show the way in which ordinary people are chewed up and spat out by the ever-grinding media machine, it is left to the viewer to do the work to come to those conclusions. Meanwhile, as we watch, the exploitation cycle rumbles on, searching, inexorably, for new content.