“Have you heard about Kai, the hitchhiking hatchet hero?” Netflix’s recent hit true-crime documentary doesn’t wait long to draw you in. Hitchhiker, hatchet and hero aren’t three words you would expect to hear together, but in 2013, a man who seemed to embody this title took the internet by storm, becoming a meme, appearing on Jimmy Kimmel’s talk show and seeming to spread messages of peace.
Many infamous true crime stories involve axes and hatchets as the murder weapon. The unsolved German Hinterkaifeck murders in which the unknown assailant lived with the bodies of their victims for at least three days, the axeman of New Orleans who terrorized the city and called for jazz music to liven up the night and Lizzie Bordon’s supposed forty whacks still fascinate us to this day. But a hatchet being used to save lives is novel.
In February 2013, local reporter Jessob Reisbeck of KMPH news in Fresno, Calif., showed up to the aftermath of a car crash. After interviewing witnesses, he was pointed in the direction of a young man who Reisbeck was told had saved the day. This man was Kai. Wearing a bandanna around his long, untamed hair and a knapsack, Kai explained his role in both the crash and the following events. “Smash, smash, SMASH!” became an overnight hit. The unedited interview was uploaded to YouTube, and it didn’t take long for it to reach half a million views. America wanted to see more of Kai, but how do you find someone who doesn’t live anywhere?
Reisbeck was the only one who had any line of communication to Kai, and TV stations, producers, media companies and scouts were blowing his phone up requesting to be put into contact with the hitchhiker. Netflix interviewed a few of these people who wanted him to make an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” They started to grow worried that this carefree, heroic character that the internet had built from the interview was more volatile and toxic than compassionate. Police even showed up at the studio where Kimmel is filmed.
Netflix’s release of this documentary a decade after the events falls at an interesting time, largely due to the rise in social media communications leading to friendships. Influencers share most of their lives through videos, Q&A’s, livestreams and photos. Their image is carefully cultivated, and their followers feel like they intimately know this person with hundreds of thousands of followers and who stage many of the events they share. The rise and fall of Kai — whose real name is Caleb Lawrence McGillvary — is a case study of how easy it is for society to lose sight of reality on the internet.
On May 13, 2013, three months after Kai’s interview went viral, a welfare check was conducted on 73 year old Joseph Galfy in Clark, N.J. The lawyer was found deceased in his home, beaten to death. Watching the documentary, it’s unclear how the murder of Galfy on the East Coast relates to Kai in California. Investigators found a phone number written out in his home with the name “Lawrence Kai”. So the plot thickens: The viral hitchhiker hero became a person of interest in a murder case.
Netflix knows exactly how to format true crime series and documentaries, as seen with “Evil Genius” (2018), “American Murder: The Family Next Door” (2020) and “The Tinder Swindler” (2022). Archive footage is cut into interviews of people related to the story and photos to keep the viewer intrigued throughout the one hour and 25 minute runtime. Every new detail you learn about Kai is fascinating. For a true crime documentary, “The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker” (2023) focuses more on the story of a person and less on their crimes. For people who usually shy away from crime documentaries, this feels more like a look into the universal consciousness of Americans in 2013 while following Kai on his journey from internet hero to infamous criminal.
If you are interested in Kai, log on to Netflix, grab a snack and prepare for a more than an hour-long story that reveals the truth behind a viral meme of 2013.
3.5 Stars: Discover how a hitchhiker with a hatchet became an internet sensation — and a killer.