On May 31, 2014, two Wisconsin tweens lured a third into the suburban Waukesha woods, stabbed her 19 times, and left her to die while they washed up at a nearby Walmart. The true crime tale, which has become known as “the Slenderman stabbing,” only got weirder from there as details of why — or more accurately for who — the then 12-year-olds attacked Payton “Bella” Leutner.
In separate interrogation rooms, Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser told detectives that they were attempting to become “proxies” of the Slenderman, a fictional and frightening supernatural character born on the Internet, which required a blood sacrifice. They believed the creature to be real and thought he would hurt their families if they did not kill their pal to appease him.
Almost three years later, the girls are being held in a juvenile-detention facility 30 miles from Waukesha awaiting a trial expected to get underway this summer while their intended victim navigates life as a high school freshman who will likely have to testify.
The bizarre case is now the subject of documentary, Beware the Slenderman, directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky (Oscar-nominated The Final Inch), which premieres Monday, Jan. 23 on HBO. Here is some background to catch you up on the crime before you watch Brodsky’s attempt to discover what led to the making of these would-be murderers.
Waukesha, featured on a few “best places to live” lists over the years, is a politically conservative, mostly middle class, mostly white suburb of Milwaukee. Slightly more than 70,000 people reside in the city, which falls on both sides of the Fox River. It is home to Carroll University, a University of Wisconsin campus, a former Cold War-era Nike missile battery, and 67 sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also the hometown of current Bachelor Nick Viall.
The Suspects and the Victim
All three girls attended Horning Middle School. Leutner and Geyser had been besties since fourth grade. Weier was a newer friend who lived in the same subsidized apartments as Geyser’s family. None of them were what you would call popular; in a note found in Geyser’s room she described herself as a “mental case,” but they had each other and a mutual love of cats and Harry Potter.
The Sleepover Turned Nightmare
The Saturday of the crime started much like any other. The trio spent Friday night at Geyser’s house to celebrate her 12th birthday after hanging out at the Skateland roller rink for a couple of hours. After playing dress-up and eating a breakfast of donuts and strawberries, Geyser asked her mom if they could play outside. Based on police interviews with the girls, they headed to nearby David’s Park and on the way Geyser showed Weier the small knife she’d snuck out of the kitchen and concealed under her plaid jacket. “I thought, ‘Dear God. This is really happening,’” Weier later told police. They allegedly tussled in the park’s restrooms, but Geyser fell apart and Weier comforted her after sending Leutner to play outside.
Weier then suggested they play hide-and-seek in the wooded area that borders the far side of the park. At some point, while Leutner was crouched down playing with flowers, Geyser gave Weier the knife, but she returned it saying she was too squeamish. Geyser recounted that she said, “I’m not going to until you tell me to. Weier says she started to walk way, but then commanded, “Kitty now. Go ballistic, go crazy.” She says she heard Geyser say, “Don’t be afraid. I’m only a little kitty cat,” before pushing her friend over and stabbing her 19 times in the arms, legs, stomach, liver, and pancreas. One thrust missed a major artery near her heart by a millimeter, according to doctors. Geyser later told investigators, “It didn’t feel like anything. It was like air. Stabby stab stab stab.”
She screamed that she hated them as she tried to get up and walk away, but Weier steered her deeper into the brush and instructed her to lie down. Geyser tried to dress her wounds with a leaf before they fled to the aforementioned big box store less than a mile away. They cleaned off the crime in the sinks, filled their water bottles, and then wandered around town for a couple of hours before being picked up by a sheriff’s deputy as they sat near an entrance to the interstate, knife still in their possession. Weier asked detectives where Leutner’s body was, assuming she was dead.
Fortunately, Leutner was able to crawl to the road after they left her to perish and got the attention of a passing cyclist who called 911. She was able to give the name of one of her attackers to the police before being rushed to surgery. Now 14, she has recovered although they suspect she will need plastic surgery when she is older. She currently attends high school and takes AP classes and French.
The Supernatural Scapegoat
The investigation took a strange turn when the suspects were being questioned by local law enforcement. One said they had begun planning in December. Both girls brought up the Slenderman when asked why they’d committed the heinous act of violence. One said they did it to become his proxies and live with him in his mansion in the Nicolet National Forest. The other claimed she sees the monster in her dreams and that he can read her mind and teleport.
They, like many others, had discovered Slenderman on the Creepypasta.wikia.com, a site filled with creepy urban legends and horror/ghost stories. Creepypasta is slang for frightening fiction passed around the Internet and is derived from yet another slang term, copypasta, which refers to blocks of text that are copied and pasted over and over again from site to site and forum to forum. Slenderman, a boogieman to some and a guardian angel to others, is a popular topic in the Creepypasta-sphere. Usually depicted as a very tall and rail-thin man in a black suit with a pale white featureless face and tentacles coming out of his back or head, the mythological demon-like character first appeared as part of a 2009 Photoshop contest, lurking behind children in black-and-white photos created by SomethingAwful user Victor Surge. Slenderman has since spawned more artwork, fan fiction, videos, and games all over the world. Depending on which lore you read, he is said to cause nausea and coughing up blood, insanity, an incessant need to draw, and paranoid behavior. He has been accused of disemboweling victims and abducting youngsters
There were, of course, immediate public outcries about the harm Internet horror stories inflicted on naïve children, so the administrator of Creepypasta.com felt compelled to release a statement when he started receiving messages of blame and concern and his site saw a surge in traffic due to media attention within days of the incident. “It’s hard to justify pinning blame on an entire genre of writing. Unless you’re OK with blaming the world’s ills on Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft. I don’t believe that it makes sense to say paranormal writing or an interest in the macabre should be used as an indicator of a ‘sick’ person (as a few emails have already felt the need to call both myself and all the authors here). The human race has long held and encouraged a fascination with things that go bump in the night … Slenderman is not real. It’s important that people see that Creepypasta isn’t a group of murder-promoting serial killer fetishists or a Slenderman cult in hopes that people will pay attention to the actual issues surrounding this tragedy [such as] mental illness. Such misdirection will almost certainly happen so that they can bury their heads about the larger societal issues that these ever-increasing occurrences imply.”
Slenderman isn’t the only fictional character they mentioned or followed. Weier was also drawn to Zalgo and Jeff the Killer. Geyser, who had loads of drawing referring to Slenderman in her room, loved Snape and Voldemort and considered Spock a mentor.
The Charge and the Plea
The girls were charged with attempted first-degree intentional homicide — as adults, in accordance with Wisconsin law — in Waukesha County Circuit Court. If convicted, they each face up to 60 years in prison.
Their lawyers attempted unsuccessfully to convince the court that they should be tried as juveniles. The judge felt there were far too many signs of premeditation. In their retellings, each girl assigns the idea to kill their friend to the other and says they started discussing it in late December or early January. It also sounds like a common third-wheel scenario dealt with in a very uncommon way. Geyser said Weier “always calls [Bella] a b—h” and Geyser tormented her with Slenderman links and threatened that he would get her while she was asleep. They had packed a few items like granola bars and family photos. Weier didn’t want to forget her family while “spending the rest of our lives [with Slender.]” Weier had also left two messages on her phone days before the stabbing — one that read like a will and a second that was more of a goodbye that asked “those who care” not to “grieve my absence, but remember me for who I was.”
They have both pleaded not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. Experts have testified that Weier displays traits associated with a delusional disorder (an inability to distinguish what is real and what isn’t). Geyser was diagnosed with schizophrenia (from which her father also suffers) and oppositional defiant disorder during a stay at the Winnebago Mental Health Institute.
They have been incarcerated for more than two years and a trial date is still pending. Guards and observers have testified that Geyser has unraveled even further in jail — eating meals on the floor, having conversations with people who aren’t there, making claw fingers at strangers who enter her cell, and flicking ants at other children. Weier has been more of a model inmate, making clear from the moment of booking that she wanted nothing to do with Geyser. She strictly follows the prison’s 39 rules and regularly attends classes, but has also been on suicide watch and refused to leave her room when other girls called her a monster.
Beware the Slenderman premieres Monday, Jan. 23 at 10 p.m. on HBO.