MONTREAL – Blitzed by tips and interview requests from around the world, the public face of the Montreal police force says that in two decades on the job he’d never seen anything like the Luka Rocco Magnotta case.
Cmdr. Ian Lafreniere says last spring’s intense interest in the accused killer swamped the department with 500 tips.
The force’s lead spokesman also spoke to international media at all hours of the night, across numerous time zones — everywhere from Western Canada to France to Singapore.
“It was completely crazy,” Lafreniere, an 18-year veteran of the force, said in an interview. “But… I’m not complaining about it — I’m not the one that lost their child.”
The extraordinary attention generated by the Magnotta case — and the shocking nature of the alleged crimes — has led to its selection as Canada’s 2012 News Story of the Year in the annual poll of newsrooms by The Canadian Press.
The announcement comes just days after Magnotta was named Newsmaker of the Year, in a selection that whipped up a storm of outrage.
Many had said choosing the 30-year-old as Newsmaker of the Year just gave him the publicity he appeared to crave. Others demanded that The Canadian Press redo the poll.
Both results were actually compiled at the same time, in early December, in The Canadian Press annual survey of different news organizations across the country. More than 100 newsrooms that are clients of CP took part in the voting.
“We realize this selection by editors and news directors is also controversial,” said Scott White, editor-in-chief of The Canadian Press.
“There are many unpleasant and sometimes gruesome stories that make their way to the top of newscasts or the front pages of newspapers or websites. This choice reflects that the international search for a Canadian suspected of a heinous crime was a worldwide story.
“It’s not an honour to be named Newsmaker of the Year or to be part of the news story of the year. It’s simply a reflection of the stories that dominated the news.”
In the News Story of the Year survey, the Magnotta case received 22 per cent of the votes cast by editors and news directors across Canada.
It edged the National Hockey League lockout, which received 18 per cent. Bullying finished third with 15 per cent of the vote.
The massive beef recall finished fourth with 13 per cent of the votes, while Quebec’s student protests and the Northern Gateway pipeline were tied for fifth with eight per cent.
Yahoo! Canada’s Thomas Bink, who voted for the Magnotta case in the News Story of the Year poll, said it simply stood out from other news items in 2012.
“Not just for the gory details and the manhunt, but because it was so multi-faceted,” said Bink, the managing editor for news.
“On top of the bizarre, horrific crime, it involved the cult of personality, the power of the Internet and a burning quest for superficial fame.”
Newsrooms across the country were asked to either suggest their own story candidate, or pick one from more than a dozen supplied in a list on the questionnaire.
Seven voters picked Magnotta in both the Newsmaker and the News Story of the Year categories.
It drew votes in every pocket of the country, but limited support in Quebec, the scene of Magnotta’s alleged crimes.
In that province, where there were major student protests, shocking revelations at a corruption inquiry, and an election-night shooting following the election of the pro-independence Parti Quebecois, only two voters of 10 there selected it for story of the year.
The Magnotta story had an impact across the country, and beyond.
A recently released report says it was the third-most covered Canadian story in foreign media in 2012.
The study by Montreal media-monitoring company Influence Communication says the only Canadian stories to get more international coverage than Magnotta this year were the Keystone XL pipeline and the purchase of Nexen Inc. by the Chinese, state-owned China National Offshore Oil Co.
“The big part of the story isn’t the man, the big part of the story is the horror of what happened — it surpasses everybody’s imagination,” said Influence Communication president Jean-Francois Dumas. He said Magnotta was the subject of 1,300 different reports in newspaper, TV and radio in 40 countries.
“It’s a subject that grabs the imagination, and yes it’s horrifying news.”
Magnotta is facing several criminal charges, including first-degree murder, in connection with the May slaying and dismemberment of 33-year-old university student Jun Lin in Montreal.
The porn actor and stripper has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him. A preliminary hearing for his case is scheduled for March to determine if there is enough evidence for a trial on the allegations against him.
Magnotta, a native of Scarborough, Ont., triggered an international manhunt that made headlines around the world. He was arrested about a week later in a Berlin Internet cafe, where he was reportedly reading online news stories about himself.
His legal proceedings are scheduled to resume in the coming weeks. Crown and defence lawyers will get together Jan. 9 to discuss the case and a two-week preliminary hearing is set to begin in mid-March. Magnotta has opted for a jury trial.
The biggest wave of Magnotta media coverage, Dumas said, struck after he was first named a suspect in Lin’s death. That was the day the disturbing details of his alleged crimes first surfaced and the worldwide manhunt kicked off.
In those first 24 hours, Dumas said, 10 per cent of all Canadian news items were dedicated to Magnotta.
He pointed to the Quebec student protests — another Canadian news story that made big headlines in foreign media — as a barometer for demonstrating the intensity of the Magnotta coverage abroad.
“In only 24 hours, the Magnotta affair generated a third of all the international media coverage given to the (six-month-long) student conflict,” Dumas said.
This is the kind of attention Magnotta longed for, says his former girlfriend. She goes by her stage name, Barbie Swallows.
Swallows, a transgendered porn actor and part-time escort, said she dated Magnotta for around four months and they lived together for three weeks in early 2006.
“He always wanted to be super famous and well known and people to talk about him and he finally got it,” Swallows, who did not want her legal name published, wrote in an email.
“When I was in a relationship with him, he told me: ‘One day I’m gonna be famous, you’ll see.’ “
Magnotta had a prolific online presence and police have said he used the Internet to glorify himself.
After Lin’s death, Magnotta’s new-found recognition also caught the interest of police departments across North America and beyond. They contacted Montreal police, looking for possible links to unsolved killings in their own jurisdictions, but nothing came of their inquiries.
Back in Montreal, Lafreniere called the search for Magnotta the biggest manhunt in the history of the force.
He thinks Magnotta’s selection as News Story of the Year makes sense in terms of how much media coverage the case received.
But he has concerns about giving him so much publicity.
“That person was looking so much for attention,” the police officer said.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that it was a bad choice. I’m just saying that we’re almost giving him what he was looking for.”