I'm pretty sure that after watching Making a Murderer, it was everyone's secret desire to be a police detective. I know it was not just me who got so into the mystery that I actually looked into the qualifications one would need to be a real Detective Olivia Benson for the NYPD, or something of the like... I'm also probably not the only one who took one look at the necessary qualifications and realized that dream is probably never gonna happen for me. If you at all relate to this, good news: I've discovered another way. Sure, you won't have an official badge or anything, but you will be able to solve a murder mystery... and that's all any of us ever really wanted, isn't it? Enter the subscription service Hunt a Killer, which offers a curated serial killer mystery box once a month that allows players to quite literally solve a murder.
The second I found out about the service, I knew it was my calling. Maybe even my purpose in life! I mean, I had always been obsessed with Veronica Mars and being a teenage detective when I was in high school. Even better, membership is affordable AF: It's $30 a month for a month-to-month membership, $27.50 a month if you pre-pay for six months, or even $25 a month if you pre-pay for 12 months (and, with the coupon code "BUSTLE" you can currently score 10 percent off). With membership, on 22nd of each month, Hunt A Killer is delivered with various pieces of evidence that relate to a fictional story full of clues, which members have to solve before the following month (one full mystery consists of four boxes).
Four boxes — roughly a month, give or take a few days. I wondered: If given the opportunity, could I solve a murder mystery, and effectively hunt a killer in a month? With Hunt a Killer, I decided to give it a try: Each week, I will tackle a new box with the help of my two trusty partners, Bustle TV Editor Sam Rullo and Romper Senior News & Entertainment Editor Allison Piwowarski, as we try to... well, hunt a killer.
Box one. I met up with Sam and Allison to talk over our game plan — how we would approach this like real detectives, and analyze even piece of evidence that didn't seem like evidence. Of course, the moment we opened the box, we were overwhelmed with potential evidence — but hey, no murder mystery is predictable, is it?
We spread the evidence out on a table in Sam's kitchen, glasses of Bloody Mary in hand (because, get it? Murder party, Bloody Mary? We're hilarious, definitely invite us to your parties). An article with the source redacted stuck out the most, in addition to a sealed envelope, a picture of a swan, a constellation map, and an introduction letter to a program we have apparently been signed up for as part of the game: Listening Friends of America. Apparently, in the Hunt a Killer universe, we have signed up for this service that matches us up with an inmate at a state prison in Maryland, and that inmate is able to send us letters as a friend. Our inmate? John William James, someone who refers to us lovingly as "Friend" in his letter and also says creepy stuff about "the thrill of the hunt" and leaky pipes carrying more water. I comment that I'm pretty sure he did whatever it is that we're investigating, but obviously, there is more evidence to sift through before we can make that call.
We examine the article next, and I suggest we search for what hasn't been redacted in the article to see if we get any hits. We quickly do: A Baltimore Sun article from July 2016 about sinkholes in the area. Probably unrelated, but to be safe, I reached out to the author of the article, Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance, on Twitter. Plot twist: He seemed to have no clue what we were talking about. Dead end...
Regarding the other two pieces of evidence — a photo of a swan and a map of constellations — I have no problem admitting that we were completely stumped. I mean, if a potential serial killer sends you a creepy photo of a swan, my instinct is to run, not analyze where it potentially came from and what it could mean. However, I do remember that a female swan is sometimes called a "pen" — and in the letter, our friend does say he wishes he has a pen. Could be something?
Does this mean we aren't cut out for being detectives? Let's not go that far yet.
Running theory for the week: Considering we're conversing with a man who talks like a serial killer, and he's sending us redacted articles about sinkholes and constellation maps, our running theory after examining this evidence is that, potentially, a dead body is in a sinkhole, somewhere, and the constellation map is supposed to aid us in coming up with coordinates. Whether or not we're on the right track will have to wait until next week...
This week, we decided we needed to streamline the way we approached the case. With a whole new box of evidence to analyze, I knew things could potentially get confusing fast — so, in the interest of keeping ~organized~, we created a timeline based off of what we knew from box one, and the new evidence from box two.
Luckily, the evidence that box two offered was plentiful. Not only was there a blacklight, but there was also another letter from Listening Friends of America, a case file from a mental institution, a brand new letter from our creepy friend John, an equally creepy poem from him complete with a bloody fingerprint on the corner, a tooth (casual!), and a censored print of a painting. In other words: Lots to examine this week.
As always, we looked over John's letter first. The bloody fingerprint on the corner of a page stuck out the most — I noted that it was likely related to the tooth, as there seemed to be a blood-like residue on that as well. Creepy!
The poem John included with his letter also included the line "a piece of me," so we theorized the tooth could be his, which is pretty Van Gogh of him, but it also looks like it's a tad bit sharper than a human tooth generally is, so we're not completely sure. Additionally, in his letter, John details that the case file included was inserted in our box by someone who worked at Listening Friends of America who owed him a favor — and that it's all about a man named Lloyd McGowen, who John believes was wrongfully detained and imprisoned for a murder that Lloyd did not commit. Could proving Lloyd's innocence — and figuring out who the real murderer is — be our central mystery?
After examining the case file, it becomes clear that though Lloyd definitely needed medical assistance (he's described as violent at times, for starters), the details surrounding the murder of a fellow patient named Lillian — which we base off of her autopsy records — are murky at best. We quickly theorize a doctor likely killed Lillian and pinned it on Lloyd, but more evidence is necessary to prove this.
(FYI: At this point I am totally feeling like a legit detective and it's great.)
We examine the rest of the evidence. The print of the painting John included raises some questions about the mythology behind the characters depicted — but our real breakthrough arises when we run the blacklight over all of the evidence at our hands:
Full disclosure, we all screamed when we saw this, and I promptly knocked over my Bloody Mary, and now some of the evidence looks like it's covered in blood... why yes, I am a graceful person, thank you very much.
Anyway, "1618." Huge breakthrough. Immediately, we begin brainstorming what it could mean — and I have the idea to search the Listening Friends of America website to see if there's anything like an inmate list or something. After clicking around, we come across a search page. Typing in 1618, we hold our breaths... and then...
A file! Clicking through leads us to an audio file, which depicts Lloyd speaking with an unknown man. Though he's clearly troubled, he's also clearly heavily medicated — as John promised, there is absolutely something fishy going on here.
Running theory for the week: Lloyd did not kill Lillian — this much I can tell you. Though we're still not sure of the details, we're fairly sure that a doctor must have been sexually abusing her, and she became pregnant: According to the autopsy report that John included in his package, Lillian was stabbed in the stomach a number of times. Lloyd's doctor seems like the most likely suspect, but there's also the question of who the man Lloyd is speaking to in the audio recording is, so we can't say for sure. Also still unresolved: Why does John want to help Lloyd so badly? Perhaps next week, this will become clear...
I have to be honest with you all this week: We're so lost. I genuinely thought myself to be pretty good at figuring out mysteries — I'm the type of person who watches movies and always guesses who the killer is before the beginning of the second act. I'm good at this stuff! And yet... I can't seem to crack this case. Finding the audio file last week was a huge break, but it's beginning to feel like that's going to be our only break. I have to hand it to the creators of Hunt a Killer, they've crafted a riveting, genuinely complex mystery.
As week three began, my fellow detectives were beginning to feel the pressure too. Allison, perhaps, most of all:
This week, however, we decided to just continue to do as much digging as possible, and see if we could build a narrative after we'd gathered all the info possible.
So, we continued to search. For us, boxes three and four arrived at once — and, considering four boxes equal one mystery, we now had all of the clues we needed to successfully solve the murder.
Even more, the new evidence was creepy, to say the least: There was a pen wrapped in plastic wrap, that, when unwrapped, had red residue (blood?!) on it. A photo of a barn. A magnifying glass. An old reprint of a newspaper. New letters from our "Friend," John. And, some strange correspondence from Listening Friends of America...
We begun by reading John's first letter, from box three, before examining the rest of the evidence. One of the Listening Friends of America letters suggested looking at the website for their Winter newsletter, which we promptly did. There, we happened to hit another small break: The newsletter had a code, which we immediately realized was a Caesar Cipher code: "HVS DWZCH KOG PCFB HVWG MSOF...HKSBHM TWJS MSOFG ZOHSF VS BSJSF AORS WHHC PDONWZ…" Sam got to work decoding it, and we quickly figured out it was the following: "THEPILOTWASBORNTHISYEARTWENTYFIVEYEARSLATERHENEVERMADEITTOBPAZIL." With the exception of the misspelt "BPAZIL" — which I feel is a on purpose misspelling of "Brazil" — it makes sense. Also, in the audio file from the week prior, Lloyd mentions "pilot" — could this be related, somehow?
We wrap up for the week, under the impression nothing will top this discovery for the night. (Hey, I'm being honest here. We suck at this.)
Running theory for the week: We should never be detectives, and also, there is more to Listening Friends Of America than meets the eye. They cannot be a standard mental institution — what organization builds cipher codes into their newsletters?! Until next week...
If there's one thing this experience has taught me, it is absolutely that — although I am a master Googler, particularly in dating situations — I could never be a detective. And neither could Sam or Allison, at that, because we are still so lost. We have all the boxes for this mystery, and even with all of the evidence, we are no closer to figuring out who Lillian's killer really was and why Lloyd was accused of it. And what does John have to do with all of this? Is John even his real name? Am I John?!
Clearly, we're at the end of our rope.
Still, we reconvened one final time to try our best at cracking this thing. After all, Bustlers aren't quitters, even when we absolutely suck at something. Plus, as terrible as we are as being detectives, the story is impeccably put together, and genuinely interesting.
So, we went through the story again. Lloyd had been wrongfully held in a mental institution for most of his adult life because he was wrongfully accused of murdering another patient — but he was also allegedly locked in isolation when she was murdered, so how could he have done it? She had been stabbed in the stomach multiple times as well, and Lloyd's past violent outbursts hadn't ever been focused on hurting someone like that; whoever had murdered Lillian had done it with the intent to kill her, and possibly because of a pregnancy (after all, stomach wounds?).
It wasn't clear how John tied into this, but his ability to gather and send us all this information, including case files, seemed to be because of his "friendship" with someone who worked at the facility he and Lloyd were housed in, LFoA. And speaking of LFoA, something weird was brewing there too...
We examined the evidence in box four more closely, more than we had during week three. The bloodied pen had dried since we opened it last week, but the stain was still clearly visible.
We also know, based off of the final letter we get from LFoA, that their former CEO has gone missing, and John's "friend" who worked at the facility has taken his place. So, we can easily deduce this is who John has hurt with the pen (after all, in his first letter, John did type, "if only I had a pen.") John also explains he has more duties now, which is likely down to the fact he know is in good with the man running LFoA.
It's a lot to process, and honestly, it's about as far as we were able to get. We, of course, have our theories about what happened, but I'm gonna be honest here... we're probably wrong.
Final theories and thoughts: So, here's what we're thinking:
Lloyd did not kill Lillian; he was pinned with the murder because he showed violent tendencies, and no one would bat an idea at the idea he'd do something like this. We believe Lillian was potentially being sexually assaulted by one of her doctors at the facility, and when she became pregnant, she was murdered to cover up the abuse. The doctor then blamed Lloyd, despite the fact he was supposed to be in isolation when she was murdered. Additionally, Lillian's autopsy took a literal day to complete according to the timestamps on her file, so it's clear some sort of cover-up was taking place.
As for John, I have a rogue theory of my own that neither Sam nor Allison really subscribed to: I think John is Lloyd. Honestly, the only basis I have for this is that John William James was the real name of a man who impersonated train robber Jesse James in 1933, so I think that we're not supposed to believe that John is his name. It could be an anagram for something else, too, but we are neither creative nor clever enough to decode it. However, I also understand why this is a longshot theory.
And finally, as for why the leader of LFoA was killed by John — well, that's obvious: He was being punished for the cover-up of Lillian's death.
I still don't know how sinkholes from the Baltimore Sun article in box one tie into this story (was the CEO of LFoA's body hidden in one?!) or how the constellation chart relates, but as I've already established, my dreams of pursing a career as a real life detective are dead now, so it's fine. Despite discovering how bad of a detective I am, going through this Hunt A Killer experience was still unforgettable and so, so fun, so it was absolutely worth every second. I applaud the writers of Hunt a Killer — they've truly created a unique and fascinating game.
Be sure to check out Hunt a Killer's official site here to get in on the fun. Added bonus now: If you solve it, you'll officially be able to call yourself a better detective than me!