Gang Members Murdered Her Daughter. She Hunted Them Down on MySpace.
The new Netflix documentary “Why Did You Kill Me?” tells the true story of Belinda Lane, who, after her daughter was gunned down, went after her gangland killers.
Social media is a free-for-all realm populated by all sorts of crazy people, although the wildest online user featured in Why Did You Kill Me? isn’t a horny teenager or violent gangbanger but, instead, mother-of-four Belinda Lane. On Feb. 24, 2006, Belinda’s daughter Crystal, 24, was gunned down in Riverside, California, by assailants in a white Ford Expedition. With little trust in the police, and with the formal investigation going nowhere, Belinda took matters into her own hands by initiating her own hunt for Crystal’s killer. Fortunately, she had the answers right at her fingertips—courtesy of MySpace.
Fredrick Munk’s documentary (premiering April 14 on Netflix) may be a story about revenge, forgiveness and loyalty, but it’s first and foremost a portrait of the way social media has forever altered the social and criminal justice landscape. Faced with an unthinkable and inexplicable tragedy, Belinda enlisted the services of her niece Jaimie, who was a MySpace expert, to create a fake account that she could use to covertly meet members of the local gang Varrio 5150, which Belinda’s son Nick had heard was responsible for the homicide. The ruse worked, and it culminated with a conversation that opens Why Did You Kill Me? (and gives it its title), in which Belinda—posing as “Angel,” a profile that boasted Crystal’s picture—questions an online paramour if he loves her. When he replies in the affirmative, she follows up by asking, “Why did you kill me?”
It’s no surprise that, upon hearing that query, the suspect logged off and then vanished into thin air, only to reemerge 14 years later to face justice. Before Belinda and Jaimie got to that climactic moment, however, they spent countless hours on MySpace trying to deceive 5150 members into befriending them, all in order to gain crucial intel about the night of Crystal’s murder. An initial fake profile, dubbed “Rebecca,” attracted significant attention from 5150 guys, and Jaimie’s gleeful memory of how she crafted the profile to appeal to their target audience—replete with referring to beers as “cervezas”—is deviously amusing. Alas, “Rebecca” only got them so far, since she was viewed by most as merely an entertaining party girl. What Belinda and Jaimie really needed was a profile that would make the gang members fall in love and, consequently, cough up a lead about the Ford Expedition.
There was only one answer: to resurrect Crystal online, albeit not with her real name but with the moniker “Angel.” In relaying that ploy, Why Did You Kill Me? taps into the online sphere’s spirit of camaraderie, exploration and trust, as well as its underlying artificiality. It wasn’t long before Angel had struck up a close-knit rapport with a user who went by “Jokes V.5150x3.SSR,” and who’d eventually have the title question directly posed to him. Jokes proclaimed that he liked to watch porn, not movies; that he hated reading; that he aspired to be a chef; and that he was always game for some murder, as evidenced by a photo of him looking tough with the caption, “IE ryder for life on the real 5150 is down to kill.” Most important of all, he soon revealed that he owned a white Ford Expedition.
Jokes was actually William Sotelo, a Hispanic kid who was getting his GED while both working as a pantry cook and living the rough-and-tumble 5150 gang life. Through interviews with Jaimie, investigating detective Rick Wheeler, Belinda and her sons Robbie, Justin and Nick, Why Did You Kill Me? lays out the quest to determine Sotelo’s level of involvement, and whether he—or one of the many people spied in his SUV that night—had pulled the fatal trigger. To further provide a lucid picture of his tale, director Munk also employs a standard mix of archival photos, talking-head chats with principals, interrogation-room footage and shots of MySpace conversations playing out in an archaic Windows XP desktop browser. And like HBO’s recent Pray, Obey, Kill, he recreates the crime scene itself via model miniatures, the better to restage the incident without resorting to hokey dramatic reenactments.
The lengthy criminal rap sheets of Belinda’s sons Robbie and Justin, as well as her own past as a drug user and seller, complicated Wheeler’s early look into possible perpetrators, and it’s to Why Did You Kill Me?’s minor detriment that it never delves deeper into the family’s history and relationships, which seem ripe for exploration. Munk’s somewhat hasty treatment of key particulars leaves the film a tad superficial, although it nonetheless elicits jaw-dropping astonishment from Belinda’s master plot: luring 5150 members to an abandoned desert spot (through a MySpace invitation to an “End of the World Party” on 6/6/6) where she planned to execute them all, gangland-style. Belinda’s friend Christy states outright about this scheme, “I actually thought it was insane,” which nicely sums it up.
No matter how unhinged it became, Belinda’s vengeful fury was easy to comprehend. Why Did You Kill Me?, however, is a somewhat emotionally detached affair. It empathizes with Crystal’s family, yet by never telling us their entire story—for example, Robbie is only briefly heard from in an interview staged in his car, and Crystal’s stepfather Ben Mariotti is wholly MIA—it feels as if it’s cutting corners in an effort to hide revelations that might complicate our feelings about this tragedy. At 83 minutes, it’s a case of brevity stymying intense engagement.
Why Did You Kill Me? is thus less fascinating as a saga about familial suffering or senseless street violence—and the various forces that thrust young men into that doomed life—than about the power of social media to affect real-world outcomes, including through illusory means. The original MySpace may be dead and gone, but its legacy lives on with Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and other platforms that let us both be ourselves and pretend to be someone else, and it’s that dynamic which Belinda exploited to expert sleuthing effect. She may not have known it in 2006, but by using social media to entice, to con, and to encourage candidness from others, she was ahead of her time.