On a nondescript April night in 1990, 21-year-old Dale Wayne Sigler walked into a Brazoria County, Texas, Subway shop and robbed it of $400. When the man behind the counter, John William Zeltner Jr., attempted to flee into the back room, he was shot six times. The “overkill” nature of the crime implied that the two weren’t mere strangers, and the ensuing revelation that Sigler knew Zeltner helped convince a jury that not only was he guilty of the crime—to which he confessed, after being apprehended—but that the execution had been premeditated. For this senseless slaughter, Sigler received the death penalty, which was subsequently reduced to life in prison following a change to state jury-selection laws.
A spin-off of the popular true-crime series that gives it its name, Netflix’s I Am A Killer: Released (now streaming) is a three-part affair—each installment running approximately 30 minutes—that first introduces us to Sigler behind bars, talking about the religious conversion that’s changed his life. “I’m a walking miracle, whether you want to accept it or whether you don’t. You can’t take that from me,” he proclaims.
With tattoos decorating his arms and hands, a finely trimmed grey beard, and crooked lower teeth, the tall, stout Sigler cuts an imposing figure even when tearing up while discussing the abuse his mother suffered at the hands of his father, and the sexual molestation he endured, and which he blames for sending him down a dark path of drugs, theft, and homelessness. That descent came to a head when he took the life of Zeltner, for which he now says, “I apologize with my soul and my heart.”
Even though Sigler wound up on death row, I Am A Killer: Released (which aired earlier this summer in the U.K. as A Killer Uncaged) is not an inquiry into the morality or effectiveness of capital punishment. On the contrary, it’s an open-ended (and formally unadventurous) non-fiction investigation into whether rehabilitation is possible, and moreover, whether states should allow its most heinous offenders to have second chances out in mainstream society.
When his sentence was reduced to life, Sigler also received the opportunity to apply for parole after 30 years. Producer/director Itamar Klasmer’s series eventually catches up with Sigler—now an ordained minister who preaches the gospel at every turn, and is known in prison as the “Gentle Giant”—as he successfully attains his release, and moves into the home of Carole Whitworth, aka “Mama Carole.” A single 71-year-old woman living in a mobile home in rural Texas with only her cats for companionship, Whitworth comes across as a lonely Christian woman, which in turn explains why she opted to strike up a pen-pal relationship with Sigler—and, ultimately, to let him stay with her in her tiny residence.
It’s a strange arrangement, and one made stranger by the fact that, before making this offer, Whitworth didn’t bother asking Sigler about the details of his offense. Despite the potential hazards of this situation—which naturally makes her grandson Shannon and his girlfriend uncomfortable—Whitworth excitedly greets Sigler when he emerges a free man and arrives at her house. Director Klasmer is there for these initial moments, which come equipped with Sigler discussing the strange process of reacclimating to a world that’s radically changed since he last saw it first-hand, and his fear and excitement at the prospect of beginning anew are palpable. Not willing to simply paint a rosy portrait of this development, however, Klasmer juxtaposes these early scenes with interviews with Zeltner’s two half-brothers Forest and John, who remain bitterly angry over their sibling’s death, as well as with detective Tommy Lenoir and prosecutor Greg Miller, both of whom discuss the brutal cruelty of Sigler’s actions.
Central to understanding what Sigler did is the eventual disclosure that Zeltner was homosexual, and that everyone knew it. In a state, and era where being gay was far from safe, Zeltner’s sexual orientation made him an immediate hate-crime target, although at least at trial, it wasn’t posited as a motivating factor for Sigler. Director Klasmer suspects otherwise, and a chat with Sigler’s former friend Shawn Anttila—whose house the murderer visited after the shooting—raises the notion that Sigler himself might have been living in the closet, thereby contributing to his reason for gunning Zeltner down. I Am A Killer: Released, however, has a bigger bombshell to drop: Sigler’s supposedly “real” reason for committing homicide.
At the conclusion of the second episode, Sigler confesses that he killed Zeltner, a close friend, because the man was trying to blackmail him into consummating a love affair; fearful that Zeltner would spread an unfounded rumor about their romantic relationship lest he comply with sex, he killed him in cold blood. It’s a transparent attempt by Sigler to blame a deceased man who can’t dispute the allegation, and to cast himself as the sympathetic victim of a gay predator. Sigler’s admission that he believes the Bible teaches that homosexuality is “an abomination to God” further intimates that homophobia played a key role in this tragedy. And as Miller rightfully states, even if Sigler’s convenient and thoroughly dubious story is true, it’s a pathetic—and scary—justification for slaying an acquaintance, and does little to make him seem like less of a menace to society.
I Am A Killer: Released has no definitive answer regarding what drove Sigler to kill, and its failure to dig deeper into his past—for example, about his strained family ties—leaves it feeling somewhat murky. Yet in raising the question of Sigler’s reliability, it also throws into doubt the possibility of redemption and salvation that Sigler so desperately promotes. Discussing his newfound freedom, Sigler confidently states, “I’ve paid my price, more than enough. I’ve changed, I’ve grown, I’ve matured. So yeah, I deserve it.” His desire to forward a new story that, he believes, absolves him of guilt—which it does, at least in the eyes of Whitworth’s grandson and fellow churchgoers—strongly suggests otherwise, and ultimately turns Netflix’s latest docuseries into a case study of the limits of criminal-justice rehabilitation.