10 April, 2017 | Alec Wilkinson| The New Yorker
Alt-right conspiracy theorists think that the government killed the aspiring Libertarian filmmaker David Crowley. The truth is far stranger.
avid Crowley began keeping a journal in April of 2014. He was twenty-eight years old, and he lived in Apple Valley, Minnesota, with his wife, Komel, and their four-year-old daughter, Raniya. The journal was “a life report, since I suspect my feelings right now in nostalgia or reflection might be of value,” Crowley wrote. By the time he stopped making entries, seven months later, he had inadvertently created a psychological document of which very few examples are known.
Crowley had been a soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan. Afterward, he had gone to film school, and in 2010 he began writing a script that he called “Gray State,” in which a totalitarian foreign regime conquers the U.S. government and a band of patriots form a resistance. On LinkedIn, Crowley described “Gray State” as “a film about a near future collapse of society under martial law.”
Crowley’s engagement with “Gray State” was consuming. “Every little part of this project is me,” he recorded himself saying. In addition to writing six very different drafts of the script, he made three trailers, for which he auditioned, rehearsed, and directed the actors; drew storyboards; designed costumes; found locations and got permits; acted as the director of photography, overseeing as many as four cameras at once; and composed music and special effects. As if inhabiting the world he was creating, he periodically cut his hair in a Mohawk and wore combat fatigues and body armor. An actor named Danny Mason, who helped write the first draft, told me that Crowley would take him on hikes through the woods at three in the morning. “We’d come to a clearing and he’d say, ‘See that field?’ ” Mason said. “ ‘Imagine there being a convoy there and fires in the distance.’ ”
Crowley posted a trailer for “Gray State” on YouTube in 2012. It has been watched more than two and a half million times, and the film has more than fifty-seven thousand followers on Facebook. Its supporters included “conspiracy theorists, survival groups,” Crowley wrote, “libertarians, veterans,” and “the military,” many of whom believe that the government has plans to impose martial law, confiscate guns, and hold dissidents prisoner in camps built by FEMA.
Crowley had a patchwork system of beliefs. He regarded himself as a Libertarian, but he identified with the left-leaning wing of the Party, not the militant one—being a soldier had made him a pacifist. After uploading the trailer, Crowley spoke at a Ron Paul event in Tampa, hoping to raise money. “Gray State,” he said, would explore such trends as “the slow yielding of our quiet American towns and streets to a choking array of federal surveillance grids, illegal police checkpoints.”
Through a crowdsourcing campaign, Crowley collected more than sixty thousand dollars, much of it after the conservative radio commentator Alex Jones had Crowley and Danny Mason on his radio show “Infowars,” in 2012, to discuss “the impressive film you’re working on.” The world depicted in “Gray State” was already “happening here,” Jones said. “The people who have hijacked our country, they’re admitting it. They’re admitting that we’re an occupied nation by foreign banks, they’re admitting they’re getting rid of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.”
“We have people who are living in the Alex Jones world who know what’s going on, and the people who simply don’t,” Crowley replied. “Gray State,” he added, was factual and “could be described as a documentary.” (Jones declined my request for an interview.)
In January of 2015, Crowley and his wife and daughter were found shot dead at their home. Reports of their deaths appeared in the United States and abroad. The Huffington Post called Crowley a military man, and USA Today called him a filmmaker. The police determined that Crowley had shot his wife and child and then shot himself, but commentators on the Internet soon began saying that Crowley’s death seemed “suspicious” and “mysterious,” and that he had likely been murdered by government agents intent on preventing the movie from being made. Among certain conspiracy-minded, anti-government, Libertarian, and alt-right believers, Crowley has become a species of martyr. In January, the international hacking collective Anonymous, which declared war on Donald Trump last fall, posted a tribute to Crowley, suggesting that the government killed him. A spokesman, wearing a Guy Fawkes mask and addressing “my brothers and sisters of the world,” said that the circumstances do “not sound right.”
On Facebook, there is a page called “Justice for David Crowley & family,” which says that its purpose is to “help to clear the good name of David Crowley.” The page is overseen by an accountant in Minnesota named Dan Hennen. He and Greg Fernandez, Jr., a tech worker in California, conduct long discussions on YouTube in which they find fault with the police investigation and ask why someone whose future seemed so promising would kill himself.
Hennen believes that the crime scene was staged by Crowley’s killer. He mentions a sliding glass door at Crowley’s house that the police discovered slightly open—“Very suspicious in Minnesota in the winter,” he told me. Furthermore, no neighbors heard gunshots. “A forty-calibre gun, which is what the police found, is so loud that it would have woken up the whole neighborhood,” Hennen said. “I believe a silencer, or a suppressor of some sort, was used by the killers.”
These theories are contradicted by Crowley’s journal, which was given to me, along with videos and recordings, with the permission of Crowley’s family, by the filmmaker Erik Nelson, who produced “Grizzly Man.” For A&E IndieFilms Nelson has made a documentary about Crowley called “A Gray State,” which will have its première in a few weeks, at the Tribeca Film Festival. Nelson read the reports of Crowley’s death, which led him to watch the “Gray State” trailer. “It seemed incredibly well made,” he told me. “It was clear this guy was in command of all the skills necessary to his craft.” When he read that the police had found hours of videos and voice recordings on Crowley’s computer documenting his family and the progress of “Gray State,” he thought that they might be the basis for a film. Nelson saw Crowley as a solitary obsessive, fiercely making art in an unlikely place.
The journal is dominated by Crowley’s notes as he wrote “Gray State”—what he wished for it to be, his anxieties about whether he could manage it, and the audience he imagined it would reach. He also wrote about his ambitions in general (to have a screenplay produced by 2016, to be a millionaire by 2017), his feelings for Komel (“God I love that woman. Strong, beautiful, ferocious, and deadly intelligent”), and his determination to be a good father. As the entries progress, however, insights appear to arrive unbidden and to impose themselves on him. “I’m expecting to wake up somebody else,” he wrote. “Vast personality changes are happening too fast to write about every day.” And: “I am being prepped for some slide into oblivion or destiny.”
Crowley was losing his mind, and he didn’t seem to know it. Journals of people overtaken by psychosis are rare—accounts of madness tend to be written by people in the midst of their illness or retrospectively by those who have recovered. Crowley was handsome, gifted, and charismatic, but he was also deeply unsure of himself. He owned a number of self-hypnosis recordings meant to overcome his insecurities. He thought that the convulsive things that were happening to him were the result of his endeavor to become more confident, poised, and commanding. He thought that he was developing a new self.
Crowley was born on July 7, 1985, the middle child of Dan and Kate Crowley. His brother, Dan, Jr., a personal trainer, was older by three years, and his sister, Allison, an architecture student, was younger by two. The three of them were brought up in Owatonna, Minnesota. Dan, Sr., is an engineer who has his own company, which makes equipment he designed to coat solar panels and architectural glass. He and David’s mother divorced when David was twenty.
In ninth grade, David met a boy named Mitch Heil in a computer class. With friends, they played an army game called Airsoft, which is like paintball except that it uses pellets, and the guns are more realistic-looking. They dressed in soldiers’ uniforms and wore helmets and carried backpacks and decorated their faces with camouflage paint. After a while, David began bringing his father’s video camera to the Airsoft game. “That evolved to ‘I’m not getting what I want,’ and we’d start staging our own little scenes and stories,” Heil told me. On weekends, they’d gather at one of their houses and watch the films.
In 2003, toward the end of eleventh grade, David told his parents that he and Mitch were joining the Army after high school. In the real Army, they thought, you also played combat games, but you got paid for it. His parents would have preferred that he go to college, but Dan, Sr., felt that he shouldn’t oppose something his son felt strongly about.
In June of 2004, David and Mitch went through basic training at Fort Benning, in Georgia. Eventually, Mitch was sent to Afghanistan, and David was sent to Germany. While the other soldiers went into town at night to drink, David taught himself German and read calculus and chemistry books. In 2006, he went to Iraq, where he was a mortarman. Later that year, he was among the first to arrive after a car bomb killed more than forty soldiers. Dozens of men, he wrote, were “moaning and wailing ghouls, their skin hanging off in gray ropes, one sitting very still in my seat with half his body an oozing yellow mess whimpering ‘can we please hurry? Could you hurry, please?’ ” Toward the end of the year, he returned to Germany “greeted by no one,” and “slept with first and only prostitute.”
In 2007, David was transferred to Fort Hood, in Texas, and in 2008 he met Komel, at a bar in Waco. The next day, he introduced her to another soldier as his girlfriend. Komel, who was a senior at Baylor University, lived with her mother and father, Naila and Anjum Alam, and her younger sister, Sidrah, who was in high school. Three years earlier, they had come from Pakistan. There the girls and their mother had each had a driver, and the house was run by servants. In the U.S., they had to learn to manage for themselves.
Within weeks of meeting Komel, David found out that he was being stop-lossed—that is, his service was being extended without his consent. Furthermore, he was being sent to Afghanistan. He immediately asked Komel to marry him.
Komel told her father that she was serious about David. “While I was talking to her, David comes to the house for the first time,” Anjum told me. “He came in and he was ready to fight with me.” Komel said that they were getting married in two days and that David was leaving in two weeks. “I was completely in shock,” Anjum told me. “Finally, I said, ‘Fine. If you guys love each other, who the hell I am to come between you.’ ”
David so resented being stop-lossed that he told his commanding officer in Afghanistan that he couldn’t be responsible for another soldier’s life, and he was assigned to deliver the mail. Komel got pregnant late in 2008, during one of David’s leaves. When he was finally discharged, in June of 2009, he was disgruntled, and he told Komel not to come to the ceremony for returning soldiers. Instead, he had her wait outside in the car. “I don’t want the Army controlling how I reunite with my wife,” he told another soldier.
Raniya was born in August of 2009. In September, the family moved from Waco to Minnesota, where Komel knew no one. “For the first six months, she was miserable,” her sister said. “She would call crying: ‘It’s so depressing here, and it’s always cold.’ ”
David and Mitch had planned on going to film school after the Army. Mitch got out first and hung drywall while he waited for David, and then they enrolled in the Digital Video and Media program at the Minnesota School of Business, in Edina. Komel took a position as a research assistant at the University of Minnesota, while studying for a master’s degree in nutrition. By nature, she was outgoing, but David discouraged her from having people over. “She really wanted to have couple friends,” a woman named Sarah Johnson, who worked with her at a dietary clinic, told me. “David would always mess it up, though.” Komel and Johnson later began a side business involving nutrition as a healing method. Johnson felt that the closer she and Komel became the more David inserted himself between them. He insisted that they record their conversations, because he wanted Komel to have documentation if there were ever any disagreements.
“Gray State” began in the summer of 2010, when Danny Mason, whom David had met through a professor at film school, sent David an e-mail with links to Web sites devoted to conspiracies and suppressed information. According to Mason, “He came back in thirty-six hours, having stayed up for twenty-four hours, and said, ‘You’re on to something, let’s see where this goes.’ ”
“Gray State” is a hectic and vengeful fantasy. After the conquering force imposes martial law, soldiers come to Minneapolis—the seat of the government, since the coasts have fallen. Some people submit to the new regime and live as before; others retreat to the hills to gather guns and make a plan.
Before writing a first draft, David and Danny Mason wrote scenes for the trailer, which they shot with Mitch Heil in 2011. It is two minutes and forty seconds long, and it cost six thousand dollars. No scene lasts more than six or seven seconds. A number of scenes were filmed in front of green screens, which David filled with C.G.I. helicopters, tanks, and other military equipment. The sets are lit sombrely, so that the people, the buildings, and the rooms seem cast in shadow. The twilit quality makes it feel as if David were not so much entering a world as trying to get out of it.
The trailer has three acts—origin, resistance, and outcome. It begins with red crosshairs defining an aerial bombing target in a city. A man starts awake, breathing heavily, and shields his eyes from a powerful light just beyond the drawn blinds of his room. The words “It happened while we were sleeping” appear in white letters on a black screen.
Television news reports show military trucks rolling across bridges and people fleeing. FEMA troops in riot gear advance on a crowd of protesters. A soldier walks along a row of citizens on their knees and shoots each in the back of the head. The city burns. In one eerie shot, Komel and Raniya appear as a mother and daughter watching news reports while light from the television plays across their faces.
To keep track of his story, David constructed a version of a storyboard, taping file cards and Post-it notes and scraps of paper to a wall. The arrangement covered about twenty-five feet, and it looked like the flag of a hapless and turbulent nation. David called it his writer’s wall, and he said that it could be read horizontally for the story or vertically for the themes. He had a friend film him standing in front of it, like a weatherman, while he said that it exemplified his use of “ancient methods of storytelling.”
In June of 2013, David sent a draft of “Gray State” to a script consultant in Colorado named Linda Seger. Seger liked the script’s intricacy, but felt that it had “too much action, too much information, and too many characters.” She also thought that it needed a happier ending. (The main character died.) She suggested revisions, and a year later David sent another draft. Seger remembered the scripts, she told me, even though she has read thousands of them. “It had a nice sense of style, and it had real feeling to it,” she said. “I felt like I was in the middle of the danger.”
David and Komel’s attachment to each other was ardent, but it also had an unrealistic cast. “There was an almost teen-aged feeling about their love, where it’s all-consuming,” Sarah Johnson told me. Komel said to a friend, “David’s the only person that I like in this world,” but on two occasions she thought of leaving him. In 2011, she felt that he wasn’t contributing enough money or time to the marriage, but they discussed it and he agreed to do more. He got work as a cameraman and video editor, usually in advertising, and saved enough money to return to “Gray State.” The second time was late in 2013. “By then, he was very much living in the world of ‘Gray State,’ ” Mason told me. “My hunch was Komel wanted some form of normalcy, not just the dreary, apocalyptic world vision that David was living through.”
Komel called her father. According to her sister, Sidrah, “She was crying and saying, ‘Dad, I can’t do this anymore. I want to come home.’ ” Anjum asked if David was hurting her. When she said no, he was sympathetic but told her, “You have a family. You make it work.”
In May, 2014, a month after David began the journal, he flew to Los Angeles, where he had arranged to meet several people who were interested in “Gray State.” Among them were two producers, Michael O’Donnell and Mike Boggio, who have a company called Michael Entertainment Group. David called them the Mikes. When they said they wanted to option the script, David wrote that it was one of the most important days of his life.
Believing that she and David would be rich by the fall, Komel quit her job at the dietary clinic and began to plan her own business. Meanwhile, David arranged to meet the Mikes again in Los Angeles. To prepare, he rehearsed. “Mikes meeting two, the outline,” he began. “Projecting power, confidence, talk fast. Talk fast, easy, and project.” He expected the Mikes to ask how the rewrites were going. “If you want to talk rewrites, I suppose we should talk contract,” he said. The imaginary exchange lasted an hour.
The day before the meeting, Komel found David curled on the floor in the bathroom, crying. She comforted him by telling him that he was brave. He worried that the Mikes would regard him as a fraud, but they told him that “Gray State” was their most promising project. “He was totally professional, not quiet, not shy, very confident,” Mike Boggio told me. “We left that meeting thinking, We got to have a deal with this guy.”
Over the summer, Komel’s mother received a diagnosis of cervical cancer. Komel and her father argued over the phone about treatments, and, afterward, she and David decided that her family was trying to manipulate her and that she should no longer speak to them. The following day, though, David heard Komel on the phone talking heatedly in Urdu and became angry. After they argued, she wrote, “I expected him to show me a little more compassion.” She told herself that she would feel better in the morning, but she had nightmares. “I start experiencing degrees of separation between David and I,” she wrote. “I guess I forgot we were two different people in two different bodies.”
A psychosis can overwhelm and disable a person, or it can appear episodically, in the form of disordered thoughts that are themselves an attempt to ward off a collapse. At the end of July, David suffered a psychic crisis that involved a “deep understanding stretching my mind past what my body can tolerate.” He went on to write that he had undergone “a 20 minute physical episode of visions of pure deep horror, long insight stretching unbroken like a panorama.” The visions subsided, however, and he returned to his regular life, taking Raniya to her sitter, having family dinners, reading and writing, and working out in the back yard with Komel.
In September, David revised “Gray State” for the Mikes. He wrote for thirty-one hours, then Komel read the script, and he sent it to the Mikes so that it would arrive for one of their birthdays, on September 17th, along with a “Gray State” poster. He was unsettled when they didn’t respond immediately.
Reading the journal, one searches for the moment when David became permanently unmoored, when his fantasies eclipsed him, but it isn’t so simple. Preparing to write the draft he sent to the Mikes, however, he made an entry that seems to predict his collapse:
The moment of my purpose has arrived. And if the universe awaits my consent for the go ahead then I say do your worst you filthy sticky bitch, I know you’re going to reward and seduce me before killing off what I love and burying what I build and destroying me as awfully as possible in horrible retribution for having thrust my ability so far into your black void that generations hence will still be expanding on what I started, settling the void, conquering the dark, until the greater objective is served.
No life has only one outcome, but as David waited to hear from the Mikes he seemed to relinquish ground that he never recovered, or, if so, only intermittently. It is as if the writing and making of “Gray State” were a means of containing the violent fantasies within him, and when the project faltered they swamped him.
The Mikes reacted as producers do, by considering the script’s merits and difficulties. “My first pass, from story content, was: This is kind of a road map for the next American revolution,” Michael O’Donnell told me. “My second pass was breaking it down to what it costs.” When David finally heard from them, on September 26th, they said that “Gray State” might be better as a TV series. They did not offer him the contract he had counted on.
David was devastated. “Making ‘Gray State’ was his whole world,” Sidrah said. In a Facebook post written after David’s death, Mitch Heil said that he didn’t think David knew “how to cope with failure on this scale.” He went on, “In my heart I feel like the stress, the message, the story, and his thought process caused his world of fiction and reality to blur.”
David began to have trouble sleeping, and for an hour one night he lay awake and cried. “I guess the big wait created a lot of anxiety that needed resolution the situation couldn’t provide,” he wrote. “Hence the bad weather! I’m serious, moment by moment for a long time, the weather has been following my mood.”
He stopped saying that he was going to be famous. “He didn’t say they were moving to California anymore, either,” a friend named Chris Peck told me. “All he said was ‘That was a pipe dream.’ ”
As if to salvage years of work, David put aside “Gray State” for a documentary that he called “Gray State: The Rise,” which he assembled from interviews with himself, friends, and Internet commentators; news footage; and a brief interview he had once filmed with Alex Jones. It expresses the belief that the Gray State has arrived. “We are already going into a scientifically designed Orwellian control system that is meant to use humans up like natural resources,” Jones says. David’s purposes also shifted. Sean Wright, a friend of his who worked on the documentary, told me, “He was changing his mind from entertainment to waking people up.”
Photograph courtesy A&E IndieFilms)
David believed that the documentary would establish a Gray State brand, which might one day include video games and combat games. To further the brand, he planned to make the documentary available free. Working on it possessed him as entirely as writing “Gray State” had. Meanwhile, he and Komel stopped returning most phone calls and texts and e-mails. Anjum sent Komel a photograph of her mother, Naila, in the hospital, hoping to provoke her into speaking to him. Immediately, he received a call from David, who said that he and Komel wanted nothing more to do with him or the rest of the family.
Sidrah and her fiancé, Vincent Sotelo, who is now her husband, decided to drive to Minnesota from Waco to check on Komel. A few months earlier, Anjum had lent David and Komel a car, and, as a pretext, Sidrah planned to tell them that he needed it back. She would leave her own car for them.
Sidrah and Vincent left Waco on October 16th and drove for sixteen hours. They arrived at around seven that evening. With Vincent standing behind her, Sidrah knocked on the door. David opened it, and she said, “I’m here to see my sister.”
“We want nothing to do with you—I thought I made that clear,” he said, and shut the door.
She knocked again. David said, “Go sit in the car.” Vincent saw a shadow on a wall behind David and felt sure that it was Komel’s. When David came out to the car, he said there was no way Sidrah could see her sister. Sidrah said they had come to exchange cars. David said that he needed an hour to get the car ready but he would return it only if they took both cars, which meant that Sidrah would have to drive sixteen hours to Waco by herself. She said she couldn’t. “Fine,” David said. “Deal’s off.” Then he went back into the house.
“Vinny and I looked at each other, like, What now?” Sidrah told me. Vincent knocked on the door again, and David came out. Vincent extended his hand, and David hesitated then shook it. “Her mom needs her daughter,” Vincent said. “You said an hour, right?”
When they returned, Sidrah saw David watching them from a picture window beside the front door. The car was on the street, and on the dashboard there was a photograph of Komel, Sidrah, and Naila. Komel had written on the back of it, “I have always loved you and Mom and always will.” Sidrah and Vincent decided to leave their car for Komel, in case she ever needed to flee. Sidrah wrote, “I love you, too,” on the back of the photograph and left it on the dashboard, and they drove away quickly.
A mania shared by two people, one of whom appears to be dominant, is called a delusion by proxy and is rare. The treatment begins by separating the people sharing the delusions. David’s entry for October 30th says, cryptically, “Komel got raptured today. She’s still here.” That morning, he had gone to Home Depot, and when he returned Komel came into the kitchen and asked him to hold her. She said something was very wrong. “Something about, ‘Do not fear, sweet body, for we have felt this pain together,’ ” David said in a recording that he made immediately afterward on his phone. He went on, paraphrasing her, “Don’t worry about the pain, because you do not know how to feel pain, and you will return to the dust and your dark slumber, and I will be gone.”
“I have my mission,” she had told him. She said she had heard a woman’s “scary voice” and asked if he had heard it. Sounding distraught, she reproduced the voice: “I’ve warned you, I’ve warned you.” Then: “I want you. Please come with me, please come with me, your place won’t come to me. . . . There’s nothing left here.”
David went into his office and shut the door. “This took a lot out of her,” he said into his phone. He had held her while she began “to shake and weep and howl,” and then she said, “ ‘This is what rapture is.’ ”
Komel came into the room then and lay down on the couch.
“You said you were Egyptian,” David told her. “You said you’d come from very far to find me, and Rani and I need to come with you, and there’s not much time.
“The primary emotion was that of, like, desperate, desperate love, like hopeless love,” he continued. “And on some level your soul has committed to mine, and we’re going to go somewhere and Rani’s coming with.”
“Those were the last words,” Komel said, her voice pitched just above a whisper.
After Komel quit her job, she told a woman she’d worked with, Heidie Lish, that she was writing a book about eating disorders. “We had coffee around Thanksgiving, and she told me she wasn’t writing the book anymore,” Lish said. “She was reading a lot of books about religions and people who don’t eat for forty days. She said there were people in the world who didn’t need to eat at all. Then she started talking about how she never left the house anymore.”
The week before Christmas, David and Komel visited their friend Chris Peck. “They were uncontrollably, zealously happy,” Peck said. “David gave me some books, one about how to succeed in Hollywood, one about writing, and then he handed me a bunch of notes for a screenplay I was writing, and he gave me back video games I had lent him. He gave me back everything I had ever lent him. Komel wished me Merry Christmas, and, quick as they were in, they were out.” High spirits are characteristic of people resolved on suicide—it is why so many stories of suicide include someone saying, “We thought he had got better.” The decision often gives people a feeling of being released from their troubles.
Dan Luttrull served with David in Afghanistan, but he hadn’t spoken to him in a while. Then, late one night a few days before Christmas, “I was sitting on the computer, drinking, and I got a message from him,” he told me. They discussed the Army, their lives, and “Gray State.” “He was drinking absinthe, and I was drinking whiskey and beer,” Luttrull said. After about two hours, Luttrull said that he was ready for bed, and David asked him to delete their exchange. “His exact words were ‘If you’re truly my brother and my friend, you’ll do it. I promise you’ll understand soon.’ ”
The last entry in the journal reads, “I am no one. It is everyone else who is someone.” On Christmas morning, David made a list of plans for the coming year. “Christmas: 6 day countdown meme: ‘It will be a new year,’ ” he wrote, and he reminded himself that December 30th was the “last day to crowdfund!” Then, with a pistol that he kept in a safe in the bedroom, he shot Komel and Raniya as they lay on the living-room floor. Sometime later, he sat down beside them and shot himself.
The next morning, Dan, Jr., left presents for David and Komel and Raniya on their doorstep. The family’s dog put its paws on the frame of the picture window and watched him, but he didn’t look inside.
A neighbor found them. On January 17th, after returning from a holiday trip, he saw the presents scattered on the stoop and figured the family was away. He piled the packages neatly, then heard the dog barking, which he thought was strange, if they were gone. Then he looked in the window.
Photograph courtesy A&E IndieFilms
The police found the sliding glass door on the back deck slightly open. A light was on in the dining room; strings of Christmas lights and a synthetic Christmas tree were lit. Komel was lying on her stomach on the floor near the tree, and Raniya lay across one of her legs. David was on his back next to them. Komel had been shot twice in the head, and Raniya had been shot once behind her left ear. The dog had scavenged the remains. Komel was identified at her autopsy from a photograph on the Internet, showing a tattoo on her left wrist of a heart with “All you need” written inside it. David was identified from tattoos on his left wrist and shoulder.
Bloody footprints led into the kitchen and down the hall to David’s office. A laptop was open on the kitchen counter. When an investigator applied a swab to the keyboard to collect a blood sample, the words “I have loved you all with all of my heart” appeared on the screen. In a window behind it was a playlist that David had titled “Ascent.” It consisted of fifty-three songs, most with despairing themes, that he had presumably meant to run continuously—apparently, the batteries on the speakers had died. In the office was an open notebook with dried blood in the margins. David had written, “Open ‘The Rise’ most recent version,” and “Submit to Allah now.”
In the living room, David had done something that the police omitted from their incident report and waited months before telling the families. With his hands covered in his wife’s blood, he stood on the couch and wrote on the wall, “Allahu akbar,” which means “God is great.” On the floor by Komel, he had placed a Koran, opened to a prayer of forgiveness.
A few days after the bodies were discovered, David’s father and sister went into the house. The police had told them that they should have it cleaned first, and the cleaners had cut out the floorboards where the blood had warped them, so it was clear where the bodies had lain. On the wall behind the couch was a rectangle of white paint. Otherwise, the house was as it had been. On the kitchen counter, Allison found David’s wedding ring, with blood on it. Dan, Sr., tried to imagine what Komel and Raniya had been doing. “Were they reading a book, maybe playing on the floor?” he said. “You think yourself in circles.”
A friend of David’s, Mason Hendricks, went into the house several times on the family’s behalf to sort through David and Komel’s possessions and see what was worth keeping. When he saw the white paint on the wall, he felt certain that something had been written beneath it, because he and David had talked about berserkers and Norsemen and the practice of writing in blood to leave a message before dying.
Last spring, I went to the house with Hendricks. It had been repossessed—the neighbors hope that whoever buys it will tear it down and build a new one—but Hendricks knew the code on the finance company’s lockbox. It had been more than a year since the killings. Clothes hung in the closets where David and Komel had left them. The Christmas tree was still there, and there was a small shrine of candles and dried flowers where the floorboards had been cut away. The white paint on the wall was still there, and I wondered if the cleaners had washed the wall or had simply painted over the letters and they were still there.
The electricity had been turned off, and the only light came through the windows. The sense that something terrible had happened was inescapable, partly because the place still looked as it had in the crime-report photographs. It was difficult to decide whether the house felt neglected or preserved. We stayed long enough for me to walk down the hall from the living room and look at David’s office, which still had papers in the file cabinet; Raniya’s bedroom, with her drawings taped on pink walls and shoes on the floor and loose glitter here and there; David’s workroom, in the basement, which had posters for “Gray State” on the wall; and David and Komel’s room, with the sheets still on the bed. On the kitchen counter was a small stack of business cards for MindBody Dietician LLC—“Holistic Nutrition Therapy, Food Allergies, Autism, Autoimmune Conditions”—on which there was a photograph of Komel, smiling.
Since her daughter’s death, Naila Alam has spent most of her time in the hospital being treated for cancer; she is now in hospice care. She would ask Sidrah why Komel hadn’t called to see how she was, or why she didn’t answer her phone, and Sidrah would demur. “I would say, ‘Why talk about them? It’s just hurtful. They don’t want to hear from us,’ but she would see my expression.”
Finally, Naila, exasperated, asked if Komel was still alive, and “it just came out,” Sidrah said. “I told her, ‘Do you really want to know the truth?’ ”
Naila asked if Komel had died in a car accident. “I said, ‘David killed her.’ ‘Is he in jail?’ she asked. ‘Where’s Rani?’ ”
A few weeks after the deaths, the Crowleys held a memorial for David and Komel and Raniya. Perhaps a hundred people came. In the months following, Dan, Sr., assembled a time line of David and Komel’s final year, organizing their e-mails and texts and David’s journal onto a spreadsheet. It has five hundred and thirty-seven entries under the headings “Date, Source, and Event.” He thinks of it as representing pieces “in a really big puzzle I don’t know how to put together.” One afternoon, I sat with him and Dan, Jr. “There’s this endless list of issues we are struggling with,” he said. “They wanted to be left alone. David wanted to get his movie done. He was annoyed with people. I get that.”
“I remember you didn’t talk to your dad for four years,” Dan, Jr., said.
“Five years,” Dan, Sr., said. “I didn’t kill myself, though.” His shoulders slumped. “I figured they’d come through,” he said. The thought that it might have been possible to intervene haunts everyone who knew them.
On David’s desktop, Hendricks opened “Gray State: The Rise” and discovered that David had left behind a video specifying the order in which files should be assembled to create the documentary. He followed the instructions and posted the movie on Vimeo as “The Rise.”
Sidrah and Vincent had their first child, a girl, in August. They had hoped that she would arrive on Raniya’s birthday, but she didn’t. Danny Mason maintains David’s “Gray State” Facebook page, posting videos and remarks every few weeks, usually critical of the government. He and Dan, Sr., own the rights to the concept, and, while Dan, Sr., is uncertain what outcome he prefers, Danny Mason still hopes to make “Gray State.” ♦