The strange and tragic demise of a Minnesota filmmaker and his family

Police believe David Crowley carried out a murder-suicide. Conspiracy theorists aren't so sure. Artwork by Matthew Griffin.

Police believe David Crowley carried out a murder-suicide. Conspiracy theorists aren't so sure. Artwork by Matthew Griffin.

The neighbor set out for the rambler next door.

He was uneasy. Collin Prochnow and his wife, Judy, first noticed the bundle of Christmas gifts on the Crowleys' front stoop in late December. It was now January 17, and the Prochnows hadn't seen activity at the house for weeks. Collin thought he heard the Crowleys' dog barking; Judy dispatched her husband to check on things.

When Collin arrived, the presents, addressed to David Crowley, his wife, Komel, and their five-year-old daughter, Rani, were scattered about the Ramsdell Drive doorstep. He restacked them and peered through the large front picture window. Three figures — two adult and one child-sized — lay on the floor. Mannequins, Collin thought. David dabbled in the movie props business. Collin headed back across the lawn.

His description of the figures on the floor spooked Judy. She insisted they call the police.

The stench of death slapped Apple Valley officers before they could even open the door. The scene was like something from a horror movie: Rani, Komel, and David had been shot in the head. Komel twice. Her husband and child once. Later stages of decay suggested they'd been dead for weeks.

Above the bodies on the family room wall, the words "Allahu Akbar" — "God is [the] greatest" in Arabic — were finger-painted in blood. Skinny and scared, the Crowleys' dog Paleo had to be plied with treats and captured with a catchpole before investigators could fan out inside the home.

Young, beautiful, and smart: David and Komel rushed into marriage and fast-tracked it into parenthood as well.

Young, beautiful, and smart: David and Komel rushed into marriage and fast-tracked it into parenthood as well.

One of the officers noticed the rear sliding door was cracked open. Slowly they made their way to the basement, where they found countless cans of food of various sizes, boxes of precious metal coins, and guns stashed in plastic cases.

Back upstairs, they passed Rani's bedroom, a tableau of pink and princesses. Family photos filled the walls next to her bed: Rani and a friend in frilly dresses; Rani and her parents, their faces pressed against hers. Out in the hallway, the pictures continued: Rani baking cookies, Komel and David leaning together for a couple's selfie, the three of them enjoying ice cream on a sunny day.

Around the corner and out into the living area, bloody footprints stained the hardwood floor. A sleeping laptop in the kitchen slowly came back to life with a message on the screen: "I have loved you with all my heart." And in the office, a crimson-flecked notebook bore a pair of handwritten instructions."Open 'The Rise most recent version,'" said one. The other: "Submit to Allah NOW."

The auteur

David Crowley was the youngest son of Dan and Kate Crowley. He remembered fondly a childhood spent scrapping with his older brother and playing neighborhood kickball with his younger sister Allison.

"I enjoy being idolized by the little people of our neighborhood," David would later write. "They'd even cheer when I came out[side]."

He first dabbled in movie-making at Owatonna High School. David wrote and directed his first short film while still a teenager.

After graduation, Crowley left southern Minnesota to join the U.S. Army. As a soldier, he set foot in 13 countries, including combat deployments in Iraq and Kandahar, Afghanistan. David was taciturn about his time in the service.

"He'd briefly mentioned how he saw some of his friends get blown up by an IED in Afghanistan," cousin Laura Meyer Hokenson says. "But that was it. It was obvious he didn't want to talk about the things he saw."

Between tours, David spent his time at a base in Texas, where he met Komel Alam, a beautiful, olive-skinned Saudi Arabia native. She had been raised Muslim in Pakistan and immigrated to the U.S. with her family in 2005. David fell fast.

In the shadow of the massive Fort Hood military base, Komel and David exchanged wedding vows before a justice of the peace in May 2008. They dashed into parenthood with equal vigor. Their daughter Raniyah, "Rani" for short, was born in August 2009.

The same month Rani was born, then 24-year-old David retired from the military. The threesome headed north to the familiar geography of David's roots, landing first in Owatonna, Minnesota, before making their way to the Twin Cities.

Komel enrolled in grad school at the University of Minnesota where she graduated in 2012 with a master's degree in public health nutrition. She started a career as a dietician at the Park Nicollet Melrose Center. Co-workers noted how Komel was almost always vibrant and smiling, walking the hallways effortlessly in sky-high heels.

Meanwhile, David revived his dormant interest in screenwriting, culling material from his stint as a soldier. He studied film while attending Minnesota School of Business.

"We watched Zero Dark Thirty together. He really wasn't a fan of it," says Sean Wright, who met David in 2010. "He saw examples of how things weren't realistic, like a gun not being held properly or squads not in proper formation.

David Crowley’s side gig Bullet Exchange, Minnesota’s “only supplier of authentic military and police gear for film prop use,” was a bust from Day One.

David Crowley’s side gig Bullet Exchange, Minnesota’s “only supplier of authentic military and police gear for film prop use,” was a bust from Day One.

"It wasn't an exact style he was going after. It was more like what he was going after was every screen done perfectly."

David began work on his own script in late 2010. Gray State was a fictional story of societal collapse, pitting the citizenry against a corrupt federal government hell-bent on destroying individual liberties.

David hurled himself into its creation, laboring long hours to match the words on the page with the scenes he had percolating in his mind. His home office was plastered with note cards, a web of plot points and character development connected by different colored strings. David would sequester himself for marathon writing sessions, emerging only when he was satisfied with his progress.

"He strived for perfection in pretty much everything he did, and Gray State was his baby," Wright says.

Still, his hard work wasn't paying the mortgage. As Komel continued to bring home a steady paycheck, David attempted to pitch in by partnering with childhood friend Mitch Heil. They launched two businesses: Bullet Exchange was marketed as Minnesota's "only supplier of authentic military and police gear for film prop use." Hot Head Productions would make music videos and films.

Hot Head pulsed with big plans. David and Heil collaborated with three others, including local actor Danny Mason, to bring David's screenplay to life. They made a Gray State trailer, raising more than $60,000 in production capital through crowdfunding.

The 159-second "official concept trailer" premiered in July 2012.

2014 was supposed to be the year, as pursuit of a film deal took David to California on more than one occasion.

2014 was supposed to be the year, as pursuit of a film deal took David to California on more than one occasion.

"It happened while we were sleeping," the trailer starts.

Seconds later, the onscreen words appear: "When society falls, those who panic die first."

Libertarians, conspiracy theorists, and survivalists ate it up, beguiled by scenes of rioting and death squads. In a month, the Gray State trailer scored about 200,000 views. That number steadily began a march into the millions. Many had a hand in making the trailer, but the franchise belonged to David, who is credited at the end as writer and director.

David was riding the high of internet fandom less than a month after the trailer's release. He flew to Tampa to speak at the Ron Paul Festival. In a taped interview with Messengers for Liberty, a group formed "to help inspire the message of liberty and restore America back to individual freedom," the upstart filmmaker shines with confidence and vigor. The interview also gives a glimpse into his contradictions.

David calls the trailer "investor bait" with infinite commercial viability for Hollywood backers. He says the work is part resume, part marketing tool, and part vision statement.

Within minutes, he spins another narrative. To turn the trailer into a feature movie, he explains, will require tens of millions in capital and he's of the belief that "no Hollywood studio is going to back this film."

Yet he seemed convinced that the money was out there. The following month he told a reporter for the Owatonna People's Press that the full-length action feature would require about $25 million. The number didn't seem to faze him. If anything, he was exhilarated.

David Crowley retired from the military in 2009 but couldn’t get away from fancying himself a soldier.

David Crowley retired from the military in 2009 but couldn’t get away from fancying himself a soldier.

A gray state

As the 2013 holiday season began, the Crowleys were settling into their new home, a rambler on Ramsdell Drive in Apple Valley. Komel had quit her job as a staff dietician and was now six months into running her own home-based small business, a holistic counseling and nutrition service.

David's future seemed brighter than ever. Riding the movie trailer's momentum, he'd plunged into rewriting the feature's script as well as embarking on a side project. The Rise would be the sister documentary to the fictional work, full of interviews with like-minded Americans who feared for their country's future.

David kept his growing fan base informed with regular social media posts.

"After two years of trying to extract the Gray State story, I think I may have finally done it," he wrote early in 2014. "The story has completely changed, is working beautifully, and the new outline was completed in only the last three days. With this new story, it will not be hard to attract funding."

He also wasn't shy about playing the role of tortured artist: "It's a strange experience finally feeling genuine love for characters I've created. The most painful part of writing the conflict for these people who are precious to me — is that I must now torture them, punish them, and drag them through the dirt to reveal their essence of form."

In the first six months of 2014, David began traveling to Hollywood, eager to ink a movie deal. Producers perceived him as somewhat enigmatic, genuine and intense, affable yet guarded. He negotiated with direct eye contact and said hello and bid goodbye with handshakes a bit too firm. He confided in at least one new Hollywood contact that he harbored a wholesale distrust of the very industry he was courting.

David had a wary understanding that to turn his three minutes of film into a motion picture or Netflix series would require collaboration. But he wasn't hip to that. He believed Hollywood was full of flakes and thieves, who, if he wasn't careful, would steal what was his. Giving up the project's reins raised the possibility that the message — awakening Americans to their threatened liberty — could be nixed if the new handlers thought it commercially unviable.

"For David, it was never about being famous or not being famous. He was very humble. The end game or end goal wasn't a movie, mini series, whatever," says Wright, Crowley's friend. "It was more about Gray State the movement. At the start of 2014, yeah, that's when we really thought it was going to be a reality."

If David didn't value fame or what Hollywood money would do for his bank account, his behavior in the spring of 2014 did not show it.

Komel accompanied him to Los Angeles in late May. Their sixth anniversary was celebrated together with the news of a lifetime.

"It just happened," he posted days later on Facebook. "... Gray State will be optioned in the next two weeks at a major budget and connected with a-list talent. We are connected with a producer who above all else wants to preserve the film's pro-liberty ideals. This is all we could have hoped for and more."

He spoke too soon. There was no close. He'd return to the West Coast the following month, bucking again to ink a deal.

Late June produced another premature announcement: "My attorney and I are reviewing the option contract this week, and once that sucker is signed this whole Gray State thing is going to finally, irretrievably, and monstrously take off for the stratosphere — and in such a way that the message will be preserved — and perhaps even continue in sequels, TV series, and video games."

The grandiose proclamations shriveled again, as that option contract faded from David's social media updates. Yet David — and Komel — were doggedly optimistic for months to come. According to police records, Komel told a friend in the fall that David "got a multimillion-dollar movie deal." Her husband in late September boasted to brother Dan about how he'd soon be flying "to L.A.... [for] final negotiations with producers" and "he was going to be a millionaire by the end of the year."

David's cousin Laura Meyer Hokenson attended Rani's fifth birthday party in August 2014. It was held in the family's backyard on Ramsdell Drive. The princess-themed celebration brought together grandparents, Rami's aunt and uncle, and other relatives. Hokenson remembers Komel's alabaster smile, Rani's pink-frosted cake, and David, the lovey-dovey family man.

"They looked like a couple very much in love," Hokenson says. "They were all about family and he seemed like a person who, professionally, was about to enter into a time when his life's dreams were about to come true."

Behind the facade of backyard festivities, however, anxiety festered. According to statements later given by her younger sister Sidrah to investigators, Komel had called their father in Texas a few months prior. Financial stress was mounting, Komel reported. She remained the family's only financial provider while David showed no inclination to bring in another paycheck. She wondered aloud if she should stay in the marriage. After a pep talk from dad, Komel hung up, pledging to fight for the relationship.

David also stressed about money. He sent three direct messages to Oregon-based film pro David Kirk West in June, around the same time he'd been publicly declaring a done movie deal.

"[H]ow do you live with filmmaking as your profession?" David asked.

"Don't you stress and worry[?]"

"I can't get away from evil thoughts some days."

Fade to black


David handled the growing unease the same way he went after creating movies: He attacked it.

In September, David and partner Mitch Heil agreed to sever all business ties, and Crowley got rid of the leftover movie props in a garage sale. Two days before October, he told followers on Facebook he alone was piloting Gray State from here on out, and that he was excited at the prospect of "rebuilding a new, trustworthy team." The new month kicked off with an email to Danny Mason's lawyer, insisting the actor sign away any rights he might have to the franchise.

As Crowley cut ties with associates, the couple pulled away from family and friends. Both got new cell numbers without telling David's sister and mother.

Komel's mother had been diagnosed with cancer over the summer. Komel disapproved of the family's choice to use chemotherapy. Fighting cancer by pumping one's body with toxic medicine ran counter to Komel's beliefs about health and wellness.

"Stop contacting my wife. We want nothing to do with you," David barked at Komel's father over the phone on October 12. They'd explicitly said not to put Komel's mother on chemo. "You refused to follow. Now suffer the consequences."

Komel's sister Sidrah pleaded with him: "If you want nothing to do with me or my dad, that's fine. But don't abandon my mother who calls only for Komel and her granddaughter."

David ignored her.

Things weren't any better on his side of the family. His sister Allison sent emails chastising him for blowing off their worrywart mother.

"What the fuck is up?" she began. "It's one thing to bar your siblings from your life... but when Mom calls me weeping and convinced that you're dead, my frustration with not being able to have a relationship with you turns to fury."

Calling her mother-in-law's worries "emotionally manipulating games," Komel wrote back with a piece of curt advice: "Turn off your cell phone and don't let out-of-state calls dictate how you should be feeling or what you should be doing."

In the meantime, the relentless work ethic of David the auteur was cannibalizing David the man.

"I've had more servings of absinthe this week than I've had meals," he posted on Facebook in October, "and the balance of life, work, family have never been more balanced. I reject your notions of sanity and supplant my own."

He added, "You've got to have a little madness in your soul to be a creative genius."

On Twitter he announced that the documentary Gray State: The Rise would premiere on December 28.

"The Rise is almost done. I'm serious," he wrote in early December. "She's coming out to be quite the looker; can't wait to show you all, but I have to comb her hair for a few more weeks."

David also wrote how he abhorred other filmmakers "peddling DVDs as truth and cashing in on suckers.... I am delighted for the opportunity to 'burn it down' by giving it away."

Behind the social media bravado, David was not so surefooted. In an email to Hollywood film veteran Jason Allen, David confided he was spent. He feared his original prospective film investors were gone for good and exhaustion had set in from shouldering "this burden for so many years."

David's words hinted at the reality he couldn't concede: He owned a script and with it, a non-existent film.

That winter, the Crowleys lived in self-imposed quarantine, leaving almost solely to deliver Rani to and from school.

They declined a Christmas invite from David's sister that included watching The Muppets' Christmas Carol at their father's house. Komel wrote back to Allison that not one of the activities "sounded interesting to [Rani]."

Instead, her email continued, the trio would be putting up lights and drinking hot cocoa beside a fire.

Sometime before eight o'clock on Christmas Eve, the Crowleys' across-the-street neighbor Brent Malay was about to shut the blinds. He looked out to see David staring back. Neither gave a wave. David disappeared from sight by the time Malay was closing the shades.

Three days after Christmas, David's brother Dan deposited a stack of presents on the doorstep and left without knocking.

Police would later discover an envelope from David's dad inside the crowded mailbox. Addressed to his son and daughter-in-law, it contained a check for $14,000.

Within 24 hours of Collin Prochnow's nervous call to police, media reports had cops saying they believed David executed Komel and Rani before shooting himself. A yearlong investigation by Apple Valley police later confirmed it had been a double-homicide-suicide.

Investigators found no sign of a struggle or forced entry. Bullet tests determined the weapon used in the killings was a Springfield .40 caliber handgun, which David had purchased from a store in Bloomington in 2012. Tests on fingerprints found on the firearm proved inconclusive. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension would match David's DNA to that found on the gun and magazine.

The disbelievers

Days after the Crowleys were found dead, the internet erupted with conspiracy theories.

"This certainly does have a chilling effect on those of us who are trying to expose government corruption and wake people up," celesta920 commented in January 2015 on YouTube. "So maybe that was the purpose of it. To scare us into silence. That movie would've been a huge blockbuster."

The day following the bodies' discovery, Jordan Page, who identified himself as a longtime friend who had deployed with David posted on Facebook: "The film was about to start production with a $30 million budget from a major Hollywood studio."

The theories spread from there, self-sowing across YouTube comment sections and conspiracy websites.

Dan Hennen is an accountant from Chaska by day, an amateur investigator by night. He estimates he's invested no less than 200 hours researching the Crowley deaths. He's on assignment to ask questions that were ignored by police.

"There was a rush to judgment within 48 hours of the crime that shows this wasn't vigorously pursued by police," Hennen says. "My thing is, none of us are professional investigators, yet this thing is sitting in plain sight to see. It doesn't take much education to put two and two together and realize things don't add up."

Foremost, David lacked motive, Hennen argues. Some of his estranged Gray State collaborators had 30 million good reasons.

"David was getting looked at as the next big up-and-coming director, but he turned down a $30 million offer because he would have had to give up creative control," says Hennen. "Here you have the other members of the project's creative team, who'd invested all this time and money, that weren't going to get a payoff. I think you have to follow the money."

Independent researcher Tom Lapp followed Gray State closely since its start in 2012. When news broke of the tragedy, it didn't sit right with him.

"[David] was doing well. He was excited to release the documentary. There was some kind of movie deal in the works," says Lapp, founder of the Justice for David Crowley and Gray State Facebook page. "Basically, it was his whole dream to be a moviemaker, and it was about to come true.... It didn't add up. Why would somebody in that position just kill their family and themselves?"

"Citizen journalist" Greg Fernandez Jr. points to various peculiarities: Definitive fingerprints couldn't be ascertained on the handgun. It doesn't make sense that David was right handed, yet the weapon was found to the left of him. Investigators never fully vetted why the rear patio sliding door was ajar.

The patio door makes people like Fernandez and Hennen wonder if the family was murdered by someone they knew, which leads to yet another question.

"We've been led to believe their dog was alone in the house for three weeks," Hennen says. "The house had two bathrooms. [Even] if one or both toilet lids were open, allowing the dog to drink water, there's no way Paleo could have survived that long without someone or persons being there to get him water. This point has never been addressed by law enforcement."

David's cousin Laura Meyer Hokenson's doubts are more personal. Intuition tells her the deaths had to do "with the dynamics of making the movie."

She declined to elaborate.

"I know David wanted for his movie to get out there and he wanted to make it big," she says. "He really wanted people to see what he had to tell and he wanted his family healthy and happy. No matter what [police] say, I can never see him being capable of this."

According to her, family members don't spend much time looking for answers because it's like trapping wind.

"Everyone in my family believes suicide is wrong," she says. "Him doing that, it's not in his personality at all."

The disbelievers, who prefer to be called "conspiracy realists," remain dedicated to their task.

"I cover conspiracies that are real," Hennen says. "Our group doesn't focus on conspiracy theories, just facts, because we don't want to get looped in with these conspiracy theory crowds, these people off the deep end.

"We still don't know if David Crowley was responsible. What offends me is professional investigators aren't asking the questions some people won't like. That's why we're doing it. We're the ones presenting the facts. We're not these nut jobs out there with tinfoil caps."

The build-up

Apple Valley Police Detective Sgt. James Gummert wishes his department had a better explanation than a man succumbing to the dark side.

"Me, like everybody else on this case who's a parent, we wanted to find out what happened for the five-year-old to get some peace, some answers, and try to make sense of a horrible tragedy," says Gummert. "If there was something else we could have explored, trust me, we would have."

While unanswered questions will always remain, every unearthed fact from the investigation pointed to David, according to Gummert.

"In life, more often than not," he says, "it's the subsequent little events over time that add up.... What happened that day was a build-up over time."

Investigators surmise personal issues and financial troubles conflicted with David's narcissism and entitlement. Komel, police believe, played along because she bowed to David's untold emotional and psychological manipulations. Darkness squeezed tighter as the weather got colder. Delusions of moviemaking grandeur couldn't peacefully coexist with life's hard truths.

Komel's body would be flown to Texas and buried. David was cremated. His family would not disclose the location of his remains. Rani was also cremated. Half of her remains were buried with her mother, half are interred with David.