SUBURBAN ADOLESCENT MURDER sprees were still a media novelty back in May 1995, when three white, teenage wannabe gangbangers in Appleton, Wisconsin, lured a black friend to a remote cabin and strangled, stabbed, and beat him to death before stuffing his body under the front porch. Later they returned and burned the body in an empty grain silo. When it looked as if the killers might be discovered, they drove to a local park and executed a suicide pact. Two other gang members who participated in the murder but not the suicide were arrested and brought to trial.
The events stunned the prosperous river-valley town. John Whitehead, a St. Paul documentary maker who grew up in Appleton, found out about the murders when his mother called him.
"I couldn't believe it," he says over a cell phone from Bemidji, where he is shooting his next film. "I'd had senses or glimmers that things had changed in the valley, but I was shocked. It was clearly a different town."
Whitehead's one-hour doc Wannabe: Life and Death in a Small Town Gang, airing this week on KTCA, is an examination of what happened in his hometown. "People were discussing whether [the murders] were an aberration or an indicator of something bigger," he says. "And I felt it was an indicator; I felt at a gut level, 'I have to do something about this.'"
Whitehead hoped to move beyond the media's fixation on "gang violence" and to show the story from a more intimate perspective. Initially, he says, he planned to spend the summer talking to other Appleton gangbangers, using the crime as a jumping-off point to investigate the larger phenomenon of mostly white, Midwestern kids who talked like they were from Compton, watched Colors like some teenagers watch Titanic, and sported Gangster Disciples tattoos. (Similar figures populate New York actor Danny Hoch's Whiteboys, an upcoming release about Iowa farmboys whose urban fantasies are transformed by the arrival of a black teen from Chicago). But the gangsters weren't talking, and so Whitehead instead directed his attention to the actual crime.
The final product is measured and subtle, avoiding both sweeping conclusions and Dateline-style emotional hooks. The parents of the four dead boys each have a chance to speak, sharing the screen with a special-ed teacher, a former local gang leader, Appleton teenagers, police, and a judge. The father of one of the killers shows off the vegetable garden he used to tend with his son; then, having run out of things to say, he bends down and picks his son's ashes from the dirt. Another gang member's mother talks about her son's generosity and his kindness; the principal talks about his sense of humor. It's easy to forget for a moment that these teens, buried in their gang colors, were also murderers. Other striking moments come when Whitehead interviews local teenagers, who seem appreciably more savvy than their parents about Appleton's underbelly.
To Whitehead, the pressing question is not one of race, media influence, or gun control but rather what it is in the culture that creates the urge to join a gang, even--or especially--in a supposed idyll like Appleton. His film provides a number of clues, touching on the kids' need for brotherhood, respect, and structure amid lives filled with academic failure and ridicule. Despite Whitehead's conclusion near the end of the film that the urge can be attributed to a breakdown in family structure, his own film belies such a precise diagnosis.
"What made you be in a gang?" he asks one boy, who has just admitted that he comes from a dysfunctional home.
"Well," the kid replies, "basically, I just had some time."
Wannabe: Life and Death in a Small Town Gang airs 10:00 p.m. Sunday, October 24 on KTCA (Channel 2).