Reality Bytes

After 32-year-old Kira Simonian was found murdered in her home, Minneapolis police offered few details about the grisly crime. So self-styled online criminologists came up with their own theories.

“I AM THE ONLY ONE who ever gave a damn for me.”

Those words come from Kira Simonian, part of an audio track that launches when you click through to the section of the blog dedicated to her murder on Truecrimemagazine.com. The loud slamming sound that follows is Simonian stamping her feet, although that’s not readily apparent until you’ve scrolled down the page—past news of the grisly discovery of her body last June in her apartment near the Minneapolis Institute of Arts—to find a video that shows her talking. “It is an odd, random-seeming moment,” writes the blog’s author, Steve Huff, “rendered all the more strange by the idea that you are seeing eight seconds from the life of a murder victim.” The clip is from an old acting audition, so it’s actually eight seconds of Simonian aping someone else’s life. But the blogger is right: It is odd.

In the video clip, Simonian’s tone is sardonic, her expression severe, and her angular bob the shade of auburn favored by the hipper-than-thou. On the same page are links to online galleries featuring paintings by Simonian, a 32-year-old rising star at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, her barely used MySpace and Friendster pages, as well as those of her husband of three years, Matthew Gretz. There’s even a link to the couple’s Amazon.com wedding registry, which lists more power tools than china. It’s not nearly enough to establish who Simonian really was, but it’s enough to make you want to know.

In keeping with the entrenched traditions of true crime, these digital footprints are embedded in several hundred words of florid prose. “I am, perhaps, a romantic where artists are concerned,” Huff waxes. “Maybe it is because I sense the terrible perception they may have brought to bear in their final moments. I keep imagining the silence of true muses surrounding this artist’s killer, muses rendered dumb by violence done to their charge.”

With that posting, Huff turned the case over to loyal followers of the blog (formerly known as Crimeblog.us). In more than a thousand comments, they took note of circumstances that seemed to implicate Gretz. But they quickly went on to construct juicier theories: She was killed by an enraged lover, a stalker, a serial killer, or another art student jealous of her gifts.

It’s hardly news that the Internet enables far-flung obsessives to hook up and form unlikely subcultures. Nor is it surprising that when their collective fascination is crime, the most popular narratives involve pretty white women and trails of gruesome clues. The twist in this conversation was that, starved for information, Simonian’s friends and neighbors joined in. The murder victim and the suspect became more than characters in a whodunit, the truth of what happened between them a matter for the police to investigate, a jury to decide. Now, the would-be detectives actually had witnesses to interview, real-life leads to track down. And this army of Macintosh Matlocks had no problem conjuring theories of the crime as packed with plot twists as any episode of Law & Order.

THIS MONTH, Simonian’s husband, Gretz, a 34-year-old Sheboygan, Wisconsin native, is scheduled to go on trial for second-degree murder. He has steadfastly maintained his innocence.

According to the complaint against him, on June 27, a neighbor in their complex was awoken at 5 a.m. by screams coming from the couple’s apartment.

“She heard things banging around the rooms, and at one point she heard the male party saying something to the effect of, ‘Do you love me?’” the document reports. “The last thing this resident heard was two loud screams by the female voice, then only silence.”

A cab arrived at 5:20 a.m. Ten minutes later, Gretz left for the airport and flew to New York for a business trip in connection with his job as a marketing manager for Target Corporation. Simonian was found the following evening, stabbed 15 times in the neck and chest and struck in the head. A knife and a claw-type hammer, both bloody, were found in the living room near her body, which was clad in a T-shirt and panties.

A full day elapsed before Gretz was located. When he flew home to face questioning, he arrived without luggage, and with cuts and bruises on his arms and legs, according to the complaint. The suitcase turned out to have been FedExed to the couple’s home city, Chicago. Testing later found Gretz’s and Simonian’s blood on the luggage—and on Gretz’s watch.

For two months, Minneapolis police disclosed none of this, saying only that they had no firm suspect but were sure no one else was in danger. Cop reporters quickly learn to recognize this kind of statement as code for “we’re dotting our i’s,” but the people who lived in Simonian’s neighborhood took it at face value. If there wasn’t a suspect, how did the cops know no one else was at risk?

So while police were questioning Gretz, his friends, neighbors, and coworkers were sharing scuttlebutt online. A rumor that a window screen at the couple’s apartment was torn and a chair propped under it further panicked neighbors, who were already trading notes about a peeping Tom. On July 4, “Sue” left a particularly juicy comment. “Chair placed and screen torn after the fact,” she wrote. “Event took place between 5:00—5:30 a.m. on Wed…. Unable to share more…protecting a witness to the crime…no visual…but auditory.”

“JM” replied quickly. “Thanks Sue, that’s good information. I wonder if [Simonian] was as mean and condescending as she wanted her Friendster account to portray her? This woman didn’t seem to be overflowing with the milk of human kindness. I don’t know, maybe it was an act to give her art school cred. Anyone know her personally?”

Someone did. “How dare you,” “@MCAD” shot back. “You don’t know her and you can’t judge by what you see online.”

“You have no idea how hard it is to see you people treat this like an episode of CSI,” another poster concurred. “If you know something, please contact the police. If you’re just speculating, please stop.”

The self-styled investigators offered a curt reply: Maybe Simonian’s and Gretz’s friends had come to the wrong place. Speculating, after all, is the whole purpose of a crime blog. If it was hurtful, perhaps the wounded parties should just butt out.

AS LONG AS PEOPLE HAVE told stories, there’s been fascination with lurid tales of true crimes (see: Cain v. Abel). For most of that history, though, readers have been passive consumers of such yarns. Not anymore. The 24-hour news cycle means people can track a case in real time. America’s Most Wanted deputizes viewers while 48 Hours solicits theories from the audience. It was a small step from there to online forums, where anybody with a computer and a sense of certainty can contribute.

The format can be seductive. On prime-time police dramas, the most obvious theory of the crime is never the real solution. Arriving at the truth involves action and suspense, not tedious checking and double-checking. As a result, we’ve begun to filter real events through what David Altheide, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Justice and Social Inquiry, calls “media logic.”

“We start viewing our social lives as versions of television shows,” he says. Online, cases can be made to unfold in ways that follow the pattern. “The next message to be read and reacted to and given credence has got to be not just more salacious, but it’s got to be new. It’s got to be from a different angle. It’s got to appear to be even more factual and more insiderish.”

Part of the allure is that by offering an opinion, anyone can seem like an insider. “You have someone on the screen saying, ‘I like what Bill said about this crime,’” Altheide says. “Or, ‘I think that’s an interesting point Bill’s making.’ It’s affirming.”

In the past, crime stories quoted police or witnesses long after cases were solved or declared cold. The Internet turned the story into a real-time conversation—one where inside information is so prized that witnesses and even investigators sometimes get tempted into participating, albeit anonymously. Cops spend most of their time working on what author Tom Wolfe, in The Bonfire of the Vanities, calls “pieces of shit” cases—ones that are long on human failure but short on any real intrigue.

And when witnesses and friends of the flesh-and-blood subjects at the center of the drama make an appearance, as happened with the Simonian case, it means the blog is living up to the conceit behind it: That the online community is actually important to solving the crime.

After Gretz’s arrest, blogger Huff reminded his readers of a superficially damning comment Gretz left on Simonian’s Friendster page: “Chances are, Kira doesn’t like you. You see, she’s a picky bird, one who doesn’t fawn over the latest reality shows or kowtow to the powers that be. No, she’s an artist. So she’s allowed to wear as much black as she wants and criticize stuff that sucks. If it wasn’t for Kira, pathetic losers wouldn’t realize their lot in life and those of us lucky enough to serve as her muse are able to live a much more rewarding life!”

An armchair deconstruction of Gretz’s psyche followed, and the few neighbors and friends who returned to participate were dismayed. “I never knew that Matt would be capable of something like this and I will believe that he is innocent until PROVEN guilty,” said a friend from Gretz’s past. Others added that Simonian offered no hints that there were problems between the couple.

But many of the regulars didn’t have such doubts, nor were they interested in waiting for the legal system to run its course. They were positive Gretz is guilty—and sure of the dynamics that compelled him to murder: He’s pathologically passive-aggressive, or jealous of his wife’s talent. “Gretz had an inferiority complex…. He tried to play the ‘nice guy’ even though he was boiling inside at people who made him feel less than adequate,” one writer, “Eyes for Lies,” posited. “Kira, in the end, made him feel like the others they laughed and sneered at and finally Gretz snapped.”

Ultimately, the theory of the case unraveled online isn’t likely to have much impact on the one that prosecutors will present at Gretz’s trial this month. A thousand comments may make the case one of the best-read threads on one of the most popular true-crime blogs, but Hennepin County Deputy Attorney Pat Diamond says it’s still unlikely the debate contaminated the jury pool or sullied the credibility of any witnesses. “This is the Kennedys meeting up with the conspiracy theorists online,” he quips.

Likewise, it’s easy to imagine that the self-styled criminologists will ultimately find the cases they’ve built themselves more satisfying than the real thing. In fact, some declared the Simonian case closed once Gretz was arrested. “Thank you, Mr. Huff, for covering this,” wrote the blogger “Darby.” “I did not meet Kira, but this case affected me. I hope that she can rest in peace, and that those of us on this forum can also move forward now and be at peace as well.”

Beth Hawkins is a writer-at-large for Minnesota Monthly.

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