In recent years, the true crime genre has taken off, with videos and documentaries delving into real-life criminal cases capturing the attention of audiences worldwide. But where is the line between storytelling and profiting off tragedy?
And what if some of that profit goes to the family of the man who allegedly caused the tragedy?
NBC/Peacock is currently filming a documentary on the suspected Gilgo Beach serial killer, Rex Heuermann, according to NewsNation.
Heuermann was arrested in July and charged with the murders of three women found dumped on Long Island’s Gilgo Beach between 2010 and 2011: Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman and Amber Costello. The women’s murders remained unsolved for over a decade.
Investigators identified Heuermann as a suspect using cellphone records and DNA evidence, including from an old pizza crust discarded in a Manhattan trash can.
He is also considered the prime suspect in the death of a fourth victim, Maureen Brainard-Barnes.
Now, NBC is looking to capitalize on the public fascination surrounding the case — and bringing Heuermann’s estranged wife and children along for the ride.
“They will be filmed throughout the trial and after the trial’s outcome,” a source told NewsNation. “The family will tell their entire story and everything about their life [with Heuermann] exclusively to the [documentary filmmakers].”
Asa Ellerup, who filed for divorce from Heuermann six days after his arrest, and their two children are reportedly set to receive at least $1 million for participating in the project.
Since the money will go to the accused murderer’s family, it bypasses “Son of Sam” laws, which do not allow a criminal to profit from his story.
This brings up obvious ethical concerns. Driven by the public’s insatiable appetite for real-life horror stories, NBC is monetizing murder seemingly without regard for the additional suffering it may cause the victims’ families.
On the one hand, Ellerup and her children appear to have been as shocked as anyone by Heuermann’s alleged crimes. They are victims themselves, unable to find work and forever branded by their connection to a suspected serial killer.
According to their lawyer, “Their existence now is as bleak and as hardscrabble as you can imagine. There’s no Mercedes, there’s no luxury vehicles. … Their lives will never be the same.”
On the other hand, the fact that Heuermann’s family — or, indeed, anyone — will profit from his alleged crimes must be incredibly painful to the victims’ loved ones.
Though his wife and children are not to blame for his actions, it’s easy to see why their lucrative media deal rubs many the wrong way. One X user called it “a slap in the face to the victims’ families.”
“Son of Sam” laws were meant to prevent criminals from cashing in on their crimes. By paying the suspect’s family instead, NBC is adhering to the letter of the law but violating its spirit.
Legally, it’s a fair workaround. But ethically, it may very well cross a blurry moral boundary.
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