The Walrus Blog

Family Ties

Canadian filmmaker John Kastner uncovers the truth behind a heartbreaking small-town murder
Still from Life With Murder

Because it’s a film that so crucially relies on carefully developing its story, and playing out its various startling revelations with measured restraint, it’s tricky to talk about John Kastner’s Life With Murder without exposing its secrets. (Indeed, we’ve been explicitly urged by the producers and Kastner himself to check any impulse to do so.) But it’s no spoiler to say that the triple Emmy Award–winning Canadian filmmaker has produced what will likely emerge as one of the most talked–about documentaries to screen at this year’s Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, better known as Hot Docs.

Co-produced by the CTV, NFB, and Kastner’s own production company, Life With Murder tells an exceptional story that’s made all the more improbable by virtue of its verity. In January 1998, the town of Chatham, Ontario became the unlikely site of a murder, when eighteen-year-old high schooler Jennifer Jenkins was gunned down in her family home. Just as her traumatized parents were coming to terms with their daughter’s death, local police zeroed in on their prime suspect: Jennifer’s twenty-year-old brother, Mason.

Though Mason asserted his innocence, he was eventually convicted of first-degree murder, and is now serving a life sentence at a medium-security correctional institute nearly 500 kilometres from the scene of the crime. Determined to keep what family they have left intact, Brian and Leslie Jenkins remain in close contact with their son, frequently visiting him in prison, exchanging jokes and birthday gifts. Life With Murder is at once a gripping small-town murder mystery and an agonizing portrait of parents’ grief, which only deepens as the film unfolds.

Again, to say too much about Life With Murder is to effectively ruin it. But with its premiere at Hot Docs this weekend to be followed by an airing on CTV (date TBA), as well as other robust (though also undisclosed) distribution deals in North America, it is a film that demands to be seen and, afterward, seriously talked about.

Walrusmagazine.com spoke with Kastner about how he discovered Mason’s case, and the manner in which his film’s story revealed itself.

How did you happen across Mason Jenkins?

I was making another film in the same prison, in the same unit that Mason was in. I made a two-part film for CTV that preceded these films, called Monster in the Family. We used Mason as a decoy, because [repeat* sex offender] Martin Ferrier, who was the subject of Monster in the Family, didn’t want to get any heat from the other offenders and didn’t want us to film him in range of his cell. So I had this idea, where I thought, suppose we tell people we’re not doing the story of Martin Ferrier, we tell them we’re doing the story of Unit Five, which was the unit they were in. We asked Martin to recruit a couple of inmates who we would film out in the open while we quietly filmed him in his cell, so nobody would know it’s his film. That’s how I met Mason.

When did you become interested in Mason’s story?

That prison is the largest prison in Canada, and there are many heavy-duty offenders with fabulous stories. So I didn’t pay a lot of attention with him. But eventually, I became fascinated with the idea of how criminals — serious violent criminals — reconcile with their families. I was interviewing Martin Ferrier and he was saying that his mother, who actually led a national campaign to have her son locked up forever, was not only trying to destroy him, but didn’t visit him. Martin said to me, “I’ve been here for eight years and she’s only visited me once. But there’s this guy in here who was convicted of murdering his sister and his parents visit him all the time!”

How long after you first began talking to Mason did you decide set about turning your cameras towards him?

So much of what goes into a film like this, where we’re dealing with an incredibly touchy topic, is building a relationship with the subjects. I had a good relationship with him and his parents. Plus, they knew from Martin that I did what I said I would do. So I had cleared out all that underbrush, which usually takes a lot of time. In late 2007 we started in earnest. I actually turned down money to produce it. I spent my own money. I’d never done anything like that in my career. I just had absolute confidence in this story.

Were the Jenkins immediately responsive?

One of the things that’s remarkable about the film is that this is the first time they’ve all really talked about what happened that night [when Jennifer was murdered]. When Leslie is sitting beside Mason in the [prison] kitchen in the first scene, that’s the first time they have that discussion. And they have it on camera. That sets the pattern for the rest of the film.

The film is paced in a very deliberate way, where it builds to these different revelations. I had assumed that this was just the way you put the film together.

The film is built to surprise you. It’s been called a real-life murder mystery, a real-life thriller. Mason was convicted of first-degree murder, and had spent years protesting his innocence. But then in the course of filming there’s this remarkable twist where we find out who really did murder Jennifer, and that individual confesses to the murder on camera. These were amazing revelations and it was the first time anybody had heard them: the parents, the police, anybody. Pandora’s box opened. We were stunned.

Some of the most emotional and telling material in the film is presented as closed-circuit footage from cameras in the police station, where Mason is questioned and his parents are briefed by the investigating officers. It seems exceptional that you would have access to that footage.

It was very hard to get. It took nine months of, shall we say, discussions with the Chatham-Kent police who were worried about the Jenkinses. They were worried that Brian and Leslie would find this footage shattering. They allowed me to look at it, but they wouldn’t give me permission to use it, initially. Immediately I thought that these are people who have been cut dead, or stigmatized, even by their own family. There are people who cannot forgive them for supporting Mason. They feel it’s almost a betrayal of Jennifer. I looked at this footage, and nobody who has a heart can look at this footage and be angry with these people. It’s just heartbreaking material.

And look, how many people in the world have been through what they’ve been through? The experience of the Jenkins family is so remote from what most people on the planet go through that it’s almost like a visitor from the planet Venus trying to explain to you what life is like on the planet Venus. But you see this footage, and it’s like you are experiencing [the horror] with them. You are at their elbow as this horrible day or two unfolds. When you find out that Mason is a suspect, they find out that Mason is a suspect. I told them that if we put some of this footage in, we were going to melt some of the hearts of those who’ve been cold.

After viewing the final product, are the Jenkins thankful for the film?

They’re pleased at the outcome. I talk to Leslie almost day and have for weeks and weeks now. At the end of the screening, their reactions were typical. Leslie’s a very contained woman, as you can see in the film, and Brian’s the opposite. Brian was mopping his eyes during the screening. They hadn’t seen much of the footage of Jennifer before. It was the first time they saw her come back to life a little bit. And that was so poignant for Brian. At the end of the screening, he said it was hard for him to watch. But he was glad.

(Photo © 2009 JSK Jasper Productions and the National Film Board of Canada)
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Posted in Moving Pictures  • 

  • http://www.jskastner.com John Kastner

    Thanks for a lovely, sensitive piece, John, much appreciated — but one misleading error, alas:you describe Martin Ferrier as a “repeat sex offender” but Ferrier was convicted of a single sexual offence — not rape — 15 years ago. Ferrier himself caught it (a fan of Walrus, I guess) and is concerned because he has been falsely labelled sooo often (that’s what much of Monster in the Family is about) and these references have been extremely damaging.
    John Kastner

  • Smith

    Let me start by saying that I am a huge fan of “Monster in the Family”. It was brilliant: the first of its kind to successfully capture the subtle and complex dynamic between an abusive (probably psychopathic and sadistic) predatory mother and her targeted child. So, in my opinion, Mr. Kastner has ‘street cred’.

    But I’m not so convinced he’s on the right track with this doc, although I must admit I haven’t seen it – yet.

    Various media reports say that the family is publicly “redeemed” for their support of Mason through it. From the comments it appears that the Jenkins were innocently, out of the blue, surprised when their son was charged. Possible, yes – but doubtful.

    I belong to a trauma self-help group, where several members have been assaulted by siblings – almost universally with either the implicit or explicit approval of their parents. For every Jennifer Jenkins and Tammi Homolka who died, there are several thousands who survive with great difficulty. And, in my experience, when one child is assaulted or murdered, ODDS ARE it is precisely because the parents have already chosen to favour the interests of the criminally inclined child over his/her siblings, have often setup one child as a ‘designated target’ and have subtly or explicitly condoned assaultive behaviour. In the vast majority of cases criminals are made, not born, although the genesis of their criminality can be through subtle and not easily understood methods.

    I’m not saying that is the case here. Nor am I saying that it isn’t. Just that the points above should always be considered.

    BTW – if Mr. Ferrier is reading this – I hope that you are well, that your life now has good influences in it, and that you have been able to transcend the pain and abandonment you’ve experienced and are able to turn away from the darkness you grew up with. My blessings to both you and Mr. Kastner.

  • Sharryn McCollum

    The story on Life With Murder came to my attention through a CBC radio interview with Mr. Kastner. I would very much like to view the documentary. Could you advise me when it will air. (Date, time, Channel etc.)

  • Biff

    I have no way of seeing this film where I live and what is driving me nuts in all these links online is there is no explanation of why Mason killed Jennifer. Anyone who has seen the film, enlighten me.

  • David Janick

    I heard about this on CBC Radio One. This whole thing sickens me. I grew up across the street from Mason and his family. I was Jennifer’s friend as a youngster. The things I’ve seen Mason do before Jennifer’s death would make anyone who feels sorry for that “man” change their minds. I can only trust in the legal system that he will live the rest of his “life” in jail, and think that for Brian and Leslie to have any financial gain from this unfortunate situation is dispicable. However, Brian was always a salesman and “out to make a buck”. Hell I saw and spoke with Mason very shortly before this whole incident happened. He lied to me and my father to our faces then. If this whole incident has been “so well” investigated, I guess they missed us. Absolutely unacceptable.

    • micahel smith

      The Jenkins family used to come over for swims and BBQ’s. I talked to Mason on numerous occasions about his fascinations in killing small animals. I knew he was disturbed back then.

      • David Janick

        Well it was interesting to watch the program when it aired. I tuned in to the second scheduled airing to see if I had missed anything, and it had been cancelled….wonder why.
        You remember the small animals too? Thought I was the only one.
        What about the old green Ford LTD that he took joyriding when he was a young teen on the 401?? What about the BB gun that he used to shoot another neighbor kid from behind with, as well as my house, my father’s car….the list goes on.
        Disturbed is putting it mildly, and our memories point to a LONG period of time where his parents HAD to be aware of who he is. I think they feel guilty for being ostrich-like for all of those years, ultimately resulting in Jennifer’s death. I wonder how they felt when they found out he had planned to kill them too…

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PYUX4CRQLK5WABEJF4HE37EEEI Charles Lindgren

          From the documentary, it is very clear that Mason is disturbed. What is great is that the story never becomes judgmental, it gradually reveals the truth to the viewer without giving too much information. This is much better than letting some scientist say that “Mason is a psychopath”

        • Julia

          I just saw the movie myself and I find the comments here very enlightening.  Yes the parents have been put in a terrible situation and one can’t help but feel bad for them, but there does seem to be some willful blindness involved as well – not only since the murder but before as well.  The parents haven’t forgiven him and moved on — they’ve simply refused to acknowledge his guilt.  Interesting how they speak of “Jennifer’s murder” in one sentence and insist it was an accident (shot 5 times with a single shot shotgun!) in the next.

          Mason is an obvious sociopath – claiming innocence until his last appeal is exausted then admitting guilt in preparation for his parole hearings.  I hope he’s kept in for as long as Canadian Law allows.

        • Whosjohngalt

          I find the replies of those that knew Brian quite insightful. I was disappointed with the Doc’s overall information. A couple of things on the board have raised a question or two though. In the Doc his mother states no weapon was ever kept in the house. One of the bloggers stated differently. I also would like very much to know if the sister was favored over the brother. If all things being equal between them..Then why did he kill her?? He eventually went on to say he had planned to kill his parents. He even went so far as to forge a will. So after killing his sister, did he plan to execute his parents when they arrived but was unable to carry that out? Or did he tell his sister of his plan possibly trying to recruit her in his scheme with her having none of it resulting in her death? I understand the perspective the Doc’s were trying to project, but personally I felt it lacked much more than it offered.

        • Whosjohngalt

          I find the replies of those that knew Brian quite insightful. I was disappointed with the Doc’s overall information. A couple of things on the board have raised a question or two though. In the Doc his mother states no weapon was ever kept in the house. One of the bloggers stated differently. I also would like very much to know if the sister was favored over the brother. If all things being equal between them..Then why did he kill her?? He eventually went on to say he had planned to kill his parents. He even went so far as to forge a will. So after killing his sister, did he plan to execute his parents when they arrived but was unable to carry that out? Or did he tell his sister of his plan possibly trying to recruit her in his scheme with her having none of it resulting in her death? I understand the perspective the Doc’s were trying to project, but personally I felt it lacked much more than it offered.

  • http://www.madchen-spiele.net Mädchen

    Various media reports say that the family is publicly “redeemed” for their support of Mason through it. From the comments it appears that the Jenkins were innocently, out of the blue, surprised when their son was charged. Possible, yes – but doubtful.

  • Smith

    For those of you who knew the Masons when Jennifer was alive, I’d be very interested in your thoughts (as far as you know) re: the following:

    1) From your comments it appears that Mason’s inappropriate behaviour was well known before Jennifer’s murder. Was this acknowledged by his parents? Did they try to get help for Mason?

    2) Was Jennifer merely “in the wrong place at the wrong time”, or had there been examples of Mason taunting or threatening her prior to her murder?

    3) Was the Jenkins’s relationship with both children similar to what has been portrayed in this doc’s write-up? i.e. Did they genuinely, as far as you could tell, love both children equally but decided to embrace Mason as the only child left after Jennifer’s murder? –OR–

    4) Are the sentiments alluded to in the article by some neighbours and family members (that this is disrespectful to Jennifer’s memory) legitimate? I’d especially like to know whether or not there was favouritism shown to Mason over Jennifer, &/or inappropriate coddling of his troubling behaviour, prior to the murder?

    5) Were the Jenkins genuinely deaf and blind to this, or is something more going on here that we’re not hearing about?

  • Emily

    Jennifer was my babysitter growing up as well as my neighbor. I was very young and do not remember Mason too well. My parents however have told me numerous stories. The Jenkins owned that gun that Mason shot his sister with. The gun had been in the house for quite awhile. He actually shot it off on two occasions and Brian even had to repair holes on the roof were the bullets were fired through. He stole many vehicles and would come over to our house in the middle of the night screaming and talking to himself as he swam in our pool. One night my mom was sleeping and my dad was working and she heard a screeching noise and someone yelling. She looked out the window to see Mason jumping off of our diving board into our pool.. he was by himself.
    I remember Jen babysitting me one night and we were in the basement and Mason walked into our house and came downstairs and started fighting with Jennifer. For some reason I remember that day. My parents did not tell me that Mason and murdered Jennifer until a few years ago and right away i thought back to that day. Its pretty sad when I was only three years old and can still remember that day perfectly.
    I find it sickening..the parents stick up for their child after the behavior they see it understandable that they would deny it at first but even after all the evidence came out they still go and visit him.. he doesnt deserve to be visited..he is a monster.. why did the parents keep the gun in the house after the two “accidents” that occured things seem a little fishy to me. Leslie told my mother that the second time mason fired the gun it went through the bathroom wall and if Brian had been standing at the toilet it would have gone right through his chest. My parents called crime stoppers but nothing was done.
    I am now going into my first year of university for criminology and honestly decided the course choice because of this case. Just curious where I can get this documentary from.

  • John Semley

    To anyone inquiring, there are plans to air the documentary on CTV in the near future, though an official date has yet to be announced. It’s also currently making a theatrical run in the States. For more info, head to the film’s NFB website: http://films.nfb.ca/lifewithmurder/

  • Janet Wilson

    I have not seen the film, but did hear the CBC interview with the filmaker with Jian Gomeshi on Q.

    There are two things I have to offer to the discussion, one on the “family” side, one not.

    First, in the nature vs. nurture debate, individuals are often incapable of seeing how differently they actually do treat their children. This is very obvious when children are of different sexes. Our culture likes to think we raise them “equally”, but we absolutely do not. From the cradle (and even before, there are some lovely studies of how the way prospective parents conceptualize their unborn children differently after they are informed of the child’s sex), and in spite of our conscious efforts to the contrary, we socialize them very differently. You also respond differently to them based on their personalities, their quirks, whether they remind you of your favourite aunt or your hated cousin, etc. You have a relationship with each of your children, and relationships have their own unique life. So I doubt very much that these children were raised “just the same”. They were simply raised by the same people; a very important distinction.

    Second, there is the simple fact that when people don’t know what to do, they often simply do nothing. The Jenkins are often critcised for “not getting it”, but I suspect when faced with a son who was increasingly violent, disturbed and disturbing, they simply didn’t know what to do, and tragically, did nothing. It’s not really wrong, but it’s not right either. But we can all agree: it is 100% sad.

  • scott h

    @BIFF—Mason’s “plan” was to kill his sister and parents so that he could then inherit the family’s property, then stage the scene as a robbery to investigators. After he killed his sister he lost his nerve to finish the job and fled the scene. (great job Mase, what an original scheme)

    Kastner has made comments in interviews that the central character in the film are the parents…this is bullshit. The central character is the dead sister. Mason is evil, and the parents are stupid and cowardly. If I had parents like this I would have planned to shoot them too.

  • Maureen

    I watched this last night on TV. Mason sounded “disturbed” to me. After reading some of the previous comments, it is obvious that he engaged in unacceptable behavior from a very early age. Not much was said about the type of person Jennifer was, but I get the impression that she was totally unlike her brother. Perhaps Mason felt he was being unfairly compared to his sister, and decided to do away with her. I think he had very poor coping skills. Unfortunately he felt the need to murder rather than get some much needed therapy. The assertion that this murder was an accident is ridiculous. He (Mason) is in denial big time!! If Mason was my son, I am not sure how I would behave. Parents are supposed to have unconditional love, however, when that son has taken the life of an innocent victim, that puts a whole new perspective on things! They are victims too, so I do not criticize them for their decision to stand by their son.

    • David Janick

      Maureen, Jennifer was a lovely girl. We shared a lot of time together in the years I lived there. From all of the sentiments from her friends she continued to remain the same loving, caring, and happy person that I remember her being as a youngster. You will also notice that none of Mason’s friends have rebutted anything here in his defense…

  • Jennifer

    [quote]5) Were the Jenkins genuinely deaf and blind to this, or is something more going on here that we’re not hearing about?[/quote]
    Smith asks a great question. When one learns of a typewritter hidden in a furnace, the tape of which reveals that Mason has changed his parents wills to inherit everything, well, there is little more that could possibly corroborate the Crown’s theory of a premeditated plot to kill not only Jennifer, but his parents as well. Was that an accident too — changing and forging wills? Anyone who sat in the courtroom and considered the tomes of evidence would come to that conclusion unless they had a dire psychological motive to refute it.

  • memckaskle

    Mason’s parents are classic ENABLERS. A prime example is when his parents sugar coat the car thefts. They mention them, but quickly point out that the cars were often returned washed and filled with gas. This is when the biggest red flag went up for me. We have a guy who is in jail for murder and they still feel the need to defend the car thefts.
    Furthermore, Mason showed no signs of remorse for his crime, and in fact spoke of it with smirks the majority of the time. He seemed annoyed with his parents during thier visits, and acted entitled to the support they were giving him. I have a hard time believing that his parents were not major enablers from the very beginnig. Even a sociopath learns to feign appreciation, love, etc when it is waranted. In my opinion, the dynamics of this family made it extremely easy for him to be callous because there were no repercussions.
    With that being said, obviously I can’t say what I would do in the same situation. I can also understand their need to hang on to the one child they had left. My issue is with the enabling behavior these parents exhibit. If these revelations regarding Mason can not open thier eyes, nothing will. I hope he doesn’t get out, because he will be right back in an enviornment where lying, manipulating and denial are completely accepted.

    • http://www.facebook.com/kathie.eichenberg Kathie Eichenberg

      right you are, mem. The whole thing is blaringly obvious and sickening. A sociopath is a sociopath and must be treated as such. Geez!


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