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An Interview With the NYC Filmmakers Behind ‘American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders’

Zachary Treitz and Christian Hansen spent years reporting this story involving murder, treachery, and high-ranking government officials.

Christian Hansen in American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders. (Courtesy of Netflix © 2024)

Christian Hansen in “American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders.” (Photo: Peter Van Agtmael. Courtesy of Netflix © 2024)

Five or so years ago, when photojournalist and Hell Gate contributor Christian Hansen first described a vast and haunting conspiracy he'd spent countless hours investigating, I didn't know what to make of it. I was confused. What did ancient government software have to do with an Indian casino in California? Powerful arms dealers actually named their company "Wackenhut"? On a six-hour road trip, Christian did his best to unpack it more, but I was still lost.

This week, Netflix released "American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders," a four-part documentary series that opens with the mysterious death of journalist Daniel Casolaro in 1991, and expands on the story he was working on at the time of his death, a story that involved murder, treachery, and high-ranking government officials. The film, directed by Christian's childhood friend Zachary Treitz, follows Danny Casolaro and Christian on parallel reporting tracks. I am biased—Christian and Zach are friends I have known for years—but I think it's pretty damn good.

On Friday morning I called them up to talk about "conspiracy" discourse, the staggering amount of reporting that went into the project that took nearly five years to make, and that time they biked 10 blocks in Manhattan to meet a lawyer in a public plaza to pick up a video of an eye-opening deposition that had been under seal for years. To fully understand what we're talking about, it's a good idea to watch an episode or two first.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Hell Gate: Christian, when did you start looking into the "Octopus murders"?

HANSEN: In 2012, I was writing a paper for a journalism class I was taking in college, about the private prison industry. And that led me to one of the major companies in the private prison industry, which was formerly called the Wackenhut Corporation. And Wackenhut was involved in many things beyond private prisons, including defending nuclear missile sites and Area 51. They had offices all over the world. So I started looking into this company, it turns out they do a lot of like, black bag jobs for the government. They had plans to develop chemical and biological weapons on a Native American reservation in the Coachella Valley. And this reporter named Danny Casolaro was looking into it. That's how I found out about Danny, was through looking into the history of the Wackenhut Corporation for this paper. I can't even remember what happened to that paper, if I finished it or not. I just got kind of obsessed with Danny Casolaro and the story that he was working on that led to his death.

From left: Zachary Treitz and Christian Hansen in "American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders" (Courtesy of Netflix © 2024)

Scanning the reviews of the movie, the phrase that keeps coming up the most is how it's about "the danger of conspiracy theories." How do you feel about that reading of the show?

HANSEN: I mean, I haven't read any of the reviews, someone told me that it's a bad idea. What does that mean, the danger of conspiracy theories? The danger that it will make the people of the country doubt in…?

TREITZ: No no, it's like it's the whole cautionary tale narrative of, this is what it looks like to get sucked into a rabbit hole. I think that's fine. It is that. I've talked to people about that and I agree. And now I feel kind of like I need to walk that back because that seems to be the easiest thing for anybody in the, I hate to say it but like, "liberal press," to go with this meta narrative, you know? 

Because they don't seem to want to grapple with the actual story and conspiracies—and not even conspiracies, just stories that we bring up in the show, because they don't want to be, in my mind, tarred with this idea of them being conspiracy-positive. Conspiracies—that's something for Trump World to deal with. That's evil. They just don't want to grapple with the actual stories that we're telling in this thing, in my mind. I mean, that's my very biased viewpoint. I think it's an incomplete reading of what we're talking about. It'd be nice if people were like, Whoa, the stuff that they bring up is really scary. 

Yes, this is what it looks like to go into a conspiracy theory, perhaps. But it's one where you keep going because more and more things turn out to be true than not.

HANSEN: And I would be that cautionary tale. I'm the thing to be cautious of becoming, which is an embarrassing position for me personally. But I'm looking around and I have a really fulfilling and interesting life and I have a lot of friends and we have really interesting conversations about the history of the United States, and all sorts of things. I exercise, I eat healthy and I read, and I don't know—I don't feel like I'm that cautionary of a tale. 

TREITZ: But you see in the documentary that things got dark. 

HANSEN: Yeah, things got dark.

TREITZ: There's no way around that. I mean, is "Lord of the Rings" a cautionary tale? It's an adventure. There's really bad moments for the hobbits. And us hobbits had some bad moments too. But I'd like to think that, you know, we eventually got through it.

HANSEN: Also, in order to really get to the nub of the investigation, the conspiracy, we were talking to dangerous people, and people were telling us, "be careful, be careful, be careful." 

TREITZ: Right. If you take the story seriously, there's the actual cautionary tale, which is: You just don't want to mess with some of these people.

The titular Octopus in "American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders" (Courtesy of Netflix © 2024)

I want to get back to conspiracies in a minute. But about the stories you're telling: a ton of reporting went into this film. The sheer number of documents that are shown, the number of interviews you did. How many people did you interview for this movie, total?

HANSEN: Well, there's different categories. We did cold calls, door knocks, that's probably like the base level. Sometimes it's an interview, sometimes it's just data gathering. I don't know, when you get the point of a brief conversation where they tell you to "fuck off"—is that an interview? 

TREITZ: Christian had already recorded a ton of conversations before we even started or had a ton of conversations before we started on this. So I don't know. Hundreds? Maybe thousands is the answer, I guess? We would call so many people every day, so when you add that up over the years, that's a lot. I guess that's the answer.

There's also so much amazing audio in this film. Was any of it recreated?

HANSEN: None of it's recreated. 

TREITZ: We weren't like, doing AI. We don't really talk about the audio stuff, because we don't want to burn any of the sources. I will say that maybe it gets lost because the filmmaking is doing recreations that you're seeing, so you don't recognize how real the voices are. These are the people from 30 or 40 years ago talking.

Or as a viewer, the things that they say seem almost too perfect. 

HANSEN: There's a reporter named Danny Casolaro, he's digging into things! [Laughs] 

Could you say how many hours of audio tape that you had to whittle down? 

TREITZ: There's hundreds of tapes. Hundreds of hours.

Christian Hansen photographed thousands of pages of Daniel Casolaro's notes in "American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders" (Courtesy of Netflix © 2024)

There was also the murder in San Francisco that you zoom in on where you seemingly did lots of new reporting.

TREITZ: The murder of Paul Morasca. There was maybe two newspaper articles on that. One when it happened, and one much later that mentions his name.

And then that leads us to Philip Arthur Thompson, this FBI informant who left a trail of death and mayhem in his wake. Can you talk about the process of going down that path?

TREITZ: We struggled to figure out how much story we can tell in this because there's so many names, and so many different tentacles. And I think I had made the choice of, we just can't go into the Paul Morasca murder because it's another location, another time, there's just too many things going on, people already are having trouble grappling with all the stories we were telling. We were midway through the edit of that episode, and Christian disappeared for a few days and came back with this like, 59-page PDF. He was like, This is the Paul Morasca murder, this is what happened, here's what we should do. And I read it and I was like, I guess we're going to San Francisco.

HANSEN: Because that murder in San Francisco really unlocks what was happening in Cabazon. It's so connected. It's one of the guys that was funding what was happening at the Cabazon reservation, and it's the same group of people that allegedly killed Fred Alvarez. And then Michael [Riconosciuto. Another key player in all this] goes from finding the body in San Francisco to Cabazon. Zach, you're gonna leave that out? Are you serious?

TREITZ: The problem was that there was nothing. We had nothing on it. We had to actually go and get more information because there's literally no information about it. It's difficult to tell a story that you know almost nothing about. 

That police officer that you interviewed in San Francisco—you found him in the course of that investigation? How did you get him to talk to you about this case?

HANSEN: Over the time that he was a police inspector in San Francisco, so much crazy stuff was going on. You got the Zodiac murderers, you got the Zebra killings—he worked on a Zebra killings case. He knew all the Zodiac detectives. He solved so many insane murder cases in San Francisco, and this one was like his big kahuna, this was his white whale that got away from him. When I called him, he's retired, he's getting up in his years, he wants to solve the Morasca case too.

But also like, I'm a photojournalist, Zach is an indie filmmaker from the mumblecore scene of the early 2000s. [Laughs] 

TREITZ: You get to characterize me? Let me characterize you.

HANSEN: We consider ourselves just a couple of bros.

TREITZ: The point is we're not trained investigative journalists, if there is such a thing. We just had some on-the-job training.

Sure, but this is investigative journalism! You took years of work, had it rigorously fact-checked and legaled, and put it out into the world. You had fact-checkers right?


Danny Casolaro in "American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders" (Courtesy of Netflix © 2024)

I want to go back to the topic of conspiracies. The series opens with the question: "Did Danny Casolaro die by suicide, or did something far more sinister happen?" And then as the show proceeds, that question kind of—I'm not gonna say it doesn't matter, but it matters much less. Is that by design? Is that how you guys see it too? Because you start with that question, but I also think that's maybe the wrong question to ask.

TREITZ: I feel like it's the obvious jumping off point. It's sort of the central question, then maybe it becomes a little bit of a MacGuffin. But it was and continues to be the central question. Whenever we're getting off track and going down blind alleys, and struggling with the story, it helps to have that sort of focusing question for us. It's like, okay, what does this ultimately matter? And that gets us back on track.

But the thing that we kind of came to realize as we went through it was, it's ultimately the wrong question because it creates a binary. It says, "If Danny committed suicide, then he was wrong. And if he was murdered, then he was right." Well, neither of those actually is the answer. It's just kind of a helpful prompt. 

I think the answer to that question is still important. It's definitely important to the family and it's definitely important to us to come back to, but it's not really the end-all question. Because I think we proved that he was on to something very interesting and real and dangerous people and stories. And that does not mean that he couldn't have something else going on in his own life—including this story—that would that might ultimately bring him to suicide. That's in the world of possibility, right? 

This is what's so tough when you talk about conspiracies, because we want that binary. All the tentacles of the Octopus, all the stories that you guys tell, they could all be discretely true. Our government does do horrible things in our name and in secret, and they do commit crimes and work with outlandish people.

TREITZ: Work with criminals.

Work with criminals. But must all those things be interconnected? It's like, yes, America did awful, idiotic things before and after 9/11, there's so much evidence to suggest this. But does that mean that it was an "inside job"?

TREITZ: So that's why I just very purposefully did not make this into a story about conspiracies. We didn't have experts talk about what this does to people's brains or what the history of conspiracies are in popular culture. That's just not what this is. We were trying to do the opposite. We're trying to talk about these specific stories and look at them and say, do these have merits? What is there? Danny's idea, that they're all combined into one big thing called the "Octopus" is, in my mind, a sort of poetic way to look at things, maybe not necessarily a literal one. Even if he took it literally, we're not saying that's the truth, we're saying that's what he is putting out there into the world. 

But it is interesting that he's right that many of these people from these different scandals are actually interconnected. We try to show that, you see it diagrammatically. To me, that doesn't mean that eight people run the world. That's just me. We try to take the story on its own merits. We don't move forward. We don't go into 9/11. We don't go into any other conspiracies. It's just not the story we're telling. 

You're New York City filmmakers. New York is in the movie a little bit. You see Christian in his tiny apartment. How much of the movie was shot in New York City? What role did the city play in being able to put this together?

HANSEN: There was one amazing scene. There is footage of Robert Booth Nichols [another player in the "Octopus"] in a deposition. That deposition is on five CDs that were sitting on a lawyer's desk for two years while we waited for a judge to finally sign off on releasing them. And when they were released, me and Zach biked 10 blocks, met the lawyer in a plaza and he gave us the CDs and we biked back.

TREITZ: We were in the middle of the edit like about to get to the point where we need those things and we're just desperate for them to come through. And then finally, our friend Prescott is the lawyer and got the judge to sign off on it. We just zoom up there, meet the dude in the plaza. And he's like, "I remember this case. Do you think there was anything to that Robert Booth Nichols guy?" And we're like, I don't know, he's a pretty wild character. And he's like, "Yeah, that was a strange case."

HANSEN: I think we took a selfie with the guy and then we biked back to the office. [Laughs]

TREITZ: We created most of this movie in New York City, but we also just shot a lot of the recreations in our studio, in our office in Chelsea. We went to California and shot a lot of desert stuff out there, but we didn't get to go to Washington State just to shoot like Danny on the side of a road somewhere. So we go out to New Jersey and pretend it's Washington State.

HANSEN: The Pine Barrens. It looked pretty good.

TREITZ: We couldn't ever really shoot New York City for New York City, until episode four: Danny comes to New York. Finally we don't have to pretend! We are in New York and Danny's here. Let's just not shoot the modern cars and roll.

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