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October 24, 2001, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett went to the home of an acquaintance, Adam Stotler, to finagle their way into staying the night with the intention of stealing the Camaro in the garage. Adam’s mother, Sandra, told them he wasn’t home so Perry and Burkett murdered her. After dumping the body in a nearby lake, they returned to find Highland Ranch now locked. They waited at the gate until Adam arrived, then lured him and his friend, Jeremy Richardson, into the woods where they murdered them to get the remote to gain access back into the community so they could steal the Camaro. Sandra was 50 years old, Jeremy 18, and Adam 17.
In his documentary about the murders, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Life, a Tale of Death, Werner Herzog is upfront about his stance on the punishment handed to Perry. Interviewing Perry from behind bulletproof glass in a Livingston, TX, penitentiary, Herzog tells him, “[D]estiny, in a way, has dealt you a very bad deck of cards. It does not exonerate you and when I talk to you, it does not necessarily mean that I have to like you, but…you are a human being and I think human beings should not be executed.” Were decrying capital punishment Herzog’s aim, he does not go about it by minimizing the crimes of Perry and Burkett. The film journeys where the title promises it will.
Conveying the enormity of the crimes is achieved not by dwelling on the gruesome details of the act itself, though Herzog doesn’t shy from showing police footage of the crime scene where we see a rug placed to hide a pool of blood on the floor, though the wall and door frame are spattered. Most haunting is the kitchen counter across from a TV left on for days. Cookie dough sits in scoops on a sheet, an eggshell next to it, a cookbook cracked open nearby—it was a normal day. The interviews following this footage make apparent the actual toll of the murders. Lisa Stotler-Balloun, daughter and sister of the victims, tells how after Sandra’s body was found and Adam was still missing, she was alerted her brother had been admitted to the hospital, only to find out it was Michael Perry using Adam’s ID after he murdered him. She got rid of her phone. “All it ever brought me was bad news.” After agreeing Jesus probably wouldn’t have supported the death penalty, it’s no surprise she then questions His judgment on the matter.