Brendan Dassey, superstar: Inside the 'Making a Murderer' subject's online fandom

From quiet teen to murder suspect to convicted criminal to TV star — Brendan Dassey is now the subject of several intense online fandoms, too.

The 26-year-old, whose conviction has been overturned, has supporters and fans all over the world

Brendan Dassey's case, as portrayed in 'Making a Murderer', has mobilized some viewers around issues like juvenile interrogation and wrongful convictions. But it's also spawned a more traditional type of internet fandom — one rife with Tumblr blogs, tribute art, T-shirts and memes dedicated to moments in the documentary. (Tumblr/anamanzanapie, Twitter/@Lynn123Jennifer)

The path to stardom is never easy – unless you're rich, lucky, have celebrity parents and live in the Hollywood Hills with a plastic surgery budget.

Brendan Dassey grew up with none of these things. Nor did he spend his childhood acting, writing songs or making YouTube videos in an attempt to become famous.

The tail end of his teenage years were spent behind bars after he was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide, mutilation of a corpse and second-degree sexual assault in the 2005 killing of photographer Teresa Halbach.

And yet, the Wisconsin native, now 26, has fans all over the world praising his fortitude in organized groups online and sending him heartfelt letters in prison each week.

"He has several writing him constantly," his half-brother, Brad Dassey, told CBC News. "Some of them have written about 12 letters now, and he writes those fans back every time. It's so nice that he has all the support he can get."

Some fans who received mail from Dassey share photos of letters bearing his name on Tumblr, gleefully posting them with captions like "​Brendan’s written two lovely letters to me! He’s so lovely & considerate! Love the complete and innocent Brendan Dassey!💖" (Donna Pasquill/Twitter)

Last Friday, Dassey's fans and supporters — two slightly different groups, it seems — exploded with delight when it was announced that his conviction had been overturned, though the decision has proven controversial elsewhere, particularly among those who knew or are in support of the 25-year-old victim and her family.

U.S. Magistrate William Duffin in Milwaukee ordered Dassey freed within 90 days, ruling that investigators coerced a confession in 2006 using deceptive tactics.

If the state doesn't decide to retry him, that means he'll soon be free after nine years in prison.

Murder suspect, prison inmate, TV sensation, internet star

Dassey, along with his uncle Steven Avery, exploded into the public consciousness in December when Netflix released the wildly popular true-crime documentary Making a Murderer.

Media coverage surrounding not just the program but the case's suspects — both of whom were sentenced to life in prison — carried on for months as viewers everywhere raged over what many felt was a tragic injustice at the hands of a broken system.

Sgt. Joy Brixius escorts Brendan Dassey from the Manitowoc County Jail in April 2007, in Manitowoc, Wis. (Dan Powers/The Post-Crescent/AP)
Avery was the focus of much early activism following the program's release, with one petition for him to be freed from prison garnering well more than the 100,000 signatures needed on to trigger a formal reply from U.S. President Barack Obama.

It was Dassey's story that really seemed to stick with a lot of viewers beyond the initial buzz, however.

"Just like everybody else, I watched the series back in December and it disturbed me," says Jennifer Lynn Fogarty, a single mom and construction company worker who lives in Connecticut. "I literally couldn't sleep for a few nights. Brendan really tugged at my heart, being a kid and just ... nobody was there to help him and look out for him."

Fogarty, who has a 13-year-old son, found many like-minded people online and got involved in what has grown to be a thousands-large worldwide group of supporters for the young man and his family.

"I reached out to the family, I've sent letters, I've written him and sent some things to his commissary and stuff like that," Fogarty said. "I've gotten three letters from him. He's just the sweetest kid ever, it just breaks my heart."

Fogarty is active in advocating for Dassey's freedom on Twitter, but she's also part of a large Facebook group (one of dozens dedicated to the documentary subjects) that's moderated by members of the Avery family.

The closed group, which requires approval to join, has just over 17,000 members.

"For the most part, they're all people just like me," said Fogarty. "We get the updates whenever [Dassey's family] visits him, and we get new pictures and all of that."

"It's really actually opened my eyes up to the whole problem, and Brendan's story is just one of thousands, so I am looking into some things that I can do locally, like writing our legislators to make sure that kids don't get interrogated without a lawyer present and without a parent present," Fogarty said.

"I think being the mom of a son, it scares me to death that this could happen to anybody."

Making a fandom

Dassey's case has mobilized some viewers around issues like juvenile interrogation and wrongful convictions, but it's also spawned a more traditional type of internet fandom — one rife with Tumblr blogs, tribute art, T-shirts and memes dedicated to moments in the documentary.

At least two separate petitions have been launched to send the noted WWE fan to Wrestlemania since it was announced that his conviction was overturned, one that prompted pro-wrestler X-Pac to publicly offer Dassey tickets if he's released.

Dassey's brother Brad, a Christian rapper who's written songs about the case, says that going to Wrestlemania would be a dream come true for Brendan. He's been trying to get X-Pac to visit Dassey and says the wrestler is "more than willing."

Tumblr has seen its fair share of what's called "true-crime fandoms" in the past, but they're often of a much darker nature, revolving around mass killers: Aurora, Colo., movie theatre shooter James Holmes, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Ohio school shooter T.J. Lane and Columbine school shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, for starters.

Dassey's fandom is different because it's largely rooted in the fact that fans believe he is innocent.

"I think the series producers were able to combine a compelling and important account in a way that basically supported this kind of response," UBC journalism professor Mary Lynn Young told CBC News, referring to Making a Murderer. "People are using this as an opportunity to make sense of justice and injustice, both collectively and as individuals."

"Crime news has long been identified as popular and of interest to audiences," she explains. "And we know too that there's a disproportionate interest in violent crime."

But it wasn't the genre or the compelling story of Avery and Dassey's case that made Making a Murderer resonate. At least, not on their own.

Young, an expert in media representations of crime, says the series' producers were also successful in using elements of investigative and tabloid journalism — alongside familiar constructs like horror, mystery and redemption — to elicit sympathy from viewers.

"Emotion really matters in journalism and news," she said. "The filmmakers are asking questions that we all ask — questions about morality, unfairness, why people do what they do, the role of structural inequity, why bad things happen to good people ... it's not surprising that people are responding."

As for what Dassey thinks of all this, both Fogarty and Brad say he's grateful.

"He's definitely aware," says Fogarty. "And a little overwhelmed, as anyone would be."

About the Author

Lauren O'Neil covers internet culture, digital trends and the social media beat for CBC News. You can get in touch with her on Twitter at @laurenonizzle.