Poe Ballantine’s memoir Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere will be on shelves September 1, 2013, and a documentary with the same title directed by Dave Janetta will be released soon after. Below Poe describes his experience being both the author of Love & Terror as well as the subject of this film.
I was working on a novel about a Lakota Indian boy who accidentally kills his stepfather, flees the reservation, and becomes a standup comedian in Las Vegas, when my neighbor, Steven Haataja, a math professor at the local college, a brilliant, funny, and generous man, disappeared one late, cold autumn day only a few months after he’d arrived. As the weeks passed without a hint as to where he might’ve gone, I began to take notes and collect news stories (though it was rather more like no-news), presuming I had in the works some tragic essay about the cruel failure of the American Dream. I presumed he had done away with himself in a way in which he would not be found, or that he’d started his life over somewhere else, as I had often fantasized about in my many years of aimless travel.
When his body was found three months later burned and bound to a tree on private land a half mile south of the campus where he taught, I set aside the novel about the Lakota Indian boy.
I had never written or intended to write true crime. The problems, technical, personal, and otherwise, were boundless: an open case, attenuated forensics, clandestine and reluctant law enforcement, tornadoes of gossip that repeatedly formed into stubbornly specious accounts fobbed off as fact. There were the vast consequences of openly discussing, not always in the best light, the people I lived and socialized with intimately, many of whom had been portrayed as rubes and fools. Stylistically, I couldn’t simply regurgitate the volumes of interviews, police reports, press releases, blogs, and newspaper articles without duplicating the role of journalist. The story had to be told in my voice in color and active sequences. The book also had to be heartfelt, thorough, and true, at all costs avoiding the cheap, titillative method of most true crime.
As the years passed and I continued to interview people, collect evidence, counsel with experts, and construct and grade scenarios, I came to believe that Steven Haataja had been murdered. It seemed likely that whoever had killed him was still living in town. I was obliged to catalogue and describe each of the possible suspects. In spite of the case remaining open and the county attorney’s insistence on the possibility of homicide, Steven’s family accepted the popular but unofficial conclusion of suicide and urged me not to publish my book for the pain it would cause them. Suicide made all the bad things—distrust, contradictory evidence, police incompetence, the possibility of a ruthless killer still at large, the fact that Steven was incinerated beyond recognition yet neither the tree to which he was tied nor the dry grass which surrounded him were appreciably burned—go away. The story, perhaps the most astounding and baffling crime the town had ever seen, was too big to drop. Too many questions had not been answered. I had invested thousands of hours examining these questions and, since no one else was actively investigating the case, I felt that I was the only one left who might find some measure of justice for Steven Haataja.
In my fifth year of working on Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere, a twenty-eight-year-old filmmaker named Dave Jannetta contacted me from Philadelphia. Dave had made his own feature film and had worked as an assistant on The Lovely Bones. He’d read and admired my work and had discovered I was wandering the catacombs of a fascinating mystery. He asked if he might bring out a crew and make a documentary about it. I told him he was welcome. The story didn’t belong to me and I could use all the help I could get.
Chadron, Nebraska, in the dry, very western high plains part of the state, is small and isolated enough that secrets here don’t stay that way for long. Yet what happened to Steve (whether it was suicide, accidental death, or murder), how he’d ended up burned alive in that little hollow, why his blood-alcohol content had been “extremely elevated” when all his friends described him as a “social drinker,” why his ankles were trussed like a calf in a rodeo event, why this private, reserved, eminently polite man would wander off into a hostile night deep into fenced-off land, remained a profound mystery.
When Dave Jannetta and his crew arrived in Chadron, they were within the week the subject of several news articles, including an extensive story in the Rapid City Journal. They were feted and met wherever they went with looking-glass curiosity and enthusiasm. While I’d roamed the campus for years talking with janitors, students, and the colleagues of Steven Haataja, had never once been mentioned in a news article, and many of the town’s residents were not even aware I was writing a book, Dave after requesting permission to shoot on the college was met instantly by a campus-wide email discouraging faculty from participation along with an edict preventing him from filming in offices or classrooms. The language in the email was strong enough to frighten off several potential interviewees. The power of the camera works both ways.
I have always preferred to work behind the scenes. I fall into that group of writers who should be read and not seen. For forty years I had a pathological fear of speaking publicly. But it’s never too late to grow up, and it is hard to make a good documentary without a likeable, intelligent narrator, so I reached down, swallowed my pride, and faced that 1080P HD lens as if I had been doing it for years. I led Dave and his crew over hill and dale, showed them the key locations, and introduced them to all the players. In the passage of five years, memories had fogged, accounts had fractured, gossip on many fronts had won the war. Several times we trudged out onto the cattle ranch where Steven’s body was found, on one occasion a cold, windy, moonlit night, not half as cold as it had been the night he’d gone missing, but forbidding enough to convince me that even if on the very small chance he’d taken his own life or died somehow accidentally, he’d not been alone.
After a month of shooting Dave returned to Philly to begin the arduous process of editing. He thought he might assemble the film within the year and have it entered into several film festivals by Christmas, but he ran into many of the same problems I did, structural, personal, the leviathan tasks of treating people fairly and of building a true-crime narrative that did not violate the memory of Steven Haataja. Obstacles, I reminded him, were a good thing. If it’s easy and everyone lets you in, you’re doing something wrong.
It might be another year before Dave’s film is done. My book, after six years, is coming out September 1, 2013 from Hawthorne Books. We both hope for wealth and accolades. We also hope that our work will shake loose the grip of secrets, urge forth that confession, eye-witness or missing piece of evidence, illuminate once and for all what happened on that frigid, terrifying, and desolate night on Andy Curd’s cattle ranch six years ago. We believe that someone out there knows.