A Hatchet-Wielding Hitchhiker Went Viral. Then He Killed Someone.
You may remember Kai, a homeless hitchhiker whose tale of “smashing” an attacker with a hatchet went viral. A new Netflix documentary explores the bloody aftermath
IT WAS A story so crazy it had to be true: A homeless surfer-dude hitches a ride from a stranger to Fresno, California. During their journey, the driver — 6-foot-4, 300 pounds — introduces himself as the second coming of Christ, confesses to raping a 14-year-old girl during a business trip in the British Virgin Islands, and says that all Black people should perish, before slamming his vehicle into a Black pedestrian in broad daylight, pinning their body against a truck. When an onlooker rushes over to help, the man emerges from the vehicle, traps her in a bear hug and begins choking her — only to have his efforts thwarted by the hitchhiker, who removes a hatchet from his backpack and bashes his head in. A reporter for KMPH interviews the happy-go-lucky hatchet man with the Sideshow Bob ‘do, and the video of his zany retelling (“Smash, smash, SUH-MASH!”) explodes, attracting millions of views and turning him into an internet folk hero.
For many, that’s where the story of Kai ended. But in The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker, a new documentary premiering Jan. 10 on Netflix, filmmaker Colette Camden explores the deadly aftermath of Kai’s viral fame.
A pack of media vultures immediately descended on the 24-year-old drifter, ignoring all signs of his mental instability. Brad Mulcahy, then a human-interest researcher for Jimmy Kimmel Live!, recalls corralling a heavily inebriated (and publicly urinating) Kai for a pair of guest spots on the late-night show. Justin Bieber’s team reached out about a musical collaboration. Lisa Samsky, a reality TV brand manager who worked on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, even recruited Kai for a potential reality show (he signed the contract in hieroglyphs).
“We weren’t exactly sure what the show was gonna be, but I think what people saw at my company was Kai could be a gateway to a world we never saw: homeless people living happily on the streets,” Samsky says in the documentary, unaware of just how tone-deaf that sounds.
Those who knew him describe Kai, born Caleb McGillvary, as prone to fits of rage. In the full version of the KMPH video interview that was posted online, Kai mentions another incident where he supposedly rescued a woman from an abusive man, boasting about how he “smashed him in the head” and “busted out all his teeth.”
“I honestly believe Caleb has mental issues, because he seems well but when it comes to a certain situation of pressure, you either become a diamond or you get crushed,” says his cousin, Jeremy McGillvary Wolfe. “And in this case, Caleb gets crushed.”
Wolfe also claims that Kai had a challenging upbringing in Canada. His mother, he says, wouldn’t allow him to play outside with the other kids and often “locked him in a room for quite some time” with blankets covering the windows. (Kai’s mother offers a weak rebuttal.) Kai tried to start a fire in the family home and was subsequently sent into foster care at the age of 13.
Then there was the matter of the incident itself. Kai began bragging to Fresno locals that he’d handed the driver, Jett McBride, a joint laced with a number of drugs but he “couldn’t handle his shit.” (A toxicology report only found marijuana in McBride’s system.) According to Fresno cop Jeff Stricker, Kai and McBride smoked a joint in the vehicle, prompting Kai to tell McBride that “they were both ghosts,” adding, “I bet we could drive through that truck right now and nobody could see us.”
“He’s not perfectly clean in this incident,” Stricker maintains.
In May of 2013, three months after the viral episode, a 73-year-old lawyer named Joseph Galfy was found dead at his home in Clark, New Jersey. He was wearing only underwear and socks, and his head had been bashed in. Police found a piece of paper tucked under a laptop with Kai’s name and number on it, along with a train ticket receipt, leading them to surveillance footage of Galfy purchasing a train ticket for Kai at the station before hugging him goodbye. The authorities apprehended Kai at a bus station in Philadelphia a few days later.
While Kai did admit to killing Galfy, his version of events painted it as self-defense. Police interrogation footage shown in The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker sees Kai tell a pair of investigators that Galfy picked him up in Times Square, treated him to an Italian dinner, and offered to let him stay at his New Jersey home, which Kai accepted. When Kai woke up, he tells cops that he believed he was drugged and sexually assaulted in his sleep. On May 14, 2013, Kai posted the following message to his Facebook page:
“what would you do if you woke up with a groggy head, metallic taste in your mouth, in a strangers house… walked to the mirror and seen come dripping from the side of your face from your mouth, and started wretching, realizing that someone had drugged, raped and blown their fuckin load in you? what would you do?”
Kai told police that he did not retaliate, instead taking the train to Asbury Park, New Jersey, to meet a fan in the hopes of crashing with her. When the fan didn’t materialize, Kai called Galfy and asked if he could stay at his home again. That night, Kai says he awoke to the septuagenarian attempting to sexually assault him, and struck him repeatedly in the head with his hands and elbows, killing him.
Police pointed to several holes in Kai’s story: There were there no signs of struggle, such as defensive marks. The attack was particularly brutal. His recollections of his interactions with Galfy changed a number of times. He had been captured on video at the train station embracing Galfy and requested to stay with him a second time. And then he cut his hair and fled the state.
Kai was ultimately found guilty of first-degree murder in 2019 and sentenced to 57 years in a maximum-security prison. He must serve at least 85% of his sentence, and his appeal in Aug. 2021 was dismissed. He continues to appeal the verdict.
At his sentencing, the judge called Kai “a powder keg of explosive rage,” adding, “You created this public image of a free spirit, but underneath that free spirit the jury saw another side of you: a cold-blooded, calculated, callous killer.”
‘The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker’: How a Canadian viral star turned killer
“Kai” isn’t his real name
The documentary focuses on a man who identified as “Kai” when he shot to viral fame in 2013, but his birth name is Caleb Lawrence McGillivary and he spent the early years of his life growing up in Edmonton.
Family members in the documentary reveal that no one called him Kai as a kid and it wasn’t until he moved away from Canada to become a nomad around the U.S. that he started using the name.
How Kai became “The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker”
Kai became an overnight folk hero in February of 2013, after he was credited with saving lives when a man he had hitched a ride with pinned a utility worker against a pole with his vehicle and allegedly attacked a woman who tried to help the suffering worker.
To hear it in Kai’s words, which were caught on video by local news reporter Jessob Reisbeck and shared to YouTube the day of the incident, Kai said he hitched a ride with Jett Simmons McBride in Fresno, Calif. After McBride, an alleged white supremacist, pinned the worker during their ride, Kai jumped out of the passenger seat to hit McBride in the head three times with a hatchet as McBride allegedly tried to assault a woman who had come over to help the utility worker.
The bandana-wearing hitchhiker, then 24, gave Reisback an interview and became instantly famous for the line he used to describe his hatchet defence moves: “Smash, smash, SUH-MASH.”
“If I hadn’t done that, he would’ve killed more people,” Kai told Reisbeck.
Before he disclosed his account to Reisbeck, he prefaced the interview with what seemed like a positive and inspirational message:
“Before I say anything else, I wanna say no matter what you’ve done, you deserve respect. Even if you make mistakes, you’re lovable. And it doesn’t matter your looks, skills or age or size or anything, you’re worthwhile. No one could ever take that away from you.”
His quirky, surfer-dude delivery immediately endeared him to people on the internet and Reisbeck says that after uploading the video that night and going to bed, he woke up the next morning to half a million YouTube views.
Kai’s instant celebrity came with a dark side
People immediately wanted a piece of Kai, but it took some sleuthing to find him. Because of his nomadic, carefree and no-fixed-address lifestyle, Kai was not easy to pin down.
Reisbeck eventually connected with Kai for a followup interview and learned that he was a pretty talented musician.
Once Kai was back on the map, TV producers began to offer him opportunities. There were appearances on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show and Justin Bieber’s team reached out to him for a song collaboration after learning that a producer for Keeping Up With the Kardashians planned to make a reality show about him.
And although Kai seemed to lean into his overnight celebrity status, it became clear to those in his orbit that he was a bit of a loose cannon.
One minute he’d be strumming a guitar, and in the next he’d be peeing on Julio Iglesias’ star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He had no problem shoplifting from stores in the Bay Area, but would turn around and give the stolen goods away to other homeless people. He got kicked out of a hotel for making quick work of a bottle of Jack Daniels, flashing a knife and skateboarding in the lobby.
Despite those who were closest to Kai having trepidations about his unpredictable behaviour and attitude, the internet remained fascinated by him, rooting for the loveable, catchphrase-ready nomad.
His long, untamed hair made him easy to spot and he was regularly solicited by fans for selfies and to appear in their videos — for which he often negotiated a trade, asking for a bottle of booze in return.
For those who couldn’t get a piece of Kai in person, they kept up his cult status with memes, songs and remixes, firmly planting him as one of the biggest viral video stars of the time.
A shocking murder charge
Just three months after his star rose, it quickly came crashing down.
In May 2013, Kai travelled to New York and soon after arriving was arrested for the murder of 73-year-old lawyer Joseph Galfy. Galfy was found dead at his home in New Jersey, his head was bashed in and he was wearing only his socks and underwear.
During the investigation, police found a piece of paper with Kai’s number and name on it underneath a laptop in Galfy’s home. There was also a train ticket receipt that the police used to track down surveillance footage, which showed Galfy buying Kai a train ticket, and the pair hugging goodbye.
Police tracked down Kai at a Philadelphia bus station and Kai confessed to the killing, alleging that he attacked Galfy in self-defence after the lawyer, whom he met in Times Square and offered him a place to stay, drugged and sexually assaulted him the night before.
Authorities, however, claimed Kai’s statements were inconsistent, that the sexual encounter was consensual and the violent murder premeditated.
Kai is found guilty
After waiting six years in jail for the trial, Kai was found guilty of first-degree murder in April 2019. During the proceedings, he was combative during cross-examination and the judge called him “a powder keg of explosive rage.”
Kai was sentenced to 57 years in jail, with the judge telling the then-30-year-old: “When you become eligible for parole, you will still be younger than Mr. Galfy was when you murdered him.”
The court determined that he would have to serve at least 85 per cent of his sentence and while he appealed his conviction over instances of “misconduct, abuse of discretion and ineffectiveness of defence counsel,” his murder sentence was upheld by a New Jersey panel in August 2021.
Speaking to Inside Edition in January 2020 from prison, Kai said he didn’t realize he had killed Galfy despite his extensive injuries.
Kai’s family speaks out
Kai’s mom, Shirley Stromberg, appears in the documentary to share her side of the story, saying that her son lied about being locked in a room for long periods of time as a kid.
Instead, Stromberg says she tried to keep her spirited young son safe in the mornings by locking his bedroom door — otherwise he would get up before her and get into dangerous situations. Stromberg also shared that getting her son help over the years proved difficult.
“Not really understanding what was going on, the medical field wondered if he had ADHD and things like that, but in the end, there wasn’t one diagnosis.”In his 2013 interview with Reisback, Kai claimed that he didn’t have any family.
“As far as anyone I grew up with is concerned, I’m already dead,” he shared.
That line, says Kai’s first cousin, was pretty hurtful.
That cousin, Jeremy McGillivary Wolfe, tells the documentary team that hearing those words was devastating and that he still cares for his cousin. Wolfe says that he believes Kai had a difficult childhood and remembers him being prone to spells of rage.
“I honestly believe Caleb has mental issues because he seems well, but when it comes to a certain situation of pressure, you either become a diamond or you get crushed,” Wolfe said. “And in this case, Caleb gets crushed.”
Kai’s father, Gil McGillivary, shared with APTN that Kai had been a drifter since 2011.
McGillivary said his son didn’t get a proper education and spent time in a treatment centre as a child until he was 18 years old.
Kai The Hatchet-Wielding Hitchhiker Was Arrested Months After His Viral Interview
Caleb McGillvary, later dubbed “Kai the Hitchhiker,” was 24 years old when a February 2013 TV interview made him a viral Internet sensation. As revisited in Netflix’s true-crime documentary, The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker, McGillvary identified himself only as Kai, a “home-free” traveler from West Virginia, telling a local Fresno, California-area KPMH Fox 26 reporter a wild, rambling tale of how he used a hatchet to fend off a driver who was allegedly trying to kill pedestrians. The video went viral, spawning several autotune remixes and memes, and McGillvary even landed interviews with Vice and on ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live during which the late-night host even described him as “an unlikely hero.”
Just three months later, however, McGillvary made headlines for another reason: He was arrested for murder. On May 13, 2013, police discovered the body of a 74-year-old attorney named Joseph Galfy, Jr., who had been beaten to death in his Clark, New Jersey home. Evidence at the scene, including cell phone records, led investigators to McGillvary, whom they arrested at a Greyhound Bus terminal in Philadelphia three days later.
According to court documents, McGillvary told police that he’d met Galfy near New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal by Times Square, and the lawyer offered to give him a ride to New Jersey, as well as a place to stay for the night. While at the victim’s home, McGillvary said that Galfy allegedly attempted to rape him after drugging his beer. He admitted to hitting and kicking the lawyer and leaving but claimed he did not know that he had died and was only acting in self-defense.
Unable to post bail, McGillvary, who was born and raised in Canada, remained in jail for six years until his case went to trial in Union County, New Jersey in April 2019. After three weeks of testimony, including several reported outbursts by the defendant, a jury convicted McGillvary of first-degree murder, and in May, a judge sentenced him to 57 years in prison. Superior Court Judge Robert Kirsch called McGillvary “crafty, cunning, disingenuous and manipulative,” as well as “a powder keg of explosive rage,” according to NJ.com.
In 2021, McGillvary unsuccessfully appealed the court’s decision, claiming the jury’s verdict wasn’t justified by the evidence presented and that prosecutors committed misconduct by mischaracterizing the evidence and McGillvary’s defense, per the Associated Press. He also accused the trial judge of improperly allowing highly prejudicial expert testimony. In rejecting all of McGillvary’s arguments, the appeals court cited, in part, the medical examiner’s testimony, which showed Galfy’s injuries — including three skull fractures and four broken ribs — were so severe that they were the result of “far more than just an effort to thwart a sexual advance.”
According to public records, McGillvary is currently in New Jersey State Prison in Trenton and will be eligible for parole in October 2061. He turned 34 in September 2022.