‘The Octopus Murders’ Explained: How Does The Netflix Documentary Explain Danny Casolaro’s Death?


Netflix’s latest true-crime documentary venture, a short docuseries titled American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders, is a fascinating watch to say the least, both because of the content as well as the style. The main subject of the four-part documentary is the mysterious death of journalist Danny Casolaro in 1991, who had been supposedly on the brink of uncovering a vast political scandal and a shadow network controlling most of world politics. But the show also throws enough light on those asking the questions—filmmaker Zachary Treitz (the director as well) and journalist Christian Hansen. While the potential conspiracy at its center is tremendously intriguing, the impact of such research on the two friends desperately chasing for answers is also very interesting, making The Octopus Murders an absolute must-watch.

Who was Danny Casolaro?

The story in The Octopus Murders begins at the very important but unfortunate point of the death of Danny Casolaro, a man loved dearly by his friends and family. Danny was a freelance investigative journalist by profession, with a reported background in computers and technology, which were booming topics in the 1980s. According to his brother, Tony, Danny was simply passionate about writing and did not have too much interest in politics or world leaders until some scandalous discoveries shook his core. While his work, especially his reporting on a certain situation, did cause a stir, what brought Danny further into the spotlight was, unfortunately, his mysterious death. In August of 1991, the man was found dead in his hotel room at the Sheraton in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Although the authorities immediately stated that it was a case of suicide, a number of things stood out as unnatural.

To begin with, Danny’s body was found in the bathtub inside the bathroom, which would suggest that he took his life at that very spot in a relatively composed manner. However, there was blood spatter in his room, making it clear that he walked from there to the bathroom in an injured state, and there were quite a few blood stains on the walls of the bathroom as well. Those being questioned about the matter at present find it extremely odd that an injured man who had slit his own wrists could paint the walls with blood in such a manner. An expert also claims that the slashing on Danny’s wrists also looks very unlikely to be the work of his own doing, as it is physically difficult to do so. 

Based on these signs, it was immediately predicted that Danny had not taken his own life but had actually been murdered. Tony reported that his brother had indeed warned him a few weeks earlier that if he died suddenly, then it would most definitely be an act of murder, making it evident that he feared for his life at the time. Although the statements of the family members and even some figures of authority were taken into consideration, and a more severe investigation was launched, it ultimately did not yield any results. The police declared that Danny Casolaro had died from suicide, and the case was closed right there. The reason for all of Danny’s research information being missing from the hotel room was left unanswered.

What was the INSLAW conspiracy that Danny wrote about?

Danny Casolaro’s first major breakthrough in the field of investigative journalism came in the first half of the 1980s, through a report he wrote about the INSLAW conspiracy. At the beginning of the decade, the Washington, DC-based computer company INSLAW developed new software to help law enforcement authorities keep track of cases and past records of individuals. The physically large space that paperwork took up and the sheer effort required to go through these files were getting out of hand for authorities, and so there was a much-needed shift towards making use of technology. INSLAW’s pioneering software was named PROMIS, and it was supposed to revolutionize its market, which it did too, but after a few hitches along the way,

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) soon wanted to install the PROMIS software in its offices, and a deal with INSLAW was made about the same. However, in the second year of the three-year contractual tenure, the DOJ stopped making payments to INSLAW for the use of their software, creating a rift between the two parties. The founder and owner of the computer firm, Bill Hamilton, stated that there was a considerable effort by the DOJ to take over his software’s capabilities and ensure that he would not have to be paid. Over the next few years, proof of certain DOJ workers having intricate knowledge about the PROMIS software was indeed found, perhaps suggesting that the software was indeed being studied very closely for replication. Hamilton also stated that at the time, he had received a few threatening calls from a rival computer firm named Hadron, who wanted to buy off the PROMIS software. The owner of Hadron, Earl Brian, had close ties with the Department of Justice, being very good friends with the higher authorities, and so this seemed like a double-sided plan to get hold of the software. INSLAW had been pushed to bankruptcy on one side and was being offered money to sell off their product on the other. 

The whole matter was taken up a few notches when Danny Casolaro managed to get in touch with a man named Michael Riconoscuito, who made some seriously astonishing claims. Riconoscuito had been interested and skilled in matters of science and technology from a very young age, but had wasted all his potential by getting involved with drugs. After being arrested and detained in federal prison for a few years on the charge of producing and distributing drugs, the man was supposedly noticed by the federal authorities, who wanted to make use of his exceptional talent. When Riconoscuito agreed to talk to Danny, he essentially worked as a whistleblower, wanting to reveal dirty secrets about the DOJ and the government, and the claims he made were terribly bold. According to him, the reason why the DOJ was going to such severe lengths only to get hold of the PROMIS software was because they had decided to use it for spyware.

Over the next few years, the PROMIS software was indeed sold to various other countries, including both friends and foes of America, via shady sources who did not have any official ties with either the government or INSLAW. However, Riconoscuito still maintains that the software was spread by the U.S. government, for it had been manipulated to contain spyware that could easily monitor data on the computers of other nations. Information directly from the secretive files of the administrations of various countries would be highly beneficial for the U.S., and Riconoscuito admitted to being the lead programmer in installing the spyware into the PROMISE software. While Riconoscuito’s statement was immediately questioned by the authorities, he was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Agency within a few days on the charge of running a drug racket. The DEA is indeed a branch of the DOJ, making the arrest look like a desperate attempt to stop the man from spilling more secrets. As a police officer in the documentary says, Riconoscuito was sentenced to twenty-six years in prison, which is considerably higher than any other criminal with the same charges as him.

What is the Octopus organization?

The INSLAW case gradually led Danny to a larger conspiracy in the works, as he found out that the DOJ and other organizations like the CIA and the FBI were all involved in a certain shadow network. Over the next few years, Danny researched and attempted to write a conclusive article to reveal the existence of this shadow organization, which he named Octopus, as the group apparently had their tentacles spread all across the world. According to Danny’s writings, the group was involved in what is known as the October Surprise, which is a conspiracy theory that states that the Reagan authorities intentionally kept the American embassy workers hostage in Iran until the election results in order to ensure that he would win. The same group was reportedly involved in funding the Nicaraguan Resistance by manufacturing weapons and distributing them in foreign countries, with the purpose of creating shadow governments and fighting against communism. 

According to Danny, the Octopus was a consort of eight men—John Nichols, George Pender, Tom Clines, Ted Shackley, Howard Hunt, Richard Helms, Ray Cline, and George Bush. As is evident, all of these men held very important and high roles in the CIA and the American government or were diplomats. It is also believed by many that it was ultimately this very group that murdered Danny Casolaro in the Sheraton Hotel room. Suspicions were on a few select men, including Robert Booth Nichols, who claimed to know the truth behind the JFK assassination, and even a different man who had evidently been allowed to kill people only because he was an FBI informant. But on the day prior to his death, Danny had also met with a soldier named Joe Cuellar, who also seems like a very possible suspect because his very specialization in the army was intelligence gathering and manipulation.

Could Danny have been misled?

Although the theory of a shadow network pulling strings across the world is truly interesting, there is also a possibility that Danny was actually misled into this whole matter, and The Octopus Murders presents this perspective as well. Danny Casolaro had simply gone down a rabbit hole in the search for answers behind numerous mysterious occurrences in American politics, and this had gotten him tremendously involved in the matter. He had left all other journalistic endeavors to investigate this very matter, and he dedicated the last few years of his life totally to finding evidence of the existence of the Octopus group. In the process, he had grown extremely fatigued and had also become severely bankrupt. As a single father to a young son, Danny had to gather funds soon, and he had written a book based on all his findings about the Octopus group, intending to get it published. There is evidence of him having approached publishers, too, but because of the sheer intensity of the claims in the book, Danny was asked to produce some strong proof of his support. This led him further into the rabbit hole, and it is actually possible that he took his own life, perhaps even wanting to undo his action, which led to the suspicious bloodstains. 

It was also later found out that Bill Hamilton, who was the one to first introduce the journalist to this idea of a shadow government, had lied about his sources. Hamilton claimed that he had found various connections between the DOJ and illegal activities through a source from the CIA, whereas they were all just from an acquaintance who gathered information from strangers in Washington, D.C., with no connection with any intelligence agency. It can be perceived that Danny had actually been misled in the wrong direction in this manner, and once he gave his everything to prove the theory, it was too late to come out of it. After hitting a dead end and realizing the tremendous harm his research had done to his life, Danny probably killed himself.

Does the documentary present any conclusive evidence regarding Danny’s death?

Although The Octopus Murders does present the other perspective, it still sides with the conspiracy theory at its end, for some more striking details about Danny’s death are presented. The journalist at the lead of the investigation in the documentary, Christian Hansen, had filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the police investigation case file of Danny Casolaro’s death. The findings include a certain statement from a woman who had been staying in the hotel room right beside Danny’s on that fateful night. The woman had written to the police that she and her partner had seen a different man entering Danny’s room that night, and although the composite sketch is not very good, the details might match those of the soldier, Joe Cuellar. However, the police never looked into this piece of information, and like many other things, for example, the fact that Danny’s research had gone missing from his room, this too was buried. 

The body had not been sent for an autopsy, and it was instead embalmed, which made the autopsy process difficult and less effective later on when the family members asked for it. Hansen and Treitz’s conversation with the son of Cuellar also ascertains that the man could have very well been sent to the Sheraton hotel to execute Danny. The makers also manage to get in touch with Scott Erskine, the former FBI agent who investigated the Danny Casolaro case, but Erskine hilariously gets a call immediately when Cuellar’s name is mentioned by the makers, never receiving any more calls ever again. This, and many other details about the Danny Casolaro case, suggest that the journalist was definitely killed because he knew certain secrets. Whether his theories were absolutely true is not something that The Octopus Murders can prove or deny, but the documentary surely makes for a thrilling watch.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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