Campaign of the Month: October 2017
Blood and Bourbon
The Story of Caleb and Kate
“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and some times, they win.”
One of the most infamous murders in New Orleans’ history, the story of Caleb and Kate is one of heartbreak.
You can wear your hunger and your haunts on your sleeve in New Orleans and no one will judge you for it. You can take a leisurely stroll down the street of sin and if you walk far enough, you’ll find profound peace and quiet. You can grab a go-cup filled with strawberry daiquiri and a fried shrimp po’ boy at the same joint, and sit on an iron bench overlooking the Mississippi River thinking about what you’ll have for your next meal. And perhaps most of all, New Orleans mourns their dead with such passion and pride that strangers can join in on the funeral dirge; umbrellas in hand, swaying hips down cobblestone streets, singing along to St. James Infirmary. It’s quite a scene to behold in the Big Easy, with lazy summer days and cool moonlit nights, a great place for artists, lovers, and anyone else who needs a little inspiration.
Caleb and Kate found their home and each other in New Orleans, sucked in by its free-living bohemian culture and easy going lifestyle. Their southern-fried romance was destined for destruction, pulsated in the thick, stale humidity of the French Quarter, and born in the deathly heat of an apocalyptic storm so fierce many thought the city would never recover, and in a lot of ways it hasn’t. They were two souls bound together by fear and addiction and violently split apart by abuse and gruesome, ugly death. Deaths so tragic it’s still hard for many to speak of. Theirs is a sad tale of an aspiring poet and her wounded soldier, of mental illness, suicide, and murder. This is Caleb and Kate’s story.
Kate Artell was a free-spirited, feisty-tempered, independent artist who found herself in bohemian New Orleans after a rough life in the northeast states. A poet, artist, dancer, and French Quarter bartender with a host of friends, Kate Artell was weary of relationships with men because of the abuse she experienced in her past. She rode her bike around the quarter to get where she needed to go, and to her job as bartender at The Jazz Playhouse. She called herself a “quarterican”, someone who belonged in and was part of the French Quarter. Life as an artist is never easy though, you try to balance artistic expression with your surroundings and lifestyle and you are never sure where the pieces fit together. Kate fit there right in the middle, trying to find herself and her muse, all the while battling her own demons and addictions.
Caleb Hamill was a charismatic, charming, and good-looking young man who left an impression on everyone he met. He grew up in California and had the laid-back attitude that comes from growing up on the sunny Pacific beaches. Caleb married young, to a woman 10 years his senior named Patricia. They had two children together and in order to care for them, he joined the army for the benefits it could provide. When Patricia took the kids and decided to leave him, Caleb was devastated and lonely. He found odd jobs around the French Quarter after being generally discharged subsequent to his tours overseas in Iraq and Kosovo. Caleb was a war hero suffering from severe PTSD who desperately needed help that he never found.
Kate met Caleb while they were both bartending in the French Quarter. She liked to give him a hard time and play the mean girl as a way of flirting, but really it was just a test to see what he could handle. Kate had an ugly side to her, suffering from bipolar disorder and irregularly taking the medication to treat her mental illness, this caused angry, uncontrolled outbursts. Many of Caleb and Kate’s friends remember the outrageous fights they would get into. A tumultuous relationship from the start, fueled by drugs and alcohol, Caleb and Kate were destined for destruction.
Dating for weeks before Katrina came into view, Caleb and Kate decided to stick out the category 5 hurricane together at her apartment. Amid the storm and flickering lights, they fell deeply in love and made a life for themselves in the weeks following the destruction in the empty French Quarter. They were inseparable from that point forward and made a name for themselves as they served up booze and scrapped meals to their fellow wayfarers of Katrina. Caleb and Kate were even photographed for national magazines and newspapers in the wake of the devastating storm, being interviewed about their choice to stay in the city. They felt like King and Queen of the Quarter… for a time.
When reality set back in, the lights in the city turned back on, the stars disappeared, and the real clean-up began, Caleb and Kate were forced back into a lifestyle they weren’t ready to experience again. Bills piled up, jobs schedules came back, responsibilities returned, the bonfire in the middle of their street that they cooked on was reduced to ash. Kate just wanted Caleb, she didn’t want his life or responsibility of his children and ex-wife. The honeymoon was over and the physical and emotional pain of abuse was only mildly numbed by the vast amounts of alcohol and drugs they began to consume over the months to come.
Violent fights erupted and Caleb and Kate began to drift apart. Their solution to re-igniting their passion? Getting a new apartment together and starting over from scratch. They walked down Rampart street and came across a “for rent” sign. An apartment above the famed VooDoo temple at the time was available immediately and with months worth of tips in their pockets, they made an offer right away and moved in.
No sooner did they unpack but a few boxes, then Kate went to the landlord and asked that the lease be in her name and her name only. She discovered that Caleb was cheating on her and decided that was the last straw. Considering her past with men, this was an end-all-be-all situation and their relationship was over. The landlord wrote a handwritten contract and asked that Kate sort it all out in hopes they would get back together. Once Caleb learned of this deception, he became angry and inconsolable.
At around one o’clock am on Thursday October 5th, 2006, Caleb strangled his girlfriend Kate Artell to death. In a drunken stupor, he fell asleep next to her corpse on the futon, committed necrophilia, and got up the next day and went to work. His co-workers remember him acting out of sorts, wearing sunglasses and a hat, and becoming very quiet. Over the next several days, Caleb cut up Kate’s body in their bathtub with a hacksaw and knife and dispersed the pieces of her corpse into and on top of the stove for cooking, as well as in the refrigerator. He gave her a haircut and placed her head inside of a pot on the front of the stove, placed her small feet and hands inside of another pot on the back burner of the stove, her legs and arms in a roasting pan inside the oven, and finally, her torso in a black plastic trash bag in the fridge to be dealt with later. Apparently his intentions were to separate bone from flesh as a means to more easily handle the disposing of her body. Many at the time said there was intentions of cannibalism, but the autopsy reports confirmed there were no signs of it.
Kate’s friends and co-workers asked where she was when they saw or called Caleb. He told them she left him and went back to Alabama. Some were surprised as they knew how much she loved New Orleans and couldn’t see her leaving, while others were not shocked, knowing that Kate could be very unpredictable and have a tendency to run away from situations out of her control. Little did they know that Caleb knew exactly where she was and what he had done to her.
On Tuesday evening, October 17th, 2006, nearly two weeks after the murder and dismemberment of his girlfriend Kate Artell, Caleb Hamill committed one more act of violence by jumping to his own death from the 7th floor of the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel. He left a handwritten note and his army dog tags inside of a plastic bag in his back pocket, and the gate keys to Kate’s apartment in his front pocket.
The letter to “police only” led detectives to the home of Kate and Caleb’s landlord for questioning. Once they were pointed in the right direction, they quickly discovered that the contents of Caleb’s letter was in fact, true. A sad tableau of unopened boxes and broken dreams awaited as they walked into the disheveled apartment. The first thing they noticed was the temperature and lack of smell. The air conditioning was set to 60 degrees and on full blast, cold like a meat locker. There was no smell of rotting flesh and the bathroom was clean of any lingering blood. On the walls were the silver-colored spray painted words of “I love her”, “I’m a total failure”, and finally “look in the oven” with an arrow pointing to the stove door. What the detectives discovered next is something I am sure will stay with them the rest of their lives as they opened pot covers and a heavy refrigerator door.
“This is not accidental. I had to take my own life to pay for the one I took. If you send a patrol car to 826 N. Rampart, you will find the dismembered corpse of my girlfriend Kate in the oven, on the stove, and in the fridge and a full signed confession from myself … Caleb Hamill.”
This is how the letter in Caleb Hamill’s pocket started out when police discovered it on his dead body atop the parking garage next to the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel.
At the scene of Kate’s murder, police found her journal with writings added from Caleb:
“Today is Monday 16 October 2 a.m. I killed her at 1 a.m. Thursday 5 October. I very calmly strangled her. It was very quick.”
“Halfway through the task, I stopped and thought about what I was doing. The decision to halt the first idea and move to Plan B (the crime scene you are now in) came after awhile. I scared myself not by the action of calmly strangling the woman I’ve loved for one and a half years, and then (desecrating) her body but by my entire lack of remorse. I’ve known for forever how horrible of a person I am—ask anyone—and decided to quit my jobs and spend the 1,500 cash I had being happy until I killed myself. So, that’s what I did: good food, good drugs, good strippers, good friends and any loose ends I may have had. I didn’t contact any of my family. So that’ll explain the shock. And had a fantastic time living out my days … It’s just about time now.”
The War and PTSD
Caleb Hamill was an active duty member of the military is Iraq and Kosovo pre-nine-eleven and immediately following the tragedy. He was traumatized by a fellow soldier’s sudden death, as well as the death of a child who he befriended that was killed for conversing with American soldiers. If that wasn’t enough, because of his ill-fitting military issue combat boots, he developed a severe and painful case of hammer-toe, contributing to his disgruntled state of mind with the army. He began to purposely fail his health and fitness tests so he could go back home and be with his family and his ailing wife, Patricia (she was diagnosed with Hepatitis C and was very ill). He was generally discharged, losing all health benefits, and went back to New Orleans where his mind slowly failed him as he transitioned to civilian life.
According to a 2014 study in JAMA Psychiatry, 1 in 4 active duty members of the military show signs of a mental health condition that needs to be treated, with three major/primary health concerns:
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Combat, assault, disasters, and sexual assault have lasting negative effects on one’s mental state. Sleeping issues, anger, nightmares, jumpiness, and alcohol/drug abuse are all symptoms of PTSD.
Depression: Most people think of clinical depression as a general feeling of sadness and despair, but it is so much more than that. Depression interferes with normal, everyday life and is not something you can get over on your own.
Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): A significant blow to the head and/or body in combat can include severe headaches, fatigue, drowsiness, memory problems, and mood swings/changes. Without proper treatment, it can get much worse.
Caleb was struggling with PTSD. He was traumatized by the city post Katrina; military control, general destruction, and vast death. This had a profound effect on his state of mind which was already in a sensitive place. As the days, weeks, and months grew on, severe alcohol and drug abuse, and with compounding symptoms that were left untreated, Caleb was ultimately defeated by his own demons.
It’s hard to imagine any sort of “magical” time during the insurmountable tragedy of Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in late August of 2005. That’s why Caleb and Kate were such an enigma that drew the attention of visiting media and got their pictures published in Time Magazine.
Caleb had every intention of leaving the city and staying with his estranged wife, Patricia, and their kids so he could get out of the storm. The mass exodus was so severe and forewarned that Patricia even welcomed Caleb’s girlfriend Kate. But Kate’s desire for independence and a life all her own with her new boyfriend far exceeded any need she had to leave the city. Caleb went to check on Kate and couldn’t leave her and they decided to weather the storm together in her apartment. The apocalyptic category 5 hurricane hit New Orleans directly, leaving catastrophic flooding and nearly 2,000 fatalities in its wake. But the majority of the historic French Quarter was unscathed, save for fallen tree limbs, broken signage, and scattered debris. Caleb and Kate gathered the few people that waited out the storm and collectively made dinners together over campfire, drank booze out of dirty coolers, and stayed up late singing songs and looking up at the stars they couldn’t see before because of the street lights and brightness of the city. They were so swept up in the romance of everything that they were completely oblivious to the goings-on just blocks away at the Superdome and surrounding areas.
Weeks later, once the lights were turned on and the city began the lengthy process of cleaning up, the honeymoon was over. Caleb and Kate watched as people swept their lives out of their front doors with a pushbroom, longing for the time when they had the city to themselves, when their love was so strong they felt on top of the world. Caleb became increasingly hard to console as military vehicles moved in and the destruction Katrina left was finally revealed. His PTSD was in full force now and there was no turning back. With the natural high of the hurricane gone from their lives, they went looking for their high in other places, via drugs and alcohol. And well, it all went downhill from there.
In a documentary about Caleb and Kate, as well as other interviews for television, serials, and online media brought to light a close friend of the ill-fated couple… Brittney Rodriguez. Her tears of devastation at the loss of her “best friends” is unnerving, especially now. Brittney pleaded guilty and was subsequently convicted in the 2012 death and dismemberment of Abigail Thompson, a Bourbon street dancer and young mother.
Brittney and her boyfriend who she knew as “Tom” at the time, went to a Bourbon Street gentlemen’s club and lured Abigail with the promise of a hefty paycheck for a “private performance.” They took her to their Kenner home, stabbed her in the chest, cut up her body, and threw it over a bridge, resulting in Abigail’s remains washing up on several different Mississippi Gulf Coast beaches.
Bill Woke, aka Tom, was a registered sex offender from Alabama who violated his probation and had a long history that Brittney was unaware of. In 2015 he was convicted of second degree murder following a trial where he fired his attorney’s and took up his own defense. Rodriguez was later sentenced to 40 years + 20 for a second degree murder charge as well as obstruction of justice and conspiracy to commit murder.
Rodriguez and Woke were identified in a surveillance video dated June 6th, 2012 from the club that Abigail worked at. One of the employees of the club first reported Woke as he recognized him as a previous employee of the club next door and remembered Abigail leaving with him and another woman, later identified as Brittney Rodriguez. The video was broadly distributed on local news channels, and Brittney’s own brother reported them to the authorities.
Just six days later, on June 12th, the couple was arrested at a traffic stop near their home.
When Rodriguez was interviewed, she said she was aware of the dancer’s demise since it was broadcast on the local news. She related that it was similar to how her best friend died and said:
“I felt so bad for her family, because I had a friend, my friend was Kate Artell, she was cut up and was cooked, and her boyfriend jumped off a hotel.”
Brittney Rodriguez was an emotionally vulnerable woman who said she loved her boyfriend. He took care of her needs and as far as she was concerned was a good man. When she found out about who he really was, she said “I feel betrayed, heartbroken. I mean, my life was shit when I met him.” One can’t help but compare these two deathly tragedies of the French Quarter, that of Caleb & Kate and Abigail Thompson. So similar in their execution and the emotional strangleholds they had on their key players with mental illness and sinful vices.
They say when you die, your story isn’t over. In Caleb and Kate’s case, it’s just the beginning. He was her muse, and she was his ultimate desire for a more free way of life. Unfortunately for them, their romance could never play out the way they hoped it would. Betrayal, deceit, lies, cheating, mental illness, drugs and alcohol…were all a cocktail for a disastrous and murderous romance. And their friend Brittney Rodriguez, who was looking for a way out of the French Quarter, and found it through a man she thought she understood and fulfilled her needs, only to find out it was all a terrible lie. Death is a tragedy no matter how you look at it; whether it’s physical death, or the death of spirit through addiction, it can take hold and change the course of your journey forever.