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Within a few short weeks in the early summer of 2015, Hollywood director and graphic artist Blake Leibel made a series of drastic life-changing decisions that alarmed his friends and upended his family.
According to a close family friend who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter on condition of anonymity, Leibel began behaving “erratically” and started showing “signs of instability” shortly before abruptly leaving his pregnant wife and small child and moving out.
As jarring and unexpected as these changes were, few could have predicted the turn that Leibel’s life would take in the months to come.
On May 31, Leibel, 35, was arraigned in a Los Angeles courtroom on charges of “murder, mayhem, aggravated mayhem and torture” after sheriff’s deputies discovered the wealthy Toronto native barricaded behind furniture and bedding in a West Hollywood apartment with the corpse of his Ukrainian girlfriend, Iana Kasian, 30.
“Kasian was tortured and mutilated before she was killed and all of her blood was drained from her body,” the prosecutor’s office wrote in a statement.
If convicted of first-degree murder, Leibel, one of two scions of prominent Toronto real estate developer and former Olympian sailor Lorne Leibel, could face the death penalty.
Leibel’s attorney Alaleh Kamran filed a motion to have her client’s mental competence evaluated. A court will hear arguments on June 14. Leibel, shackled in chains and wearing a suicide prevention vest at this week’s hearings, pleaded not guilty.
“This is a serious matter,” said Kamran in a statement released by her publicist, Howard Bragman, who is also a well-known crisis consultant, “Mr. Leibel’s defense team request that the public and the media respect his right to a fair hearing in court.”
Leibel had once worked alongside Hollywood legend Mel Brooks on an animated spinoff of the 1987 classic Spaceballs, but his career then took a few twists and turns. He co-authored a grisly graphic novel that explored “the root of all evil,” and wrote a screenplay about a serial killer called Psychopomp.
While the full scope of what transpired in Leibel’s life — and perhaps in his mind — in the past 12 months remains murky, one starting point may be the first weeks of the 2015 summer, when his family life in his adopted L.A began to unravel.
According to the family friend, who has known Leibel and his ex-wife Amanda Braun for more than a dozen years, the director left Braun, now 38, when she was eight-and-a-half-months pregnant with their second child.
Within weeks, Leibel had filed for divorce, moved out of the couple’s Beverly Hills home and into a newly leased West Hollywood apartment and taken up with Iana Kasian, a Ukrainian who, according to news reports, had studied law before coming to the United States.
Through her attorney, Amanda Braun released this statement: “Our family is shocked and saddened by this tragedy. It has been very difficult for me and my family to process exactly what has occurred. At this time, I ask that our privacy be respected. I will have no further comment.”
Leibel had for years been entangled in legal disputes with his estranged father, and repeated attempts to challenge his deceased mother’s will had apparently taken their toll. But these most recent, and dramatic, changes seemed to arrive out of the blue — and they were frightening.
“The separation from Amanda felt like it came out of nowhere and it took her by surprise,” says the family friend, “I’ve known him to be a gentle person who loved his son. But that was when he started showing signs of instability.”
It was around that time that Leibel, whom this friend had always perceived as quiet, good-natured and pleasant, began to behave “erratically.”
Another close family friend who has known and worked with both Leibel brothers says the news of Blake’s arrest was completely unexpected. “Was he mentally unstable?” he asks, “Nothing to this level. He was usually a pretty eccentric and weird guy, but nothing like this.”
As a director, Leibel had already garnered a reputation for eccentricity, according to people who worked with him. But by last summer, he no longer seemed interested in his family, which struck this friend as odd and out of character. Whereas before she said he spent most of his free time with his son, now he was leaving his wife and dating at least two other women, one of whom was Iana.
According to one producer who worked with him on the 2008 film Bald, starring Jonathan Cherry and Sally Kirkland (which went straight to DVD), Leibel’s eccentricities were a mask. “He was like a big teddy bear,” says this producer, “He always wanted everyone to laugh, but his ideas were crazy, out there.” On Bald, for instance, Leibel pushed for a last-minute change to the script that would have required 14 women to come onto the set with shaved heads.
But while he was often “extravagant” on set, with a wild and creative imagination, in private, he was “very polite and quiet, a good guy,” she says.
Leibel’s artistic forays paint another picture, however. As the Washington Post first reported, Leibel co-authored Syndrome, a graphic novel that begins with a terrifying scene of a corpse being drained of its blood, a horror that bears eerie similarities to the real-life murder for which Leibel is now being charged.
In that story, “a rogue neuropathologist makes a startling breakthrough — literally isolating the root of all evil in the recesses of the human brain,” according to the book’s description on Amazon, “With the help of a naïve Hollywood actress, a tormented motion picture director, and a condemned serial killer, Dr. Wolfe Brunswick launches a bold experiment in the Nevada desert, the outcome of which could transform humanity forever.”
But while Leibel’s art was no doubt disturbing, the family friend and others who knew him say nothing in his behavior indicated a propensity toward anything like the violence of which he now stands accused.
“He just wanted to make everyone happy,” says the producer.
“We couldn’t ever figure it out,” says the family friend, “He loved Amanda and then all of a sudden he was gone.”
As the summer of 2015 progressed, Leibel appeared to be quickly jettisoning everything that until then he had shown only enthusiasm and love for: his wife, his son and the life they had built together.
According to the family friend, Braun found out that Leibel and Kasian were together only when she saw them “out on the town” one day. Braun had by then given birth to Leibel’s second child.
Kasian, meanwhile, was already pregnant.
“It just totally sideswiped Amanda,” says this friend. “Blake didn’t offer any explanation, he just stopped coming home.”
Roughly nine months later, Leibel’s life seemed to have been changed utterly. In April, Kasian gave birth to their child and the two were living in the leased West Hollywood apartment.
On May 20, two-and-a-half weeks after the birth of his child with Kasian, police arrested Leibel on an unrelated charge of sexual assault against a third woman, whose name has not yet been released. He was released on $100,000 bail. The rape charge and investigation are pending in light of the more recent, and gruesome, event.
After the rape allegation, Kasian went to stay with her mother. She returned to the shared apartment to talk to Leibel last week. But she was dead when authorities found her, the subject of “sustained blunt force trauma to her head,” according to police.
Officers again arrested Leibel, who had blockaded himself inside the apartment — this time for murder.
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Melvin Van Peebles