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April 19, 2023

Netflix used man's photos in film, mistaking him for hitchhiker who killed N.J. attorney, lawsuit says

Taylor Hazelwood seeks $1 million from the streaming service; his images appeared in the documentary about Caleb 'Kai' McGillvary

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Netflix Lawsuit Hitchhiker John Mark-Smith/

Taylor Hazelwood is suing Netflix for $1 million because a documentary on the service uses his photo in the true crime feature "The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker." The documentary chronicles Caleb 'Kai' McGillvary, convicted of killing New Jersey lawyer Joseph Galfy in 2013 after being arrested in Philadelphia.

A Kentucky man has filed a lawsuit against Netflix over the use of his photos in the true-crime documentary "The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker," which chronicles the viral fame of a man who's now in prison for killing a New Jersey lawyer in 2013.

Taylor Hazelwood, a 27-year-old respiratory therapist, claims the streaming service depicted him in a "sinister and defamatory light" by using photos of him in the film released in January. Hazelwood had posted one of the photos on Instagram in 2019. It showed him carrying a hatchet, with the post referencing author Gary Paulson's novel, "Hatchet."

"The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker" tells the story of Caleb "Kai" McGillvary, the hitchhiker who rose to internet fame in 2013 after he used the blunt side of a hatchet to thwart the assault of a woman at a crash scene in Fresno, California, by Jett Simmons McBride, a driver who had had picked up McGillvary. A news interview with McGillvary at the scene went viral because of his enthusiastic description of the incident, which put him in the limelight as a daring hero.

"Hazelwood had no connection whatsoever to the people or events depicted in the film," attorney Angela Buchanan told Insider. Hazelwood is seeking $1 million in damages.

"I f***ing ran up behind him with a hatchet — smash, smash, smash!" McGillvary said. The phrase propelled him onto late night shows like "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" and earned him a cult following. 

But three months later, in May 2013, McGillvary was charged with the murder of 73-year-old New Jersey lawyer Joseph Galfy. The attorney and military veteran was found dead at his home in Clark, Union County, the result of severe, blunt-force injuries to his head and body. McGillvary had been located and arrested at the Greyhound bus station in Philadelphia.

McGillvary, now 34, claimed he was sexually assaulted by Galfy and the killing was in self-defense. He was convicted of first-degree murder in 2019 and was sentenced to 57 years in prison.

In the Netflix documentary, Hazelwood's photo appears twice, including a side-by-side photo with McGillvary. Audio that plays over the images states that the person shown is "either a guardian angel or a 'stone-cold killer.'"

Buchanan said Netflix failed to exercise "due diligence" and do its "homework" in the production of the documentary.

“Mr. Hazlewood has a constant fear regarding the impact the film will have on his personal relationships, his employment and his reputation in general," Buchanan told the New York Times.

Hazelwood learned that his photo was in the documentary after confused friends contacted him, according to the lawsuit filed in Texas. He had never done anything to connect himself or his photo with McGillvary.

“Have you seen this? They put your picture up with a murderer lol,” one of Hazelwood's friend wrote to him. “I’m shocked they didn’t ask for a release. Prayers that your employer is okay with it.”

"Wtf? Explain please," another friend messaged Hazelwood.

Buchanan said Hazelwood's original Instagram post makes clear reference to Paulson's novel and should never have been confused for McGillvary when Netflix was doing research for the documentary. The lawsuit claims Hazelwood has suffered “reputational harm, stress, anxiety, and anguish" as a result of the photo showing up in the documentary.

The Netflix film examines the possible role that viral fame may have played in overlooking — or even encouraging — McGillvary's capacity for violence. McGillvary, originally from Canada, claimed in court that he was sexually assaulted in his sleep by Galfy, whom he'd met in New York City. 

Authorities determined the extent of Galfy's injuries, his age and his smaller stature in comparison to McGillvary, disproved the self-defense argument. McGillvary lost his appeal in 2021 after arguing that his trial was mishandled. He remains at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.

McGillvary also has sued Netflix and a list of more than 50 other defendants he claims exploited him and stole his intellectual property.