If you’ve ever wanted to see a conspiracy theory birth itself and take flight, look no further than the untimely death of journalist Michael Hastings. The 33 year old author, war correspondent and writer of the Rolling Stone story that lead to the resignation of Afghanistan commander General Stanley McChrystal was killed in a one-car crash in Los Angeles on June 18, 2013.
The “official story” is that Hastings was speeding south down Highland Avenue at 4:15 in the morning. He lost control of the car, possibly because he hit a rise in the road. The car went over the median strip and slammed into a palm tree, causing it to explode. He was killed instantly. These are the findings of the Los Angeles Police Department and the recent report from the County Coroner’s office – and the Hastings family hasn’t disputed them.
I briefly mentioned Hastings in a piece I wrote a few months ago, about the tendency of conspiracy theorists to ascribe “mysterious circumstances” to the death of anyone they see connected to a major event. And this holds true for Hastings’ death as well. There is now a large contingent of well-intentioned, smart people who believe Hastings was murdered by someone of great power, with the crime staged so that it would look like an accident.
A talented young author with a habit of poking hornet’s nests dying before his time naturally raises suspicions. But I believe a review of the conspiracy theory will show it based on little more than coincidence, misinformation and paranoia – obscuring the real tragedy that took place. A debunking is in order.
Hastings’ Death Was Suspicious – This is true, but only because all car accidents are suspicious. Any time a piece of machinery fails catastrophically, be it an airplane, nuclear reactor, power grid or automobile, something happened that wasn’t supposed to. The Los Angeles Police Department and Coroner’s Officer are tasked with putting those suspicions to rest. They did this, or at least attempted to, with their final report. If one happens to not believe that report, that’s fine. But in the absence of evidence that the report is false, I don’t see any reason not to believe it.
He Emailed His Family the Day of His Death to Say FBI Was Investigating Him – This is also true. Hours before the crash, Hastings sent an email, blind carbon copied to colleagues and friends, saying:
“Hey [redacted] — the feds are interviewing my ‘close friends and associates,’”
“Also: I’m onto a big story, and need to go off the radat (sic) for a bit.”
The day after Hastings’ death, the official Twitter account for Wikileaks wrote:
“Michael Hastings contacted WikiLeaks lawyer Jennifer Robinson just a few hours before he died, saying that the FBI was investigating him.”
Clearly Hastings believed he was being looked at by the federal government. Was he? I have no idea. Maybe he was, though the FBI has denied it, and none of these close friends and associates have confirmed they had been interviewed. It’s entirely possible he was being investigated, and just as plausible that he wasn’t. In any case, it’s a long jump from “he was being investigated” to “he was murdered.” Evidence of one is not evidence of the other. This is saying X, therefore Y, and Y doesn’t follow from X in this case.
He Believed His Car Had Been Tampered With – Another truth, at least according to an LA Weekly writer who interviewed his neighbor. Hastings confided to her the day before the accident that he thought “someone” had done something to his car and he was afraid to drive it. But just like the feeling that he was being investigated, the fact that he thought someone tampered with his car does not mean someone did tamper with his car. Only that he thought someone had.
He Was on Drugs at the Time of the Accident – The coroner’s report stated that Hastings had traces of amphetamine (NOT methamphetamine, as has been widely reported) and marijuana in his system, but that it wasn’t enough to be a factor in the crash. Hastings’ past history of drug use was well known, to the point where he’d written about it in a 2008 book, and his family was afraid he’d relapsed. If Hastings had the paranoia and jitters that can accompany both amphetamines and potent marijuana, it would be a plausible explanation for both the feelings he was being investigated and that his car had been tampered with. It could also very well explain the speeding, though we have no way of knowing for sure.
He Was Investigating the CIA When He Died – Another truth, confirmed by multiple sources. Hastings was working on a profile of CIA Director William Brennan for Rolling Stone at the time of his death. Some conspiracy theorists speculate that the CIA “took him out” because he was about to reveal something damaging or embarrassing. However, while Hastings never got to finish his story, someone else did. The Brennan story was completed by Matt Farwell, a friend of Hastings, and is slated for publication later this year. If Hastings were killed to stop it from coming out, would anyone be insane enough to pick it up? And who would take the risk of publishing a story that literally had blood on it?
Hastings was a journalist doing a job, like countless journalists before him. There’s no reason to think that simply writing about the CIA would make him a target for assassination. Journalists who have helped bring down presidents, heads of corporations and powerful figures are still alive and writing. If they haven’t been killed, why Hastings, over a story that’s coming out anyway? Others speculate that the accident was General McChrystal taking revenge on the writer who “brought him down.” But this seems unlikely. McChrystal’s resignation, while embarrassing, has not hindered him from serving on several Boards of Directors, nor of accepting lucrative speaking engagements.
Hastings Was Speeding – The exact rate of speed that Hastings was traveling on Highland Avenue is unclear. Some sources put it at 65 miles per hour, other witnesses claimed he was going 80 or even close to 100. Whatever the rate, it’s clear from security camera footage taken from the restaurant Mozza, other footage of Hastings running a red light (the “Loud Labs footage”), forensic evidence and eyewitness accounts that Hastings was flying down the street when he crashed. The only person reporting anything differently is Kimberly Dvorak, a freelance journalist and blogger for Examiner.com, a loose network of blogs that essentially lets its writers post whatever they want.
Dvorak has been one of the principal architects of the “Michael Hastings was murdered” conspiracy, and has posted a large amount of dubious or outright false information related to the incident, which has been snapped up without thinking by conspiracy mongers and information hungry bloggers. Dvorak posited on her blog for a San Diego TV station that she contacted “a university professor” who used security camera footage to determine that Hastings was going only 35 mph, and therefore not speeding. Dvorak has posted nothing to confirm this, and it’s contradicted by everything else we know about the accident. Indeed, she later removed the bit about the “university professor” from her blog, making it look as if she simply came up with the number out of thin air.
The real question, and the one we’ll most like never be able to answer, is why Hastings was speeding. Where was he going, and why was it so urgent he get there? The only person who knew that answer, unfortunately, can’t tell us.
The Tree Hastings Hit Should Have Been Knocked Down – Not necessarily true. The particular palm tree that Hastings drove into is a Washingtonia robusta, one of the most common in Los Angeles. These trees can grow 100 feet tall, live for over a century and have thick trunks, strong roots and bulging bases. There’s no reason to think a car, even going as fast as Hastings was going, would be able to knock one over. It’s clear from photos that the tree is scorched and dented, and a quick search for images of cars that hit trees shows many cars that plowed into trees which are still standing.
There Was a Flash Before He Crashed/A Bomb Blew the Car Up – One of the most widely-held theories about the crash is that there was a flash before the actual explosion of the car – indicating some sort of bomb going off. The Mozza security camera footage of Hastings’ car speeding down Highland actually catches sight of the fireball. And there does appear to be some kind of brief flash at around the 19 second mark. The most commonly held theory is that this is Hastings tapping his brakes, possibly because he saw he was about to go over the median. It’s also possible that this was sparks from the undercarriage of the car hitting a water pipe.
Absent other footage, it’s hard to tell exactly what this first flash of light is. Could it be a bomb? Possibly. But remember, “I don’t know” does not mean “I do know, and it was a bomb.” The forensic evidence from the crash doesn’t show signs of a bomb, and any bomb powerful enough to send the car’s engine flying over 150 feet would most likely have torn the car to shreds. Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s impossible for it to have been a bomb – but it would have to have been set off with impeccable timing, do just the amount of damage required and leave no trace.
Witnesses Said the Car Exploded Before It Hit the Tree – This is a misinterpretation of a translated interview with a witness to the accident. Jose Ruvalcaba, an employee at a nearby business, said in an on-camera interview a week after the accident that he heard the car flying down the road, ran out to see what was happening and saw sparks coming from Hastings’ car before it went up on the median. And he does not say he saw the car in flames. What he actually says, or at least what the translation has him saying, is “the car was bouncing, flames and sparks near the gas tank. When he hit the palm tree, that’s when the flames were higher.” Sparks around the bottom of the car would be entirely in keeping with the metal undercarriage hitting the median or a metal water pipe. He does NOT say the car exploded before it hit the tree, contrary to another Kimberly Dvorak story.
I also take Ruvalcaba’s statements with a degree of skepticism. Many eyewitnesses to the Flight 800 crash are certain they saw AND heard the plane struck by missile, despite this literally being impossible. Eyewitness testimony is useful, but not solid evidence of something implausible.
There Was a Second Car – Another theory states that Hastings was run off the road by another car, but this isn’t borne out by either the Mozza or Loud Labs footage. Both clearly show Hastings speeding, with no cars or car lights anywhere close to him. Even Jose Ruvalcaba, the witness who saw the car hit the tree, specifically says there were no other cars around Hastings.
The Car Was Hacked Into – The idea of someone being able to remotely hack into your car’s computer system and take control of it is terrifying. And many people believe this is what happened to Michael Hastings. No less an authority than former U.S. National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism Richard Clarke believes this could have happened, telling The Huffington Post:
“There is reason to believe that intelligence agencies for major powers — including the United States — know how to remotely seize control of a car. So if there were a cyber attack on the car — and I’m not saying there was, I think whoever did it would probably get away with it.”
But “reason to believe” something could happen is not evidence it did. For one thing, wirelessly sending instructions to a car’s computer system is basically impossible, because there’s nothing to receive the signal. While new cars do have numerous computer systems, they’re designed to monitor and control very specific parts of the car, and they don’t come with Wi-Fi access. The car would have to have been physically hacked into, with software downloaded into it and multiple unconnected systems being stitched together – and even then, the technology is mostly theoretical with no prior track record of being able to do what was done to Hastings’ car. Conspiracy theorists often rely on experimental or unproven technology to fill in gaps in their stories, and that appears to be the case with the “car hacking” angle.
Added 8/26/13: After an illuminating back and forth conversation with a reader, I want to clarify my position on the car hacking theory. I do find it unlikely that Hastings’ car was hacked into, but as I say elsewhere in the piece, unlikely does not mean impossible. Clearly, technology exists to be able to remotely take control of certain elements of a new car’s computer system, either through a remote signal or an installed program. It’s not entirely implausible that a sophisticated organization could make use of it to engineer an assassination that, by its nature, would destroy the evidence that it occurred.
However, I maintain that this technology is mostly unproven, with too many variables to be a foolproof method of killing someone. There’s also the context of Hastings’ car: it was a rental, and nobody could guarantee that he would drive it in the necessary way to make assassination-by-hacking possible before he returned it.
Without evidence that Hastings’ car actually was tampered with (as opposed to him simply thinking it was, quite possibly due to drug-induced paranoia), I remain confident that Hastings’ car was not remotely taken over and intentionally crashed.
The Brakes Were Cut – If Michael Hastings’ brakes had been cut, he wouldn’t have been able to brake the car at all. Brakes that have been cut don’t just stop working in the middle of a drive, as we see so often in movies. Brake failure might account for Hastings being unable to stop, but not for his rate of speed. It’s also not a deliberate attempt at murder.
He Was Taken Out By a Drone – I shouldn’t have to explain why this is unlikely. A drone flying over one of the most densely packed parts of Los Angeles and firing a missile at a speeding car would have attracted enormous attention. As it stands, not a single witness said they saw anything like a drone or missile, and neither the security camera footage nor the evidence at the scene supports the idea. Also, the missile would have to have hit the car at the exact moment it also hit the tree. It’s false, end of story.
The Engine Was Found Behind the Wreck – False and not possible. The engine of Hastings’ car was ejected and found about 170 feet south of the wreck. Photos of the scene clearly show where the wreck was and where the engine landed, and it’s exactly where it would be if it ejected from the car after the impact. Kimberly Dvorak has claimed the engine was found to the north, indicating either a massive bomb going off or some kind of botched evidence planting. However, this is both wrong and impossible, as it would violate the laws of physics. And it would seem Dvorak has removed the claim from her story.
Cars Don’t Explode or Eject Engines Like That – Critics of the “official story” point to a number of factors that debunk Hastings’ car exploding as a result of a crash. They say things like “The Mercedes he was driving was new and well-built” or “it wouldn’t have ejected its engine like it did” and “cars don’t just blow up like that.”
But to say something doesn’t happen implies that it can’t. And this is false. While the kind of explosion that engulfed Hastings’ car was unusual, it’s by no means impossible. Every car accident is different, and a simple search finds numerous videos of crashes that end in fiery explosions and stories where engines are ejected out of cars – sometimes in cars as well-built as the Mercedes C class. With 9,000 car fires in the US every year, and over 32,000 people dying in traffic accidents in 2011, unusual does not mean impossible.
He Was Cremated Without His Family’s Consent – Yet another Kimberly Dvorak falsehood, implying that the LAPD burned the body to conceal evidence. This one stems from a misinterpretation of a statement by a friend of Hastings, who remarked that he’d never been to a funeral without a body and that he, personally, wouldn’t want to be cremated. Dvorak took this statement and turned it into another tentacle of the conspiracy. Hastings was cremated, but only after an autopsy was done – and with the consent of his family.
The Black Box Was Never Found – This is quite correct, and there’s a simple explanation: Mercedes-Benz doesn’t include event data recorders in their cars. Additionally, cars don’t have the type of “black box” recorders that airplanes do.
In preparing this piece, I read quite a bit about the crash and the state of mind Michael Hastings might have been in before it happened. And nothing has been compelling or plausible enough to alter my belief in the story that’s emerged from the LAPD, the Coroner’s office and the findings of credible journalists. There was no murder and no plot to take him out. There was only a talented, troubled man struggling with addiction and depression who lost his life in a car accident resulting from driving too fast. No conspiracy is required – just human frailty.