In April, a man named Erin Walker Markland drove off a mountain road near Santa Cruz and was killed. The woman who had planned to marry him, Jordanna Thigpen, was devastated. For comfort, she turned to a man who had taken up residence next door. He had been through something similar — years before, his fiancée had been killed.
"He was the only person in my life who understood what I was going through," she says.
The landlord they both rented from had encouraged her to meet him, saying he was a writer. In their initial conversations, he was unusually modest. It was only when she Googled his name — Michael Hastings — that she learned he was a famous war correspondent.
In February, Hastings had rented a one-bedroom apartment with a gorgeous view overlooking Hollywood. The landlord allowed him to use another unit, the one below Thigpen's, to write.
Often, when Hastings was done for the day, he would visit Thigpen. He would talk passionately about the stories he was working on. They talked about other things in the news, about stories she thought he should pursue, and about their shared sense of grief.
"We both suffered the same thing, which was depression," she says.
Hastings was intensely interested in government surveillance of journalists. In May, the story broke about the Department of Justice obtaining the phone records of Associated Press reporters. A couple weeks later, Edward Snowden's revelations about the National Security Agency's massive surveillance program became public. Hastings was convinced he was a target.
His behavior grew increasingly erratic. Helicopters often circle over the hills, but Hastings believed there were more of them around whenever he was at home, keeping an eye on him. He came to believe his Mercedes was being tampered with. "Nothing I could say could console him," Thigpen says.
One night in June, he came to Thigpen's apartment after midnight and urgently asked to borrow her Volvo. He said he was afraid to drive his own car. She declined, telling him her car was having mechanical problems.
"He was scared, and he wanted to leave town," she says.
The next day, around 11:15 a.m., she got a call from her landlord, who told her Hastings had died early that morning. His car had crashed into a palm tree at 75 mph and exploded in a ball of fire.
"I burst into tears," Thigpen says. "I couldn't believe it had happened again."
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Michael Hastings was just 33 when he died, but he left behind a remarkable legacy. In tributes across the Internet, he was remembered as one of the best journalists of his generation.
He was most famous for "The Runaway General," the Rolling Stone piece that ended the career of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of the Afghanistan war. Hastings had built a reputation as a fearless disrupter of the cozy ways of Washington, gleefully calling bullshit on government hacks and colleagues alike. He was loved and admired, hated and feared.
The day before he died, he'd warned colleagues in an email that he was being investigated by the FBI. He also said he was onto a "big story," and would be going off the radar. Almost inevitably, his death — in a fiery, single-car crash, at 4:20 a.m. on June 18 — resulted in a swarm of conspiracy theories.
Amateur forensic examinations have proliferated online. A common refrain is, "A car just doesn't blow up like that." Some argue that he was murdered by the CIA, or the NSA, or the Pentagon.
Hastings' family and the Los Angeles Police Department both have dismissed the conspiracies. LAPD also has ruled out suicide. "My gut is that this was really a tragic accident," his widow, Elise Jordan, told CNN.
Interviews with friends as well as the coroner's report suggest that Hastings' mental health was deteriorating. As a young man, he'd abused drugs and alcohol and received a possible diagnosis of manic depression. Now, after a long period of sobriety, he had recently begun smoking pot to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder — the product of years of covering combat.
His family was concerned. In the days leading up to his death, one of his brothers visited L.A. in an attempt to get Hastings into rehab; he later told investigators he feared more serious drug use.
Hastings had long been both brilliant and troubled. Friends recall him as a captivating storyteller. "It was thrilling to have a conversation, because you never knew where it might end up," says Alyona Minkovski, a close friend. "Everybody was drawn to him."
He was charming; he also could be an asshole. That was all part of his public persona. But he also had a darker side, which he tended to keep hidden.