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Michael Hastings' Dangerous Mind: Journalistic Star Was Loved, Feared and Haunted 

Thursday, Aug 22 2013
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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.

click to flip through (4) Michael Hastings' publicity photo shows him as a battle-hardened war correspondent.
  • Michael Hastings' publicity photo shows him as a battle-hardened war correspondent.
     
 

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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."

See also: New Surveillance Video Shows Fiery Crash

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.

"[S]elf-destruction does haunt me," he wrote, on the road to Baghdad. "[T]here was a long time in my life where I thought the only thing to do with myself was to destroy it."

Hastings was born in Malone, N.Y., in 1980. The family moved to Montreal when he was 11. As a teenager at Lower Canada College, a private prep school, Hastings got hooked on the gonzo writings of Hunter S. Thompson. He wrote a column for his school paper, called "Fear and Loathing at L.C.C."

Hastings emulated Thompson's penchant for aggravating authority. After a move to Vermont, he and his brother Jeff were enrolled at Rice Memorial High School, a Catholic school, where they showed up the first day with hair dyed red and green.

"That lasted for a day," says Mike Pearo, Hastings' history teacher there. "Rice stresses its dress code, and 'oddball' behavior isn't tolerated."

Hastings had a sharp tongue, and was constantly asking questions in class. "He would say what he was thinking," Pearo says, "sometimes not always a good thing."

In the school paper, Hastings compared the principal to Jabba the Hut. He ran for class president on an anti-administration platform. (He won.) And he was suspended and removed from the student council when he used the word "shagadelic" in the morning announcements.

As he dug into the work of Hunter Thompson and the Beat writers, he nurtured an appetite for drugs.

"I brilliantly deduced that to be a great writer, you had to ingest great amounts of illegal substances," he told True/Slant many years later.

His earliest reported drug use was at the age of 15 — two tabs of acid and a bag of mushrooms at a warehouse in Montreal. By 19, when he was a freshman at Connecticut College, he had a serious problem.

"When I was a teenager, I used to snort cocaine and smoke crack and party all night and booze for months, because I wanted to know what it was like to hit those highs and to feel those highs when they all came crashing down," he wrote in his memoir, I Lost My Love in Baghdad.

Though he alluded to this period in his life several times in his writing, he never told the full story from beginning to end. In various places, Hastings referred to a drunken car wreck, suspension from college, a few days in jail, a restraining order, an aborted enlistment in the Marines and, finally, rehab.

See also: Michael Hastings' Coroner's Report Reveals Likely Meth, Marijuana Use

The underlying reasons for Hastings' behavior aren't entirely clear. His family told investigators that, at one point, he was thought to suffer from bipolar disorder, or manic depression. However, they later concluded that his behavioral issues stemmed not from a mood disorder but from misuse of Ritalin. He also seems to have been prescribed the antidepressant Prozac. (He complained that it caused mania.)

In general, he resisted psychiatric explanations. "He didn't understand how much of his problems were real, and how much were attributed by adults who say, 'This is the problem with you,' " Thigpen says.

Chastened and clean, Hastings enrolled at NYU in 2000 and graduated in 2002. An unpaid summer internship at Newsweek set him on the path to a writing career.

If he never wrote fully about his drug experience, it may have been because he was still trying to get perspective on it.

"It took me years of sobriety before I had a clue of what actually happened while I was all messed up," he wrote in True/Slant, "and before I could truly empathize with my family for all the shit I had [put] them through."

In his 20s, Hastings stayed clean and channeled his manic energies into journalism. Writer Rachel Sklar met him, and dated him for a few months, when he was living in New York and working for Newsweek. She remembers his apartment overflowing with books — Hemingway, Mailer, Roth, A.J. Liebling and many volumes on war.

"He was voraciously learning the craft," Sklar says. "He was ambitious. He was eager. He was really just 100 percent into it."

Two war books were especially influential: Michael Herr's Dispatches and Chris Hedges' War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. The latter famously equates war with a highly addictive drug — and Hastings felt himself getting sucked in.

In 2005, he prevailed on his editors to send him to Iraq. At 25, he was one of the youngest foreign correspondents in Baghdad. He would spend much of the next five years in war zones.

According to Lucian Read, the photographer who partnered with Hastings for much of that time, the writer brought an unusual affinity for troops. His brother was in the Army, and Hastings was close in age to most of the soldiers. He tended to adopt a soldier's-eye view of authority.

"His skepticism ran a lot deeper," Read says. "He was skeptical of the generals, the plans, the pronouncements, spokespeople — all the happy talk."

Hastings lived in the Green Zone, went on embeds and broke stories. His routine was shaped by the constant threat of violence. And though he knew better than to admit it too openly, it was thrilling. He came to think of himself in the tradition of war correspondents hooked on the adrenaline of battle.

"If I'm going to be completely honest," he wrote in his memoir, "I have to admit that the empty prestige and the stupid glory — yes, the horrible rush, the deadly sense of importance that war brings to life — are hard illusions to shake off. Look at me, a war correspondent. ... "

The memoir centers on his relationship with Andi Parhamovich, an Air America spokeswoman whom he met shortly before going abroad. For the first year, it was a long-distance relationship. But in the fall of 2006, she got a job with a non-governmental organization that allowed her to follow him to Baghdad.

She was killed when her convoy was ambushed in January 2007.

"It's a horrible situation, mind-numbingly horrible," Hastings wrote. "But you try to do what you can."

What he could do was write. He returned home to Vermont and wrote the first draft of his memoir in three weeks. It was his way of processing the trauma. "It was either write or die for me," he wrote.

In April, he returned to Baghdad — and had to confront his reasons for doing so.

"Was part of me looking to get killed, too?"

In recent years, psychiatrists have begun to examine the emotional toll of reporting on war, recasting its romantic aura with terms like "anxiety disorders" and "post-traumatic stress."

In 2002, Canadian psychiatrist Dr. Anthony Feinstein surveyed war correspondents and found that 29 percent developed PTSD after exposure to combat — similar to rates among service members. Another 21 percent suffered from depression, and 14 percent reported substance abuse.

"Lots of journalists are affected, both from being bystanders to grief and from being in harm's way," says Dr. Elana Newman, a psychologist at the University of Tulsa, who has studied the subject. "And the more you see, the worse it is."

War journalists have begun to try to raise awareness by speaking out about their own mental health. Perhaps the most high-profile example is Michael Ware, a CNN and Time correspondent who spent six straight years in Baghdad.

Ware, who was nearly killed several times over, has been open about his own addiction to combat. In his time in Iraq, he was shot at, kidnapped three times and twice nearly executed.

"I've been through the wringer," he says by Skype from his home in Australia. Now retired from combat coverage, he says it took years to get over his experience.

"I had a very dark few years coming out of Iraq," he says. For a while, he was suicidal. "I know what it's like to battle these things on your own. I went very close to topping myself."

Phillip Robertson, a freelance correspondent who covered the war for Salon.com, also has spoken about the psychological toll.

"Repeated exposure to combat has the weird side effect of taking any fissure in your mind already and widening it," Robertson says, speaking via Skype from the Syrian border. "You subject yourself to things that are not right. There is no mechanism to support people who do the work we do. ... War draws fucked-up people to it, and it doesn't make them get better."

Hastings never identified himself in his writing as someone suffering from PTSD. The closest he came to such an admission was in May, when he retweeted an article about using pot to treat PTSD. In fact, according to the coroner's report, that is exactly what he was doing.

Still, PTSD was not something he discussed even with his close friends. Matt Farwell, a freelance writer and Army veteran, worked with Hastings on two stories for Rolling Stone. The second involved a CIA station chief with PTSD, but even then Hastings did not open up on the subject, Farwell says.

The death of Hastings' fiancée clearly had a traumatic effect on him. When asked a few years later on C-SPAN what it was like writing the memoir, he answered, "I wrote it in — I was so screwed up when I wrote that book."

About six months after his fiancée was killed, Hastings was assigned to cover the 2008 presidential election. Peter Goldman, the senior Newsweek editor heading up the project, wrote in a tribute about meeting his eyes for the first time.

"They were gray and red-rimmed; they were wary, they were intense, they were haunted, they were ineffably sad even when he laughed," Goldman wrote.

In 2009, Hastings attended the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, where he hung out with David J. Morris. A former Marine and a war journalist himself, Morris would later write that Hastings "exuded the sort of undiluted hypervigilance that I have always associated with people who have untreated PTSD." (Morris, who is now at work on a book about PTSD, said recently that Hastings may only have been nervous.)

"Whatever was going on with Hastings," says Dr. Ginger Rhodes, a psychologist in San Francisco who works with trauma survivors, "it would be unusual if he wasn't psychologically impacted by his repeated experiences of covering these events."

Michael Ware did not know Hastings in Baghdad but argues the effects of covering a war should not be underestimated.

"There's gonna be no one answer (to his death), but it would have to have been a massive contributing factor," Ware says. "That could have been me in that car crash at another part of my life."

The car Hastings was driving the night he was killed, a Mercedes-Benz C250, retails for $37,800 — not the kind of car the average journalist would own. But Hastings was not the average journalist. After his initial stint in Iraq, he catapulted to success, which often put him on the receiving end of nasty barbs from green-eyed colleagues.

He got a reported $500,000 deal for his memoir. The book proposal leaked just two months after his fiancée's death, drawing mockery on Gawker.

He would remain angry about the leak for years afterward. Referencing that episode, he liked to quote Wallace Stegner: "If you spill your guts on the floor, don't be surprised if people step on them."

Hastings offered a multilayered defense of the book in an effort to ward off accusations of exploitation. He wanted to make sure that Parhamovich was not forgotten. The book deal would help establish a foundation. Her family supported the book and, he said, she would have supported it, too.

Though the book got mixed reviews, it helped Hastings to establish his voice and his brand. Feeling stifled at Newsweek, he quit and started to freelance, earning big assignments for GQ. Now, when he called bullshit on the wars, there was emotional authority behind it. He pitched a story to GQ in which he would "embed" with a general — Stanley McChrystal. GQ turned it down, so he took the idea to Rolling Stone.

Even with a presidential campaign and a book under his belt, Hastings worried about his future in journalism. As late as April 2010 — when he was in the middle of reporting the McChrystal story — Hastings wrote a blog post in which he mulled whether the decline in media would force him to find another line of work.

With the McChrystal story, however, Hastings became an overnight sensation. McChrystal and his aides were quoted bad-mouthing top civilian leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. President Obama summoned McChrystal back to Washington and fired him. In the book This Town, author Mark Leibovich calls it "the most consequential political story of 2010 — maybe all of Obama's first term."

Hastings quickly turned the story into another book deal, also for a reported high six figures. (The book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan, was optioned by Brad Pitt.) By any measure, he was a star.

Yet he paid a high price for the story. The military canceled his embeds, making it much harder for him to report from war zones. And Hastings took tremendous flack from his fellow foreign correspondents, who accused him of bringing down McChrystal by breaking the unwritten rules of access.

The criticism fortified Hastings' image as a gate-crashing rebel with no greater loyalty than to the truth.

"Look, I went into journalism to do journalism, not advertising," he told Huffington Post.

Hastings was finding his voice, and it made some people nervous. The first draft of The Operators was rejected by the publisher. "They didn't like my tone and my attitude," Hastings told LitReactor.com. The publisher sent "a 16-page email telling me what a jerk I was, that I was a disgrace to the profession."

The book was dropped but later picked up by David Rosenthal, an editor who had worked with Hunter Thompson. He saw Hastings as an exciting young talent who just needed a little editing.

"Michael certainly had an extremely strong voice," Rosenthal says. "It would be stupid to try to alter that voice. Tame it a bit? Sure."

The book, which came out in January 2012, was a best-seller. What made it work, Rosenthal says, was the combination of humor with serious, behind-the-scenes investigative journalism. Rosenthal described it as "Dispatches meets Catch-22."

"There was something sweet and mischievous about Michael," Rosenthal says. "There was a certain high-fun factor in kicking certain people in the balls."

Hastings had been politely turning down drinks for 10 years — even refusing a shot before going on The Colbert Report. But in 2010, he started to relapse. In The Operators, he tells of getting drunk at the Dubai airport in April 2010 while awaiting a flight to Kabul. He also wrote about getting drunk and taking Adderall to get through the 2012 presidential campaign — what he called a "campaign-induced relapse."

Though his disdain for the campaign trail was well-documented, he'd signed on to cover the race for BuzzFeed. The upstart website, best known for viral lists of animal pictures, was looking to add gravitas, and nabbing Hastings was a coup. For his part, Hastings missed covering the wars; he quipped that the campaign was "a kind of methadone, a weak substitute."

He also signed up to do an e-book — Panic 2012 — which was being sold as an homage to Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972.

Hastings had wanted to write in a more provocative voice, and now he had the chance, though often he just sounded like a jerk. For instance, he wrote about chewing out a volunteer who was trying to prevent him from eating food he had not paid for.

"I was struck by his eagerness to portray himself as an asshole," says Olivier Knox, who covered the 2012 race for Yahoo News. "I always found him to be warm and effusive. ... I don't remember him sullenly smoldering in a bar while the rest of us were hobnobbing with the shiny Obama people."

He did have his moments. Hastings got into an obscenity-laced email battle with Hillary Clinton's spokesman over Benghazi, then published the exchange. He also got in trouble when he reported on an off-the-record drinks session between Obama and campaign reporters. Hastings argued that the reception was fair game and that only the president's remarks were off the record. That's not how the Obama campaign saw it, nor many in the press. The resulting furor came to be called, jokingly, "The Battle of Hastings."

While he was filing regularly, Hastings wrote, he also had "a few days of getting completely blitzed." He mentioned one particularly out-of-control evening in Las Vegas, during which he insulted a Wall Street Journal reporter "in the most offensive terms possible, bringing shame to my family."

This was not some bit of gonzo exaggeration.

"He wasn't ranting and raving, but he definitely had a few too many drinks. And he definitely insulted the Wall Street Journal reporter," Knox says.

Jordanna Thigpen says that Hastings "scared himself" that night, and vowed to stop drinking. When he got to L.A., she says, he got a prescription for medical marijuana and smoked regularly. Other friends say he continued to drink occasionally but not to excess.

In November, he went on CNN and insulted its Pentagon correspondent, calling her a "spokeswoman" for the military. He later explained that he might have been hungover that day.

In February he moved to Los Angeles, where he joined BuzzFeed's new bureau. For recreation, he took up skateboarding and boxing. Friends noticed he had lost weight.

Though he was officially in town to cover Hollywood, he did relatively little of that. As ever, he remained focused on national security.

He found a legion of admirers in L.A.'s progressive media world. He was invited to attend panels and share his views on drones, Afghanistan and presidential politics.

"He was definitely an iconic figure here," says Linsey Pecikonis of Brave New Films, a documentary company.

Hastings was a regular guest on Current TV's The Young Turks and Huffpost Live, making friends on the staffs of both shows.

"He was one of us," says Cenk Uygur, host of The Young Turks. "There just aren't very many really aggressive journalists challenging the Pentagon."

Hastings hung out with The Nation's Jeremy Scahill when the reporter was in town promoting his documentary Dirty Wars. In May, Hastings was invited to a salon at director Oliver Stone's house, along with a guest list of progressive stars like Sean Penn, Glenn Greenwald, writer David Sirota and economist Dean Baker.

"He seemed a little stressed," Stone says by email, "but nothing out of the ordinary in our culture."

A certain level of lighthearted paranoia would be unremarkable in such company.

Uygur says, "We joked that night that, if Scahill was there, we would have definitely had a drone strike on the house."

The Boston Marathon bombing in April brought new attention to government surveillance. Soon thereafter, a retired FBI agent said on CNN that the government would be able to go back and listen to the suspects' phone calls from before the bombing.

In mid-May, the Justice Department disclosed that it had obtained records of 20 phone lines belonging to Associated Press reporters as part of a leak investigation. The next week, the Washington Post obtained an affidavit from another investigation, in which a Fox News reporter was described as a "co-conspirator" with an alleged leaker.

And on June 5, Edward Snowden's leaks unmasked the NSA's electronic dragnet. As these revelations tumbled out, one after the other, Hastings grew increasingly consumed by them.

Hastings ended Panic 2012 on a hopeful note about President Obama. But when the AP story broke, he quickly changed course, arguing that the government's behavior would have a chilling effect on investigative journalism.

"Any leeway or sympathy I ever give to the Obama White House, I take back forever," he said on Huffpost Live, on May 14.

The next week on The Young Turks, Hastings wore a green "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" T-shirt. Gesticulating for emphasis, he shouted, "I'm sick of this partisan, defend-Obama-on-everything. He's tapping your phones! The man is tapping your phones!"

In public appearances, Hastings said he had no information to suggest that he was being targeted. In private, he was convinced that he was.

"He felt that everything he was doing was being watched," Uygur says.

Gail Sistrunk McTiernan spoke with Hastings several times in May and June for a BuzzFeed story about her husband, imprisoned Die Hard director John Mc­Tiernan. "I know it was [Hastings'] belief that it was absolutely no problem for the FBI or anyone else" to listen to his calls, she says. "He assumed they were."

In May, Hastings traveled to Washington and New York and visited his editors. As usual, he was full of ideas — maybe something on the underbelly of Hollywood. He also was interested in doing something on surveillance, maybe a book.

"The NSA stuff ... really rocked him a bit," says Rosenthal, his editor. "I'm not a doctor, but he certainly was agitated in the last day or two of his life."

Mike McTernan, a staffer at Brave New Films, helped arrange a Skype interview for Hastings with some victims injured in a drone strike in Pakistan in early June. Hastings was thinking about including the material in a story he was doing for Rolling Stone on CIA director John Brennan.

"He just seemed very freaked out," McTernan says. "The conversation, in general, was pretty out there. He seemed like he was on edge."

The day before Hastings died, he sent an email to his BuzzFeed bosses with the subject line "FBI investigation, re: NSA." The email informed them that "the Feds are interviewing 'my close friends and associates,' " and advised them to get a lawyer if they were contacted. (No friends or associates have stepped forward to say that they were interviewed, and the FBI has denied it was investigating Hastings.)

"Also," Hastings wrote, "I'm onto a big story and need to go off the rada[r] for a bit."

By then, his behavior had frightened his out-of-town family members. Hastings' brother had come to visit that day from New York, hoping to persuade him to enter drug treatment. Hastings' brother later would speculate to authorities that, in addition to marijuana, Hastings was taking the hallucinogen DMT — which Thigpen calls "ridiculous." Hastings' brother also told investigators that he would not be surprised to find cocaine or another stimulant in the apartment.

Thigpen argues that Hastings was not doing anything harder than pot. She strongly disputes the coroner's suggestion that Hastings was taking methamphetamine, saying it was much more likely the amphetamine found in his system came from Adderall. (A coroner's spokesman acknowledged that the amphetamine could have come from either Adderall or meth.)

In addition to his drug use, Hastings was saying some disturbing things. Hastings' brother told investigators that, although Hastings had never talked of suicide, he did think of himself as "invincible," believing he could jump off his balcony and be all right.

That afternoon, about two hours after Hastings announced he was going off the radar, he and his brother stopped into Peas & Carrots International, a clothing shop in West Hollywood. He stayed in the store about 15 minutes, buying two T-shirts, and seemed in high spirits, co-owner Joshton Peas says.

"He was really chatty," Peas says. "He seemed like a normal guy — he was a little more amped up, passionate."

That night, his brother later told investigators, Hastings smoked marijuana and passed out around 12:30 or 1 a.m. His brother retired to the empty apartment underneath Thigpen's — the one Hastings used to write.

That timeline may be slightly off, however, because Jordanna Thigpen says that at 12:30 a.m., Hastings came to her apartment and asked to borrow her car. He was scared, she says, and trying to get out of town.

Pizzeria Mozza is about 2 miles south of Hastings' apartment. The restaurant's surveillance video showed his Mercedes barreling down the road and exploding in a flash of light at 4:20 a.m. Hastings was killed instantly, his body charred and unrecognizable.

Shaul Raigorodsky, an Orthodox Jew who fled the Soviet Union in the 1980s, was asleep in bed at 4:20 a.m. when he was awoken by the explosion. He put his pants on, went downstairs and saw a Mercedes engulfed in flames in front of his house. His instinct was to help. In video of the crash scene, he can be seen trying futilely to douse the fire with a garden hose.

Raigorodsky has seen several accidents outside his house. At night, he says, drivers treat that stretch of Highland Avenue "like a freeway."

"I don't know what got in the guy's mind," he says. "I don't know his craziness."

There's a sign tacked to the tree where Hastings crashed that night, reading, "This was not an accident." Taken down several times, it always gets put back up. Another sign says, "Didn't have to know you to know the truth of what happened."

After the Fourth of July, someone gathered up about 30 mini American flags and planted them around the memorial site.

Kimberly Dvorak, a freelance reporter for San Diego 6, was barely aware of Hastings until he died in circumstances too bizarre for her to ignore. She's now the leading reporter looking at "alternate" theories of the crash.

"Something just kept telling me, 'You need to look into this,' " Dvorak tells the Weekly. "I just looked into it, and it grabbed me."

Dvorak has blogged about terrorism and immigration, generally from a conservative or libertarian point of view. (She has blogged about Obama's "dubious birth certificate.")

She has not always been entirely reliable. She mistakenly reported, for instance, that Hastings' body was cremated against his family's wishes. Nevertheless, her reports have generated a wide following online, especially, she says, among hackers and supporters of Edward Snowden.

"A lot of people in that world are keeping this alive," Dvorak says. "I'm not certain that Michael was a part of that world, but in their minds he became a part of that world when he died."

Dvorak does not claim to know what happened to Hastings. Asked if she believes it is possible that the government had him killed, she says, "It's absolutely possible they could do something like that.

"The more I find out about this, the more I'm convinced something happened," she says. "But we are never gonna get someone from a federal agency raising their hand saying, 'It was me, I'm sorry.' "

Jonathan Kay, author of Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground, says the Hastings case is typical of conspiracies that can crop up around anyone who dies after being involved in controversial events. "Every time someone connected with 9/11 dies, for instance, I get emails telling me that this is part of the cover-up of the 'inside job' perpetrated by the Bush administration," Kay says.

What theorists do not recognize, Kay says, is that "the U.S. government does not go around killing journalists who happen to be investigating it."

That said, Hastings likely had reason to be concerned about government surveillance.

"I cannot count the number of times I've had my communications recorded, my computers 'read,' " Michael Ware says. "I've had transcripts read back to me of some of my conversations."

Hastings was working on a story about the CIA, and communicating with people abroad who were critical of the agency. It would not be a stretch to imagine that his calls really were being recorded.

"It's possible Michael was of interest to the intelligence agencies," Robertson says. "If they were interested, they would own your communications. They could do that."

But that line of thinking can be "very dangerous," Robertson adds.

"Being of interest to the intelligence agencies is like doing a bunch of really awful speed," he says. "Since you're in a world of uncertainty, your mind races."

In that situation, marijuana may only have compounded the problem.

"It would not be wise to go expose yourself to combat and then smoke a ton of extremely potent pot," Robertson says. "Certain things are not good to do."

Robertson snuck into Iraq just before the 2003 invasion by riding an inflatable raft down the Tigris River. After a lengthy tour covering combat, he finally took four years off. He stayed home and published nothing. Now he's back covering the Syrian civil war, witnessing some of the worst atrocities he's ever seen.

The psychological effects have proven difficult to shake. Long after he left Iraq, he explains via Skype, he had "PTSD dreams."

"I was in an open-backed truck with a bunch of Marines," he says. "We were driving into the western provinces of Iraq, and I realize I don't have a flak jacket on. I get a feeling, like, 'Hey buddy, we can't turn back. We're going straight in. Good luck.' I knew in that dream it was not gonna be OK."

Hastings wrote about having similar dreams. In one, insurgents chase him down in a pickup truck. He tries to escape by jumping into a lake. "Insurgents can't swim, can they? Yes, they can, and one comes after me, splashing me as he gets closer, and then he kills me."

After sitting with his thoughts for a moment, Robertson says, "This is speculation. But he's going at high speed. It's as if he was gripped by fear and he was trying to outrun something. And he floored it, trying to escape. He enacted a flight from something, real or imagined."

As theories go, it's better than most.

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