The night after the election, Hastings called Ruby Cramer at 11 p.m. to game out his campaign e-book, which he was about to start writing. “We’re talking, and twenty minutes into the conversation, I hear him talking to someone,” Cramer remembers. “I ask who, and he says it’s the bartender at his hotel. And I realize, further into this two-hour conversation, he’s doing tequila shots. I’d hear him say: ‘One more.’ Then I hear him asking the bartender for weed. I say, ‘Michael, you’re going upstairs.’ ”
With the campaign over, the pressures of the road subsided, and Hastings apparently sobered up. But he remained a chronic pot smoker (in L.A. he obtained a medical-marijuana card for PTSD), and some friends think he showed traces of unusual agitation in the weeks before his death. When Hastings made his appearance on The Young Turks in May, he looked hollow-cheeked and seemed wired. His weight fluctuated, and when Cullen saw him a week before his death, “he looked so fucking emaciated.” That weekend, Cullen asked whether Hastings could relate to a point Scahill made in his film about returning to Brooklyn and feeling like life back home was mundane. “Oh, yeah,” Hastings said with a laugh. “I totally miss it. That’s why I re-created the sense of that here by getting involved in NSA stuff. That’s why I create the similar drama and stress and war zone over here.” There was something else, too. While friends say Hastings and Jordan made a great couple, Hastings “wasn’t Husband of the Year,” as a friend puts it. When he moved to L.A., his wife stayed behind in New York. “Elise was hurt by that,” another friend says. “Mike was in a mode of doing things, being really regretful, asking for forgiveness—this cycle of fucking up and straightening out.”
The final days of Hastings’s life were beset by worry. Beyond the e-mails to BuzzFeed and WikiLeaks, he told people the LAPD had knocked on his door. He changed his phone number. To his family, who remembered the apparently Adderall-induced mania of his 19th year, Hastings’s behavior suggested a drug relapse, and his elder brother, Jon, flew to L.A. that Monday as part of an effort to get him back into rehab. Mike picked him up at the airport. He had told his neighbor Thigpen that he thought his car had been tampered with, and back at the apartment, he asked his brother to look under it with him. That night, shortly after midnight, he asked Thigpen if he could borrow her Volvo; he needed to “get away.” She’d been having her own mechanical problems and declined. Shortly after 4 a.m., as Jon slept in a writing space his brother used in Thigpen’s building, Michael left his apartment. Around three hours later, police arrived at the building with terrible news.
At 4:15 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, I drove the route Hastings took on his last night. I started a block from his apartment in the Hollywood Heights neighborhood, heading south on Highland. Almost immediately, I hit a red light at Franklin Avenue. I hit another at Sunset Boulevard at 4:17, and another at Fountain Avenue at 4:18. I accelerated briefly to 50 mph, but hit another red at Santa Monica Boulevard at 4:19. This is the red light Hastings’s car is seen blowing through in the YouTube video. Even at this hour, there were three cars in front of me. It’s a fluke that Hastings didn’t blindside any cross traffic or get blindsided.
Did he think someone was following him? Someone connected to the “big story” he’d mentioned? For a possible BuzzFeed piece, he’d been nosing around the gossip site TMZ. For Rolling Stone, he was working on the profile of CIA director Brennan, but he hadn’t un-earthed anything shocking, according to Farwell. Another friend suggested Hastings could have been onto a story about WikiLeaks’ possibly brokering asylum for Snowden in Denmark. None of these sound assassination-worthy.
When the light turned green, I got back up to 50, and when I crossed Melrose Avenue, the median strip widened and the street narrowed from three lanes to two. The block was darker, too; this is the start of a residential neighborhood. I passed the tree where Michael Hastings died, steps away from Mario Batali’s Pizzeria Mozza, almost exactly at 4:20 a.m.
I thought, then, of a story Cullen had told me. Right after The Operators came out, Hastings was driving his BMW to Vermont, along with his wife and Cullen. As they were driving, Jordan was e-mailed a review of the book. Hastings asked his wife to read it aloud. “From the opening sentence, you could tell what it was leading up to,” Cullen recalls. “It was more and more faint praise; you could see the hammer coming.” Hastings, fuming, said, “All right, that’s enough.” But after a minute of silence, he said, “All right, read the rest.” As his wife read on, the car moved faster and faster on the expressway. Finally, Cullen, in the front seat, said, “Mike, do you know we’re going 90?” Hastings, oblivious, slowed down. The squall had passed. “We could have died in a car crash that day,” Cullen says.
When the coroner’s report was released, it included statements from Hastings’s elder brother that he’d been using dimethyltryptamine, the psychoactive core of the hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca, and had thought he was invincible, claiming to be able to jump off his balcony and survive. A toxicology screen for DMT came up negative, though it found trace amounts of pot and amphetamine. Conspiracy theories being closed systems indifferent to probability and immune to evidence, the report did nothing to curtail speculation about the cause of Hastings’s death. Online comments in the next few weeks included:
“What about the engine trajectory? That is the Building Seven in this case.”
“I believe he was targeted by a black ops government agency.”
“… they are saying he’s a drug addict and insane, out of his mind? It’s a government smear campaign.”