Gene Maddaus of the LA Weekly has a cover story this week on the life and death of journalist Michael Hastings. Maddaus talks to friends and colleagues and finds that there was a lot of concern about Hastings in the days before his Mercedes hit that palm tree on Highland Avenue. The concern is less about Hastings' fresh belief that he was onto a big story and his allies were being investigated by the FBI, as he told his BuzzFeed editor, and more about his substance abuse and overall emotional jitteriness. He showed signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The night he died, Maddaus writes, Hastings smoked pot and passed out, then asked a friend if he could borrow her car to get out of town. She felt he was scared. Soon after, Hastings was speeding down Highland and hit a palm tree two miles from his apartment.
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.
File photo of memorial at Hastings' death site, LA Observed/Judy Graeme