Cape Fear: Jon Ronson on the Phoenix Jones phenomenon
- David Weinberg
In 2009, rumors started to spread in downtown Seattle of a masked vigilante. People kept seeing a man in an elaborate spandex suit, patrolling the streets by night, breaking up fights, chasing muggers. Some even said he’d stopped a terror incident. This, it turned out, was Phoenix Jones. A former MMA fighter, who had reinvented himself as a caped crusader, Phoenix, real name Ben Fodor, quickly became successful enough to have his own entourage. A bunch of fellow misfits who called themselves The Rain City Superheroes. But eight years later, the same Phoenix was led away in handcuffs, caught with four grams of suspected cocaine, sparking a complex he-said-she-said over whether he’d been set up. Jon Ronson had already written an article about Phoenix Jones. That was back in 2011, when Phoenix was still cuddly: a 21-year-old father-of-two who worked with autistic kids by day. A very different point in his timeline to when I met him last year, for our new show, The Superhero Complex. So I phoned Jon up, to compare notes.
DAVID: Have you followed anything that's happened to him since your reporting on him?
JON: I know he was done for drugs. That's all I know.
DAVID: Yeah, so basically he got this text message from an unknown number, and when they realized it was the wrong number, the conversation kept going, which in and of itself was kind of strange. And then this person who was texting Phoenix was like, “my name is Laura,” and Phoenix was like, "My girlfriend and I are polyamorous. Do you want to hang out?" And the woman was like, "Sure, let's do it. I have some friends in from LA that want to party. Can you bring some drugs?" So Phoenix brought some drugs. But there was no Laura, it was just a bunch of police, and they arrested him.
JON: Oh my God.
DAVID:His version of the story is that it's entrapment, and that they've been out to get him since he started speaking badly about the police. And their story is that he's always been a drug dealer and they only now were able to get him.
DAVID: So I started going out on patrols with him after all this and interviewed a lot of the old partners in his crew—who all despise him and blame him for the downfall of their community.
JON: It's a sad turn of events because it's the opposite of the way he was presenting himself, [which was] very anti drugs. And weirdly inspirational. People in Seattle were going up to him and treating him like he was a real superhero. He was eccentric. He was unique.
DAVID: He's really smart, too.
JON: Yeah. I also remember how likeably camp [his crew] were. Like, they were squaring up against some crack addicts—not dealers, but just some users at a bus stop—at like three in the morning. The crack addicts were all looking at Phoenix and his superheroes, and the superheroes were all looking back, talking quietly to each other. And you could tell the crack addicts were like, “What are they saying? Are they planning?” And what they were actually saying was, "I love your colour scheme. Where did you get that gold design? It's just so beautiful."
DAVID: That's amazing.
JON: I was with a bunch of other real life superheroes from different parts of America, and Phoenix was head and shoulders above the others in terms of charisma, and charm, and just being an interesting person. And he didn't seem to have the darkness that the others had. Some of the others felt very troubled. This didn't seem to come from a place of being troubled. It came from a place of being adventurous.
DAVID: Were there any other real life superheroes that you met that stood out?
JON: There was this one guy in particular in New York who stood out in the opposite way to Phoenix. This was a guy who wanted to rid Washington Square Park of weed dealers. [His crew] had these portable floodlights, and they came into the park and they surrounded this guy, shining a light in his face. And the guy immediately left, saying, "You don't know me. You don't know anything about me." I thought that was an entirely inappropriate thing for them to do. But I didn't see any of that kind of thing coming from Phoenix. Phoenix exuded positivity, whereas these guys would just get angry and troubled, and they just put on the cape.
JON: I think his weakness was if he couldn't find any crimes to thwart he would get very frustrated—unlike, you would assume, a trained law enforcement officer. If you're a cop and the night goes by and you don't get to solve any crimes or rescue anyone in distress, [you] kind of run with it.
JON: By three in the morning, he got so frustrated that there was no crimes to thwart that he decided to break up a gang of crack dealers in Belltown. I've been to Belltown during the day. [It’s] a lovely, touristy area of Seattle. So when Phoenix said to me at like three in the morning, “Let's go to Belltown,” I was like, “Oh, that'd be nice.”
JON: There were maybe four or five different groups of crack dealers, and they saw Phoenix and me and the other two real life superheroes coming around the corner. And one group was like, you know, “Who the fuck are you? Fuck off.” And so that was the group that Phoenix engaged.
These guys are like, “What are you doing coming here in your stupid costumes? You don't know anything about our lives. This might be fun and games for you. This is how we feed our families.” And Phoenix was going, “You don't have to do this. You don't have to live this way.” And the whole time I'm nodding in agreement with the crack dealers, thinking if the shooting starts, hopefully they'll remember that I was agreeing with them and they'll shoot around me.
Then one of them just walks towards us and says, “If you stay on our block, we're going to have to show you what the burner does.” And I'm thinking, untraceable cell phone. Doesn't sound contextually right.
DAVID: Yeah, not super threatening.
JON: But then the guy is indicating to his waist, and there's obviously a gun in there. And Phoenix says to the others, "Are we staying? Are we leaving?" And they all say, "We're staying."
JON: I'm torn because this is the climax of my story, but I don't want to be killed. And the taxi driver doesn't want to stay because he's thinking this is a very fucking sketchy situation. Anyway, I managed to keep the taxi there, and then these guys all come back towards us and they're like, " You're so fucking stupid coming here with your stupid costume. But if you refuse to leave, I guess we're going to have to leave." So they all went home. So I guess it was a win for Phoenix.
DAVID: He told me that story, and he told me that you got into a cab, and that you asked to go on another patrol and he said, “You can't come on any more patrols with us because you were a coward and you went into the cab.”
JON: That's not true. I got in the cab to tell the cab driver not to leave, but then I got out of the cab again. And Phoenix never told me I wasn't to go on any more patrols with them because I was too scared. He never said that.
DAVID: Yeah. It’s weird, I talked to several other journalists and they all were like, I love Phoenix. And Phoenix was always like, “Fuck that journalist. He didn't get the story right.” There's all this one-sided animosity.
JON: Wow. I didn't realise he had any animosity towards me.
DAVID: I don't know that he had animosity towards you, but I definitely had this vibe that he felt like you were not as courageous as he was.
JON: He had a bullet proof vest on. I'd been up all night flying. I was basically half asleep. So of course I'm going to hail a cab.
DAVID: Yeah, no, I would've done the same. I mean, I'm only going to go so far for a good story.
JON: So, how was he looking? Does he feel like his life is collapsing?
DAVID:He went through this really dark phase right after [his arrest] where he got really depressed. He said he was suicidal. And he says now, sometimes people spit on him on the street because they think he's a hypocrite.
JON: Hypocrisy is the thing that we, I think as humans, dislike more than any other quality. And I felt that way when I heard about the drugs, I thought, that's hypocrisy. And also just sad, because—I mean, who knows, but when he was talking to those guys in Belltown and saying, “Look at me. My life is better. I'm pulling myself up, I'm doing things. I don't need to take drugs,” it really did feel sincere. It felt very much from his heart.
DAVID: I don't really think that he himself did drugs, but I think he probably hung out with some people that maybe sold drugs. My last day in town, I went on a patrol with Phoenix, and he left his helmet in my car. The next day, he was driving his neighbor's car, and [when] I opened the passenger door to give him the helmet, there was a little white bag of powder that was clearly some kind of drugs. I just held it up and I was like, Phoenix, what are you doing? I think it was probably his neighbors, but this is a guy who's on felony probation. If he gets caught with that, he'll instantly go to jail for two years. No questions asked, you know? And it's like, dude, even if you're not actively involved, you got to be smarter about this stuff.
JON: He had a lot of very positive characteristics, but I suppose the most notable negative one was this sort of tireless obsessiveness. There was this time when he saw a guy give another guy a little bag across the street. He got so excited and ran across the street, but it was pretzels. And he was frustrated in a way that cops don't get frustrated. Obviously, as a kind of armchair psychologist, I was trying to figure out what's going on there. I don't think I can come to an answer, but that was kind of the alarm bell: you love this too much, and that's what's going to put you into dangerous situations.
DAVID: Yeah, I got that same feeling from him. But I do feel like at the end of the day, Seattle is a better place for Phoenix existing in it, you know? Do you feel like, at the end of the day, is Phoenix a force of good in the world?
JON: From my limited experience with him, certainly he was such a likeably eccentric, colourful, charming character—I'm not really talking so much about crime-fighting here so much as just him being a presence in town. You know in superhero movies when the superhero is charismatic and says something wise to a child? I think Phoenix does that. I think Phoenix could be walking down the street in Seattle and be just as inspiring to a child as a scene in a movie. If you just think about the charisma and the positive energy, and you forget about the dark stuff, you forget about the drug selling and the irresponsible crime fighting, he was a superhero.
DAVID: Based on your time that you spent with him, what was your impression of how he thought about fame?
JON: I strongly felt that he was disproportionately interested in fame, which I suppose is no surprise given that he was walking around Seattle wearing a superhero outfit. But he did have a mask on and a true narcissist wouldn't have a mask, I guess. There was this moment when the clubs were closing, must be like two in the morning, and we heard a woman scream. Phoenix got very excited and started running towards the sound of the scream. And this car pulled up and the guys pulled down the window and yelled, "it's the guy from YouTube!" And he screeched to a halt and posed for photographs. And by the time that was over, the screaming woman had just gone.