Crash & Burn 

War journalist Michael Hastings' unexpected death was preceded by depression, drugs—and the fear that the government was out to get him


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 fiancee 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 of 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.

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.

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Gene Maddaus

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