Earlier this month, a non-existent bear named Ron did not attend an anti-vaccine rally. Neither the bear nor the rally in Hawthorne, Florida, were real, and Wendy Callahan, a local anti-vaccine activist, had no idea her name was being used by a person posing as her to file a permit for the rally. That person was a Virginia man named Justin Beights, and as it turns out, he ineptly tried to hoax the parks departments of not one but two small towns in two different states. Beights also filed a permit using the name of an Idaho anti-vaccine activist for a proposed rally there. That permit said the rally needed space for “dwarf-tossing” and an area where children would learn to juggle knives and fire.
When we got on the phone the other morning, Beights sounded something approaching embarrassed.
“The way we’re countering the anti-vax movement is by trying to educate people,” he declared. “And you can’t educate people who’ve already decided that the information you’re providing them is not true. This-”—he meant the energetic hoaxing—“was just a creative idea that I had that I think would have, you know, gone towards sort of, uh, amplifying the ridiculousness of the fact that people believe it’s okay to choose not to use vaccines.”
“I was gonna keep going,” he added, after a moment. “But you blew it for me.”
Briefly, and without wasting a moment more of our lives than necessary on this, here’s what happened. Beights decided that his personal, somewhat ill-defined mission of weakening the anti-vaccine movement through ridicule would best be accomplished by finding two women from very small towns—he found them through “random googling,” he said—and filing permits in their names for absurdist rallies.
For the one in Idaho, Beights filed under the name of Ingri Cassel, an anti-vaccine activist in the small town of Spring Lake. He filed for the permit in Boise, many hours away, and refused to get on the phone with city parks officials. That made them instantly suspicious, according to Bonnie Shelton, the communications manager for Boise parks and rec.
“They figured out it was a hoax pretty quickly,” Shelton said dryly, both because they immediately called the real Ingri Cassel and because of the basic content of the rally application, which looked like this:
(“I do not expect this to be a large event,” the description reads. “We are just going to have some fun family games [lawn darts, reptile petting zoo, dwarf tossing and maybe some fireworks] and also some information booths to educate people on the dangers of vaccines. We will also have an expert juggler at the event to teach kids how to safely juggle knives and fire.”)
Cassel confirmed to me via email that she’d heard from the Boise officials pretty quickly and was relatively unbothered by the whole thing. She’d heard from Callahan about what happened to her, and she considered Wendy’s story far worse. “Apparently the gals in the office down in Boise are a bit more intuitive and have more common sense than the City of Hawthorne in Florida,” she added.
Cassel also told me, politely, that she would prefer not to speak with me further because of my own belief, backed by literally centuries of science, that vaccines are safe and effective. “Frankly, I generally do not do interviews with anyone who doesn’t understand the fact that vaccines are neither safe nor effective as a means of disease prevention,” she wrote. “And the civil rights issue with regards to mandated and forced vaccination.”
Cassel confirmed, though, that the incident hadn’t negatively affected her. “Nothing has come of it thus far,” she wrote, jovially. “LOL!”
Justin Beights lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he’s married, runs a small investment firm, and has several children; you’d think he’d be too busy for this shit. You would be wrong.
Several people from Charlottesville emailed after my first story to tell me Beights is known locally as a bit of troll, frequently taunting local elected officials, including Mayor Nikuyah Walker, the city’s first black mayor, on social media. Those exchanges often get acrimonious; earlier this month, Walker told Beights, “It’s clear that you would lynch me if you could so I’m never concerned with your thoughts.”
In our conversation, Beights saw himself as somehow uniquely positioned to fight anti-vaccine misinformation with further misinformation.
“My intentions are 100% positive,” he told me. “You can’t just decide that you’re going to drive on the left-hand side of the road and that’s what people are doing and I just—I’m trying to do my part to keep everybody on the right-hand side.”
Beights also said he was aware that the Idaho rally, particularly, was pretty easy to spot as a fake—“It wasn’t my best work”—and conceded that maybe he didn’t need to involve real people in his quest.
“In retrospect, I could’ve done this without involving Wendy,” he said. “In retrospect there were ways I could’ve done this without involving her.” (I reminded Beights there was another person, too; Ingri also, he agreed.)
I told Beights that he’d chosen people with an already deeply suspicious worldview and, in a pretty direct way, helped confirm their sense that unseen forces were working against them.
“I’m not trying to change the minds of people who are already neck-deep in the horseshit,” he replied. “I’m trying to undermine their ability to recruit new people.”
It’s unclear how fake bears or fictional fire-juggling children or gross, ableist references to “dwarf-tossing” do that, and Beights wasn’t quite responsive to my argument that many, many people—pediatricians, nurses, public health advocates, parents, educators, scientists, meme-makers—are working hard to weaken the spread of false anti-vaccine ideas.
“There are a lot of people doing this work you could join forces with,” I told him.
“But it wouldn’t be funny,” he responded. “What we’re doing is not working. What I did was not the best way to do it, I agree, but it was a creative way to chip away at their armor.”
I asked Beights if he was planning to try to generate other fake stories.
“I don’t have a plan right now,” he replied. “I’d like to combat anti-vax groups. I’ve got to come up with a new creative way to do that.”
“God help us,” I muttered.
“I’m a man without a plan at this point,” Beights reassured me, but it somehow didn’t make me feel much better at all.