Hustled to Death

Hustled to Death

Illustration: Angelica Alzona (Gizmodo)

Warning: This fiction story contains descriptions of self-harm.

Coworkers didn’t notice anything odd about Claudia Anderson on the morning of September 12th—certainly nothing that portended tragedy. An accounts specialist for two years at HoloPose, a VR yoga company in San Francisco, Anderson was known as a dedicated worker with an eye for fashion. On that particular Thursday, witnesses remember her wearing a teal patterned suit topped with a lavender beret. None of them spotted the yellow wrecking bar tilting out of her handbag.

“She was always so put together, y’know?” said a colleague who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to the press. “I’d struggle to hit the gym, shower, and throw on some clothes before work. Claudia would already be there when I landed, looking like she stepped off the cover of Glamour.”

Building surveillance footage shows Anderson taking an elevator to HoloPose’s sixth-floor office at 6:57 a.m. This suggests she sat quietly at her desk for almost four hours before she stood up, walked to the nearest window, and began smashing it with the tool she stole from a construction site.

“At first, I couldn’t even process it,” said that same colleague, who was wearing headphones and didn’t hear the glass break but remembered the gust of hot, late-summer air that followed. “I was like, ‘Is this real? Am I on a TV show?’”

Over the next few minutes, Anderson returned to her desk twice, dropping first her computer monitor and then her laptop out of the broken window. Next, she stepped through the window herself, falling 70 feet to the ground below.

Anderson wasn’t the only one having an unusually violent Thursday. Elsewhere in the city, an IT manager set a server room on fire, a smoothie shop worker plunged both hands into a whirring juicer, and an Uber driver guided her car into a highway median at 60 mph. While all of them survived their injuries, any relief was short-lived. The next day, police confirmed two more “spontaneous aggression” incidents in the Bay Area. A week later, the number had climbed to a dozen. It seemed the mysterious rage could erupt anywhere, at any time. A partner, a coworker, a stranger on the bus: soon, residents were eyeing everyone through a lens of suspicion.

Like many people, I first heard about “Techie Fury” on social media, where users shared jokes about fleece vests and avocado toast. I found it harder to distance myself from the news. Destructive behavior is something I’ve struggled with since I was a teenager. And haven’t we all, at one time or another, felt a terrible urge to fuck shit up?

I also needed a story—badly. Rumors about layoffs were swirling around the newsroom again. It had been months since I’d had a scoop. “What are the stakes here?” said my editor, rejecting a piece about Mark Zuckerberg’s haircut. “Bring me a story with conflict, with characters. Readers want something that matters.”

In early October, I flew to San Francisco, hoping to learn for myself what pushed Anderson and the others over the edge. There was more than my job on the line. The official investigation was ongoing. Weeks after the chaos began, authorities still couldn’t explain the outbursts—or promise they wouldn’t spread.

When we were in college, Cristina Salazar was a fixture at the campus library, as much a part of the building as the stacks of unread dissertations or English majors smoking on the front steps. Salazar approached her work at the department of public health with a similar diligence. She had no patience for imprecision. Every time I said Techie Fury, the disease investigator reflexively rolled her eyes.

“Almost none of the affected persons work for startups,” she told me over a plate of mushy crab cakes. “And that stupid hashtag was going viral before we even knew if the outbreak was real.”

After a long night of awkward airplane sleep, I was struggling to stay awake, let alone precise. The restaurant wasn’t helping. Salazar had chosen Poseidon’s for its perfect health inspection score. The gloomy seafood spot, whose lighting and decor attracted an equally cheerless clientele, was fortunate they didn’t grade on atmosphere. As Salazar explained how her office determined the incidents were connected, I sipped my coffee to hide a yawn.

“To confirm a disease cluster is abnormal, you need a baseline rate, and it was hard to get one here,” she said, adding, “I don’t know of any agency that keeps numbers on people just sort of flipping out.”

Hospital records provided a clearer, more disturbing picture. In addition to their physical injuries, almost every patient came in sweat-drenched and delirious. “Their hearts were pounding like jackhammers,” said my former classmate, beating her chest for effect. These were symptoms of a stimulant overdose, suggesting some kind of mass poisoning. Screens for the most common street drugs came back negative. The victims who were conscious denied using anything stronger than whiskey.

Salazar said a test used by anti-doping agencies provided the break her team needed. Four of the earliest patients had metabolites of Sydnopro—an amphetamine-like stimulant developed in the Soviet Union—in their urine. It was an exciting, if confusing, discovery. With Sydnopro, they finally had a suspect. What they couldn’t figure out was how Cold War-era speed ended up in four Americans with no history of drug abuse.

“And that’s it,” said Salazar. “That’s all we know.” Her frustration was obvious. While we ate overpriced crab, Syndopro casualties in hospitals across the city were fighting for their lives. By then, 26 cases of Techie Fury had been reported, with a new patient coming in almost every other day.

I asked Salazar if she was afraid of catching it. She told me it wasn’t herself she worried about. “Yesterday my mom called to ask if ‘increased shouting’ was a warning sign. I could hear dad in the background yelling at the game on TV.”

We settled the bill and I promised to let Salazar know if I learned anything useful. As I got up to leave, she apologized for not staying in touch over the years. “I’ve just been so busy, y’know?” she said. “Let’s make sure it’s not another decade before we catch up again.”

“Totally,” I agreed, too tired to ask myself if I meant it.

I didn’t sleep any better in my hotel room than I had on a plane. Lying in bed with my eyes closed, every thought looped back to my job, the story, and Sydnopro. At 4 a.m., I surrendered to insomnia, marching to the nearest corner store for energy drinks and snacks. With no interviews on my schedule, I spent the bleary morning reviewing the spontaneous aggression cases. There was a lot to review.

On September 13th, police say 58-year-old Linda Kawakami started a “near riot” at the Walgreens where she worked. According to coworkers, the assistant manager opened a floor safe for a scheduled bank pickup a little after 11:00 a.m. She then threw its contents in the air, showering the foot care section in bills. Kawakami added to the chaos by tackling the armored car driver, who described her strength as “surprising.”

That afternoon, medical technologist Alex Speizer began tossing chairs into an MRI machine at a Daly City medical center. Like Kawakami and the others, he did so suddenly and without speaking. One bystander compared the sound to a washing machine with a brick in it, “if the washing machine was the size of a room.” Ultimately, Speizer himself became pinned in the scanner. It was a short trip to the E.R.

After a quiet weekend, officials hoped that the worst of it was over, but three more residents broke down on September 17th. Within hours of each other, Justin Almeda, Katherine Pierce, and Alice Jackson were all possessed by the inexplicable rage, bringing police to a law office, a coffee shop, and an accounting firm, respectively.

Subsequent cases repeated the pattern. Taken together, they blurred into a single, shared story: On an otherwise routine work day, the suspect entered a trance-like state and began attacking their environment, sustaining serious injuries. The suspect seemed immune to pain. When authorities arrived, the suspect ignored both officers and medical personnel. The suspect was forcibly detained. Colleagues described the suspect as “the last person” you’d expect to become violent. “They just snapped,” witnesses said.

It was almost noon when I looked up from my computer. I, too, was not feeling quite myself. It had been more than 48 hours since I’d had a regular meal or a full night’s sleep. And reading story after story of self-harm and mayhem gave my otherwise dull hotel room a sinister air. The floor lamp, the phone, the blinking alarm clock: to the spontaneously aggressive, these weren’t appliances, they were potential weapons. Without knowing why, I rented a bike and rode to the Golden Gate Bridge. After watching the water sweep past the concrete foundations for almost an hour, I rode back.

It was obvious that news stories weren’t going to reveal where the Sydnopro came from. Even the most detailed accounts barely mentioned what the victims were doing before they turned violent. I reached out to every patient again, saying that I understood what happened wasn’t their fault. This time, I received a response. Yes, wrote Claudia Anderson in an email, she was awake and would be happy to talk.

A month after she took a steel bar to her seemingly perfect life, Techie Fury’s Patient Zero still had no memory of September 12th. To Anderson, the day she shattered her legs, hip, and ribs was like a missing letter, a volume stolen from an encyclopedia. A went to B went to D.

“Everyone keeps telling me I’m lucky,” she told me from her hospital bed. “I’m trying to believe them.”

Statistically, Anderson was lucky. People who fall four stories have even odds of dying. At six stories, the distance Anderson fell, the mortality rate is over 75 percent. She faced months of grueling recovery, but Anderson was alive thanks to an illegally parked delivery truck. She asked me if I had a photo of her unlikely guardian angel. After a moment of hesitation, I took out my phone.

Anderson shook her head as she swiped through pictures of the van’s crumpled hood and shattered windshield. “I know what people are saying. They’re asking, ‘How did this happen? How could she do this?’ Well, I’m wondering the same thing.”

I couldn’t give Anderson the answers she wanted. The name Sydnopro meant nothing to her. (“Is that an app?” she asked.) In the end, we spent most of our time discussing the days before her breakdown. “They were normal,” said Anderson, by which she meant incredibly stressful and demeaning.

From the outside, Anderson’s employer seemed harmless, even silly. Using VR headsets, HoloPose let subscribers livestream yoga classes either at home or from one of 18 HoloPose studios nationwide. Inside the company, there was little to laugh about. “We all lived in fear of Jak,” said Anderson, referring to Jak Herbert, the volatile founder of HoloPose and Lotus Nootropics.

Draped in prayer beads and answering his phone with “namaste,” Herbert made serenity his personal brand, but Anderson said the surfer CEO could be shockingly cruel. She recalled him leaving one demo meeting delighted, only to return to minutes later screaming about missed sales goals. “He made one of the reps stand up and said he should put himself in the garbage, because that’s what he was, garbage.” According to Anderson, Herbert forced the man’s coworkers to chant the word.

After Herbert shelved a planned IPO in July, Anderson says the tense mood at the office turned outright toxic. “I guess I hid it well, but I was crying in the bathroom every day,” she said, looking out the window. “Pretty much the only thing that got me through it was the kombucha.”

Free kombucha from Lotus, Herbert’s other startup, was one of several cheap perks designed to keep employees in the office past stated work hours. In lieu of conventional flavors, Lotus sold the beverage in three different formulas—“Vibe,” “Feels,” and “Hustle”—each one promising a different mix of natural supplements to “enhance creativity, boost clarity, and reveal a more holistic you.”

Researching Herbert and his companies in my hotel room that night, I learned that some of these supplements were more natural than others. The active ingredient in Lotus Hustle, for instance, was 50 milligrams of phenosidnin, the drug also known as Sydnopro.

I knew the product well. Since arriving in the city, I drank bottles of Hustle to stay awake. Like Anderson, I never bothered to look up the strange names printed on the coral-colored label.

I didn’t think of myself as someone who needed drugs to do his job. Early users of meth, coke, and speed probably didn’t either. Today, we call these powerful stimulants “recreational drugs.” Decades before that, they were popularized as chemicals to keep workers working.

During the Gilded Age, cocaine was issued to black plantation laborers, given to textile workers, and sold in mining camps. In Imperial Japan, methamphetamine was marketed as “Philopon,” meaning “love of work,” with one WWII-era ad specifically promoting its use for nighttime labor. And after the war, amphetamines were widely used (and abused) in the U.S. as personal productivity became the highest civic virtue.

Meanwhile, scientists on the other side of the Iron Curtain were searching for new “psychic energizers” to motivate exhausted workers. Soviet chemists saw promise in drugs like Mesocarb, which seemed to have the stimulating effects of amphetamines without the high, crash, or risk of psychosis. The limits of this safe speed were eventually tested by Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

Soviet-Afghan War veterans say Mesocarb was freely distributed on the battlefield, allowing them to scout or stand guard for days on end. After 72 hours without sleep, however, hallucinations were unavoidable. In Russian, these delusions are known as “glyuki,” or “glitches.” Glitched-out veterans recall late-night firefights with spectral mujahideen and drug-fueled marches haunted by visions of monsters.

Sydnopro, a related, more powerful stimulant, was provided to troops on a restricted basis. Thirty years before the first case of Techie Fury, Colonel Viktor Klimov described the effects of the drug in his memoir Spetsnaz GRU: Notes of a Soldier:

On the third night, two sentinels took the remaining tablets of Sydnopro. At dawn, we discovered they had encircled their post in seismic mines, trapping themselves completely. [...] The guards were deaf to us until Alexei fired a shot over their heads. As if dreaming with their eyes open, they told us that only in the circle were they free.

“There was nothing to do for them,” Klimov concludes. “We marched on.”

No one at urgent care had heard of Sydnopro. Absent any symptoms, I was given a sedative and told to go to the hospital if my condition changed. “Get some sleep,” urged a doctor who seemed to need some himself. Cristina Salazar, my former classmate, was more cautious. I called her from my hotel room to let her know what I’d learned. I thought she might be excited. Instead, she asked me in measured tones if I felt like I was a danger to myself or others. I told her no, I was perfectly fine.

I wasn’t.

For months, maybe longer, I’d been pushing myself closer and closer to the edge. With so many talented reporters unemployed, I felt lucky to have a job. To justify my good fortune, I drove myself to work harder, ignoring the fatigue that left me feeling emptier every day. In the end, the life I struggled so hard to create felt like a prison made of bulletproof glass: I could see beyond its walls, but had no idea how to escape it. My work was who I was. At the same time, it was killing me.

I wasn’t alone in my desperation. While violent crime rates have been falling across the country, worker self-harm has risen sharply in recent years. According to government labor statistics, drug overdoses and suicides are two of the fastest growing causes of death in the American workplace.

I owed it to Anderson to expose Jak Herbert and Lotus. I also owed it to myself to break the cycle. The email I sent to my editor at 2 a.m, New York time, was simple: This would be my last story as a staff writer. I was resigning. After hitting send, I closed my computer and turned off my phone. I put them both in the minibar and unplugged it.

I felt an incredible lightness as I climbed into bed. Pulling the stiff hotel sheets over my eyes, I forgot all about Techie Fury and Salazar and Herbert and Hustle. I slept for 14 hours straight, dreaming about a cleansing fire that burned down a forest, leaving only snags that watched over the black earth like scarecrows.

Later, I learned there was a reason Salazar sounded worried. Hours before we spoke, Alex Speizer, the MRI technician, suffered a hemorrhagic stroke and died.

In addition to dirt and stone, a city sits on a bedrock of trust. You only notice it when the ground starts to rumble. In Golden Gate Park, where visitors scurried across the open plaza like mice, I could see the full cost of Techie Fury. I thought I’d feel safer if Salazar met me in a public place. Trading leery glances with passersby, it felt more like there was nowhere to hide.

It was two days after I told Salazar about the Sydnopro in Hustle. I expected the action against Lotus to be swift. When I asked her if officials were shutting down the company, Salazar almost laughed. “The current administration prefers self-regulation,” she said, sitting as far away from me as she could while still being on the same bench. A voluntary recall was in progress. All across the city, orange kombucha bottles were being quietly pulled from store shelves.

“No criminal charges?” I asked. Salazar explained that Sydnopro, like many Soviet drugs, was never scheduled by the FDA. Selling it wasn’t a crime. “At worst, Lotus will get a letter from the feds scolding them for ‘misbranding’ Sydnopro—as a dietary supplement, that is.”

It sounded like authorities were letting Lotus get away with murder. I told her as much. “You’ve got it wrong,” said Salazar, “Speizer didn’t test positive for Sydnopro. No one has since the drug store woman.” I asked her if the investigators could be mistaken. For once, I was sure she rolled her eyes on purpose.

I left my meeting with Salazar dejected. Without more evidence, it would be difficult to prove what Lotus had done—and my editor no longer trusted me. I asked him in an email if we could publish what I had. All he wrote back was: “You said you were poisoned?” After vowing to see the story to its end, the path forward was dimmer than ever.

With my reporting stalled, all I could do was reach out for comment. I sent a list of questions to Lotus, HoloPose, and Herbert, expecting to get the kind of statement that crisis firms write in minutes and bill in hours. The next day, an email from HoloPose surprised me. Would I be interested, it read, in a one-on-one sit-down with Jak Herbert in person?

The thought of being alone in a room with Herbert made me nervous. Anderson told me how vicious he could be—and after my brush with the void, I didn’t fully trust myself, either. But I couldn’t walk away from an interview with the man at the center of everything. Not unless I wanted to abandon the story completely.

Yes, I wrote, I’d be happy to hear his side of the story. A lie. The offer filled me with dread.

It was already dark when I arrived at HoloPose headquarters, located in what was once the tallest building west of Chicago. A century ago, the skyscraper on Market Street was built by a newspaper baron—one of the city’s first disruptors—as a monument to excess. Today, the 20-story building hardly makes an impression. It huddles with other legacy architecture in the shadow of Salesforce Tower, which critics have called “the space turd.” That night, the 1,070-foot structure looked more like a giant finger rising in an obscene gesture to the world.

In the lobby, a concierge walked me to the elevator bank and pressed the button. I made the trip to the sixth floor alone. Standing where Anderson did on the last Thursday of her old life, I tried to imagine what she was thinking while the purse straps, pulled down by the weight of the wrecking bar, dug into her shoulder. When the doors opened again, the only word that came to mind was “release.”

Most HoloPose employees had been working from home since the incident. Herbert never stopped coming in. As I walked the floor, automatic lights switched on ahead of me, revealing empty desks and mold-filled coffee cups, a vision of all our labors after armageddon.

Following the sound of soft chanting, I found Herbert in the company’s Mind Space, a bamboo-matted room decorated in faux-stone, corporate Zen style. In better days, employees were encouraged to “refresh and refocus” here through guided meditation classes. Herbert was refocussing in the lotus position when I walked in. “Ah,” he said, his eyes snapping open. “You’re here!”

Herbert stood up and pulled his shoulder-length hair back into a ponytail. He stuck out his hand. “I’m Jak,” he said. “Sup?”

Broad-chested and over six feet tall, the 39-year-old executive could’ve been mistaken for a retired Olympic swimmer. He wore a martial arts gi and smelled faintly of sandalwood. After shaking my hand with both palms, Herbert directed me toward a pair of Japanese floor cushions. As we sat down, he said that what he’d heard about Hustle and Techie Fury hurt him deeply. He didn’t mean the victims.

“You work day and night trying to help people—real people—and once you find a little success, all they want to do is tear you down.” Herbert shook his head. “It’s not right.”

I asked him who 50 milligrams of Soviet speed was helping. “Look, functional beverage users want performance. Lotus provides that.” And what about the beverage users who broke down? Herbert was adamant: “There’s no proof Hustle made anyone sick.”

Using the example of ice cream sales and shark attacks, he tediously explained the difference between correlation and causation. “We’ll be revisiting our formula, but make no mistake: This is Big Government making Americans’ health decisions for them yet again.”

“Who was making Claudia Anderson’s health decisions?” I asked. At that, his lips curled in a sneer—a glimpse of the other Herbert. “Claudia was a ticking time bomb who eventually showed herself for what she was,” he said. “I’m not going let a violent criminal destroy what we’ve built.”

By then, I was sick of Herbert, sick of his evasions, sick of a world that took everything from people until they blamed themselves for having nothing left to give. If Hustle is so safe, I challenged Herbert, would you drink it yourself, right now? “Would I drink it? Would I?” His eyes were like a rabid animal’s. For the first time, I noticed how tired he looked. “I never stopped!”

Herbert bolted up from his cushion and walked to the door in two strides. He pushed over a slab-like cabinet: a cleverly disguised fridge. As the cabinet thudded onto the floor, its grey doors flung open, sending bottles of Lotus Hustle rolling through the room. It was time for me to go. Herbert blocked the only exit.

“I was just trying to help people!” he shouted. “Today’s consumer needs performance! I just—” Herbert stopped himself mid-sentence. An eerie calm washed over his face. He started picking up bottles from the floor.

I stood up and tried to reason with Herbert, told him that we could end our conversation right here and revisit it when we were both feeling better. It was too late. There was no way for him to hear me now. The man I came to interview was already gone.

Herbert threw a bottle against the wall. I winced. He threw another, forcing me to duck as the missile whizzed by my neck. He picked up a third bottle of Hustle and smashed it on his forehead. As blood traced down his blank face, he cracked a fourth bottle on the door handle. Then he turned towards me, holding the shattered bottleneck like a prison shiv at his side.

I told Herbert to calm down, that it would all be okay. Without changing his expression, he drove the bottle’s jagged end into his chest and collapsed. A lily of sticky crimson bloomed in the glass and the tea as the founder of Lotus wheezed on the bamboo-matted floor.

Like Anderson, Herbert had the kind of luck that’s hard to recognize. With me there to witness his breakdown, the paramedics arrived in time to save his life. I don’t expect him to thank me. The fate of the companies Herbert led is less certain. In a bid to stay solvent, HoloPose laid off most of its staff and shut down all 18 studios in December. That same month, Lotus filed for bankruptcy protection. An auction is expected later this year.

As for Techie Fury, it hasn’t stopped, only slowed. New spontaneous aggression incidents have been reported in places as far away as Spain and South Korea: countries where Lotus Hustle was never sold. According to Salazar, the earliest cases may have been Sydnopro-related, but the phenomenon as a whole better fits the definition of a psychogenic illness. “What they used to call ‘mass hysteria,’” she said.

The vast majority of victims weren’t poisoned by an energy drink. While I can’t say for sure, I suspect that the outbreak provided patients with the physical vocabulary to express a different illness: the pervasive burnout we’re all supposed to ignore. That’s what it gave me, at least. The only difference is that I found another way to admit I was unwell.

The cost of quitting my job has been more than just financial. For the last few months, I’ve felt strangely guilty. For me, walking away was a difficult choice. For others—those with more debt, bigger families—it must seem impossible. My decision won’t do much to help them, but if we don’t start by advocating for ourselves, I don’t know who will.

In mid-January, I checked in with Claudia Anderson one last time. Earlier that week, it was reported that she settled her lawsuit against HoloPose and Lotus. One of the terms of the agreement was that she not disclose the payout. While she honored that condition when we spoke on the phone, I got the sense that it was a significant sum.

For the first time since I’d met her, Anderson sounded happy. “It’s like I’m finally learning who I am,” she told me. Anderson said that while it was slow-going, she was regaining her strength. “Emotionally,” she clarified. I asked Anderson what she planned to do now.

“Nothing,” she said. “Not one fucking thing.”

If you or someone you know is having a crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.



Even with the Fiction label, this feels all too real.