This world is full of surprises, some of them involving anti-vaccine activists, sedated bears, and the small-scale production of literal fake news. A couple of weeks ago, I thought I was working on a quick, weird story about an anti-vaccine activist in Florida who was attempting to hold a rally in her hometown featuring a drugged bear. As it turns out, that’s not the story at all. Here, instead, is a story about someone who worked extremely hard to generate a news cycle involving a rally that they clearly have no intention of ever holding and a real activist who had no idea her name was being used. The bear also seems to be fake, and—despite my initial, hopeful understanding of the situation—is not named Ron.
The whole situation seems to be an interesting example of the way that seemingly ordinary people sometimes try to gin up fake news stories, whether to make their ideological opponents look silly, to hoodwink the press, or simply to feel the power of introducing a narrative into the world. Maybe there’s something about creating a story, watching it spin into something larger and larger, that allows you to feel a little bigger too.
In any case, let’s talk about the bear.
At the end of March, the city of Hawthorne, Florida—population 1,519—got an unusual permit application. A person who said their name was Wendy Callahan, and who would only communicate with city officials via email, filed a request to hold a rally on April 21. Callahan identified herself in the application as belonging to the Florida chapter of a group called VIAL: Vaccine Information & Liberation.
In a typo-ridden letter, Callahan explained that she and VIAL planned to hold a rally to “raise the awareness of the dangerousness of the vaccines that the medical and pharmaceutical communities are forcing on our children.”
Still, though, Callahan expressed a hope it would be a nice day: information booths, clowns, three-legged races, dunk tanks, and, of course, a “heavily sedated but alert grizzly bear.” The bear was going to be there as heavy-handed and somewhat confused metaphor, but it was also a real bear.
Callahan added that the group also hoped to have Jenny McCarthy attend the rally, but that her presence wasn’t confirmed. “Excited, though,” she wrote.
There were some obvious issues here—grizzly bears are really big, for one thing, it’s unclear who’d be keeping one around the house to rent out, and April 21 is Easter Sunday—but a tipster who claimed to work for the city of Hawthorne swore to me the application had really come in.
“I am a city official in Hawthorne (this is obviously a fake email account),” the person wrote. “I follow you on Twitter and saw that you were aware of the wacky anti-vax event that someone is trying to hold in our town. I’ve attached a copy of their application and our response for your information. We have denied Ms. Callahan’s request to have a ‘heavily sedated but alert grizzly bear’ at the event, but she continues to push back. She says that it is the centerpiece of the event.”
The supposed city official also attached a couple of other things to their email: a copy of Callahan’s initial application and a letter in response from Ellen Vause, the city of Hawthorne’s city manager. Vause politely let Callahan know she’d need to secure security personnel for her event, insurance coverage, and a laundry list of other things. And she had bad news about the bear.
“The use of the sedated Bear at Hawthorne Athletic Park would not be permitted,” Vause added, with delightful use of capitalization, citing the city’s parks and recreation rules. Still though, if all the other items were squared away, she added, they’d find a spot for the rally, just east of the playground, underneath a thatch of oak trees.
I was, frankly, tickled. (A goddamn bear.) From the wording of Callahan’s letter, it was unclear if the bear or the bear’s handler was named Ron; I fervently hoped it was the bear’s name.
The unnamed city official and I had a pleasant back-and-forth over the next few days, though I got the sense he or she found the whole thing less amusing than I did.
“She just suggested that we were trying to prevent her from using the bear because we disagree with the message of the event,” they wrote, a day or so after the initial email. “Tiptoeing towards litigious.” Not long after, they followed up, sounding even more concerned. “She’s now saying that she intends to appeal the no-bear condition, getting her attorney involved, claiming that our decision is unconstitutional. She actually said that our misuse of power is far more dangerous than a caged bear.”
When I got her on the phone, Hawthorne’s city manager, Ellen Vause, seemed to confirm that the bear issue was getting sticky.
“Our code does not allow a bear or wild animals at our recreation park,” she explained. “So according to our code of ordinances the bear would not be permitted. It’s just ...” she paused, searching for words. “It’s not permitted.”
Vause added that if Callahan paid her fee and submitted the other planning items required, she’d likely be approved for a special permit. “But for now she hasn’t done of any of those other things,” Vause added dryly, “bear or not.”
Vause confirmed that the situation was unique in her eight years as city manager: “Every day is a new adventure,” she said, a little grimly, before we hung up the phone.
Wendy Callahan of Hawthorne, Florida is an anti-vaccine activist of long standing, and her website Vaccine Truth is both easy to find and, I would politely but firmly argue, filled with misinformation and pseudoscience. I sent her an email to the Gmail account listed on Vaccine Truth’s homepage.
As I waited for her response, I couldn’t help but notice, however, that Callahan didn’t actually seem to be associated with a group called Vaccine Information & Liberation, nor could I find a group using that exact name. (The closest is Vaccine Liberation Army. The Vaccine Injury Awareness League, another group critical of vaccines, does use the acronym VIAL.)
My editor Tim, meanwhile, was delightedly trying to figure out where one rents a bear. He wrote to a group called the Get Smart Bear Society, which is dedicated to ensuring that “people and bears safely and respectfully coexist,” asking if they knew where one would find a licensed bear handler. A response came back from Sylvia Dolson, the group’s executive director: “I have no idea what a bear handler is.” It was as reasonable as it was disappointing.
At virtually the same moment, a response came back from Wendy Callahan. “Ummm,” she wrote, “Not sure where you heard that but no, I’m planning no such thing.” She followed up, a few hours later, “Can you tell me where you heard that?”
A few hours later, Wendy Callahan also got back to me.
I’ll explain: Callahan’s application to the city of Hawthorne didn’t list the Gmail address that’s on her website; it included a ProtonMail address. So I sent an email there too. A few hours after Gmail Wendy denied any knowledge of the bear, ProtonMail Wendy responded, in a very different tone.
“The media likes to paint people such as myself in a negative light,” she wrote. “So I am not interested in commenting and would prefer that you not write an article about it. We are trying to do something positive here and don’t need people like you putting your spin on it.”
ProtonMail Wendy did, though, have quite a bit to say, when I followed up again. She accused city officials of trying to strangle her nascent event in the cradle: “Much like you, they disagree with the message of the event and are trying to kill it.” The bear, she said, “is the centerpiece of the event and they know that.”
My most pressing question, of course, was whether the bear was named Ron, or whether the bear’s handler was. I explained that I’d been unclear on that point. Wendy grew impatient.
“The bear’s handler is named Ron,” she wrote, with an air of finality. “No one would name a bear Ron. I’m done here. No more silly questions.”
I am sure someone would name a bear Ron, but I decided to move on. Something was bothering me.
The whole thing was kind of strange: It didn’t make sense that Callahan would deny putting on the event from one email account and confirm it with another. It was also odd to me that she’d use ProtonMail, usually used by folks who are looking to send things anonymously and securely, and yet use her real name.
Feeling troubled in spirit, I walked outside, with the idea that securing a huge amount of coffee would solve the mystery of the Wendys and the bear.
At that moment, Wendy Callahan called me on the telephone.
“This is Wendy Callahan,” she said. “What in the world is this stuff about a bear?” She sounded, frankly, bewildered. She sounded like someone who’d been fielding emails all day from a random journalist, accusing her of a bear.
Callahan confirmed that she uses a Gmail address; she hadn’t heard of ProtonMail. She was completely surprised and profoundly confused by the news that she was apparently planning a rally on the 21st.
“Everybody’s planning an event in Tallahassee on the 23rd,” she said, meaning the anti-vaccine community. She also was positively certain that nobody else in Hawthorne could be planning the rally without her knowledge.
“You know how little Hawthorne is?” she asked, rhetorically. “There’s one streetlight. There’s like 1,300 people here. I think I would know if there was another anti-vaccine Wendy Callahan. Oh my God, I would embrace her!”
Callahan was also, unsurprisingly, confused about the bear. “That would be dangerous,” she pointed out, reasonably.
At that point, listening to the sincere bewilderment in Callahan’s voice, I understood that someone was impersonating her. I just didn’t get exactly why.
“Wendy,” I said, more to myself than her. “This is very weird.”
“People are so weird,” Callahan agreed. “They really are. There’s a lot of mercury in vaccines and yet people will still inject them into their children. That’s weird.”
Callahan and I had a brief side discussion about the safety of vaccines, which I believe are very safe and scientifically sound, and which she does not. (I would also dispute that vaccines contain mercury, which is a claim by the anti-vaccine community that doesn’t accurately describe the role of thimerosal, an ethylmercury-containing preservative that was removed from most childhood vaccines by 2001, and which has not been shown to have any negative health effects.) She asked if I had children, and, upon learning that I don’t, made me promise to “do your research” before I conceived. I promised I would. We agreed that she’d go up to City Hall tomorrow and ask about the rally.
“I don’t even like bears,” she murmured, just before we hung up.
When the unnamed supposed city official in Hawthorne first emailed me, they had mentioned that they followed me on Twitter, and knew I was “already aware” of the rally.
That was true. Seeing my interest in conspiracy theories of various kinds, someone named Justin Beights who I didn’t know had tweeted at me about it, making mention of the bear. I don’t have those tweets, because Beights has now deleted them. (I still have my responses, which included a very articulate “Uhhhh what” and a promise to check it out.)
After I became reasonably convinced that Callahan was being impersonated, I took a second look at Beights. He’s 43 years old and lives in Charlottesville, Virginia; he’s the owner of a small investment firm called Avocado Capital. More interestingly, to me anyway, he’d just begun following a couple of Hawthorne city officials on Twitter, despite living hundreds of miles away.
Another interesting plot point, to me anyway, was that in the summer of 2018, Beights had filed a permit to hold an event in Charlottesville on the first anniversary of the deadly Unite the Right rally. The festival was to feature a dunk tank and a giraffe; it looked a lot like an effort to troll white nationalists, or at least prevent them from being able to occupy the same space again. But Beights told the Daily Progress he hadn’t realized it coincided with the anniversary: “It was kind of a coincidence. It didn’t dawn on me until I submitted the application.” But, he added, “I totally understand why someone would think it’s intentional,” he added. “I’m not oblivious to that.” But, he added, speaking to the Daily Beast,“If a side effect of that is stopping a bunch of white supremacists from ruining our town again, that’s fantastic.”
The city of Charlottesville ultimately denied both a permit application and a subsequent appeal from Beights; in the meantime, the Daily Progress reported, he’d tweeted that his planned entertainment couldn’t come, including “my giraffe guy” and Huey Lewis and the News. (In the meantime, though, the proposed event had generated dozens of headlines around the world; the permit denial, and the fact that the event didn’t happen, did not generate nearly as much coverage.)
Speaking over Twitter direct messages, I asked Beights if he’d filed the permit application himself, posing as Callahan. He said no.
“I have friends in FL,” he wrote. “They know I get all hot and bothered by this kind of stuff. When they hear about crazy Florida shit they send it to me.” He added, a moment later, “I can probably feed more stories to you. Lots of awesome stuff.”
Beights told me that he was proud of what he’d tried to accomplish in Charlottesville, claiming, for the first time, that it had been a direct response to Unite the Right: “I wanted to block the Unite the Right anniversary, and I think I made an impact on some people.”
He also—while still denying having anything to do with the Wendy Callahan story—thought I should run it.
“I’m not a journalist,” he wrote. “But my two cents.....if you’ve got a credible story that makes anti-vaxxers look like assholes you should run with it. I have nothing to do with this, but it seems like you have a chance to make people laugh at conspiracy theorists, which is the only way to neutralize them.”
“Fake news doesn’t accomplish anything except to destabilize people’s trust in journalists,” I told him, “and in what is knowable and true and real.”
“Totally agree,” Beights responded. “But I love that we are having this conversation.”
We went back and forth for a bit longer; we didn’t get anywhere. Beights promised to forward me an email he claimed to have received from a friend who lived in Hawthorne; later, he said he thought the friend perhaps worked in Ocala, just south.
“Don’t love that you’re questioning my credibility,” Beights wrote, “But know you are just doing your job.”
I wasn’t questioning Beights’ credibility, exactly, but I was curious about how he spent his time: as we were talking, I couldn’t help but notice he was feuding with a local Charlottesville woman on Twitter, who accused him of sending pizzas to her house following an online dispute. Beights denied doing that, but told her he was working on other “projects” she’d enjoy.
Beights does have an interesting history of working on “projects” involving permits, light trolling, and distant locales: besides the attempted event in Charlottesville, he also tried, in 2018, to get a permit to send a group of clowns with accordions to stand outside the home of Scott D. Rhodes, a white supremacist who enjoys launching racist and anti-Semitic robocalls.
I thought I understood the through-line here: doing things that would annoy or embarass people that Beights thought of as worthy targets. I wished he’d talk to me about what, exactly, the drive was to do that — and whether it had anything to do with the dueling Wendy Callahans I’d been talking to — but it didn’t work out that way. Instead, the next day, Beights forwarded me an email that was supposedly from a friend of his named Travis Shaw.
“A buddy of mine up in Hawthorne that works for the city said they got a good Florida-crazy permit application,” Shaw supposedly wrote to Beights. “some lady is trying to have an anti-vaccine event with a drugged/sedated bear... can’t make this shit up.”
When I reached out to Shaw, I found, not really to my surprise, that he was not willing to get on the phone with me. “Unfortunately I suffer from a pretty debilitating speech impediment, so if you have any questions I would prefer to respond in writing,” he wrote. “In general I would rather not have my name mentioned in the news, as I like to maintain a pretty low profile.”
Shaw did not respond to any follow-up questions. Neither did the unnamed supposed Hawthorne city official; when I asked for his or her name—a routine part of my job, even if someone is allowed anonymity in print—they responded, “I’m not super comfortable with this. I thought I was being helpful.”
Nobody—real or fake—responded to any of my emails, ever again.
Wendy Callahan, was, not surprisingly, both offended and alarmed by someone using her name. She went up to Hawthorne’s city hall the day after we talked, and had a conversation with a city clerk who’d been fielding “Wendy Callahan’s” increasingly bizarre emails for weeks.
“It’s a little creepy for me,” she said. She worried that people in her very small community would be alienated by her or think poorly of her; she also worried that someone city government would go after her for the fees associated with the proposed rally. She pointed out that city officials had to have a special meeting to consider the question of the bear; she worried that she’d somehow be fined for wasting city time.
The unnamed supposed city official, meanwhile, had tried hard—before they stopped answering emails—to suggest that Callahan was unwell.
“As far as Wendy is concerned, I think she may have some mental problems/schizophrenia,” they wrote to me, at one point. “She has two phone numbers and two email addresses. Sometimes she is lovely, but then I have a conversation with the same person and she’s all fired up about the bear.”
I don’t think that’s remotely true. The real Wendy Callahan was consistent and coherent over the course of several conversations; she was clear with me that she became anti-vaccination after she believes her son, who is now 19, was injured by them.
I don’t believe Callahan’s ideas about vaccines are true or accurate, but she has a right to promote them; nobody has a right to use her name to attempt to produce a fake news story, no matter how well-intentioned their purpose might be.
In the end, the event in Hawthorne didn’t happen on Easter Sunday; to my knowledge, the unreal Wendy Callahan didn’t ever get back to the city of Hawthorne with the insurance and security plans she’d been asked to show.
The real Wendy Callahan, meanwhile, found that the whole thing had, if anything, made her even more suspicious of the world around her. The last time we spoke, she was having trouble to get her computer to turn on; she had some documents about fetal cells and vaccines she wanted to show me.
“What if he gave me a virus somehow?” she asked, worriedly. I said that seemed unlikely, but I understood why she felt unsettled.
“This whole thing is making me a little paranoid,” she told me. We laughed together, but it wasn’t really funny.