On the Death of Michael Furey in 1996

In 1996 Michael Furey was killed in a car accident on the road leading to Black Rock Desert.

John Law provided the following account:

Michael Furey was a neon-glass bender.  He never did glass for the Man, but he had a small shop in San Francisco, and he came out to the desert [in 1996] … it was [his] fourth year.  He was affiliated with Polkacide, which is a wonderful punk/polka band.  He wasn’t a player with them, but he was good friends with that group.  He had a band.  Actually his earlier band was called The Greatful Dead Kennedys, one of my all-time favorite band names.  He was, you know, hardcore punk, wonderful guy, really crazy, really excitable and a very Hunter Thompson-esque character.  He was very well liked by many people and hated by others because he was pretty much out of control… 

There was another fellow who had a lot in the city [San Francisco] called the “Plunder Lot,” and his name was Steven Bellaseals and he went by the moniker SteveCo.  He and his partner Mark Perez were friends of mine, and they helped us with the transportation that year in ‘96.  Those guys, they were pretty out of control in their own way.  But basically at that time the infrastructure for the event, standing as it was, we didn’t really have any money.  We were still working off credit cards, largely my credit cards.  So I pretty much had to use whoever I could use to get the work done, and Michael and Steven were really resourceful guys and helped with transportation that year.  

SteveCo and Furey were acquainted, I wouldn’t say they were friendly, they didn’t dislike one another, but they weren’t really close friends.  They sort of had a … kind of a macho, chest-bumping relationship, [like] who was the crazier guy?  They were both in punk bands and both real macho guys, and they were both good friends of mine.  I guess it was a Tuesday and the event was out of control that year, the infrastructure, holding it together, keeping it largely from being a disaster with the resources that we had was next to nearly impossible. 

Larry had absolutely nothing to do with the infrastructure.  He had no idea what I was doing or going through to try and even transport stuff out there with the resources we had at hand, which were very sketchy.  Michael [Mikel] was doing the best he could to help out with it, but he was in town most of the time and wasn’t really on the desert for [the] week and a half, two weeks before the event, like I was. 

So I pretty much needed to do to get stuff out there, set up, to get people to help.  We didn’t really have any money to pay people anything.  So I was out of sorts.  I was close to collapsing several times from exhaustion, and not on drugs at all, contrary to some very vicious slanders that went around after that year.  But it was a very difficult year and those guys didn’t know how difficult it was because they weren’t there.  They had no idea. So I was just trying to do whatever I could to get people to help keep the event going and help keep the infrastructure moving, and Steven and Mark were helping me a lot.  

I had arranged with Bruno Selme to have free storage on his property, behind Bruno’s [a bar and restaurant in Gerlach].  Up until ‘95, there were very few people affiliated with the event who knew anybody in town, or had any friends in town.  we had developed a really good relationship with people in town and I was worried about some incident.  I was always paranoid about some incident occurring that would set that off and make it much more difficult for us to do the event or sully us or make it difficult for me to be friendly with some people I had developed relationships with in town. 

So I walk into Bruno’s bar and his daughter Skeeky was bartending, and she was a good friend of mine by that point in time and a pretty open-minded gal.  She was no John Bircher, by any stretch, but still… and Michael Furey and Tom Ray [a/k/a Pogo], who I didn’t know at that time, who’s become a good friend since then, but who’s very similar to Furey, they were sitting at the bar. 

And they were chatting up two women, who by complete coincidence, I knew one of the women, Lisa Galley, who was an artist, who had been involved in helping with the event.  But they had just met at the bar and Michael, who I knew pretty well, and his friend Tom … were drunk as fuck.  They were both on their motorcycles, and I was also worrying a lot about the police and the various agencies that had become involved in the perimeter of the event nailing friends of mine for driving drunk.  I was really worried about it.  So I said, “Jesus Christ Furey, you guys, you should really get out of here.  Go out to the desert.  You guys are toasted.  You ought to get out of here before the cops come into town in the later afternoon, because you do not want to get picked up for drunk driving.” 

[Michael] just blew me off, “Ah fuck you.  We’re having a good time.  We’re drinking.”  And I’m worried about them getting out of control and pissing off or freaking out Skeeky, who’s behind the bar.  Lisa, who I knew, who was sitting at the bar and is a pretty level-headed gal, basically they were chatting each other up and … Michael and Tom were trying to get laid, basically.  So I couldn’t really do anything about it, so I just forgot about it.  I was with my friend Andy Petter, who was heavily involved in organizing at the time as well, and so we left.  And that was the last time I saw Furey.

Later that afternoon, Lisa and her friend, who was a college professor from Chicago, had a doctorate in fine arts or something, they had convinced Tom to trailer his motorcycle, because Lisa was hauling out a big flat-bed trailer on the back of her pick-up truck.  They had convinced Tom, and he was really drunk, and I think I had put a little bit of the fear of God into them when I was talking to them.  But Furey wouldn’t do it.  He refused.  He insisted on driving his motorcycle, which he had done a million times in [S.F.], anywhere, and anybody who was a friend of his kind of knew it and realized it was just a matter of time before something like a motorcycle accident happened.  So they [all] left. 

I basically knew everybody involved in the situation, and Lisa, I got her story later.  So I’m out in the desert, about eight o’clock at night maybe.  I think it was Tuesday or Wednesday night, several days before the event started, and someone drove into camp and had said that there had been a bad automobile accident on the playa and that Furey was involved.  I immediately jumped in a car and drove out to the accident site, which was off of the eleven-mile exit to the playa.  It was about a mile, mile and a half, from the paved road.  What had happened is, Steven [SteveCo] and Mark Perez, who were helping me load and carry stuff out from our storage space at Bruno’s, had my van, which was loaded with stuff, and a long trailer, like an eighteen-foot trailer behind it, with the legs of the Burning Man and a bunch of other miscellaneous… just piled full of stuff.  They were hauling it out to the event site, which was about twelve miles out in the middle of the playa.  

So I show up at the [accident] site, and by complete coincidence, Vanessa [Vanessa Kuemmerle], who was security coordinator—she was [also] my girlfriend—she was security coordinator for the event that year and the basic nuts and bolts organizer for the Rangers, Michael largely being the figurehead because he wasn’t able to be out there on the playa until closer to the event actually happening.  Vanessa put together the Ranger manual, handbook, and this was well before it became a group of wannabe little cops.  It was largely a friendly, suggestive group who would help people to pay attention to shit blowing away.  There was no cop attitude whatsoever in the people who were doing it originally, no wannabe cops, or least we tried to keep that out of it.  Vanessa was a really good, really sharp and really together organizer and she was driving out with her group of friends who were coming out, and she was coming out to work on the event and happened to be one of the very first cars on the accident site.  

She immediately set up a perimeter around [it] because people were starting to come in for the event.  There were cars coming in every couple of minutes and she got three or four people to help so that people wouldn’t stop and gawk.  So she had been there for about a half an hour by the time I got there.  And I had no idea, I mean we couldn’t communicate.  We didn’t have radios.  So I had no idea until I got there.  Steven and Mark were really obviously very, very upset.  I mean they had just had an accident and there was a man dead.  I asked them what happened; they explained to me what happened.  Tom had left the scene, and I had actually ended up going back to camp to get him later so he would talk to the police when they came.  

Vanessa went into town to get hold of the Washoe County sheriff’s [dept.], who had a sub-station there.  They didn’t want to deal with it, so they called Pershing County, which was where we were, literally, were just over the line in Pershing County.  …  Charlie Grier was the in-town, Washoe County Sheriff’s deputy, who wasn’t there that day.  [His partner] called in the Pershing County Sheriff and they show up out there and they did a full-on, six-hour forensics study, test, interview, talk to everybody, and have the police incident reports, have the toxicology reports from Furey.

What had happened was, Furey [was] on his motorcycle, following Lisa Galley in her pick-up truck with his friend’s motorcycle on the back of the trailer and they passed Steven and Mark who were in my van driving with this trailer doing about thirty or forty miles-per-hour because it was so loaded down, to the eleven-mile turnoff. 

They hit the turnoff about the same time evidently, and the sun was starting to set.  It was late in the day.  This was two hours, three hours maybe, after I’d seen Furey at the bar.  And Michael was buzzing around the van on his motorcycle, the van is doing about thirty, and he’s driving circles around it and shining his light.  And like I said, he and SteveCo had this kind of macho, chest-bumping relationship, they certainly weren’t enemies, but kind of like one-upmanship, whose punk band was better, that kind of thing. 

Furey was loaded, to the gills, and driving circles around the van and shot ahead and was driving circles around her truck [too].  [Lisa] told me this story as well.  At some point she realized that she didn’t see his motorcycle anymore and turned around to go back to see if something had happened.  I guess the van was maybe a couple of miles or a mile behind her. 

What had happened was, he had made a pass, had started making passes at the front of the van, driving straight at them and cutting off at the last second.  And Steven, this was very upsetting to him.  He wasn’t really interested in playing chicken with a motorcycle [while] driving a van.  At the last point, he said he wasn’t going to swerve; he wasn’t going to play with him, he was just driving straight ahead.  “This guy is on a motorcycle and whatever he’s going to do I can’t stop him,” and Michael made a last pass at the van.  Steven said it looked like [Furey] was going to hit him and at the last second turned away to the right.  Michael, instead of hitting the van dead-on in the center, doing seventy miles an hour, hit the side of the van and was decapitated by the driver’s side rearview mirror.         

When the Pershing County Sheriffs came out and did the measurements, calculated the speed of both vehicles, the tire marks were going straight ahead, in a straight line until the last forty feet when they swerved hard to the right.  There was an enormous amount of controversy over this.  They were calling Steven a murderer.  They were saying that they were doing this stupid thing, playing chicken, and that it was some kind of a challenge or something like that.  I don’t believe any of that.  I think that pretty much what [Steven] said happened was what happened….  It was just an ugly and horrifying incident.  The police did the report.  There were no charges filed.  Steven and Mark were really upset, but they weren’t drunk and they weren’t on drugs, thank God, at the time.  They could have been, but you know they were working, hauling stuff out, so they weren’t.  

There were some saying that Furey might have been trying to kill himself.  I don’t personally believe that because he was driving out on the desert, he was high and drunk and having a good time, and he thought he was going to get laid that night because he’d picked up a couple of gals.  Even if he had been suicidal, which I don’t believe he was, if he was going to get laid that night he wouldn’t kill himself, believe me.  You have to understand, there were so many people talking shit about this incident.  It was really ugly, and Larry showed up about two hours into and the only things he had to say was “There’s no blood on our hands.  The accident’s not our fault.”  That’s all he cared about.  And it was one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever heard anybody say.  He said “Oh, there’s no blood on our hands.”  He was worried about the event, about it hurting the event.  He had no concern for anything beyond that.  That’s what it takes to be a politician.  

Frankly, I cannot tell that story without telling the entire story because of the misinformation that went around about it.  It’s not a secret.  There’s nothing to hide there.  It’s just simply that all of the misinformation going on around it was so horrifying and it was used by people who had an agenda, who didn’t like so and so, or to prove such and such a point.  So that’s why if I tell that story, I tell the whole story so that it’s clearly understood. …  Michael shouldn’t have died.  He was a really fun guy, a great guy, but he was out of control.  Steven, I don’t think he ever got over it.  I don’t think he’s over it today.  And that was only one incident.  There were fourteen major accidents that year.  It was completely horrifying.  Larry and to a lesser degree Michael [Mikel] really didn’t have that much of an idea what was going on in the setup or what was required.  I knew we didn’t have the infrastructure, the money, to be as responsible as we needed to be to do the fucking event.  We just didn’t and these guys didn’t have a clue.  Michael sort of did, but Michael’s not one to rock the boat.  Larry had no idea, and when I tried to explain it to him, he didn’t care.  He wanted the event to be successful, and he wanted people to be impressed by what we were doing.  And it didn’t matter if people could get hurt, killed, whatever, as long as anybody didn’t know about it, it didn’t really matter that much.  You can fuck the desert up as long as people don’t think we’re fucking the desert up.  It didn’t matter that much.