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Fans Keep Dying at This Country Music Festival. Their Families Want Answers

hen Ray Johnson
finally woke up, he had no idea why he was in the ICU. “Tell me I didn’t crash my car I just bought,” Johnson, now 22, remembers telling his dad. But the next day, Johnson’s parents gathered their son with his friend Kurtis Stitt and told the boys what had happened. The previous weekend, Johnson and Stitt had been camping in a trailer with a group of their closest friends at Faster Horses, a country-music festival in Brooklyn, Michigan. Now, three of their friends were dead.

The year 2021 was a confusing time for a college-age kid. When Jerry and Meeka Sova learned that their son Kole had bought his own ticket to Faster Horses that July, they were relieved he was getting out of the house after a long year of lockdown. He and his friends had spent the summer working: Kole at the nearby Jiffy baking-mix plant; Dawson Brown, his cousin, as a landscaper; and Richie Mays, dabbling as an online day trader. Johnson worked in landscaping too, but didn’t care much for country music (he preferred Lil Uzi Vert). Still, he tagged along.

The five boys were happy to be together at Michigan International Speedway (MIS), the site of the festival, that Friday, July 16. It was a beautiful day, warm but not too hot. They went to see acts like Jon Pardi, who impressed even Johnson. Compared with many at the festival, the friends’ partying was fairly tame. These were the type of 20-year-olds who bothered to check in with a pregnant festival worker to make sure she stayed hydrated. They ended the day by watching headliner Luke Combs, where they ran into some of their moms in the crowd. Mays held his mother’s hand while they watched Combs, a memory that his mom, Amy Satterthwaite, says through tears, she’ll never forget.

Johnson can’t really remember anything that happened after. His parents explained to him in the hospital that after the five boys got back to their trailer and went to sleep, three of them — Mays, Sova, and Brown — didn’t wake up.

When another friend entered the trailer that Saturday, there was foam on all of the boys’ mouths; they had been poisoned by carbon monoxide from a generator they had installed in the wrong direction outside their trailer. Exhaust blew back into where they slept, and Brown, Sova, and Mays breathed in so much of the odorless gas that they were pronounced dead on site.

Richie Mays and Dawson Brown

Courtesy of the Mays family

“There’s no way this happened, absolutely no way,” Johnson reacted when he heard this. “I was in shock,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I didn’t know what to feel, what to think. It was heartbreaking.”

By the time police arrived on the scene, the second day of 2021’s Faster Horses had already gotten off to a tragic start. Earlier that morning, Melissa Havens, a 30-year-old single mother who, according to the Michigan news outlet MLive, enjoyed playing Barbies with her six-year-old daughter, was pronounced dead after a night of partying, in what the local medical examiner later declared an accidental death due to “complications of obesity.”

Four fatalities in less than 24 hours. 

When 10 fans died in a crowd surge at the 2021 Astroworld festival a few months later in Houston, it dominated the news, and not only canceled the remainder of the 2021 fest but its imminent future as well. At Faster Horses, the music played on, resuming Saturday just a few hours after three men and a woman lost their lives.

Not even death, thus far, has stopped “the party of the summer” — as Faster Horses is known. Since its inception in 2013, the country festival, held at a NASCAR track that doubles as the largest campground in Michigan, has earned a reputation for its college-age crowd and raucous infield parties that last into the wee hours. Faster Horses — operated by Live Nation, the largest concert promoter in the country — is, in part, drunken hedonism set to a twangy soundtrack: Fans do shots at pop-up bars in campsite communities with names like “Titty City” and “Camel Toe Bar”; crowds cheer on women to flash their chests; and sex crimes are prevalent.

In 2021, MLive published an exhaustive investigation into the festival’s history of sexual assault, concluding that the rate of sex offenses at Faster Horses was 5.5 times higher than in normal everyday life in Michigan. “Our reporting has made it clear that not everyone is safe at Faster Horses,” says Danielle Salisbury, an editor at MLive who has covered the festival. “It’s absolutely clear, if you look at what we’ve written, that there is a chance, and it’s a greater chance there than elsewhere, that something bad will happen to you.”

And in 2021, “something bad” meant the deadliest summer in Faster Horses’ history, leaving some to wonder if that grim milestone could have been prevented — or if something like it was bound to happen.

“Right from the beginning, all the families got the same feeling from the police reports,” says Ron Marienfeld, a Michigan personal-injury lawyer who is representing the families and survivors of the carbon-monoxide poisoning. “‘This was a fluke’; ‘This was out of the blue’; ‘Nobody could’ve ever seen this coming.’ And we know better than that.”

But as Faster Horses approaches its 10th anniversary this weekend (“Party of the Decade,” as the festival is calling it), the question remains: What responsibility does a billion-dollar company have to ensure that the thousands of college-age kids paying hundreds of dollars to experience live music remain safe throughout the gigantic party it’s hosting?

THE IDEA THAT THE BOYS’ DEATHS were an unforeseeable tragedy that couldn’t have been prevented has never sat well with the families of the injured and deceased, and not just because — according to them — no one from Faster Horses, Live Nation, or MIS ever directly communicated with them. (Combs, the Friday-night headliner, who offered to pay for the three boys’ funerals, was the only person they heard from.)

“I know the balance and the risks and rewards it takes to run a business, but I think they’re falling on the wrong side of where they should be,” says Jerry Sova, Kole’s father, who, coincidentally, works on the social-media team at MLive. “I don’t think they’re being cautious enough.”

In a live-music industry where hip-hop festivals are routinely overpoliced due to perceived threats of violence, a look at country festivals shows a history of assaults and public drunkenness over the past decade. A few examples: There have been annual arrests at Wisconsin’s Country Thunder, two deaths occurred at a 2010 Kansas country fest, and at an Oregon country-music gathering in 2018, a man was assaulted after criticizing a Confederate flag. At the 2015 Country Jam in Colorado, Lauren Boebert, now an elected U.S. member of Congress, was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for encouraging detained underage drinkers to flee from police (the charge was later dismissed).

Of them all, Faster Horses has developed a reputation for the number of tragedies and assaults that have taken place on its grounds: According to a 2021 MLive story, there have been 91 reported assaults and 30 instances of criminal sexual conduct over eight festivals. Bonnaroo has attracted approximately 1.3 million people over its 20 years, and there have been a reported 15 deaths, or roughly one death per 90,000 fans. At Faster Horses, approximately 343,000 fans have attended over its nine years, with seven reported deaths, or roughly one death per 49,000 fans. According to MLive, in 2015, a woman died of a heart attack “after consuming a high level of hydrocodone”; in 2018, a 19-year-old was fatally struck by a car while walking to her campground; and last year, a 48-year-old man with a heart condition was found dead at his campsite.

Richie Mays

Courtesy of the Mays family

To Erica Johnson, Ray’s mother, the way the corporate music-fest industry keeps blazing forward leaves her with a bitter taste. “You hear of these tragedies…and they just go on with the show, back on the road, like nothing ever happened,” she says.

In a statement to Rolling Stone, Faster Horses says, “We work hand in hand with local and state authorities each year to evolve and advance safety and security measures, and will continue to collaborate with authorities and local partners accordingly. In recent years, we have implemented new procedures such as the ‘See Something Say Something’ initiative and the AWARE program, based on feedback we’ve heard from fans. Faster Horses Festival has always been about fostering a strong sense of community, and the safety of that community remains our top priority.” (A rep for MIS did not respond to a request for comment.)

Many attendees feel that the reported dangers of Faster Horses have been overblown, and have reacted to MLive’s critical, dogged coverage of the tragedies with a mix of contempt and denial. The vast majority of fans, they argue, go each year and have a great time without incident. Jeff Paterson, chief of the Cambridge Police Department, one of several law-enforcement agencies that provide festival security, says that anytime there’s a mass gathering, there’s inherent risk involved. “Recently, I was involved in a Rolling Stones concert in Detroit, and they were there for basically four hours, and I know how many complaints they took. Hundreds of complaints, assaults, you name it,” he says. At Faster Horses, “We’ve got them contained for 96 hours.”

According to Paterson, Live Nation pays in the six figures for all of the security associated with the festival, and he says the company has never spared an expense or turned down a safety measure his department has requested, from increased state-police presence to bike patrols. Of the heightened risk of sexual assault at the festival, Paterson says, “We maybe didn’t realize the significance to that early [on],” but adds that law enforcement and safety efforts have adapted and expanded in scope every summer. Weekly preparation meetings for Faster Horses begin as early as February.

He admits that the festival involves sleepless nights, and not only because he’s working 20-hour shifts himself. “As a father, as the chief of this community,” he says, “I worry for those kids.”

But few are more concerned than Jerry and Meeka Sova. Over the past-year-plus, the Sovas have joined the parents of the other two victims, as well as the two survivors and their parents, to sue Live Nation and the Michigan International Speedway for “negligently caus[ing] and requir[ing] recreational vehicles to use the campsites in very close proximity … so as to put the overcrowded campsite area in an unsafe and unreasonably dangerous condition.” The families’ legal argument rests largely on the fact that a few years before the 2021 festival, Faster Horses was granted a provision by the state to decrease the size of the campsites at the festival in order to pack more fans into a tighter area, thereby, they argue in court documents, increasing the chances of CO poisoning from generators.

“They’re putting profits ahead of safety,” says Marienfeld.

MIS and Live Nation have both denied the allegations in court while suggesting that if anyone is responsible, it’s the other party. The festival’s legal argument can be boiled down to it was the boys’ fault.

The two entities behind Faster Horses have relied on a set of undisputed facts that Marienfeld concedes are not ideal for the plaintiffs’ case: The generator was positioned incorrectly, and a carbon-monoxide detector was never installed. “There are thousands of people there who had these exact same setups in 800-foot campsites that we’re not talking about because they didn’t misuse their generator,” a lawyer for MIS argued in court last year.

Earlier this year, a judge promptly agreed with MIS and Live Nation, dismissing the case before going to trial (the families are appealing). “No hazardous condition existed on the campsite until one of the Plaintiffs brought a camper and generator and arranged them such that the generator exhausted under the camper,” the judge wrote.

“It isn’t the best case against a generator, but it strikes me that they should’ve gotten a jury trial,” says Gordon Johnson, an attorney who specializes in CO-related lawsuits but was not involved in this case. “The question is going to come down to whether owners knew or should have known of the risk.”

Kole Sova

Courtesy of the Sova family

Despite Faster Horse’s heretofore successful legal argument that the CO deaths were an unforeseeable tragedy caused by a case of individual misuse, there has been more than one incident of carbon-monoxide exposure at MIS over the years. Paterson remembers at least one prior CO-related death at a NASCAR event at the track. Rolling Stone also spoke with a repeat Faster Horses attendee (they asked to remain unnamed due to privacy concerns) who believes he and his family were exposed to a nonlethal amount of CO after they woke up with headaches and realized the neighboring camper’s exhaust was blowing directly into their RV. (The attendee says the family was treated in the medic tent.)

That possible exposure occurred in 2017 — one year after the campsites were reduced from 1,200 square feet to 800 square feet. “We do not consider campsites that are less than 800 square feet to be safe,” a state regulator wrote in a 2016 email to Michigan International Speedway, according to the 2021 lawsuit.

Satterthwaite, Mays’ mother, says the boys did try to set up the generator behind the camper, but realized it was too close to a tent and moved it to the location that ultimately cost three of them their lives.

After the 2021 tragedy, Faster Horses enlarged some of its campsites back to 1,200 square feet and instituted a series of new safety precautions, including a text hotline and a dedicated AWARE CARE team trained to help festivalgoers in distress.

But when the Sovas arrived at the festival in 2022 to hand out CO detectors in honor of their late son, they noticed a number of disturbing sights, including a girl lying underneath a table, near a generator, to get out of the sun. They later heard of several stories of CO detectors going off. “It was scary to walk around and see how many generators were set up the same way the boys had when they died,” says Jerry Sova.

The Sovas wonder why, after the death of three fans and the sickening of two more, they’re the ones distributing CO detectors and not the festival, handing them out to college kids who, more likely than not, haven’t read the language buried on Faster Horses’ website about the dangers of CO poisoning.

“They make millions of dollars out there, there’s no reason they shouldn’t have somebody going around to the campsites saying, ‘Hey, this is potentially dangerous,’” says Sova.

IT’S BEEN A LONG FEW YEARS FOR Ray Johnson, who now attends college in Arizona. As if the dozen days in the hospital during which Johnson underwent organ failure, had to relearn how to walk, and suffered a stroke, a heart attack, and a pulmonary embolism weren’t enough, today Johnson suffers from nerve damage in his right leg. He’s lucky, of course: The doctors told his parents it was not only a miracle that he survived, but that he didn’t suffer lasting brain damage.

Far more difficult for Johnson is the survivor’s guilt, trauma, grief, and disbelief at what happened less than two years ago that he still thinks about each day. 

The last thing the boys thought of when they were at a music festival was CO poisoning. “It was something that never touched the back of my mind,” he says.

The news that a judge had dismissed their lawsuit against the festival was another devastating blow. “When my mom told me, I was in disbelief and disgust,” he says.

But it also left him with another feeling, a righteous anger, a sense that something, someone, some entity had wronged him and his friends. It left him feeling that “justice,” as he puts it, “needs to be served.”

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