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Questions Ashli Babbitt left behind

Why was she pulling on the backpack, why was she climbing through the sidelight, why did they shoot her dead?

Three years after Ashli was shot and killed, thousands of miles from her California home, widower Aaron Babbitt has filed a $30 million lawsuit against the U.S. government.
Three years after Ashli was shot and killed, thousands of miles from her California home, widower Aaron Babbitt has filed a $30 million lawsuit against the U.S. government.

“It’s never gonna get easier, losing her. It just gets a little different, every day.”

— Aaron Babbitt, widower of Ashli Babbitt

On January 6 of 2023, Ashli Babbitt’s mother Mickie Witthoeft was arrested in Washington, D.C. for jaywalking. The 58-year-old had been in the city since the previous August, publicly supporting the protestors who had been arrested on various charges following their participation in a political protest exactly two years earlier. That protest has since been labeled an insurrection — an attempt to interrupt the workings of American democracy by interfering with the certification of the 2020 Presidential election results. Ms. Witthoeft told interviewers that she was there on behalf of the prisoners “who are wasting away in jail,” and also to memorialize the death of another one of the protestors: her daughter.


On January 6 of 2021, 35-year-old Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt was shot while inside the U.S. Capitol building as she attempted to climb through a sidelight frame at the east entrance to the Speaker’s Lobby. She died shortly after being shot. Her husband Aaron, at home in Ocean Beach, learned of the shooting “through the news, through live television.” On January 5 of 2024, the conservative nonprofit Judicial Watch filed a $30 million lawsuit against the U.S. Government on behalf of Ashli’s estate and her widower Aaron, claiming assault, negligence, and wrongful death.

According to the lawsuit, Ashli Babbitt “did not go to Washington as part of a group or for any unlawful or nefarious purpose. Ashli loved her country and wanted to show her support for President Trump’s America First policies.” According to Aaron Babbitt in a television interview with FOX5, “I asked her not to go, but she wanted to see President Trump speak. She had never seen him speak live. She knew this was the last time she was gonna get a chance to. So.”

On January 6, Ashli attended the Save America rally just south of the White House to hear Trump speak. He told the crowd, “All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical-left Democrats, which is what they’re doing…We will never give up, we will never concede. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved…We will stop the steal.” Later in the speech, he said, “Now it is up to Congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy…We’re going to walk down to the Capitol…We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated…I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.”

After Trump finished speaking a little after 1 pm, Ashli joined the crowd marching down to the Capitol, about a mile and a half away. She can be seen in numerous videos, draping a red, white, and blue TRUMP flag like a cape over her diminutive frame as she walks. According to the lawsuit, “two undercover Metropolitan Police Department officers followed close behind Ashli as she climbed the stairs to the West Terrace.” She entered the Capitol on the Senate side of the building, encountering no resistance as she did so. Once inside, “Ashli encountered a female Capitol Police officer, who directed her to walk south toward the House side. Ashli complied.” At one point, she can be seen on video walking between velvet ropes along with other protestors — though their slow movements and calm demeanor makes them look more like bored tourists.

Ashli Babbitt with her mom and dad and younger brothers.

That changed when she reached the set of doors marked Speaker’s Lobby. There were three uniformed Capitol policemen standing in front of the doors. According to independent journalist Tayler Hansen, Ashli joked with the officers. But then a crowd formed in the hallway behind her. As the crowd became unruly and began to push toward the doors, the officers stepped aside and stood with their backs to the adjoining wall. Several people began beating on the doors and sidelights; the lawsuit names two of them as Chad Jones and Zachary Alam. Allegedly, Jones removed the glass from the right sidelight and placed it on the floor. Seemingly distressed by the escalating scene, Ashli can be heard on video yelling to an officer, “Call fucking help!”

According to the lawsuit, three minutes before Ashli got shot, there was a police radio call: “522. The crowd at the House main door is heading around to the glass doors on the rear now of the chambers. You need all units to go there and hold the glass.” Video from that day shows a Containment and Emergency Response Team hurrying up a staircase toward the scene. But they did not arrive before the three officers stepped aside and allowed the crowd to reach the doors. The team’s leader later told investigators, “I was thinking, ‘Why, why the fuck did they leave?’”

Tayler Hansen had been covering Antifa riots in Portland for the past year, and had decided to go to Washington on January 6, because he thought he would see more Antifa riots there. Instead, he found himself taking video of the chaos building in front of the Speaker’s Lobby doors. He says that Ashli was trying to calm the people beating on the doors, and even to prevent them from doing so. He says that his video shows Ashli taking hold of a man’s backpack with her right hand to pull him back from the doors, then punching the man with her left hand, knocking his glasses off his face. After seeing the video, Aaron Babbitt said, “I see a punch. A lot of people see a punch. I’ve gotten a lot of blowback, people saying, ‘There’s no way.’ But I know my wife’s a lefty. She’s a southpaw, and you can see his glasses pop off his face. So I see what everybody else sees.” In a 2022 interview with KUSI, Hansen said that he tried for more than a year to get the January 6 investigation committee to look at the video, but “it seems like they just don’t want to see it.”

But whatever else she did or did not do, at 2:44 pm, Ashli Babbitt definitely started to climb through the open sidelight into the Speaker’s Lobby. And as Hansen puts it, that’s when a man on the other side of the doors suddenly appeared and fired a shot at her. Three minutes after the shooting, at 2:47 p.m. the following radio call was recorded; the speaker is an unknown male: “Don’t know if this went out over the radio. We’ve got one civilian down with a GSW to the chest. They’re on the east side of the House lobby area. If we can have responding medical units respond from the west side of the House lobby we need it ASAP.”

According to the lawsuit, “The bullet pierced Ashli in her left anterior shoulder, perforated her left brachial plexus, trachea, upper lobe of the right lung and second anterior rib, and landed in her right anterior shoulder. Ashli fell backwards and landed flat on her back on the marble floor. Video recordings show her alive and conscious, writhing uncontrollably immediately after the shooting.” They also captured someone shouting, “You just murdered her!” But the autopsy report noted blood in her lungs, which indicated that she was alive and breathing after being shot, and concluded that she remained alive for at least several minutes. She was declared dead at Washington Hospital Center at 3:15 pm. The lawsuit states that the medical examiner determined that the manner of death was homicide.

 * * *

Ashli Babbitt was born in Lakeside in 1985; she became the eldest of five children. She joined the Air Force in 2004, and made tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to the lawsuit, she was a military police officer who guarded high-value military assets and dignitaries in the Middle East. One of Aaron’s favorite photos of her shows her standing beside a four-star general he identifies as the CENT COM commander for Iraq at the time. “It was a pretty big deal,” he said. She became a reservist in 2008, and began serving in the Air National Guard in 2010. She was honorably discharged in 2016, with at least five medals, according to published reports.

Aaron was proud of his wife. In one interview, he described a favorite photo of Ashli, in which she was standing next to a four star general, Aaron said that man was the CENT COM commander for Iraq at that time, “It was a pretty big deal.”

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In 2018, Ashli moved back to San Diego with Aaron. The two got married and bought a pool service business based in Spring Valley, but they lived in Ocean Beach. “She loved waking up every day and tackling the day,” recalled Aaron. “She just loved a challenge. Loved our life at the beach. Loved our dogs.” She self-identified as a libertarian, and voted at least once for Barack Obama. “She was an All-American girl,” said Aaron. “She loved serving her country. She loved moving back to California. She loved sports. She was my best friend, you know, and every day that goes by, there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t miss her.” (There are, of course, other things to know about Ashli Babbitt: the judicial orders forbidding her contact with Aaron’s former girlfriend, the interest in conspiracy-minded groups like QAnon, the famous January 5 tweet proclaiming, “Nothing can stop us…the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours.” They are mentioned here lest this account be seen as ignoring them.)

 * * *

Three months after the shooting, on April 14, 2021, the U.S. Justice Department declared that they had investigated and found “no evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the officer” who shot Ashli “willfully committed a violation.” The announcement stated that Ashli was part of a “mob” that forced the three officers in front of the doors to “evacuate.” The DOJ declared they would not pursue any charges against the officer who shot Ashli. About this time, then-Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy was seen on-camera answering a reporter’s question: “Do you think Ashli Babbitt was murdered, or do you think the police officer who shot her was doing his job?” McCarthy replied, “I think the police officer did his job.” The DOJ did not name the officer.

Ashli’s family, including her mother Micki Witthoeft and widower Aaron Babbitt, made public declarations of their disappointment, and said they would pursue legal action. Two weeks later, Ashli’s family retained Maryland lawyer Terrell Roberts. On April 29, attorney Roberts gave an interview to CNBC in which he said, “This is a clear case of excessive force,” and said the family would seek $10 million in damages from the U.S. Capitol Police and the unnamed officer who fatally shot Ashli. He also filed a FOIA request regarding the officer’s identity. When this failed to produce results, Roberts filed a lawsuit asking Washington D.C. police to disclose details and files regarding the officer who had shot Ashli.

The first attorney involved in the case, Terrell Roberts III.

Then, in August, just days after the U.S. Capitol Police’s Office of Professional Responsibility issued a public statement declaring the officer’s actions “consistent with the officer’s training,” the officer publicly revealed himself in an interview with NBC host Lester Holt. His name was Michael Leroy Byrd. He was a 53-year-old Lieutenant who had worked for the U.S. House of Representatives since 1998. He was also the U.S. Capitol Police incident commander for the House on January 6. He told Holt, “I believe I showed the utmost courage on January 6.”

The wrongful death lawsuit filed by Judicial Watch this month contains numerous quotations from Byrd’s interview with Holt, and takes issue with many of them. It notes that Byrd said he first heard the announcement that the Capitol had been breached at 2:12 p.m., and that “my rules of engagement never changed.” It notes that he said there were reports of “shots fired” and that he therefore took “a defensive stand and posture to protect myself.” It notes that he assessed that all persons inside the Capitol were an “imminent danger” to House members. It notes he described himself as “the last line of defense,” and said he was thinking, “If they get through that door, they’re into the House chamber and upon the members of Congress…I know that day I saved countless lives.” It notes that he claimed that there were 60 to 80 people in the House chamber (and that was just “members and their staff”), and that there were disabled persons with him in the lobby at the time of the shooting. And it notes that he claimed he was “trapped,” with no other way “to get out”

The lawsuit, on the other hand, claims that the doors on the west end of the chamber were still open and had been used to evacuate House members; that no members, disabled or otherwise, were in the lobby; that only six members were present in the chamber, and that those members were guarded by other armed officers. It argues that Ashli “posed no threat to the safety of anyone,” that the report of shots fired was false and immediately corrected by the original source — it was actually the sound of breaking glass.

Clippings from January’s lawsuit.

The lawsuit notes Byrd’s alleged radio call within one minute after shooting Ashli, at 2:45 pm: “405B. We got shots fired in the lobby. We got shots fired in the lobby of the House chamber. Shots are being fired at us and we’re sh, uhh, prepared to fire back at them. We have guns drawn. Please don’t leave that end. Don’t leave that end.” And then, approximately 35 seconds later, Byrd made another radio call: “405B. We got an injured person. I believe that person was shot.” It also notes that Byrd granted that he shot Ashli before he saw her hands or assessed her intentions. He said he did give a warning, but he was wearing a facemask, and granted that “it is possible” that the people on the other side of the door did not hear him. It notes that he was not in uniform, and did not identify himself as a police officer.

The lawsuit argues that “The United States is liable for its employees’ acts or omissions,” and that “a police officer’s lack of due care can give rise to negligence liability.” It specifically alleges that Byrd’s training in shoot-don’t-shoot decisions was plainly deficient, and that he did not act as a reasonably prudent police officer, but used excessive force. The lawsuit claims that Byrd unholstered his weapon while he was still in a different room, and that he repeatedly tapped his finger on the pistol’s trigger for at least 14 seconds before he could even see Ashli. It claims that Byrd pointed his pistol in the direction of multiple persons, including uniformed police officers who were standing very near Ashli in the crowded area near the door. Then it goes on to argue that “in fact, Lt. Byrd had a reputation among peers for not being a good shot.”

It asserts that Byrd failed to meet or complete semiannual firearms qualifications, and had his police powers revoked on more than one occasion. In one incident, Byrd fired his weapon at juveniles who were driving off in his own car, which had been stolen; Byrd’s stray bullets hit nearby homes in the suburban area. That investigation found that Byrd’s use of force was not justified. (Further, Byrd had another, prior use-of-force matter that he appealed, and the Disciplinary Review Board found him “not guilty.”) The lawsuit alleges there are even more incidents in Byrd’s history — Judicial Watch hopes to learn more through discovery — which means the U.S. Capitol Police should have known that Byrd “would behave in a dangerous and/or incompetent manner.”

Ashli Babbitt served in the military for 12 years, and did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “She was an All-American girl,” said her widower Aaron.

The suit goes on to argue that the government was negligent in retaining such an employee, noting that less than two years before Ashli was killed, on February 25, 2019, officer Byrd left his loaded Glock 22, the exact same pistol he used to kill Ashli, in a bathroom of the Capitol Visitor’s Center. Someone else found his pistol “during a routine security sweep later the same day.” (In his interview with Holt, Byrd called this “a terrible mistake.”) It concludes that the negligent supervision, discipline and retention of Byrd resulted in the predictable, foreseeable, and avoidable shooting of Ashli Babbitt.

 * * *

After Byrd’s interview with Holt, Aaron Babbit and attorney Terrell Roberts appeared on Tucker Carlson’s FOX television show. Aaron said that he was “pissed off” when he heard Byrd claim that he was a victim — wiping a tear from his eye and saying that he had received death threats. “I been getting death threats since January 7,” Aaron said. “Two, three, five, ten a day. You know, and all I did was become a widower.” He also announced the creation of a GiveSendGo page to fund the family’s legal action, saying, “We need all the help we can get. It is the Goliath, you know, the David versus Goliath fight we got going on here.” He asked supporters to visit the family’s TwitterX page to keep up with developments, “because we are gonna have the weight of the U.S. government coming down, raining down on us.”

It was later reported that the GiveSendGo page Justice For Ashli Babbitt Legal Fund had collected $462,735. But in April of 2022, Terrell Roberts declared that he had withdrawn from the lawsuit. He also said that he intended to return the crowd-funded money. In May of 2022, California attorneys Rachel King and Dylan Gunzel filed papers in San Diego Superior Court to preserve the Ashli Babbitt family lawsuits and try to gain control of the GiveSendGo funds. The 2022 paperwork referred to the previous Complaint for assault and battery, negligence, and wrongful death, and stated that after Ashli’s death, widower Aaron was already given authorization by a local San Diego judge to administer Ashli’s estate. Most recently, the crowd-funded money has been described as “in limbo,” and still held by Roberts’ law firm.

Judicial Watch’s announcement of the lawsuit notes that it is “extensively investigating the events of January 6.” Michael Byrd is still with the Capitol Police. He was promoted from Lieutenant to Captain in August of 2023.


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Mission Valley Christian Fellowship wants people to love, grow, and help

Reading the Bible is a good place to start
Cassie and crew at the Las Vegas Sphere.
Cassie and crew at the Las Vegas Sphere.

Basketball great and San Diego icon Bill Walton died on May 27. The next day, sports commentator John Canzano posted an interview clip on TikTok in which he asked Walton how many Grateful Dead concerts he had attended. “Not enough,” replied Walton, before recounting that his first Dead show had been when he was in high school. “I was 15. I’m listening to FM radio and the disc jockey, it had to have been Gabriel Wisdom, that was the guy that everybody listened to, and he said, ‘Boys and girls, that last jam you just heard, that was a new band from San Francisco, and they call themselves The Grateful Dead.’” Wisdom then said that so many people had showed up to the Dead’s recent show in San Francisco that everyone got in free, and that maybe the same would hold true for their upcoming show in Los Angeles. “We said, ‘Yeah, that’s us, let’s go chase the dream!’ So one of the guys stole their parents car for the weekend, right? Nobody had driver’s licenses, nobody had any money, we just went up there in our shorts and our tennis shoes and a T-shirt. We just went up there, got in free somehow, went right to the front, and our lives were never the same.”

“Not enough” Grateful Dead concerts translates, in Walton’s case, to somewhere north of 850. Many of the stories written after his death made mention of his devotion, sometimes to the point where his storied basketball career seemed to be secondary. What were two decades on the court compared to more than five decades in the stands — and on the stage? (Walton famously joined the Grateful Dead offshoot band Dead & Company onstage as a white-bearded, rose-crowned Father Time for its 50th anniversary celebration in 2015.) Drummer Mickey Hart recalled that his dear friend Walton would “regularly send messages that said, ‘Thank you for my life.’ He was the biggest Deadhead in the world and used our music as the soundtrack of his life.”

Three days after Walton’s death, Dead & Company paid tribute to him during a performance of his favorite Dead song, “Fire on the Mountain.” The biggest Deadhead got the biggest sendoff: his image, name, and player number 32 splayed across the gargantuan curved screen of the Las Vegas Sphere, where Dead & Company are in residence until August 10. They started their run in May, after finishing their farewell tour in July of last year, and my wife was in attendance opening night. When she returned, she insisted that she needed to go back — this time, with me. She insisted that Dead & Company was not simply a glorified cover band, rehashing old favorites with the help of relative youngster John Mayer. She insisted that the band was revitalized, in an almost literal sense: the Grateful Dead were alive again, somehow, lo these 30 years after the death of founding member Jerry Garcia.

She knew just what to say. Like many fans, I had thought the Grateful Dead era ended when Garcia died. My wife understood my feeling, if only because she was a little like Walton and other devotees who talked about the Dead — and Garcia in particular — in tones that bordered on the religious.

Garcia was a reluctant high priest — he saw himself as a working man — but that didn’t stop the true believers, even if the best they could offer to explain themselves was, “They are a band beyond description,” one that provided, through their music and the community that formed around it, the closest thing to a religious experience they had ever found. “I am the human being that I am today because of the Grateful Dead,” Walton once said. And like converts, it wasn’t enough for them to attend; they had to tell the world, convince them to come along. “You’ve got to get on the bus, man!” They were friendly, wide-eyed, hopeful you’d join them. But for many, including myself, it felt like they were trying to describe a rainbow to a blind person.

On May 5th, 1990, I got on the bus — or tried to. My best friend at the time was a drummer named Steve Harris. He know I was into progressive rock: polished bands delivering tight performances of frequently complex music. He did not care. He insisted that the Dead were something I had to see, “a band beyond description.” He bought me tickets to see a set of weekend shows in a field at Cal State Dominguez Hills. He proudly declared that these were his first Miracles. I had no idea what he was talking about, but he had a sincerity that was hard to resist, and it seemed important to him that he share this experience with me. Besides: free tickets.

We wound up sitting on the grass, fairly close to the stage. It was extremely hot. A lady seated in front of us said, to no one in particular, “I wish I knew somebody who was at their first show.” Steve quickly let her know that I was just what she was looking for. “Here,” she said, handing me a tiny square of colored paper. “Eat this.” I looked at Steve for reassurance. He was happy to provide it. That set us up for a 16-hour psychedelic ride. But before the acid kicked in, the band strolled onstage and spent what seemed like five minutes tuning their instruments. I had never seen that before, or heard it. It sounded…disorganized. And when they started playing, they kind of fell into the song. The vocals seemed sloppy. I didn’t hear any of the songs I had heard the band play on the radio. The rest of the crowd seemed to approve, but I didn’t get it.

Then they took a break, and when they came back, well, only the drummer came back. The drummer played for what seemed a long time, and when the rest of the band came out, they started doing the strangest thing I had ever heard musicians do. It seemed like they were playing badly on purpose, making sounds that did not link together in any discernible way. By this point, I was thoroughly altered, and the discord sounded weird and even ominous.

By way of consolation, Steve leaned over and said simply, “Space.” I was not consoled. I was annoyed. I had heard so much hype about how good these guys were. Then, finally, they started in on a song that the crowd seemed to recognize, and it was like the whole audience exhaled and relaxed in unison. Then this guy who looked more like somebody’s grandfather than a rock and roll star started to sing something about needing a miracle every day. Steve leaned over again, and explained that a miracle wasn’t just a free concert ticket — it was a gift.

By this point, the LSD had taken hold. I had never experienced it before, and after an hour, I found it close to overwhelming. When we left the venue, we were in no condition to drive. So we sat in Steve’s car, and he played his current favorite Dead song on his car stereo — a slower number called “Box of Rain.” He explained that the song was about the bass player’s father dying of cancer. I remember still not getting it. I remember saying that they sounded like a low-budget Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, with passable but loose harmonies.

Later, my friend Steve died of cancer. Now, when I hear the song “Box of Rain,” I am taken back to the good times we shared before the sickness blossomed in him like a poison flower, and invariably, I will weep. The song has become a time stamp for a moment in my life. It hits deep. But even so, and even though I saw the Dead again a year after that first “miracle,” I did not become a Deadhead until I saw the band’s current iteration at The Sphere. The Dead are an acquired taste; it took me three decades to acquire it.

My wife kept showing me videos taken of Dead & Company at The Sphere. She told me it was a must-see event, that the venue was as much a part of the show as the band, and the internet seemed to share her opinion. Okay then. But our flight out of San Diego was delayed, and despite skipping dinner and making a mad dash to the venue, we arrived after the show started. I should have been soured on the whole experience, but the experience was too sweet for that.

Trying to describe The Sphere makes me sympathize with Deadheads trying to describe the Dead. I will say this: it feels like the future. There are something like 40 individual speakers per seat, and the sound is focused like a laser beam. One section might receive audio in Chinese and another in English, and there would be no confusion. Despite the sonic excellence, it was hard at first to judge the band’s music, because the visual experience was placing such a massive demand on my attention. The curved screen behind the band was enormous; the graphics, all but overwhelming.

But as I settled in, I found I couldn’t help but be impressed by the musicianship of John Mayer (and the rest of the Dead’s new blood). He was doing Jerry Garcia’s guitar licks, but taking them further. And while he got all the words in all the right places, he wasn’t trying to sound like Jerry. He was doing his own thing, and it was working. In short order, I was dancing along with the rest of the crowd.

Back in my younger days, when the band did their “drums and space” thing, that was bathroom and beverage time. No longer. This giant contraption with dozens of drums and assorted instruments was played by three members of the band — and that’s when I noticed the haptic seats. When the drums hit certain notes, I could feel it through the chair. The sound seemed to be three-dimensional, at times bouncing noticeably off the front, back, and sides of the Sphere. But it wasn’t like panning a speaker left and right; it was all around me. And then Mickey Hart did something with an instrument called The Beam that triggered light effects that were unlike anything I had ever experienced before. A one-hundred-and-fifty-foot brain appeared on the screen, the nerves pulsating as if stimulated by whatever it was he was doing. It was incredible! I would pay the ticket price just to see that one aspect again.

As it was, we came back for the Friday show with better seats, and again on Saturday. Each night, the emotional impact grew. The old favorite songs were new again. I started to get it, to understand why the Dead got so big, so ongoing, and why the scene is still so vibrant today. It’s something profound, something beyond music. After the last show, while we were doing the exit shuffle, riding the escalators down, we found ourselves face-to-face with people on another escalator. Our eyes met, and we started cheering, not for the band, but for each other. That’s the kind of love and goodwill I encountered.

Back home, I sought out the local Dead cover band scene. To my amazement, I found around a dozen. Does any other band have a dozen cover bands in one town, or 1800 nationwide, with at least six being full-time touring acts? Dead & Company called their Sphere residency “Dead Forever;” given what I saw and felt, it does seem like the long, strange trips will be going on for a long, long while.

— Albert Barlow

In 2023, Dead & Company announced that their current tour would be their last. They hadn’t played San Diego since 2021. I had to travel to Los Angeles to see the second show of that last tour at the Kia Forum and then to San Francisco to see the very the last one at Oracle Park. But just because they’re no longer touring doesn’t mean they’re no longer playing, which explains their residency at The Sphere. Or helps to explain it.

I frequent a bar in Coronado. One of the bartenders there is Cassie. She’s tall, with dusty blonde hair, the most beautiful brown eyes I’ve ever seen, and she’s drop dead gorgeous. That aside, she’s got heart and soul and is a Deadhead. One day, I went in for a beer. Cassie gave me a wide smile; her eyes sparkled. “I just got a bunch of tickets for Dead & Company shows at The Sphere.”

My interest was piqued. “How do I get in on that action?”

“I got tickets for the first weekend and second weekend. I think we’re going on the second weekend.”

“That’s the weekend I want to go!”

Buzz began to build within the local Dead community; people wanted to know who was going to which show. It intensified when the first clips hit the internet after the opening show on May 16. I didn’t want my experience to be spoiled, so I resolved to avoid them. But the thing about spectacles is that you want to look at them. Happily, they didn’t lessen my excitement about the real thing.

Cassie, her friend Fil, Evan and I were the Coronado Tribe, headed for the May 24 show. Unlike Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, we opted to fly instead of drive. (Cassie let me know which flight to book and already had a hotel lined up.) Like Duke and Gonzo, we had plenty of drugs to keep us company: eight hits of LSD (4 microfiche and 4 liquid gels), five infused joints with kief and rosin, one pressed Ecstasy pill, sixteen Molly caps, four cannabis pens, one bottle of 1000 milligrams of THC tincture, and a quarter of mushrooms.

That Friday morning, Evan came to pick me up in his golf cart. Golf carts are not uncommon on the streets of Coronado. Evan is 26, and is in the Navy. The Navy promises one sort of adventure; our journey promised an entirely different sort. We met Cassie and her roommate Luke at their place to catch a Lyft to the airport. (Luke was heading to London and his flight was around the same time as ours.) Fil was already inside the airport bar, waiting for us and drinking a beer. Cassie and Evan opted for Starbucks, but I stayed with Fil and ordered a $14 Tito’s & soda on the rocks. I’m not a big fan of flying, so a stiff drink was in order. Fil is 43, svelte, and has eyes that pierce into one’s soul. That gives him authenticity.

We arrived at our hotel around 1:30. Fil had arranged for a suite at the Hilton Grand Vacations Club. After unpacking, it was time to change into our Dead attire and head out to Shakedown Street. For non-Deadheads, Shakedown Street is the designated vending area set up in the parking lots of Grateful Dead concerts. Vendors sell clothing, jewelry, arts and crafts, food, drinks, and illicit items. In this case, Shakedown Street was at Tuscany Suites & Casino, less than a mile away from The Sphere. We arrived at 4 pm, and after we had taken a couple of laps around the lot, we concluded that it wasn’t as robust as others we had visited. (I recently learned that the vendors eventually moved inside the hotel due to the heat.) Fil noticed something odd: “I don’t hear any tanks or see any balloons! Headshops sell tanks here in Vegas, though.”

Cassie bought a hoodie and we decided to walk towards the Sphere. Along the way, we passed by Lawry’s Prime Rib Steakhouse on Howard Hughes Parkway. I was telling my crew that the place was an iconic restaurant when I noticed something else: “There’s a headshop!” Inside, we learned that 2.2-liter nitrous oxide tank prices ranged from $45-$99. We all pitched in for the $45 tank and some balloons. People sell nitrous balloons for up to $20 at shows.

We found a staircase at a shopping center across the street from the Sphere to do our balloons. But we got kicked out by security immediately after doing our first round. We decided to head into the Sphere parking lot to see if there was a space for us to do our thing. First thing we saw were police officers getting ready for their concert shift. We needed a different spot after that encounter. We looped around and found an abandoned parking lot. There, we were free to do our derelict activities: inhaling balloons, smoking joints, and playing music.

After our frolic it was time to march to the Sphere (but not before hiding what was left in our tank in the bushes). We found the line to the entrance. While in line, I saw fellow wordsmith Emily Elizabeth Allison from San Diego. I went to say hello and get her thoughts. This is what I got.

Dead Forever

Giant round belly

against the sky,

an egg, giving birth

within itself

to itself.

Outside-in

swirling dervish

calling across dry sun,

an unforeseen spectacle

so full of nothing

but offering something…

spiraling dreams

in a bubble

that no dawn can burst.

You are a memory

of past desert days

and simpler times.

You are the magic ball

of the future

telling fortunes

in rapid blinks,

sensory reminders

of parts of ourselves

that had been forgotten

and now beg to be

remembered.

You are a balloon

with its exhale

catapulting itself

against hopeful blue

sky water.

You are my bucket of joy

and then my hollow of grief.

I never could have known

how I would be swallowed

into your orbit

and spun within your cycle

of a million stars.

You remain for me

a single planet

unmoving

like a gift

with no corners

or ribbons

and seemingly no end.

Perhaps,

like Christmas,

your smile will subside

and you’ll start a new list

of naughty and nice.

But for now,

you are the wizard

behind the curtain

showing all the love

and unexpected tears

are my own.

Decades ago

I never could have imagined

you are rolling up to my gaze

like God’s spaceship,

offering a portal

that demands no vehicle

but breath.

You, round star,

watch my arrival

then spin behind me

as life pulls me away

back to the sea.

You are indifferent

to my comings and goings

and still, I see your wink

inviting me back

each week

to swim in your sphere.”

Our seats were in the 300 section. Once at our seats, we ingested our LSD. The information I was getting on social media was that the 300 and 400 sections were the best for catching all the visuals of the show, and the floor was good for dancing, spinning and being up close to the band. I haven’t experienced the floor yet. (I stress “yet!”), but confirmation can be provided that the 300 section is good for the visual aspects. Viz: the doors opened to the Grateful Dead House in Haight-Ashbury while the “Music Never Stopped” and then everyone was floating up into outer space. Not to mention standing underneath a waterfall, letting the water run between my fingers and catching the rain with my mouth, only to arrive at that cathartic moment viewing Jerry’s silhouette during “St. Stephen.” The crowd on the floor looked like amoebas moving in their pseudopodal state.

The show ended and it was time to find our tank. Cassie had a pin on it, but wasn’t confident one of our brains would work enough to get us there. Good thing I’ve had children, because my fatherly instincts for finding the child kicked in, and we found our parking lot and continued our derelict activities. There was enough in the tank for two more balloons, and we smoked a joint. That was night one.

Next day was recovery by the pool, drinking beers, hitting the vapes, putting tincture under our tongues and relaxing. At one point, Cassie sat up from her lounge position and declared, “We fucking deserve this! I know all of us work so hard!” After sufficient relaxation, the plan was to get cleaned up and head to the Venetian for the Dead exhibit they had there. When we arrived at the Venetian, we learned the exhibit was (and is )at the Palazzo. Exhibits about the history of the Grateful Dead; I probably don’t need to recommend that. Cassie, Evan and I started eating mushrooms at a microdose pace; we didn’t want to trip out too hard before the show.

The Palazzo connects to the Venetian, and the Venetian connects to the Sphere. Because we were in Vegas with some time to kill before the show, we all splintered off to do some gambling. We set a meeting spot, and after meeting at our designated rendezvous location, we shared our stories of being up and down and happy to lose only around $60. We all considered that a win.

Time to go to the show. Night two was not as intense and I was able to grasp and capture everything better because I was in a more stable state of mind. We all opted to head back to our hotel after the show because we had to wake up at 7 am for a 9:30 flight. Our flight back only took thirty-six minutes, but we were stuck on the tarmac for over an hour because there was a plane with maintenance problems stuck at our gate. That was the worst thing that happened on our trip.

There were firsts for each one of us. It was my first back-to-back shows. It was Cassie and Fil’s first indoor show. It was Evan’s first Dead show ever, and the first time he did LSD. He had moments of going deep inside himself, trembling and being confronted with moments from his youth. He made it out with enlightenment. None of that can explain, nor can anyone explain what happened. As Cassie said, “It’s inexplicable!” Our own experience is the one we have. I got to share and rejoice with my sister and brothers.

As the late Bill Walton (Rest In Power) once said, “We all won, and everybody wins.”

Gabriel Garcia

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