‘A sexual predator’s paradise.’ Investigation of Faster Horses music festival uncovers 30 reported sexual assaults
Editor’s note: This article contains graphic details of sexual violence. Some readers, particularly those who have experienced similar traumas, may find this content distressing or triggering. Please engage in self care as you read this article.
BROOKLYN, MI — She doesn’t like to use the word. It is so serious, so intentional, so harsh. But that is what it was – rape.
She was lost and drunk without a cellphone, and he promised to get her back. Instead, this man she sort of knew, a friend of friends, persuaded her to enter a bathroom. She repeatedly cried “No,” and when it was done, he left her in a sea of people, but all alone.
The woman, now 24, has not returned in the four years since to the Faster Horses country music festival at Michigan International Speedway in southern Michigan.
Pictures posted on Instagram or advertisements for the “three-day hillbilly sleepover” first make her sad, and then induce anxiety attacks. It takes her back to the trauma that triggered a years-long struggle to feel safe at her university and to engage in loving, intimate relationships.
“I was just so vulnerable in the moment. You think, like: ‘Oh, it’s cool. It’s going to be like a fun party.’ But then the drinking is so extreme,” she recalled recently from her front stoop in Grosse Pointe.
For her, the experience was “terrifying.”
An MLive analysis of nearly 130 police reports found there is more to the festival than what appears in photos – girls in bikinis swaying atop the shoulders of men in cowboy hats, 20-somethings taking smiling selfies, patriotically clad partiers hoisting plastic cups as men with guitars rouse massive crowds.
In total, there have been 30 reported cases of criminal sexual conduct since 2013 at the festival, according to the police reports, which took more than two months to receive via the Freedom of Information Act.
Faster Horses annually draws about 40,000 spectators, packing them into campgrounds and concerts with the hottest names in country music, like Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton, Carrie Underwood, Jason Aldean, Keith Urban, Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert.
Police were called to 91 assaults throughout eight festivals. In addition to the assaults, six people have died, including four this July – three young men poisoned in a camper by carbon monoxide and a 30-year-old woman who abused marijuana and alcohol and died from “complications of obesity.”
RELATED: Melissa Havens went to Faster Horses to have a good time. She ended up dead outside a tent in a crowded campground.
“It is the party of the summer. And there are good bands, good music,” said 22-year-old Willie Burns of Mason, who attended the 2018 festival. It was marred at the very end by the death of his friend, 19-year-old Makayla Hostetler, struck by an SUV hours after the final act.
“Ninety-five percent of people there are great people who want to go down there and have a good time, drink their beer and listen to music,” Burns said. “But then you have the 5% of the people that aren’t good, and those are the other stories you hear about.”
RELATED: ‘That damn thing needs to be shut the hell down:’ woman whose daughter was killed at Faster Horses three years ago
The sexual assaults – unsurprising to experts and vaguely mentioned by attendees – are most alarming, given the number of women who attend the festival every year, perhaps, unaware of the danger.
One former security guard said Faster Horses is like “a sexual predator’s paradise.”
The stories are horrifying, maybe because many women could see themselves in the same positions. All of the sexual assault victims are female and at least 18 of them involved alcohol. (Two conclusively did not and in 10 cases, it was unknown or unclear.) Three of the 30 criminal sexual conduct cases were deemed “unfounded.”
Only two perpetrators – a man entering female showers and an underage drinker caught urinating in public – were formally implicated in any crime.
In 2014, a woman told police she was knocked to the ground in the parking lot and three men raped her, leaving her in such pain an officer reported she struggled to walk and enter a vehicle. During the interview, the officer gave her a break because she was crying and vomiting.
Another woman contacted police after the 2018 festival because she pulled a condom from her vagina, but had no memory of how it came to be there. She had slept in the back of a GMC Denali to close a day of drinking Budweiser and Bud Light.
In 2019, concertgoers found a 16-year-old girl partially naked, her pants at her knees, unconscious and with a split lip in a portable bathroom. The girl was screaming every time someone put a hand on her – “Don’t touch me.”
Every year, there is an average of 2.75 reported sex offenses – as they are defined by the FBI and excluding “unfounded” cases – at Faster Horses. In Michigan, there are 0.5 reported sex offenses per 40,000 people every four days, according to FBI crime statistics from 2014 to 2019. Therefore, sex offenses are about 5.5 times more common at Faster Horses than in Michigan, per capita.
Assaults are more frequent, too. Police reports tell tales of bloody fights over love triangles, noisy generators, bad music, missing keys, pushing near the stage, smoking and stolen beers. Faster Horses averages 11 reported assaults per festival.
Michigan averages about six assaults per 40,000 people every four days. So, assaults are nearly twice as likely at Faster Horses.
(Can’t see the chart? Click here.)
Compared to one of Michigan’s other large festivals – Electric Forest, a four-day electronic music event north of Muskegon – Faster Horses has 50% more reports of criminal sexual conduct and more than twice the number of assaults.
RELATED: Look through a database of all 127 reported violent crimes, deaths at Faster Horses since 2013.
Brooklyn’s “party of the summer” generates millions in ticket sales alone, and is organized by California-based concert promoter Live Nation, responsible for the since-canceled Las Vegas country music festival where a gunman killed 58 people in 2017, and rapper Travis Scott’s Astroworld festival in Houston, where 10 people died this month in crush and chaos.
Live Nation and its public relations firm asked MLive to send questions by email, but cut off communications after learning of the story’s specifics. MIS officials declined to comment.
Former MIS President Roger Curtis led the track from 2006 to 2016 and helped reimagine the speedway as a music venue.
“I always felt like if something were to happen to a guest, they were in a great place,” Curtis said. “Because we probably had more fire, medical and police in a very small radius than if you were back in your hometown.”
He was surprised to hear how many assault and criminal sexual conduct reports there were at the festival during his years at the helm. He recalls only one major assault. The numbers have only increased in the years since he left MIS.
“I did not realize they were that high,” Curtis said. “It just did not get out, what you’re describing, the number of assaults or anything like that. It didn’t get to me.”
Every year, Curtis and his team tweaked Faster Horses to make it safer. They added lighting and first responders and began requiring wristbands to enter campgrounds. They never felt they were cutting corners.
Faster Horses is massive – a small city built for a long weekend on more than 1,400 usually quiet, empty acres nestled in the secluded Irish Hills and designed in the 1960s for auto racing. NASCAR, less popular than in decades past, used to come to town twice a year. Now, checkered flags fly just one weekend in August.
Country music is the bigger draw.
The festival crowd skews young, and the parties are notoriously boozy, rowdy and, in many cases, bawdy. Attendees can spin on stripper poles at campsites, dance on roofs at “Titty City” or tip back shots at the “Camel Toe Bar.”
Meanwhile, duo Florida Georgia Line croons: “I’ll sit you up on a kitchen sink, and stick the pink umbrella in your drink.”
Drunkenness was such a problem that, in one of the first years, 75 intoxicated patients were taken to the nearest emergency room (18 miles away) in one week alone. For subsequent festivals, on-site medics staffed a special area to handle such cases. A doctor calls it “Overbeveraged Respite.”
“It seems like more people were there to just get like blackout drunk than to actually enjoy the music, which is not necessarily the best environment,” said the 24-year-old rape victim, whose name is being withheld. MLive typically does not identify sexual assault victims, and for purposes of this story, she will be referred to as Anna.
The booze flows nonstop, fueling rapes and assaults
The common thread linking more than 2,220 pages of violent crimes and deaths reviewed by MLive reporters? Alcohol.
The mixing, guzzling, chugging, shot-taking and drinking games culminate in fights, blackouts and sexual assaults. Crimes range from petty to life-altering.
In 2017, a woman, after a lot of drinking, woke to find a man she had not seen in nearly a decade was having sex with her. He refused to get off her and she escaped with his shorts, running and yelling for help.
“You know a bag of wine? They have bags of Fireball (whiskey),” said Haley Rusicka, a long-time attendee.
While Rusicka, 26, totes around a CamelBak hydration pack with water; others fill theirs with booze. She has fun with friends, but the festival is annually “a shitshow.”
“The way people drink there, it is not uncommon to wake up and see an extremely messed up girl just laying in the grass,” Rusicka said. “You see people peeing in a port-a-potty with the door open. Just really gross, inhumane things.”
Jeffrey Pardee, co-founder of Edmondson Security Solutions, has seen brutal fights, domestic violence, “way-beyond-inappropriate behavior,” and people drunkenly getting in the wrong campers. Attendees are packed together. “And we all know when you add alcohol, it does bad things to good people.”
His security company contracts with Juniper Hills, a private campground next to MIS.
“I can’t tell you how many young girls that myself or my guards end up picking up in a golf cart and taking them wherever they need to go because it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, they’re so drunk they can barely walk, but they’re by themselves and only half-dressed,” Pardee said. “It’s almost like a sexual predator’s paradise.”
With “loud music, half-naked girls walking around and a lot of alcohol … it’s a recipe for disaster,” Pardee said.
He doesn’t know the solution.
“You can’t shut down the whole event. It’s a big money-making event … plus it’s a way of life for America,” Pardee said. “We all go to country music concerts and drink beer on the weekends. Well, not me. I hate country music.”
Cambridge Township Police Chief Jeff Paterson has worked events at MIS for nearly four decades and said the drinking at Faster Horses is no different than at most large MIS races.
The only distinction Paterson noted is the age. Faster Horses is younger. He estimated 50% of the crowd is under 30.
“Are they overindulging and drinking and taking their liberty?” Paterson said. “Yup.”
NASCAR and Faster Horses usually bring a similar number of patients to the ER each week, said Dr. Brian Kim, medical director of the emergency department at Henry Ford Allegiance Health in Jackson.
But starkly different circumstances warrant their arrival. “With the older crowd on (NASCAR) weekends, we worry about individuals … forgetting their medications for their chronic illness,” Kim said. “On Faster Horses weekend, it’s a younger crowd … (With them), sometimes judgment is out the window.”
Despite special police patrols focused on thwarting underage drinking, Paterson said cops issued zero minor-in-possession tickets this year.
“I mean, I’m sure there was somebody out there, but we didn’t have a problem with that this year,” the chief said. “In past years, we’ve had some problems with it, so we’ve spent more money and time on it.”
Paterson didn’t know off hand how many MIP were issued in prior years, but said they peaked at about 15 to 20.
Rusicka laughed in disbelief. “When I’ve been there, I knew of multiple groups where none of their people were over 21,” Rusicka said. “They can go to the campsite and drink all day.”
There are at least eight police and fire agencies that contract with Faster Horses organizers to provide public safety services. It cost Live Nation more than $400,000 in 2021, but the individual agency data isn’t compiled or easily accessible.
Days at Faster Horses begin with hungover campers slinking out of tents or campers to run their most urgent errands – driving to nearby Brooklyn to stock up on beer and liquor. They make hollering returns to the campgrounds with fresh cases strapped to their roofs, Pardee said.
Faster Horses embraces, even markets, this hard-carousing reputation.
“No sleep, just party,” is the title of one Facebook promo video that led up to the 2021 event. The Beastie Boys’ metal-heavy “No sleep till Brooklyn” plays over clips of attractive drink-clutching attendees, women in American-flag bikinis, hordes of cheering fans and a man guzzling a “tall-boy” can of Budweiser.
(Can’t see the chart? Click here.)
Brooke Kreza, 27, of Canton was drawn by romanticized visions of a weekend-long party. She made her one and only trip to Faster Horses in 2017. It was supposed to be fun. And it was, minus the strangulation and body slam.
She was 23 at the time, and the guy she’d dated over the last couple months was going too.
They met up. He’d always been nice, never violent.
Kreza’s boyfriend was drinking heavily. It was Saturday night. Miranda Lambert headlined and when the spotlights sizzled out, Kreza, her boyfriend and a friend walked across the crowd-crushed grass into the dark night.
“He got really intoxicated, pushing people, calling people f—-t,” Kreza said. “It was to the point where he was pissing people off, and since I was with him, I don’t want an angry mob and their friends, who are also all drunk, coming after us.”
Kreza urged him “to stop,” to go back to their campsite. The immediate crisis was averted, but the drinking continued.
“He grabbed a fifth of alcohol and started drinking it out of the bottle,” she said. “I was super concerned, so I took the bottle and started to dump it.”
She never expected the 6-foot-3, 200-pound man to react the way he did. This was “out of character.”
“He picked me up by my neck and threw me across the campsite,” Kreza, who is 5-foot-3, remembers. “The bottle went flying.”
Kreza had not experienced that kind of violence. She intended to do something. When she started to call 911, the soon-to-be ex ran off.
“I reported it but nothing came of it,” Kreza said. “It’s like, almost to this day, it never really existed, like it got swept under the rug.”
Paterson, chief of the responding agency, takes exception. “We’re trying really hard to provide professional police service to these people… This is the first I’ve heard of anything like that.”
Petty disagreements mixed with alcohol-infused emotion account for much of the violence over the years.
“People go there to have fun and in some people’s minds having fun means a few drinks, and in some people’s minds, having fun means a whole lot more drinks,” said Lenawee County Sheriff Troy Bevier, whose deputies also patrol the festival grounds.
Faster Horses is three days long. But, should it be?
While sports tailgates last hours, Faster Horses lasts days. People start drinking the moment they rise and continue through Monday morning; sometimes the parties don’t end until 5 or 6 a.m.
“Every year I say, ‘I’m never doing Faster Horses again.’ And I end up doing it every single year,” said long-time attendee Hannah Bailey, 27. “You’ve drank so much, partied so hard with all of your friends. So you’re just done by the time Sunday hits.”
The length of the festival contributes to the chaos, some say. People can set up camp starting at 9 a.m. Thursday, concerts begin Friday and end Sunday. Campers must move out by noon on Monday.
“Make it at least a day-and-a-half or two, not no three days or whatever,” said Theresa Havens of Croswell, whose 30-year-old sister Melissa Havens died early July 17, the morning of the festival’s third day, after a long night of partying. She drank 3 1/2 fifths of Fireball cinnamon whiskey, a witness told police.
There is so much alcohol poisoning, Theresa Havens, 25, said.
“Does it need to involve a whole weekend?” questioned the mother of one young sexual assault victim.
MIS first hosted a country music event in 2011, called “MI Fest,” featuring Sheryl Crow. It flopped; organizers fell far short of the 10,000-ticket goal, and some bands had to be canceled in advance.
But country music returned as a three-day festival with the inaugural “Faster Horses” in 2013. Organizers wanted to mold it after festivals like Lollapalooza in Chicago, Curtis said.
People can’t buy single-day tickets – and some older locals say that keeps them away. Emphasizing the three-day party brings in a younger crowd.
Despite local complaints, offering one-day tickets is a losing business model, Live Nation President Brian O’Connell told MLive in 2013. “No one survives that way.”
He wanted it to be a weekend experience.
“It’s not like you’re going to The Palace (of Auburn Hills) for a show that starts at 7:30 p.m., ends at 11 p.m., and you buy a shirt and out you go,” O’Connell said as crews readied for the first concerts that same year. “I’ve got you for three days, and I need to do something with you for three days that is going to blow your mind open.”
Unlike “MI Fest,” Faster Horses thrived. It brought in 20,000 people its first year and quickly grew to 40,000.
A wristband to enter costs $215 to $650 and campsites range from $195 to $900 for the weekend. A beer inside the concert arena is $12.
But with that windfall of cash came a growing number of rapes, assaults and deaths fueled by an atmosphere of debauchery.
“Even when you get in the concert, (there are) people throwing up, just extreme drunkenness, fighting,” Rusicka said. “You pay to go see your favorite bands and it becomes like, you’re not even enjoying the music. You’re just like, ‘Oh my God, what is going on?’ It’s distracting.”
Prolonged drinking is the greatest danger, agreed one woman, now 39. For this story, she will be known as Beth.
Swilling whiskey and beer, she cannot entirely piece together what happened July 22, 2018, at Faster Horses. It is labeled in a police report as first-degree criminal sexual conduct. It involved a young man and ended in a hospital.
“I do remember like freaking out because I had blood running down my legs. And I was just like screaming, and wandering around …,” Beth said this month from a small deck outside her home on Michigan’s west side. The days had suddenly become cold, and she stood with her wife in an oversized sweatshirt. She smoked a cigarette, ran fingers through her hair, toyed with jewelry, recalling what she does not forget.
She was eventually taken to Henry Ford Allegiance Health in Jackson, where she had to have stitches to repair a vaginal tear. “So it was slightly terrifying. To come out of a kind of blackout situation and have that happen.”
A fuel truck driver, as he filled buses, found a pool of blood and bloody underwear. An earlier police report noted Beth and a man were caught having sex in the area. Take it to a tent, a security guard reported telling them.
She doesn’t know whether she consented, and she doesn’t blame the unknown man, never identified or charged. Beth encountered him when she left her campsite, looking for companionship after most went to bed. She didn’t want him to get into trouble. They were both so drunk.
A crime of opportunity
Experts – and partygoers – note sexual violence can happen anywhere, on the street, at work, at church, in a grocery store.
It’s a crime of opportunity, said Angelita Velasco Gunn, executive director of AWARE Inc., a Jackson nonprofit serving domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.
Antonia Abbey, a psychology professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, likened Faster Horses to a bar setting. Predators there believe it is possible to act without consequence in a way that would be irrefutably unacceptable elsewhere.
“We still have a sizable number of people, mostly men, in this society who seem to think that it is OK to get away with things like that if you can, that kind of entitlement to sex and entitlement to sex with someone intoxicated or impaired, that, somehow, that doesn’t count,” Abbey said.
Alcohol is not going to make someone commit assault, but for men predisposed to sexual violence, it may encourage them to act on impulse without considering the repercussions, according to Abbey’s work studying alcohol and criminal sexual conduct.
Telling women not to drink is not the answer, experts said.
“The problem behavior is the person who uses sexual violence,” Gunn said.
One woman, now 26, hadn’t yet been to a single concert in 2016 when she woke in a tent with a stranger the first night of the festival.
The woman had been playing drinking games with friends. Everyone was heading to bed, and she walked alone to a bathroom. She left the restroom, passed tents, looking for hers, and it all goes blank.
Next, she recalls waking with the strange man on top of her. “I tried to shove him off and eventually he let me go,” she said in a text message to a reporter.
“I wasn’t even able to find my clothes. I had to wear his large T-shirt and my underwear. I was so (shaken) up that I couldn’t even find my own tent.”
She ended up on the track, crying. Security found her and she waited on the back of a golf cart while passing people looked at her.
Her roommate picked her up from the speedway and took her home. She didn’t even tell her companions she was leaving, not at first.
To be tested for a sexually transmitted disease or infection, she went to a hospital, alone, for a medical forensic exam – it took at least six to eight hours.
The nurse reported she was “tearful and sad,” and frustrated with her lacking memory.
“They pretty much flushed me clean and sent me home. I was so sick …” she said. She couldn’t drive.
She thought about pressing charges. Partly, she didn’t want to know what happened. “Or see the guy who did it.”
The woman agreed to share evidence and information collected by the nurse with law enforcement, but when a state police trooper tried to follow up, she avoided her, according to a police report.
“To be honest, I think the biggest part of me was thankful it wasn’t worse. He let me go eventually, and I wasn’t injured. I felt like there were more serious cases than mine,” she said.
“But then again there’s always that thought, are there other girls that he’s done this (to) too?”
A farm-sized fraternity party that embraces ‘bro culture’
A shirtless man in overalls tips back his head to guzzle a beer near dancing women in front an American-Flag colored, converted school bus with a hand-painted sign that reads, “F Shack,” and a window-hung banner that says, “Welcome to the G-Spot.”
“Half-cocked” reads the front of the man’s royal blue construction helmet, equipped with a realistic looking rubber penis, erect toward the partly cloudy skies. The song “Ain’t My Fault” by Brothers Osborne is heard as a woman reaches up to grab the phallus. She pulls it down, forcing the man to hunch in order to bow his head to her level. She then begins performing simulated fellatio.
The video of this 2018 Faster Horses encounter has more than 5,000 views on Twitter.
Sexual innuendo, suggestiveness, objectification of women, and macho, hard-drinking, country-boy patriotism with a dash of racism in the form of the occasional Confederate flag permeate much of Faster Horses’ decor, style and attitude.
Call it a farm-sized fraternity party.
Pardee, who manages security at one of the nearby private campgrounds, called the festival a “f–k fest.”
Often encouraged by men, but sometimes not, women flash their breasts for beads or booze.
“The most nudity I see is when a girl says, ‘I’ll show you my boobs for a beer,” said George Hatzenbuhler, a walking beer vendor for MIS during Faster Horses. “I don’t ever say, ‘yeah,’ because I’d be broke.”
There are pop-up theme camps, essentially outdoor clubs equipped with bars, dance floors, strobe lights and DJs, that have evolved with the festival. Among them are Titty City, repeatedly mentioned in police reports.
“When you have bars that are named these sexually suggestive and gendered names, that sends a message as to what’s appropriate at that event,” said Jenna Drenten, an associate professor at Loyola University in Chicago who studies consumer culture with an emphasis on pop culture and gender.
In one police report, a woman, lost and looking for her boyfriend, said a man she encountered at a Titty City bar offered her help and brought her up on a stage. He asked her to lift her shirt. She refused and he yanked down her tank and bikini tops, exposed her breast and kissed it.
Despite her unease, he convinced her to stay on the stage, and then again, against her will, pulled down her tops, this time with a DJ’s help, and they each kissed an exposed breast.
“After letting the incidents sink in, I realized the effect it was having on me and ultimately, I don’t want another girl to have to go through what I went through. By saying ‘no’ and having (the man) blatantly disregard my response… I feel violated,” she wrote in a statement submitted to police to document the sexual assault. She didn’t want to take any further action.
Drenten said country music is known for adopting a “very traditional stance on gender roles, and with that an expectation of how women should look, behave, dress and are there to sort of entertain men and be arm candy.”
“This sort of victim blaming, ‘you wouldn’t be out here if you didn’t want this’ sort of approach. That is the stereotype of people that perhaps might attend a country music festival versus some others,” Drenten said.
It is easy to find examples in songs. Every fan can sing Luke Bryan’s famous refrain: “For the rednecks rockin’ ‘til the break of dawn … Country girl, shake it for me, girl, shake it for me.”
“Bro-country” is now a mainstreamed sub-genre first coined by then New York magazine critic Jody Rosen, who wrote in 2013 of Florida Georgia Line’s hit “Cruise”: “Music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.”
Kreza, assaulted by her then-boyfriend in 2017, said not everyone is a “conservative hick” riding in the back of a pickup with a Confederate flag. “But it is very much that type of culture…
“I mean, I went to Faster Horses and I don’t drive around in a truck with a Confederate flag, you know, showing my boobs to the world, assaulting people or flashing people, so it’s hard because not everybody is like that,” Kreza said.
Even though 2020-implemented NASCAR’s Confederate flag ban extends to events at MIS, including Faster Horses, the ban is not strictly enforced. The rebel flag, seen as racist by many and also synonymous with the South, still appears at the festival.
Jake Haskell, 20, likes country music because he relates to it. “I like your privacy, hunting and fishing and stuff, sitting around a campfire, drinking whiskey,” he said.
“I think those words (came) directly from a country song.”
Haskell has twice been to Faster Horses and went to school with the three men killed by carbon monoxide, a tragedy called an accident in a place with so many more obvious dangers.
“I do think Faster Horses is safe,” he said. “It just depends on who is around you, who you surround yourself with.”
He acknowledges tempers flare. Men start fighting.
“And there are guys out there who think they can go and intrude on women’s space, which clearly is immoral,” Haskell said.
There is that stereotype that “guys will be guys,” he said.
“Those are the guys you gotta watch out for.”
The ‘party of the summer’ should come with a warning label
In 2017, a 16-year-old girl reported she was twice raped. One of the offenders was a minor. The other was a 21-year-old man.
“I feel like that man is the reason you need to write the story. He’s the (predator) that goes to those places,” said the girl’s mother, who wished to remain anonymous because she shares her daughter’s last name. For this report, she will be called Clare. Her daughter will be Cate.
The anger and the pain were evident in her voice.
She remembers receiving word by text that Cate had been sexually assaulted. Clare left work almost immediately and started heading toward MIS, a place she had never seen, speeding 90 mph through a nameless small town.
What she found shocked her. The speedway was massive, and the medical area was messy, dirty and chaotic. Drunk people seemed to be everywhere. “I mean, it was like a f—ing warzone in that med unit.”
Cate was there, sitting on a bed with her friend and drunk beyond recall.
The teen had gone to Faster Horses with a friend and the friend’s mother. But she knew others partying at an infield campground and the girls left a concert – Darius Rucker and Miranda Lambert headlined – and walked there, according to a police report.
In the light of day, she was taking shots of vodka and they were playing beer pong. Losers bonged a beer.
A boy, then 17, asked her to go to a trailer. She next remembered being on a bed with him.
The 21-year-old was on a couch when the boy left. He said he was bored and wondered if she would make it worth his while, a statement he later did not deny.
Cate remembered a lot of pain, more than she felt earlier during the first encounter, police reported.
The girl recalled leaving the trailer, crying and saying she had twice been raped.
She went to a bathroom and a stranger there came to her aid, comforted her and stayed with her until help arrived, the police report says.
The alleged perpetrators told police they had consensual sex with the teen. The boy said he only let it go as far as oral sex. A witness did not support Cate’s account, and the Lenawee County prosecutor’s office determined there was insufficient evidence to charge, according to the police report and the prosecutor.
Cate, now 20, allowed Clare, 43, to speak to a reporter, but did not respond herself to an interview request.
Never did Clare question her daughter. “I didn’t want her to feel like I was blaming her.”
She didn’t want to yell at her, interrogate her about her choices. Enough people – police, medical staff, the forensic nurse – questioned Cate, then a child, she said. Clare only verbalized one opinion: “You guys never should have separated,” she said of Cate and her friend.
It wasn’t Clare’s trauma, but the ordeal was likely the worst of her life. Justified or not, Clare feels responsible, for permitting Cate to attend, for putting her in that situation.
“I have always felt in my heart … moms should know where their daughters go. And I feel like I was so ignorant to that fact,” Clare said.
For several months, another mother, Darcy Skinner of Troy, discouraged her 18-year-old daughter from going to Faster Horses. She had heard on social media about rapes, violence and death.
“I would have rather tied her up and said ‘No,’” Skinner said.
But, independent and an adult, the teen was going to do it anyway. She planned to join a large group of older cousins, and Skinner yielded.
Before 8 a.m. on July 21, 2019, she was bathing in an infield shower trailer when a man twice ripped open the curtain. He was nude with an erection, according to a police report.
Another woman, then 24, was also in the showers. She went about 7 a.m.
The same man, wearing boots and shorts, opened her shower curtain. “That’s when I freaked out,” she said. He closed the curtain, removed his clothes, returned, and opened it again.
He got into the shower, and pushed her against the wall, with both hands, below her shoulders, just above the breast level. “I just somehow slipped out of there,” the woman, now 27 and a nurse, said recently from her home in Clawson.
Without her clothes, she grabbed a towel and fled to her nearby campsite. “Upset, scared, crying, obviously freaking out in my towel.”
The woman had gone to the festival every year since 2013 with a group of high school friends. They started her on country music, and she came to be a fan.
“We loved it. We loved the concerts,” she said.
‘How many haven’t been reported?’
Most people don’t have trouble. Most go home, sleep off crushing hangovers and return to school, work, family, oblivious to the trauma endured by others. Most of the stories haven’t made the news. Some victims never speak of it at all.
“How many haven’t been reported, would be my better question about this stuff that is happening at Faster Horses,” Lenawee County Prosecuting Attorney R. Burke Castleberry said. “How many haven’t been reported?”
Of every 1,000 sexual assaults in the United States, 310 are reported to police, according to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network numbers, drawn from federal crime and victimization survey data.
Apply the same statistics to Faster Horses, and there would be 67 unreported sexual assaults.
Victims know and expect there will be assumptions about their own conduct, said Gunn, of the Jackson nonprofit. “Why were they out there? Why were they drinking or why did they have shorts on and why did they have a skimpy T-shirt without a bra, why did they have whatever it is? Why did they have a sundress on? Why did they have leggings on? … Good grief. It’s like what am I supposed to wear?”
They have those questions about themselves too. They might feel embarrassed, ashamed.
“We live in the same society as everyone else. So, we hold these stereotypes about ourselves, about other women,” said Nancy Chi Cantalupo, an assistant professor of law at Wayne State University specializing in Title IX, sexual harassment and gender-based violence.
They know it is unlikely they will be believed, she said. “Why would they put themselves through that? Only to be basically treated like a liar.”
They may anticipate, too, that they will not get any real redress, especially for the complex and cascading effects of their trauma.
Of those 310 reported cases, 50 reports lead to an arrest and 28 cases result in a felony conviction, according to RAINN.
Of the reported Faster Horses incidents, nine victims stopped cooperating with police or declined to move forward. In two cases, prosecutors reviewed the information and decided there was insufficient evidence to proceed. Eleven times the cases stalled, and police closed them without resolution. Three cases were unfounded and in three other cases, the reasons they were unresolved were not clear.
Reports indicate varying levels of thoroughness. Some are a single page. Others are extensive. One state trooper interviewed about 20 people, re-interviewed some and spent 14 months investigating a woman’s belief she was sexually assaulted. Too intoxicated to recall, she suspected someone had anal sex with her after an altercation in 2016. A forensic nurse said it was possible, there was DNA evidence and it appears the trooper exhausted every lead before he closed the case without an arrest in late September 2017.
Two cases resulted in criminal consequences.
In 2013, police cited an underage drinker for obscene conduct, and the man who entered the shower stalls spent 93 days in jail because he repeatedly violated the conditions of his initial sentence, which was 18 months probation and 18 days of community service.
Then 22, he had been charged with one count of assault with intent to commit sexual penetration and two counts of indecent exposure, but he pleaded guilty only to one count of indecent exposure, a misdemeanor. The prosecutor’s office dismissed the other charges.
Criminal sexual conduct cases are especially difficult to prosecute, Castleberry said.
“I don’t know if there is more challenging case.”
Often, only two people are involved – the victim and the perpetrator, and there is little other evidence. “It’s one story against another, and then you think about predatory action … they select vulnerable people,” he said.
Enter a victim without full recollection of what occurred, and the challenges mount.
“You have to be able to tell the story, when you are sitting in front of a jury,” Castleberry said. “It absolutely doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. But you have to be able to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
To establish criminal sexual conduct with an incapacitated victim, prosecutors have to show an assailant knew the person could not consent, which becomes difficult when both parties are intoxicated, noted Oceana County Prosecutor Joseph Bizon, who reviews cases associated with Electric Forest.
Geography further complicates local efforts.
The speedway straddles two counties – Jackson and Lenawee – and many attendees live hours from the track. They venture from all over the state, and might not return for prolonged court action.
Healing is possible, but nightmares, self-doubt and fear remain
Anna, the woman raped in a festival bathroom, said she was more intoxicated than she had ever been. Parts of what happened are unclear.
She had gone to a friend’s campsite to see people she knew from school. It was far from the campsite she left and her cellphone was dead.
This acquaintance was to walk her back. He was flirting with her, but she didn’t like him, not in “that way,” and she knew he had a girlfriend.
The man said he had to use the bathroom. He told her she had to come with him. “I was like, ‘Well, I guess, like, if I have to do this so you will take me back, then I’ll just stand here.’”
Then it got bad, she said, declining to describe events she had not detailed in years.
In a court document, a granted request for a personal protection order, Anna said he took off her clothes despite her resistance. Unable to move, she remembered her head and arms were on the floor.
“Basically, there’s just a lot of ‘no, no, no,’” she recalled from the stoop. Large portions of it, though, are black.
When retrieved, her shirt was ripped and covered in mud.
Scared, upset and confused, she didn’t remember leaving the bathroom.
It was early evening, maybe around 5 or 6 p.m., and she doesn’t know how long she stood there, in one spot, watching passing people. Fortuitously, she spotted a familiar face, not a good friend, but someone she recognized. The woman was willing to help.
The police, it seemed to her, were not.
She wasn’t used to people doubting her or her judgment. “Because I’ve never really done anything bad. I’ve always been like the good kid. So that alone was really hard for me to kind of understand. Like, what do you mean? Why would you say that? Why would you question me? Like, I’m telling you the truth.”
The only police record is a six-line form scrawled with her and the accused man’s names, a phone number and her birthdate. “Possible CSC,” it says.
Paterson, the police chief, said he had four good officers on the call. Well-trained and compassionate, they told him Anna had consensual sex. Had she been victimized in any way, they would have taken care of it, he said.
Anna said police told her she could file a report, but officers would have to wake the man, and “take him downtown or whatever.” She felt it was a burden or she was in trouble.
This she remembers more clearly than the assault itself.
“I just felt so wronged and hurt … I personally have a lot of faith and trust in police officers,” Anna said. “So, to just experience that sort of bias, I guess, just didn’t feel good.”
Anna did not proceed, or undergo a sexual assault exam, which she regrets.
Instead, she obtained the personal protection order and took action through their shared university’s processes for violations of the Student Code of Conduct. “I actually made my trauma known.”
Anna finished college. She has a good job and a boyfriend.
She still thinks about the rape. The thought will ruin a happy dream, cause a night terror.
Intimacy was hard, especially at first. “It is still hard sometimes.” There were things she didn’t want to do because she had a vivid memory of a moment “that was happening to me.”
She has gotten over it. “By just like focusing on the idea of love. Because what happened to me wasn’t love.”
Beth at first spiraled. Her girlfriend broke up with her. She was drinking heavily. “I ended up falling into kind of like a depression.” She got herself arrested fighting with police at a bar in Ohio.
These days, she sometimes drinks craft beers, not hard liquor.
Once in a while, the events sneak into her thoughts. “I try not to get into the trap of going back into that, trying to figure out what I could have done differently about every flippin’ situation. Because, I can’t do anything differently about it. I can just learn and move forward.”
Clare isn’t sure her family ever really dealt with the assaults. They didn’t talk about it. Though Clare knows it isn’t too late, Cate didn’t see a therapist.
She worries there will be some unknown trigger and it will all hit Cate five or 10 years later.
“I want to say she’s maybe OK now, but I don’t know if that’s really a true statement,” Clare said.
At one point, she reached for her phone and scrolled through images to show a reporter a picture of her youngest child, taller with tattoos.
She can always tell whether they were taken before or after Faster Horses.
Maybe it’s real. Maybe it’s just because she is her mom, but she sees it in the expression on Cate’s face, in the look in her eyes.
She sees pain.
If you or someone you love has experienced sexual assault, you may wish to contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at https://hotline.rainn.org/online or by phone at 800-656-HOPE to talk to or chat with a trained staff member from your local sexual assault service provider. You can also contact Michigan’s Sexual Assault Hotline at www.mcedsv.org/hotline/hotline-chat/ or by phone at 855-864-2374 to reach trained advocates available to listen without judgment and offer support 24/7. These services are free and confidential.