Midwest Furfest 2014 chemical attack: Fur And Loathing podcast Episode 2 at scene of the crime

by Patch O'Furr

May 13, 2024: The second episode of Fur and Loathing is HERE (six episodes are coming out weekly.)

The 2014 chemical attack on Midwest Furfest was one of the largest in American history. 19 people were hospitalized. Nobody was charged and the case went cold. 10 years later, never-before-reported findings are here in this Furry True Crime podcast with journalist Nicky Woolf.

In the new Episode 2, Nicky visits Midwest Furfest and traces events in the 2014 police report, gaining unexpected insight. He gets immersed in furry culture with an insider guide, then introduces a complication that stalled the case. Until now.

Last week’s launch announcement had an exclusive interview for Dogpatch Press with Nicky and Patch O’Furr. A reader requested the transcript below. Come back for surprising developments in upcoming episodes.

TRANSCRIPT: EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW – lightly edited for clarity from the video

Nicky Woolf

(Nicky): Patch O’Furr in full regalia, looking beautiful with the glasses and all!

(Patch): Nicky, why don’t you tell the readers who you who you are and what the project is?

I’m Nicky Woolf, and for the last 7 months intensively, and the last 10 years, I’ve been obsessed with investigating the chlorine gas incident at Midwest Furfest 2014.

Before we get into it, let me ask you what’s your favorite thing about furries?

You know honestly, you’re starting me off with a difficult one. Because this is going to sound super weird… it’s the earnestness. The level of no one is pretending, by definition it’s a space where you no longer have to pretend. Which is ironic, considering the level of artistry that goes in, that leads you to a place where you don’t have to pretend, and I think that’s beautiful.

I love your vision.

(Puts on sunglasses)

What have you uncovered in the story that has never been reported before? You don’t have to give us spoilers, but some hints.

The things that really surprised us, the more we dug into this story, is how much was going on behind the scenes in terms of police and FBI investigation. Now it’s known, and a lot of it’s known through through your fantastic reporting, that there were some colossal mistakes made. By the police department — by the FBI in the general investigation — and obviously there were no arrests made. They never got over the line.

What we discovered, and we’ll get into this later in the series and what this means, but there was a lot of investigation going on as recently as 2019. Chasing down suspects, getting warrants, getting on planes, and going to find people for at least five years following… the word that’s used is controversial, we’ve been saying attack. Because I think it’s very clear that this was an attack. But the police and FBI were doing a lot more than has previously been known in the public domain.

From the public point of view, take me through what kind of life have you seen for this story. When it came out, when it died down, what’s your sense?

In the immediate aftermath — and I think anyone who’s familiar with this story who’s followed it either from within the community or outside of it as an interested viewer will know — the immediate reaction was the media did not cover itself with glory. The famous example of that is MSNBC where Mika Brzezinski cracks up laughing and is trying to get out words like, “19 people hospitalized” through laughter, which is a single piece of media that sums up the way the mainstream media has approached this community.

I think that’s the perfect one, that’s where we’re at in terms of the way the media and… I’m not within the community, so maybe I throw it to you, do you blame Mika specifically for that, or do you think she didn’t know what the hell was was going on there? Because I think that’s an interesting question. What’s your read as someone in the community of what happened on that MSNBC set?

I would say it was a brief human mistake. I can look at that from outside as a nonhuman, but I’m glad you’re here and doing the work you do, the amazing work that’s going to bring this story forward. Why should we listen, what are the good points of the story that really stand out?

It’s funny, when we were scripting, one of the notes early on that I got was that there needs to be — and this is something you get in every narrative podcast, in every piece of journalism, you have to do the “why should you listen, why should you care” and I found myself thinking to myself, the story doesn’t need selling. This is a vibrant and fascinating community about which very little is known, who were attacked in a way that no one has.

Shout out to the couple of places that have done good work investigating this before, specifically Vice and Robert Evans, and obviously you. I’m talking about mainstream media outlets here, but Vice and and Worst Year Ever deserve props having got the story to at least fighting the fight of having mainstream media pay attention to it. Not I think successfully, but the thing that really got me about this story is that it’s a sign of what was happening in the wider internet at the time, that’s only got more powerful since then.

Of the two big previous shows I’ve done, one of them was on Qanon. So I’m familiar with the way in which the dynamics of an internet community, or a primarily digital community, can have huge repercussions and teach us an enormous amount about what’s going on in the world as a whole. I think what this attack represents is a microcosm, of lessons that we can learn about how we deal with — trying to find a way of saying this which which doesn’t end up with spoilers — but I think I can safely say with rising extremism. And the way that extremism isn’t something that’s… like there aren’t the Nazis and other people.  There is a rising alt-right tide, and even furry, even the community is not safe from these forces of global change that are taking place. It’s something that we all deal with, no matter what community we have.

Let’s back up. Where do you think this fits into your previous work?

I’ve been covering the internet for a very long time. I was just a general news reporter at The Guardian a long while, and when you’re a general news reporter you need to carve out a little niche for yourself. I was an internet kid, I grew up in the Livejournal era, early in an era where everything was earnest, and it was a level of earnestness that I otherwise came to miss when the next step of internet development became the anonymous boards, like 4Chan. Which then became the power centers, and furry to me ended up representing a kind of alternate counterweight to a power center like especially /Pol…

Internet communities to me take on lives of their own, as life forms in their own, and I think that’s the same with any community historically, but the internet turbocharges the evolution of those kind of groups. I think the furry community has been a fascinating example of this, the way a culture develops and I think far right and trolling culture and something like Qanon is another example of that.

I’ve come to consider myself over my career as almost like a anthropologist of this new kind of life form that is the digital community, and the power that a digital community can wield and represent, to be a good thing for the world and its participants, or a bad thing for the world and its participants. For covering Qanon, that was the first time I got to do a story in yearlong investigative detail. I was covering — and I think it’s not a controversial way of describing it — a fundamentally evil new life form.

Whereas with this show it’s been joyous to be on the opposite side of that, and cover what I think is a fundamentally beautiful community, beautiful life form, even if I’m covering it from the perspective of… it came under attack and this is what happened after that. It’s a true crime show, so we’re looking a lot at the attack itself, but it’s been great to be able to do a little bit of that anthropology.

What’s it like to enter furry spaces as a guest, as someone who hasn’t been intimately invited in before, and earn some trust and have the insider view?

It’s been I think rightfully difficult, the mainstream media has not been great in terms of covering this community before, so we’ve really had to work very hard. As the show will keep going, I hope to work hard in terms of getting people in the community to trust us. We have to prove from the very first episode that we’re not looking to make a joke of the community the way a lot of people have. We’re not looking to paint the community as in some way deviant in the way that a lot of coverage has.

More literally we’re not looking to — we address this in in the first episode — we’re not looking to out anyone who doesn’t want to be outed. We’re not using anybody’s name until we get to the actual suspects in the attack. The line I use in the show is, unless there’s a journalistic reason not to, we address and refer to everyone in the community we speak to, the way they choose.

That gave us a kind of starting point, we made some contacts in the community we were able to say I’m coming into this with some experience. I’ve known furries, I’ve been aware and adjacent to the community while remaining a guest in these spaces, and I’m honored to have been invited into these spaces and these communications. It’s really a privilege to have been able to be at Midwest Furfest last year, to speak with members of the community, and it’s been a joy.

I think you had some interesting experience visiting Midwest Furfest. I don’t think we need to get into parts that are already in the show, but was there anything you saw that wasn’t able to make it into the show?

I’m so glad you asked that, because there is something that just didn’t make it into the show which I’ve been really pulling for, but couldn’t… I want to give a shout out to Atmos Deer, photographer Tommy Bruce, who has been a real helpful guiding light for me as I’m navigating this. We went to see on the Saturday afternoon, a review, an hour and a half long of lots and lots of little VR made films.

It was truly one of the most beautiful — there were lots of them that were… apologies to any of the makers who I say this about — slightly janky, but in this kind of beautiful raw emotional way. Some of them were in-jokes, some of them were truly hilarious, some of them were unintentionally hilarious and neither me nor Atmos had any idea what was going on. Then some of them just blindsided you by being heart-rending goodbyes and tributes to somebody that had been lost, or tributes to someone who lives a long way away and you don’t get to see very often, and they’d be these beautiful little vignettes. I loved it, I’m almost emotional just describing it, I thought it was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had.

This was obviously a story that was stalled, it was a cold case. What factors helped you to move this forward when nobody else was getting progress?

It’s worth saying that we don’t actually know! We did a lot of the standard things you do when you start this kind of investigation. One of those things is a big Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request for output… which, it’s worth saying, that the Vice team had done. Previous journalists have sent out FOIA requests regarding this story. What we got back — and I hope when people listen to the show they’ll see this — was very different in terms of the sheer scale of the documents that we got back. We don’t know for sure exactly why that is.

One of the things that — and we’ve spoken to legal experts — all we can do is an informed speculation that what had happened in 2019 was the five year standard statute of limitations had run out now. It was mind-blowing to me that something that was a terroristic offense, in reality, could have a statute of limitations. You can just not get found.

I think if that is the case, at this point we don’t know for sure because a lot of this was kept secret within the FBI and within the local police department, so we’re not 100% sure that’s why we had a different document response to FOIA requests, but whatever the reason, we did.

That gave us a starting foundational point of more information than has ever been made public before. There were just enough clues, like they heavily redacted lots of these documents, but there were just enough clues that could start us off on a investigation that could find something genuinely new.

When I’ve been working on stories like this one, or maybe negative topics, I tend to encounter friction inside the community. For example in this story a lot of people would tend to dismiss the attack, or memory hole it, or excuse it as “oh that must have been an accident” when you know there was always evidence that it was deliberate from the start. The police said it was deliberate, but people still ran with the idea that it was just a “mistake.”

Still to this day we had spoken to people who were fairly sure that that a latex chlorination accident was ultimately what had happened, and a lot more on top of that who were saying “oh it’s just a prank.”

It’s very striking to me — I don’t want to project a kind of a psychology onto what’s going on — to me it seemed like there was an element of trauma response going on, so that it’s easier to say “it’s not a big deal”.

I think there’s an element of an event like Midwest Furfest, a convention is such a sacred space, where you go to be free… that admitting that there’s a vulnerability there itself breaks some kind of spell. I’m hesitating to even say — because even thinking about that paradox some people are going to not love — in and of itself that’s looking this kind of spell directly on and undermining the magic.

I think that’s got to be balanced against, this is the real world, and not just the real world / the internet world, which to me is this kind of hyper reality and there are dangers looking.

I think it’s worth admitting, and investigating, and I’m just going to go ahead and say fighting, those forces that have emerged on the internet and represent real dangers for communities like furries and for the world in in general.

Where the weapon was deployed at MFF 2014.

I’m glad you used the term breaking the magic, that’s a meaningful term. We’re dealing with a subculture, to some people a very important one in their life, it’s the way that they express their identity. But a subculture can be marginal, isolated, it can be contained, and there’s a lot of alternative communities, sometimes I think they encounter problems that are wider scale than their reach. Do you have any ideas, thoughts or advice about how to solve problems that are wider than the scale of a small community like this?

That’s a ginormous question. A lot smarter people than me have have tried and failed to to answer that. All I can say is that in my experience, a start is solving it within the community before saving the world. Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.

Let’s take journalism for example… that’s a terrible example because journalism’s work is to talk about other people’s problems.

Journalists are the worst.

Barely more than a loose confederation of warring tribes.

Let’s take the local WhatsApp group around here to organize what day to take the trash out. If someone’s in there that’s been being an asshole, it is outside of the scope of this trash-collection WhatsApp group to solve whatever’s going on in this dude’s life that’s taken him there.

What is within the scope of a community is to look at itself, and say what help are we offering to people who may be experiencing something in their lives that’s taking them down this route.

How can we think of ourselves as a community while remaining open, while not breaking the magic, while also stop the Nazis… how do you deal with an asshole? Do you ostracize them, do you reach out to them? Those are the kind of questions that every community asks, and asking those questions is a good first step.

I think it’s good to be aware that you don’t necessarily want to be a doormat, by handling things the nice way, or just letting them go. This story opens a lot of questions about how we handle crime and policing — it’s one of those stories that we’ll continue to feed questions about, and it’s a great dialogue to have. We’re working in the True Crime genre here, and we’ve actually worked together and made Furry True Crime. I don’t know if there are any other examples like this, and I’m pretty happy about that.

This is a good point to really say thank you to everything you’ve done to make this happen with your reporting in the past.  You’ve been fighting a very lonely battle — I don’t know if it’s felt lonely to you — but as the voice doing the real solid journalistic work on this, none of this show would have happened without the hard work that you’ve put in, and without your incredible generosity in opening up to us and talking to us, and helping us on this journey. So thank you so much for that, we owe you basically everything of this show.

Let’s remember the reason for this community, it’s a fandom, we love what we do, and a lot of us are fans of other movies, music, writing, whatever… do you have any other media that inspires you? Anything you might want to share?

Are you getting at what fandoms, what inspires me… does Ska count? I’ve seen Reel Big Fish live 16 times, I’ve seen The Cat Empire live 18 times. I’m a ska kid by instinct. I was a Warhammer kid growing up, that was my first experience… the closest experience I’ve had to going to a con like MFF, and I’ve been to Comic-Con, I’ve been to the dumb commercial video game E3 which doesn’t even really count as a corporate thing. There was a Warhammer tournament that I entered and did all right in when I must have been 13-14, the time where a steam tank… It was fantastic, like that’s my finest work was the steam tank had a dragon head. Actually I think Warhammer is an interesting comparison to furries because it’s also a self-contained fandom.

I knew you’re a nerd, that’s amazing, I didn’t know all that. One more thing before we close: do you have any good animal jokes?

I have a terrible memory so anytime I ask to remember a joke my memory goes completely blank, I’ve never been able to successfully memorize a joke.

Hold that thought and come back to me later with it but thank you Nicky.

I’ll start messaging you animal jokes from now on.

It’s your job, deal. I’m actually on the way out, I’m going to World Goth Day. I’m going to see some goth bands in my fursuit. It’s so exciting, it’s happening on a battleship.

Where is this battleship?

Alameda, California, a World War II battleship hosting a goth day.

Send me some pictures, I’ll send you some animal jokes, you got to send me some pictures from this party.

You got it, thank you we’ll talk later.

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