On March 27, 2015, Ben Fodor, a.k.a. Phoenix Jones, joined Jack Hitt onstage at the Institute Library in New Haven, Connecticut, as part of the ongoing series “Amateur Hour,” in which various tinkerers, zealots, and collectors discuss their obsessions. Jones is a twenty-seven-year-old welterweight mixed-martial-arts fighter and self-styled superhero who for the past several years has intervened in dozens of crimes on the streets of Seattle.The conversation that follows was recorded live and has been edited for brevity and meaning.
Jack Hitt: So Phoenix, let me just ask you this simple question: When was the last time you interrupted a criminal event?
Phoenix Jones: One forty-seven this afternoon.
Tell us about it.
First, I’m sorry we’re late. We were filling out police reports. We were out this afternoon and Jack was showing me around, and we see this guy sit down in the middle of a crowd, stand up, and then swing his backpack at this other guy. So the guy starts running across the street, and I follow him. And as I get closer I can see his face is bleeding, and he looks like he’s maybe bleeding under his arm as well. So I ask him, “What’s wrong?” And he goes, “I just got jumped by four guys.”
I have this backpack that I carry pretty much everywhere. So I dropped the backpack, pulled out the bulletproof vest, threw it on, and went across the street after these four guys. We called the police, made sure there were no more altercations, and the police came. I don’t know if they were able to get a witness statement and figure out who the suspect was. I don’t think they arrested him.
My side of the story is this: We were walking down the street and Phoenix says, “There’s a crime happening right now.” And I see this guy dashing across the street, but it just looks like a guy trying to avoid traffic. It wasn’t until I tuned in that I realized that he’s got a mouth full of blood. But you were tuned in to it a good several seconds before any of us were. How do you do that? How did you even know that was happening?
Well, there are certain things you have to look for. If you see a group of guys standing, and all of their shoes are pointed toward one person, that’s a bad sign. If you’re out and you’re looking for a drug dealer or a criminal or a suspect of some kind, normally the guy that everyone’s shoes are pointed toward is the first guy you want to look at. Also, there’s no good reason that any dude is ever going to sit down in the middle of a circle of other dudes. The other thing is, we’re predators—we only go forward, that’s our job. So when a guy’s backpedaling, there’s got to be a reason for it. And normally what overrides being a predator is fear.
It was just all those together didn’t seem right. When I walk up and down the street, I scan for different things, and anytime I see someone facing the wrong direction, a person with a shirt off, people’s shoes facing one direction, a guy bleeding from his face—you’ve just got to notice it.
How you pick up on these clues is really part of the magic of being a superhero, especially in this costume you’re wearing.
Well, it’s a supersuit. There’s a difference. I’m a weird stickler for that. A costume is what you buy at Target, and it’s made out of nylon or mesh. A supersuit is something that actually provides protection and enhances your abilities. D3O, for instance: It’s a special material. The harder you hit it, the harder it reflexes back. So touch it really slow and you can push it, no problem. But hit it as hard as you think you can without breaking your hand. The suit’s going to give you back whatever you give.
The suit also includes an armadillo-like bulletproof plate over the abdomen, made out of what’s called Dragon Skin—small plates laid on top of each other. Because it’s so thin, the impact spreads out, kind of like a baseball mitt. That’s how it stops a bullet, through deflection. So you’ll probably break your ribs, but you won’t die. Every time I’ve been shot while wearing one, it’s been great.
You have a utility belt, too, right?
Absolutely. I’ve got a bunch of different things on it—medical kits, weapons. I’ve got a PhaZZer, which is like a Taser but with different attachments for the front. I’ve got a rubber-ball launcher, a pepper-ball launcher, and I’ve got these cool little fish-tracking darts, which hit people and track their location.
But while we’re here being honest, I have to confess that when I first started fighting crime, it was all about what I’d seen in the movies. I went out and I got a bunch of stuff that was stupid. And I got hurt real bad. I had a net gun, used to net small rodents and animals. It’ll catch a person, but it’s designed to be set stationary and launched with a remote. And the reason for that is because, if you’re chasing a criminal, i.e. me, and you’re running at super–warp speed and you pop this net gun out—bwow! The time I used it, it opened up and blew backward and netted me. I get all rolled up in this thing. And you know those teeny irrigation ditches on the side of the road that are three inches of water and like four feet deep? I landed face down in one with my arms stuck. And I’m drowning in three inches of water. I’m rolling side to side and blowing bubbles trying to get out. The criminal sees me, runs back, and I’m thinking I’m about to get beat up, and he tilts me on my side and is like, “Yo, I’m not going to jail for murder.” He takes the money out of my wallet, throws the wallet at me, and he goes, “Maybe being a superhero’s not your thing.” Then he puts the cash in his wallet and takes off.
And it was this weird moment where I felt incredibly ashamed and embarrassed. And it hit me. I was like, That’s what I’ve got to do, I’ve got to embarrass criminals. And that’s when I got the YouTube videos out. I started thinking, Imagine what a criminal would look like being caught by me. So every criminal I caught after that, I’d catch him and I’d go, “You know what, maybe crime’s just not your thing.”
And by the way, I eventually got to arrest that guy who took my cash. The good thing about criminals is that they always give you a second chance. They keep doing the same stuff in the same area with the same MO.
So how often do you go out looking to stop crime?
Between Thursday and Sunday. I like to think I’m a weekend superhero. Monday and Tuesday I like to hang out at home with my kids. The problem is that I run into crime in my everyday life, and I have this weird obligation. The idea of being a superhero was the idea of telling my kids that you don’t have to see bad things and do nothing. So it sucks, because for consistency, I’m forced to fight crime whenever I see it. So I’ve stopped more crimes out of my suit than I have in my suit at this point.
What advice would you give regular people? If we saw crime, what should we do besides dial 911?
Don’t go fight crime. In no way does Phoenix Jones want you to go out there and actually attempt to fight crime. What you should do is take stock of your life and say these are the things that I’m good at. Do whatever you’re good at, be the best at it, and make sure you use it to help other people around you. But please don’t go get a rubber suit and fight crime. One, I’ll be less special. And two, you’ll get hurt.
So how do you find crime?
It’s really simple. You go against everything that your mind tells you to do. For instance, what’s a place in Connecticut where you shouldn’t hang out?
What time of day would you not want to go?
Midnight on a Saturday.
Perfect. So you just taught me how to fight some crime. When I’m here, I’m going to Bridgeport on Saturday at midnight with a bunch of my buddies. But that’s how you find crime. You go to a neighborhood, ask everybody where they should not be. Figure that place out. Go there in broad daylight, memorize the streets, locate where everything is, so that when you’re running frantically in the middle of the night, you know where you are. Get about five of your buddies, get some bulletproof gear, get a camera so that you don’t get sued. Get insurance.
You have insurance?
Absolutely. I’ve been sued twenty-seven times, and no one’s won yet.
When you go out, do you go out alone looking for crime? How does it happen?
I have a team of guys. I’ve gone out alone, but I usually try to keep a team of like three or four guys, plus my girlfriend. Two guys will normally be without superhero suits. They will walk a grid and radio in when they see crime. Then we’ll roll in and we have actual plays and a system that we do to take down the average crime that we’ll see.
What’s the basic crime you’re talking about—robbery?
Yes: one-suspect robbery, two-suspect robbery; pickpocket snatch, pickpocket hide. A pickpocket snatch is a guy who will run by and grab a purse and run. In Washington State, you have to have a victim; we can’t just go tackle that dude, because if we don’t find the woman whose purse is missing, we’re going to jail. A pickpocket hide is where the suspect will grab something, someone else will walk by—carrying a suitcase or a book or an open bag—and the suspect will drop the stolen item into that bag. We can’t go after the third party, the person with the bag, because they could have no knowledge of what just happened. We basically have to try to make them screw up and prove that they have knowledge of the theft. So we trick them. We’ll point at them and go, “He’s the one who took it!” And the guy will bolt, which basically admits he knows. Smart guys will just keep walking. Then there’s a violent pickpocket, which is like a pickpocket disarm. They’ll show up with a knife. Those guys are open season. There’s a law called—those are my favorite—“Equal Escalation.” So we’re allowed to attack you with equal escalated force. So if that guy shows up with a knife, we can instantly Taser him, or use the baton.
Going back to your team—is this like an Avengers kind of thing?
I wish it was that cool. It started off with just me and four of my buddies. We all were martial artists, and we were doing it the wrong way and being completely illegal. We’d basically go out, beat up drug dealers and criminals, duct-tape them to something, and run away. That was the whole thing. But as it progressed, we started getting a reputation, and then the police put out flyers with pictures from security cams looking for us. So we needed to figure out a way to do it correctly. At that point, the other guys bailed out. The fun part was beating people up and handcuffing them. Now we had rules. So they left. The guys who ended up being interested were kind of overweight, middle-aged comic-book nerds who wanted to wear incredibly impractical outfits. I took the best of the worst of the comic-book nerds, didn’t let them wear spandex, and we went out there with what we had.
Do they have superhero names?
When you join the team, you get a color, and you’re that color for a year. Then we vote, decide whether we like you or not. The problem is that halfway through this yearlong process of hanging out with dudes in the rain and rubber suits, you already get a nickname, and it’s hard to get rid of them after that.
At one point, when I was hiring new people, this one guy shows up. He’s got a duckbill mask on and these little feathers and this utility belt with all these balloons on it. He’s like, “The Platypus reporting for duty, sir. When do we start?” I told him, “Well, we’re going to go on a basic patrol tonight once we figure out what’s in your balloons.” He says, “Oh, can’t tell you. It’s a top-secret toxic weapon.” We’re like, “Yeah, that’s not going to happen.” The last thing I’m going to do is get charged with weapons of mass destruction. So I say, “Fine, then you can’t come with us.” And he says, “Okay, I’ll tell you. Come close. A week ago I got this idea about how to repel crime, and I urinated in all these balloons.” I said, “Well, you’re fired.” He rips the duckbill off and throws it on the ground and goes, “Aw, come on, man! You know how hard it was to pee in all these balloons?” That was the last open casting we had.
Is there a Phoenixmobile?
There was at one point, and then I got divorced, and the Phoenixmobile went with the divorce. It was a yellow Mustang. Really, really nice.
How did this start? When you started, you obviously didn’t have this outfit.
I was at a water park with my son and his cousin, and we’re running back to my car and my son falls down. I pick him up and he’s been cut on his knee, gushing blood everywhere. Somebody had broken into my car, and glass was all over the place. I dialed 911, the medics showed up, and they took my son to the hospital because he’d been cut pretty badly.
The next day I called the police to file a report, and because I’d left the scene, the police couldn’t file it. I called my insurance company, but they couldn’t do anything without a police report. I started getting mad, and my son’s cousin was like, “What are you going to do? If someone stole my toy, I’d get it back.” It’s seven-year-old logic, right? And I sat there for a little bit, and I thought, You know, I should be sort of like Casey Jones from the Ninja Turtles, and just go out there and right wrongs. And I started joking about it with a friend who was a film student, who finally said, “Why don’t we do that? There’s got to be publicly accessible street cams. Let’s go figure this out.” We dug through seventy hours of street-cam footage and finally figured out who this guy was. We pulled up police reports and realized that he had been breaking into multiple cars in that parking lot. So then we’re like, “We know exactly what we need—a ski mask, duct tape, and a Kia! Let’s go!”
We’re hanging out in this Kia waiting for this guy, and he literally comes down and breaks into another car—in the same parking lot, on the same day of the weekend. We’re talking like three months later. So we chase this guy into the woods. There was an altercation that takes place. And then—how to say this?—he punches himself and tapes himself to a tree.
After that we took all the money out of his wallet, bought cheeseburgers, and gave them out to homeless people around the city. And instead of just letting it be over, it kept escalating. We kept doing more and more until it became a thing where I needed an entire bulletproof suit and a legal team to figure out how to do this the right way. We started off with just a blue unitard, a hat that looked Count Chocula-ish—it was super weird, sort of like Breaking Bad—and a sock I had cut and tied around my face. It was super corny.
There have been these Hall of Justice sort of collections of superheroes, right?
Absolutely. There are teams in different cities that do this. But I like to go with straight numbers: There are 277 arrests that are provable by superheroes. Three of them are by guys I trained in Seattle. There are five that are unaccounted for, and two by superheroes from a different group. The rest of them are mine.
We’re talking about just Seattle?
No, we’re talking across the country.
So you go out with a video camera?
Yes. The videotaping started so we wouldn’t get sued, but that didn’t really help. We still got sued.
But you have proof of how the interaction starts, right?
Of course. It’s always better to have it around. When you go to court dressed in your rubber suit, you’re not the most credible witness. Especially when I started out—I wouldn’t tell them my real identity. Because it’s a part of my religion to not have to reveal my mask. I only have to tell my name to the prosecuting attorney, but they do not have to reveal my name publicly. So I would be Phoenix Jones. I would wear my mask because of my religious right. Pretty much every prosecuting attorney thought I was nuts. The video became really helpful.
How did you reveal your true identity?
I got arrested for supposedly pepper spraying people unjustly, which wasn’t true. It was a huge street fight, and the video proved it. And then I got in a fight in jail, so they tried to extend my time. Because, I mean, they didn’t get it. You put me in jail? It’s perfect. I don’t have to go look for the criminals—they’re right there! This is the best day ever! So anyway, I get thrown in jail and the district attorney says, “You know, if you want to play games, I’ll reveal your identity.” Which was dumb because he should know that every superhero wantsto reveal their identity. They don’t want to be anonymous behind a mask. Some part of putting on a rubber suit is egomania. At that point, I just acted sad, walked outside to all the reporters who were there, ripped my mask off and revealed myself, Iron Man-style, as Ben Fodor. And it was the coolest thing I’ve ever done. At that point, people gave me money, which I used to buy a better superhero suit and bulletproof gear.
So are you a mild-mannered something by day?
I teach autistic kids by day. Then I do professional fighting—mixed martial arts. It’s kind of like a human cockfight. They lock two dudes in a cage and most of the rules go.