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12.06.10

Meet the Superhero Vigilantes

A group of costumed amateur crime-fighters is working to make the streets of Seattle safe for the public. Who are these masked men? Winston Ross rides along on their patrol to find out.

It is just after 4 p.m. on a drizzly weekday in Lake Forest Park, Washington, where I'm waiting for the self-appointed Guardian of Seattle to take me out for some crime-fighting.

We have already discussed the rules via blocked cell phone calls. After we climb into the second-story window of a crack house, a condemned building in the city's Chinatown, I am to at all times walk only when flanked by two superheroes to the front, and two to the back. I may only enter a room after it has been "cleared." Cameras are not only tolerated but welcome, so long as I promise to delete any photographs that reveal the superheroes' license plates or, worse, their faces, should masks get ripped off in a scuffle with scofflaws.

This is what it takes to roll with Phoenix Jones and the Rain City Superhero Movement, a band of 9 rotating self-proclaimed superheroes who have been patrolling Seattle just about every night for the past few months, doing battle with the city's criminal element. (Jones, to be very clear, is not his real name.)

But first, the rendezvous. I'm to wait at the circular tables outside the bookstore so that one of Jones' sidekicks can make sure this isn't an ambush. Some recent local media attention has resulted in a few strange attempts to harm Jones by people pretending to be reporters but who turn out to be bad guys, seeking retribution because he's busted them earlier.

Once I'm deemed harmless, a filthy white Kia sedan pulls up, an African-American man wearing a ski mask behind the wheel. There is a toddler in a baby carrier in the back seat. The baby will not be fighting crime with us tonight, Jones says. But he does have his own mask.

The car hasn't been washed in over a year, Jones explains on the way to "Base 2" (his godmother's house) because there's a blood stain on it that reminds him why he decided to don cape and cowl in the first place.

The blood is from Jones' older son. The two were walking back to the Kia through a parking lot at the Wild Waves amusement park in Federal Way last summer when Jones saw that his car window had been smashed. As the pair ran to investigate, the boy slipped on the broken glass and cut his knee so badly that blood spurted out of it, all over the car. Jones asked bystanders to call for help. No one did.

The boy survived, but Jones' faith in humanity was bruised. A few weeks later, one of his friends was beaten up at a nightclub, and while running after the assailants Jones came across a ski mask they'd tossed in the bushes. He picked up the mask, turned it over in his hand, and realized what he had to do. He would fight crime on the rain-slicked streets of Seattle.

"To be a police officer, there's so much red tape," Jones says. "It would hinder my ability to fight crime."

Jones, not surprisingly, is a huge comic book fan. He's got the latest edition of "Love and Bullets" in a red plastic bag next to the taser that is disguised as a cell phone in the Kia's console. He identifies with the main character, Nightwing, because he doesn't always prevail in a fight, and he actually gets hurt. Since he became a part-time superhero, Jones has faced down skinheads wearing brass knuckles, disarmed people wielding screwdrivers as weapons, chased down a man firing a gun in the air, and stopped one homeless man from stabbing another.

Jones has avoided any real injury thus far, but his notoriety recently required a costume change. His first outfit was a $10 set of long johns from Wal-Mart, worn underneath a pair of shorts from his mixed martial arts studio. (Jones is an amateur fighter by day.) He cut up an old sock and made it into a mask, taped up his hands, added a fedora, and borrowed a cape from his son's Halloween costume. The cape, he's unashamed to admit, did not reach his waist.

"I think it's wonderful that he's fulfilling his civic duties," Jones' godmother tells me via cell phone.

The new costume is far superior, but I'll get to see that after he stops by Base 2 to check the "tipline" (his Facebook page) to see if anyone needs help. Jones scrolls through a list of messages. There are interview requests from local TV stations, and offers to help from his growing number of fans, including one who offers Jones the use of his 4X4 truck and "purple belt, almost brown" jujitsu skills. And of course, there are a few choice pieces of hate mail from the superhero's assorted nemeses. One of them, a "real life super villain" known as "The Mole," tries to reveal Jones' secret identity later that night by posting it and his address and phone number on his wall. Jones insists The Mole got it wrong, but threatens on his Facebook page to "take him down."

I'm surprised to learn that Jones' detractors ("haters") aren't just people pissed off that he's trying to keep Seattle safe. He's also become something of an outcast among the superhero community.

What, you didn't know about the superhero community? There are hundreds of them, says Peter Tangen, who is a sort of unofficial spokesman for the Real Life Super Hero movement (RLSH), which has been growing steadily over the last few years.

Tangen is not a superhero himself, which is why we get to know his true identity, but he photographs them for the group's web site [www.reallifesuperheroes.com], and boasts that he personally knows more than 100 superheroes around the globe. They're concerned about Jones' tactics, Tangen explains, because he flirts with vigilantism and seems to court the media.

"He's definitely a showman," Tangen said. "Trying to get famous."

Jones is mostly polite with the RLSH members who criticize him, but he makes no apologies for his approach. The real-life superheroes mostly hand out food to homeless people, he reports scornfully. Superheroes are supposed to take down criminals. "They can keep feeding homeless people with sandwiches," Jones says. "Leave the crime to me."

At Base 2, he meets up with two members of the Rain City Superhero Movement: D-Day, a lanky construction worker in his early twenties, and Buster Doe, so named because he once refused to identify himself as anything other than "Buster" in a confrontation with police, so the cops wrote down "Buster Doe" in their report.

Doe is the electrical expert, a skill he demonstrates by producing a disposable Kodak camera he has fashioned into a taser. He is also uncannily good at guessing what time it is without looking at a watch. The three are a goofy group of adolescents, each having overcome a different vice on their road to superhero-dom. Jones is a former gambling addict. Buster Doe has done more than his fair share of all manner of drugs. D-Day used to drink too much alcohol, though today his drug of choice is NyQuil. He's recovering from a bad cold.

As his sidekicks suit up, Jones spreads out his costume on his mom's dining room table. It is made of chicken wire and neoprene, and was donated to Jones by a fan. Once Jones affixes a small headlamp to the cowl, he's "super'ed up," so we pile back into the Kia, the three superheroes passing a bag of Chex Mix, a Justin Bieber song playing on a mix CD in the stereo. We head to Jones' girlfriend's house, where Jones points out his failed attempts at converting mopeds into a hero-mobile.

"I like it," the girlfriend says of Jones' crime-fighting. "It keeps him out of trouble."

But there's a problem. D-Day has consumed the entire bottle of NyQuil and passed out on the floor. He's out for the crack house mission, and with only one more superhero in Jones' crew available for the evening—"Troop"—there isn't enough manpower to ensure it's safe. We head for the University District instead. They offer me a ski mask. I politely decline. We hit the streets. It's quiet tonight. Too quiet? But within minutes, Jones and his crew have their first encounter, just down the street from the Varsity Theatre.

"What character is that?" a drunk college kid yells out, inches from Jones' cowl.

"I'm not a character," he fires back, smiling. "I fight crime. My name is Phoenix Jones."

Seconds later, the two are engaged in a freestyle rap battle. Buster Doe is beat-boxing. And then we're off again.

"Do a backflip off the stairs!" yells out another blotto student from across the street. A middle-aged woman pulls up in a station wagon and rolls down the window. "Are you guys superheroes?" she asks. Some wasted sorority girls cry out: "Ssssssuuuuuperherooooes! Will you walk us home?"

Mostly, the group's encounters are like this, with fans, many of whom already know who Phoenix Jones is. He says this kind of public relations is a big part of the work.

"We can't be everywhere at once," Jones says, "but we can certainly inspire people to stop crime everywhere."

They walk and walk and walk, nary a crime in sight. The frustrating thing about crime-fighting is, there's not so much trouble in a place like Seattle that you can reasonably expect to stumble upon it every night. Jones insists that a lack of action is a good thing, but he's clearly looking for it, in parking lots, down dark alleys, in groups of unruly kids. The trio walks past an officer parked in his squad car, shakes hands and makes chit-chat. As he's walking away, the cop says, "I like having you guys out here." That perspective varies from officer to officer. Some see Jones as a nuisance, others a boon.

"You can be a crime fighter," Seattle Police Det. Mark Jamieson told me earlier that day. "You don't have to dress up in a costume. A guy comes running up to you in a ski mask, 'superhero' probably is not going to be the first thing that comes to mind."

In fact, only a few weeks ago, Jones and his crew pulled up to a gas station, masks on, looking only to fuel up the Kia. A bystander thought the group was there to rob the gas station and called the cops. Whether Jones helps more than he hurts is a debate that can only be answered in time. In some ways, he and his crew are more hall monitors than superheroes. If nothing else, they hand the cops probable cause on a silver platter. If they report that they saw somebody peddling drugs, that's all the Seattle police need to justify a search. Jones fills out police reports and testifies in court. The cops know his real identity, but allow him to use the superhero moniker in court.

"To be a police officer, there's so much red tape," Jones says. "It would hinder my ability to fight crime."

Which is why Buster Doe rips off his mask and karate gi towards the end of the night after the crew spots a group of shady looking characters at a bus stop. He asks if they're selling anything, but they're only looking to buy.

The most dangerous encounter happens in a parking lot on Capitol Hill, after Jones cascades down a ramp towards a couple of parked cars with thugs mingling around them, to investigate whether they're doing anything shady. I keep my distance, but the minivan I choose to lurk behind belongs to a different gang of drunk kids who arrive a few seconds later. They think I'm trying to break into their ride.

"You messing with my van, homie?" one of them says to me, his hand on what he's clearly trying to communicate is a weapon in his waistband.

I assure him I'm not, and realize I'm relieved that Phoenix Jones doesn't run into any real crime on our patrol. There's a reason, I've learned, that most real-life superheroes hand out sandwiches: fighting crime can get you killed.

Winston Ross is a reporter for the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon and a regular contributor to Newsweek.com.