MIAMI—On Saturday night, shortly after Miami Beach Police used pepper balls to force out thousands of vacationers jubilantly violating a new curfew, a literal Joker remained close to the city’s signature Ocean Drive, soaking in the mayhem.
As the partying hordes crossed onto Washington Avenue, the shirtless white man with slick, green-dyed hair leapt from the bed of a pick-up truck while two young women twerked triumphantly atop the hood. “Wooooo!” he bellowed. “We’re still out here! Fuck the curfew!”
The man with face warpaint resembling Heath Ledger’s version of the Clown Prince of Crime had already gone viral earlier in the day with an Only In Miami moment. A video depicting him on top of a black car, ferociously waving an American flag in one hand and throwing up a wad of cash with the other, eventually made its way from social media to late-night talk show monologues this week.
“COVID is over baby!” he crowed. “Fuck that shit!”
The dual spectacles perfectly captured the collision between pandemic trutherism and the unbridled hedonism of Spring Break in South Beach, where elected officials and law enforcement are struggling under a comically COVID-skeptical governor. Only a month ago, at a large, annual indoor gathering of conservatives, Gov. Ron DeSantis proclaimed Florida an "oasis of freedom in a nation that is suffering from the yoke of oppressive lockdowns.” He has notoriously refused to enact a mask mandate, and even barred localities from enforcing their own rules just so he can stick it to "the elites."
Still, fear of a weeks-long superspreader event, coupled with waves of violence involving street brawls, shootings, and a deadly rape, led the Miami Beach City Commission to extend an emergency curfew enacted this past weekend until mid-April. It’s being enforced from Thursday to Sunday, the prime partying days of the week.
Meanwhile, police have fulfilled Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber's promise to lock up visitors getting faded in public and acting a fool.
Between Feb. 3 and March 21, there have been 1,050 arrests in Miami Beach’s Art Deco Historic District, where Ocean Drive is located. More than half of the busts were for minor crimes such as consuming alcohol and drugs in public, obstruction, and resisting arrest without violence, according to police.
But it’s going to take a lot more than the city's annual Spring Break police state to combat the disinformation and conspiracy theories personified by the self-styled Joker. In phone interviews with The Daily Beast, he scoffed at COVID-19 restrictions, hailed DeSantis for keeping the Sunshine State open for most of the pandemic, and falsely claimed vaccinations are part of a global mind-control experiment.
“We were invited to come down here by the governor,” the wannabe influencer told The Daily Beast.
“When it comes to COVID and the guidelines, it’s all a joke. It’s all propaganda,” he added, falsely, referring to a disease that has killed nearly 550,000 Americans.
In a rapid-fire baritone voice, he jumped from one conspiracy theory to the next, falsely claiming the government is altering U.S. currency to create a volatile market and that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doctors have admitted masks don’t really help stop the spread of the coronavirus—two claims that are easily debunked.
“It will be a New World Order,” he said. “I want to be part of the revolution in a positive way. When I yelled ‘COVID is over,’ I was definitely serious about it.”
Of course, reality begs to differ. Three Florida counties where tourists tend to congregate—including Miami-Dade, where Miami Beach is located—experienced an increase in daily positive coronavirus tests last week after several weeks of declining positivity rates, according to the Miami Herald. The jump in cases appears to be a result of rising infections among people aged 25-49, who are still not eligible to receive vaccines under the criteria approved by DeSantis. Florida is also the nation’s ground zero for most cases involving new coronavirus variants.
Spreading disinformation to throngs of out-of-town visitors and online viewers will only prolong the pandemic and make it harder to convince groups already skeptical about getting vaccines, infectious-disease experts say. But they concede that aside from pushing social media platforms to crack down on users who spread false information and ramping up public-relations campaigns to combat conspiracy theories, there’s not much that can be done to stop a man dressed up as a comic book villain from wreaking epidemiological havoc.
“We live in an age where everyone has opinions and those opinions can be easily shared,” Dr. Marissa Levine, an epidemiology professor at the University of South Florida, said. “It is very unfortunate, because I think we could have done better to prevent a lot of the [disinformation] if there had been more cohesive coordination between local, state, and federal governments.”
DeSantis has fomented doubt by constantly undermining science-based facts, such as the reality that wearing masks reduces the risk of being infected, Levine added. “If you flout the science and the evidenced-based approaches that work, you undermine public trust,” she said. “It doesn’t do anyone well to be a political leader who talks in a divisive manner.”
Spokespeople for DeSantis did not respond to email requests for comment for this story.
Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Health Association, suggested this particular influencer’s trutherism reflected a broader mistrust of the health-care system by Americans, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. “It is extraordinarily dangerous,” Benjamin told The Daily Beast. “There are a great deal of people out there who just don’t know or want to understand the safety and efficacy of the vaccines. The real tragedy is that the political leadership from the governor is encouraging people to come and party. This is foolish.”
The man known as Miami Joker is the embodiment of that foolishness.
His comic-book villain turn appears to have begun last year, early on during the pandemic when he split with the mother of his son, he said. At the time, he added, they were living with her grandparents in Bakersfield, California.
“The stress of the pandemic gave her some reason to break ties with me,” the green-haired truther explained. “Our relationship ended and I decided to start traveling. I took on the persona of the Joker to protest COVID restrictions and lockdowns.”
During an initial phone interview, he declined to reveal his true identity and said he goes by Lace, his nom de guerre on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok. He said he currently works as a muralist, event promoter, and a video editor. He also has rapper aspirations, and his Instagram feed is populated with videos of him spitting bars and hanging out with other aspiring emcees.
“I am a content producer trying to be an influencer,” he said. “I am documenting Spring Break for the American people so they can see that it is open down here and there is a place for you to lose yourself.”
A search of public records databases and social media accounts connected him to a 34-year-old Chicago man named Kyle Mrzena. A LinkedIn account associated with that name describes a “versatile, driven manager with a talent for hospitality management and a focus on exceptional customer service.”
During a second phone conversation, the Joker confirmed he was Mrzena.
Among other highlights on his career history: Mrzena said he “acted as an undercover boss to uncover stealing and schemes causing profit loss” at a Chicago-area seafood restaurant. Meanwhile, in his home city, public health officials are warning that cases involving younger adults are going up toward the danger zone that emerged during a second surge in October, the Chicago Tribune reported.
“Yeah that’s me,” he said when confronted with his legal name. “I don’t give out my name to protect myself from identity theft from people I don’t know. But obviously, you can find who I am if you search the internet.”
Over the past year, he’s flown seven times and observed airport and airline workers not following CDC guidelines that they enforce on passengers, like making people keep their masks on during a flight, Mrzena claimed. “It’s all wishy washy,” he said. “No one wants to put the rules in stone that they claim they are following.”
His travels took him to Memphis, Tennessee, where he alleges that Black residents threatened him with violence because he was painting Black Lives Matter murals. “I was trying to create positive artwork for the community,” he said. “When I would speak to business owners and community ambassadors, they didn’t support it.”
There is vanishingly little evidence of Black people in Memphis opposing the modern-day civil rights movement. In fact, locals held social justice protests in the city for a month after Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd.
Before arriving in Miami in early March, Mrzena stayed for a few days in Orlando, where he was doing promotional work for the Mexican restaurant Senor Frogs, he said. “They were not following COVID guidelines at all,” he told The Daily Beast. “It was refreshing seeing people coming in to enjoy parties, doing Conga lines, and doing shots. It gave me a sense of normalcy.” On his Instagram account, one of his posts shows him hanging out at Senor Frogs, and nine out of 10 photos in the post show him and other patrons not wearing masks.
Martin Zuniga, general manager for the Orlando restaurant, said he saw the Joker come in a few times, but that the clown anti-vaxxer did not work there. “I said hi and bye to him, but I don’t know him personally,” Zuniga said. He declined to comment on the Joker’s claims about Senor Frogs not following guidelines.
Other Mrzena claims, such as his having allegedly been both a firefighter and cop in Chicago from 2003 and 2008, were even more wildly implausible. A Chicago Police spokeswoman said no one under that name was in the department's personnel records as either a current or former officer. A fire department spokesperson didn't respond to a request for comment.
Upon touching down in Miami Beach, Mrzena has been documenting himself turning up with Spring Breakers on Ocean Drive and surrounding streets. He had also posted a video of himself calling 911 and standing over a woman who had passed out on the street. He took the video down, but would not explain why he did so.
“I think I have helped 17 individuals out here for Spring Break, including guys, not just girls,” Mrzena said, adding that he doesn’t drink alcohol or do drugs. “I have called ambulances and I helped carry some people to their rooms.”
As the vaccine rollout augurs a return to something resembling sane, post-coronavirus normalcy, the coronavirus comic book villain—who said he had not previously caught COVID-19, nor been sick for more than a year—was digging in his heels.
“They are guinea piggying us,” Mrzena said of vaccines known to be safe and effective, before offering what might have been the most clearly factual thing to come out of his mouth this month.
“I am willing to risk my health for a good time.”