Amanda Cater hears her laughing. She hears her name. She is struggling as the fourth anniversary approaches.
But she doesn’t see any sign the Faster Horses Festival Organizers, promoters or performers empathize or are concerned.
“My daughter is gone and it’s just a faint memory (to them),” said Cater, whose only child, 19-year-old Makayla Hostetler of Masondied in 2018 when a vehicle struck her as she walked, sober with friends, to a campground after the final concert on the last night of the Faster Horses country music festival in 2018.
“Nobody really cares.”
Four more people have since died at the massive three-day event, which draws an estimated 40,000 revelers to Michigan International Speedway each summer. Six people died there in total since 2013.
“They pretend they don’t exist,” Cater said.
Faster Horses returns this year July 22-24. Headliners include superstars Morgan Wallen, Eric Church and Tim McGraw.
Despite a deadly 2021 festival and an MLive investigation uncovering 91 assaults and 30 criminal sexual conduct reports throughout the eight years of the festival, the 2022 “party of the summer” will proceed with a few reforms. “We are so hyped about this lineup!” Faster Horses recently posted on social media along with ample sunny photos of women in bikinis and tank tops.
At last year’s Faster Horses, three high school football teammates, Dawson Brown, 20, William Richie Mays Jr., 20, and Kole Sova, 19, died of carbon monoxide exposure in a camping trailer at the Junction campground. Two other men, Rayfield Johnson II and Kurtis Stitt, were critically injured but survived. A generator was attached to the tongue area and exhausting under the trailer, police reported.
Melissa Havens, 30, was found dead hours earlier on the infield campground of what was later determined to be “complications of obesity.” Marijuana and alcohol use contributed.
Faster Horses enlarged the campsites at Junction, southwest of the track and across Brooklyn Highway near US 12, and Northwoods and Northfield, just north of Junction.
“New larger campsites!” boasts the Faster Horses website.
In 2021, they were 20 feet by 40 feet at Junction and 20 feet by 30 feet at Northfield and Northwoods, according to information posted in March 2021 on the Faster Horses website. This year, they are 20 feet by 60 feet or 24 feet by 50 feet at Junction and 20 feet by 60 feet at Northfield and Northwoods.
There are about 17 other campgrounds on the infield of and surrounding the racetrack. Based on a comparison of camping information posted in 2021 and now, campsites at the other campgrounds remain the same size.
The reason for the change is unclear. Neither Live Nation nor MIS responded to questions about the decision.
In a lawsuit filed in April, Johnson, Stitt and the families of Brown, Mays and Sova allege MIS and Live Nation negligently caused and required recreational vehicles to use the campsites in the “very close proximity” of one another and against Michigan campground regulations. They did not monitor or supervise, putting “the overcrowded campsite area in an unsafe and unreasonably dangerous condition” and making it dangerous for campers to use generators.
Efforts to speak about the lawsuit with Johnson, Stitt and the families of the three men who died were unsuccessful. Relatives of Brown, Mays and Sova declined to comment.
All campsites this year are sold out except the VIP area, according to Faster Horses’ website.
Is Faster Horses making any changes for 2022?
MLive reached out multiple times to multiple sources from Faster Horses, Live Nation and Michigan International Speedway to see if any safety improvements were made for this year’s festival. None responded for comment.
Binge and underage drinking – often one in the same – and reports of sexual assault have been ongoing issues at Faster Horses, where partying permeates the concert and campout atmosphere.
Five police agencies are tasked with maintaining safety in the campgrounds and concert venue.
MLive reached out to all five – the Cambridge Township Police Department, Jackson and Lenawee county sheriff’s offices, Michigan State Police and Columbia Township Police Department – for details about how they intend to patrol during the 2022 event, or changes they have in store.
None revealed significant changes from years past. State police do plan to deploy bike-riding troopers and undercover detectives on festival grounds.
“Tactical Bike Team and detective troopers in plain clothes are scheduled for this event,” said MSP spokesperson Lt. Brian Oleksyk. “Our Tactical Bike Team can respond quickly to an incident, if needed, and our Detective Troopers will be able to be amongst the crowds and able to provide intelligence, if needed.”
Law enforcement and other emergency personnel use an on-site trailer that acts as the operations hub, allowing for centralized communication and regular debriefings. But police incident data, such as arrests or crime reports, are not compiled or summarized, but kept by the independent agencies.
Law enforcement works closely with Live Nation organizers, but they’re “not here to appease them,” Paterson said. “We’re here to provide the best safety we can for that festival.
“We meet with the sheriff’s departments of two counties, we meet with state police and we put our assets together and come up with a plan. We adjust and add different things each year. This year is no different.”
Paterson declined to reveal what this year’s adjustments might be.
“We’ve already had plain-clothes officers in the crowd in the past,” the police chief said. “But we’re going to add to that a little bit.”
Past events have included a focus on underage drinking with minors required to wear wristbands indicating they are not of legal age to consume alcohol. Police will perform ID checks and monitor liquor sales in the venue, Paterson said. The department increased the focus on underage drinking in 2017 and created a special unit focused heavily on rooting out the problem.
Despite special police patrols focused on thwarting underage drinking, Paterson said cops issued zero minor-in-possession tickets in 2021. He attributed enforcement reductions to increased related to the issue.
Paterson said police pay special attention to “vulnerable subjects,” in some cases women who are intoxicated, lost or otherwise in trouble.
Among the reported sexual assault cases MLive reviewed as part of its 2021 investigation, the overwhelming majority of cases involved alcohol.
“We have officers keeping an eye out, making sure nobody is wandering where they shouldn’t be,” Paterson said. “If they need any assistance, we’ll provide the assistance, if it’s getting them back to their campsite or if it’s providing them the ability to contact family … we’ll do what we can.”
Paterson said there will also be increased public safety announcements specifically related to carbon monoxide risks, referencing the three young men who died from carbon monoxide caused by a generator in 2021.
“We’ll be reminding people of that type of problem,” Paterson said. “We’ve done that in the past, too.”
COVID-19 posed a new safety issue for the festival in 2021. The festival resulted in at least 111 known cases of COVID, including 94 people who attended the festival and 17 of their contacts, per the state health department.
One of the secondary cases required hospitalization. There were no COVID deaths traced to the festival.
Faster Horses announced a change in February to reduce the COVID risk at its 2022 festival. The festival said all attendees would need to prove they’ve been vaccinated or show proof of a negative COVID test in the 72 hours prior to the event. At-home tests wouldn’t be allowed, per the website, but the festival would test people onsite for $50.
The page explaining the COVID protocols has since been removed from the Faster Horses website. But festival officials refuse to say if the protocols are still in place or if they’ve been nixed.
‘It’s all about the money’
Not only did Faster Horses organizers dodge questions about accountability, but the artists involved in the show also didn’t want to talk about safety at the event.
MLive reached out to 14 artists scheduled to perform at Faster Horses this year, through their management or record labels. They were asked about festival-goer safety, especially in regard to women and revelations that sexual assault has been prevalent during past events. None responded.
Despite the festival’s checked past, the big names are back and the tickets are hot.
Hostetler’s grandmother, Susan Cater, said it seems this year the festival drew even greater stars, Tim McGraw in particular.
“I saw it, and I was like, ‘Oh, gosh.’ It seems like it got more popular.”
She believes Faster Horses should be made safer and more secure, though she isn’t certain of the ways. She suggested better screening of volunteers or hired security personnel. She noted the B-93.7 Birthday Bash, once a weekend-long country concert event at the Ionia Free Fairgrounds, is now a one-day event at LMCU Ballpark, the minor league baseball field near Grand Rapids.
“I’d like to see that happen to Faster Horses.”
She said organizers chose not to make changes. Take away a day or two, and beverage and camping sales would decrease, she said.
“It’s about the money.” It’s all about the money.”
Havens’ sister, Theresa Havens of Croswell, near Port Huron, doesn’t even have expectations of change. “They are not gonna,” said Theresa, who takes care of Melissa Havens’ young daughter, entering first grade this fall.
Amanda Cater would like to protest, but she has to work. She has keep her life together. “And it’s hard.”
She hopes she is wrong, but she fears another tragedy in 2022.
“Something is gonna happen this year,” she said. “I guarantee it.”
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