A planned month-long Rainbow Gathering in the Apalachicola National Forest, the eighth such get-together of peace-loving vagabonds in as many years, was cut short violently in the early morning of March 5, when a simmering feud beside a campfire erupted in gunfire.
According to reports by eyewitnesses, 39-year-old Clark Mayers, 39, of Milledgeville, Georgia, angry the video camera he was using to record people burning tires was slapped from his hand into the flames, walked to his car, returned with a pistol and fired three shots into 24-year-old Wesley Jones, who goes by the name Dice.
Chris Ward, a Leesburg pastor who has ministered to Rainbow gatherings in the Ocala and Apalachicola national forests for the past 20 years, said Dice was shot three times in the back, lung, and spine, and remains paralyzed, in critical but stable condition, at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital.
A second Rainbow participant known as Smiley, Jacob Cardwell, from Golden Valley, Arizona, believed to be in his late 20s, then tried to calm the shooter, and was shot twice in the head, mortally wounded.
Capt. Chester Creamer, of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, who confirmed the shooter’s identity Monday, said Mayers was then beaten and stabbed repeatedly by some within the Rainbow gathering, and detained until sheriff’s deputies arrived at about 3:09 a.m., about 39 minutes after the initial 911 call. One reason for the response time was spotty cellphone reception in the area, and the remote spot near a boat landing at the end of Wright Lake Road, two miles south of Sumatra, where the gathering of about 300 to 350 was set to formally begin Saturday.
Rainbow Gatherings are annual meetings of the Rainbow Family of the Living Light, a loosely defined collection of people associated with hippie culture. The original Rainbow Gathering was in 1972, and has been replicated throughout the year, in regional gatherings, often in national forests.
On Friday morning, the U.S. Forest Service closed three portions of the national forest, including the area where the Rainbow Gathering had a permit to assemble, and asked people there to vacate the area.
Susan Blake, a public affairs specialist in Tallahassee, said the vacated areas were adjacent to where the gathering had its base camp - Wright Lake and Hickory Landing – which include an RV site at Wright Lake, and a primitive campground at Hickory Landing. Also closed was a cordoned-off area west of the Wright Lake campground, where Rainbows had a special use permit to conduct a seed camp between March 1 and 6, a gathering March 7 to 22, and clean-from March 23 to 30.
“Because that’s a crime scene, the permit is cancelled for the law enforcement investigation,” said Blake.
A third area, Moore Lake, which is near Silver Lake off of Highway 20, was also closed.
Blake said the decision was made after consultation among forest service personnel from the local, regional and Washington, D.C. offices.
Greg Beck, known as Forkman, a Tallahassee artist who secured the gathering’s required permits, said additional forest service officers were called in to assist. “They took a hard stance on the eviction,” he said.
He said a Rainbow prayer vigil lasted until sunset on Thursday, and that most dispersed from the forest when asked to on Friday. “This was going to bring family together like it never bonded them before,” said Beck. “It sucks and it’s tragic that it takes violent crime to bring that love out in people.”
He said at least a half-dozen eyewitness cooperated with investigators, for whom it took a few days to confirm each of the identities of the people involved. “These folks don’t have a lot of documentation on them,” Creamer said. “We have to do a lot of legwork on that.”
Beck said Mayers, whose Rainbow name is Zack, attended at least one national gathering, three such gatherings in Ocala, and the one last year in Apalachicola, which Rainbows refer to as the A’cola Gathering. He remains hospitalized at TMH, his room monitored by a sheriff’s deputy as a security precaution.
Creamer said the federal prosecutor and a representative of the state’s attorney’s office were set to meet this week to determine which would have jurisdiction once Mayers has recovered sufficiently to face what will likely be both murder and attempted murder charges.
“This was an isolated, violent incident,” Beck said. “Ninety-nine percent of Rainbows are peace-loving. Most of the participants are outcasts of America and they come together, even though they are so broken.
“When they come together, they become a whole, they become family,” he said. “For some of these kids, Rainbow is all the families they have, all that they can call family.”
‘I refuse to see ours as a tragedy’
In Dice’s case, he was indeed broken, having lost portions of an arm and leg in a July 2013 train accident, But he has a supportive biological family, and mom Heather and dad Chris, as well as girlfriend Fluffy, have been by his bedside ever since the shooting.
“My son, I think, he’s amazingly awesome,” said Heather. “He’s overcome so many things.”
She recalled how Dice lost much of his right arm, and his left leg below the knee, when he tried to save his girlfriend’s puppy. “He reached up under it but the train caught his hand and drug him a good distance,” his mom said. “Within six months he was back to hopping trains.”
Heather said four generations of her family have been Rainbows, beginning with her father, who first brought her to a gathering in 1977, when she was 7 years old.
“We now are four generations of one blood - dad, daughter, children and grandchildren,” she said, adding that her father still attends gatherings when he is able.
“He’s just beside himself, his heart is breaking,” said Heather.
She has remained stoic over the past week, rarely leaving her son’s side. “He’s fighting some complications but his vitals are fairly stable. Basically we're just waiting,” she said. “He would be very much awake and alert and can communicate, and he’s aware of what’s going on.
“We’ve been here before,” Heather said. “I have seen God move in his life more times than I can ever express. I appreciate medical knowhow, but that is not where our focus is. Our focus is on divine healing.
“My son is alive, and I’m very grateful he is alive. I refuse to see ours as a tragedy,” she said. “Smiley’s family, they're not being given the same hope as we are.”
She said she has not focused on the fact her son’s shooter is resting just down the hall. “We know he’s here,” she said. “I don’t want him to die. I don’t hate him but I want him to hurt as much as my son, I want him to hurt to the point he acknowledges what he has done.
“This is about a brother who lacked self-control,” Heather said. “Instead he was antagonizing the situation. He could have left, we have the woods and we have the road. The shooter could have avoided it.”
Heather said she believes the tensions began at the 2014 A’cola event. “Last year the same guy was angry at my son and his group, and he came up with a fire extinguisher,” she said. “This isn’t just this time. He threatened my son last year but he didn’t carry through with it.
“That somebody would bring a weapon to a peace gathering I can’t fathom why,” she said. “It’s a peace gathering, we’re coming together to pray as one, despite our differences. We work together to build a community about coexisting, and praying for a world that is falling apart. That is what rainbow is.
“I have to stay strong for my son and for his siblings,” Heather said. “I can’t hate the brother. I’m personally not wired to hate people. Right now I’m dealing with an injured son; I’m not dealing with a dead son.”
‘Never had a Rainbow try to hurt me’
Ward, pastor of the Logos Christian Fellowship in Leesburg, traveled up to minister to Heather and her family, who he described as “a strong woman of faith.”
Ward, a Vietnam vet who served there with the 101st Airborne Division in 1967-68, said he first became involved with the Rainbows about two decades ago, as part of his church’s outreach to homeless veterans.
“We went to Ocala and found they were embedded with the Rainbow Family of Light,” he said. “We found they were embedded with hippies, and we made a determination if we’re going to reach veterans, we have to reach the entire group. And we’ve been doing for 20 years.”
He said through his work creating start-up kitchens, providing sleeping bags and blankets, and sharing clothing and camping equipment donated by different veteran organizations in The Villages, he has learned much about each of the Rainbows.
“Smiley was just a really sweet guy, a real genuine hippie,” said Ward. “He was trying to get Dice and the shooter to calm down, this is what I’m told.
“I see more crime locally per capita than I do out there with the Rainbows,” he said. “I don’t think this one incident means there’s violent. We have people who come to gatherings who are as many mentally ill as people in the local community. I’ve never had a Rainbow try to hurt me.”
He said that while the Ocala event is the more “official” of the two events, the A’cola has attracted a sizeable number of Rainbows, but that he understood that 2014 was supposed to be its last. He said he was informed that it was taking place right before it was set to commence, and so he brought up water and supplies.
In Tallahassee, Heather said Dice’s family appreciates all the show of love, but that additional visitors would probably only complicate the situation. Funds have been set up on www.gofundme, both to help offset Smiley’s funeral expenses (Please help get Jacob Cardwell Home) and to help Dice’s family (Dice’s Recovery Fund).
“It isn’t easy,” said Heather. “He’s my baby. He smiled at me today and that was awesome that he smiled. I want him to make me ,laugh again like he always has and right now he can’t.
“I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and I believe we have to lift each other up and love each other,. My answer to everything is prayer, and faith moves mountains,” she said. “I have learned to to turn anxiety to peace. There is a god and he is walking with us and if you cry out to him he’s there and he will give you refuge.”