Nearly everyone on Samish Island knew Chuck Davis, a bighearted retiree who lived in the handsome gray shingle house with the best view of Samish Bay. But almost no one on Samish Island had ever even seen Lane, Chuck’s 33-year-old son — until the sunny day last July when they heard a woman’s screams, and saw Lane come staggering out of the front door covered in blood.
As his neighbors rushed outside, the pale, bearded, thickset man took a few slow steps into the street. One neighbor ran toward the Davis house, flashing a pistol. He ordered Lane to stop moving.
A siren pealed, and Lane Davis went down on his knees at the edge of a grass driveway. The woman wailing was his mother, Catherine. Chuck Davis lay on the back deck with his eyes open, dead, blood from the stab wounds in his chest and neck seeping between the slats. As the sheriff’s deputy led Lane away, Catherine knelt over her husband’s body, a neighbor recalled. “I’m sorry,” she said as she looked into his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
At the sheriff’s office in Mount Vernon, Lane promptly confessed to killing his father. The state of Washington charged him with first-degree murder, meaning it would have been premeditated. Lane pleaded not guilty.
The slaying shocked Samish, a remote, 2,000-person village of wealthy empty nesters, vacationing Seattleites, burrowed-in natives, and wind-chapped oyster farmers. Catherine and Chuck Davis, whom the local paper referred to as “Mr. Samish,” had almost never spoken publicly about their adult son, except to apologize to neighbors for the screaming arguments that sometimes came from inside the house, puncturing the island quiet. And Samish Island, nestled dazzlingly between two bays and enclosed by a ring of thick Douglas firs, is a place where people don’t pry.
In the following days, people coming to pay their respects to Catherine saw hints of the reclusive life Lane had been living: dozens of empty beer bottles and piles of refuse hauled out of his wing of the house. Local news stories gestured at a dark conflict over Lane’s beliefs; Chuck Davis had apparently called his son a racist and a Nazi just before he died.
Lane was immersed in the digital chaos of reactionary culture and politics that has become an inescapable part of American life. Writing under the name “Seattle4Truth,” Lane was an indefatigable culture warrior and a wildly inventive conspiracist. He left a footprint online as wide and weird as his imprint on the physical world was small and sad: hundreds of YouTube videos, thousands of tweets, hundreds of blog posts, hundreds of Reddit comments, and most of all years of chats — Slack messages and Google Hangouts — with his fellow travelers.
But none of those people, the ones who called him Seattle, the ones who called him a friend, had met Lane in person. None of them knew, nor would most of them know for months, what he had done to his father. And none of them had any idea what this man they spent all day online with was capable of.
I knew Lane. I knew him as a guy who kicked around some of the pro-Trump, anti–social justice internet communities that I’ve reported on since 2014. Like a lot of people in those volatile spaces, Lane bore grudges, which made him useful as an occasional source. Unlike a lot of people in those spaces, and despite being a fabulist, Lane understood how to weaponize information, which made him even more useful, and a little scary. From early 2016 to summer 2017, we emailed regularly and talked occasionally. As with most sources, Lane had some tips that were good and some that weren’t. But even if nothing he told me ever led to a blockbuster story, he was smart and he understood his world well — talking to him was never a waste of time. I thought I understood him about as well as I needed to.
Last October, a conservative blogger discovered a local news story about Chuck Davis’s killing. He spread the word on Twitter, including another shocking detail: Before stabbing his father to death, Lane had loudly accused his parents of being “leftist pedophiles.”
There’s a whole universe in those two words, one that Americans unfamiliar with the rhetoric of the internet culture wars might not recognize.
The right-wing media has long tried to discredit identity politics by claiming the concept is a slippery slope that ends in the recognition of inherently ridiculous groups. A few years ago, though, a new class of social media bomb-throwers started to seize on pedophilia as a particularly inflammatory identity. On Twitter and in places like 4chan's /pol/ board, they began to claim that acceptance of pedophilia was the true, secret goal of liberal politics, the hellish endpoint to Black Lives Matter and transgender bathroom laws. This line of attack became frighteningly literal in 2016, when a man with a gun showed up at a Washington, DC, pizza parlor that online conspiracy theorists claimed was the hub of a massive pedophilia ring — run by Democratic Party officials. A month later, another man showed up at a nearby pizzeria claiming he was there to “save the kids” and “finish what the other guy didn't.”
That’s the language Lane reportedly summoned as he was about to stab his father. A spate of articles quickly followed, thick with a “murder by internet” subtext.
When I learned of the killing, it made certain things snap into place: Lane had abruptly stopped responding to my emails and phone calls. His accounts had fallen silent for months. I had assumed Lane, older than a lot of his cohorts and maybe losing energy after the election, had moved onto something else. Now I knew the real reason he fell out of touch: He was sitting in a jail cell.
Long before a neo-Nazi at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville allegedly killed a counterprotester named Heather Heyer, it had been clear to many observers that the sheer amount of anger and fear fueling the circa 2016 alt-right would eventually lead to physical violence. More than once it occurred to me that one of my sources might be involved. But I never thought it would be Seattle4Truth.
Most of my correspondence with Lane was unremarkable — a tip here, a heads-up there. Once he did me a kindness by letting me know that my doxx (basically a file with my address and contact information that could be used to harass me) was making the rounds. I was vaguely aware that Lane’s output online was unhinged. But was it any more so than, say, certain beet-colored conspiracy barkers whom the president has praised? Over the years I’ve had a handful of sources who were less lucid than Lane. We all perform different versions of ourselves on the internet, and I found the contrast between Lane’s content and the way he communicated with me so strong that I thought his “Seattle” character was mostly shtick.
I began to wonder about the people who spent all day online with Lane. Lane had worked as the political editor for a culture war shock site called the Ralph Retort. It had been a hub for some of the most malignant trolls on the internet — including people who had sent me violent anti-Semitic threats in the past. I hadn’t taken this rhetoric seriously for two reasons: First, there is so much of it that to dwell on it would be paralyzing, and second, the people behind it almost always claim to be trolling, testing boundaries, pushing limits. Now that Lane had killed his father in an apparent spasm of conspiratorial pique, it seemed that what was left of that extremist/troll boundary had started to collapse. I wanted to know how the people who lived on its edges were adjusting.
Of course, Lane is also part of a grisly trend. On commuter trains, baseball fields, city streets, and college campuses, the United States has suffered a rash of political violence over the past 18 months — some of it deadly. Each incident adds to a sense that the country is on the verge, or past the point, of an irreversible split. Chuck Davis’s killing can reasonably be seen in the context of this polarized atmosphere — one so intense that some right-wing politicians and media figures are now openly and graphically speculating about civil war. Yet it’s much too simple to explain the act simply by pointing to Lane’s life online. Lots of people marinate in the toxic sludge that gave us Pizzagate and QAnon (a conspiracy theory about a secret grand plan by the Trump administration to destroy its enemies) without going out and stabbing anyone. And this wasn’t just any killing, this was the killing of a parent, among the most personal and extreme acts of violence a person can commit.
I went to try to find some answers about Lane. I discovered that his life leading up to the killing — isolated, dependent, resentful, and ruled by the perverse incentives of internet content production — has much to tell us about the kind of man for whom the new fringes of American life are most dangerous. In his room, online, as a combatant in an endless culture war, Lane found what had eluded him everywhere else in life: a sense of purpose. And then something happened that threatened to take it all away.
In February 2016, Lane emailed Milo Yiannopoulos to ask for a job.
“The culture war has been my life for the past year and a half,” he wrote. “Destroying the social-justice ideology and exposing their lies has given me a reason to live. At this point, it defines me. It’s everything I live for and care about, other than having a roof over my head.”
Lane wasn’t exaggerating. Like so many others, he had joined the late-Obama-era culture wars through Gamergate, the often radical online campaign that claimed to be concerned with ethics in gaming journalism. And he was there from the start, actively participating in a chatroom called Burgers and Fries, members of which more or less astroturfed the start of the movement through well-placed hashtags and well-timed confrontations. Here, Lane would have learned how a small group of dedicated people could compel an enormous, participatory audience by wielding an ever-expanding conspiracy theory about liberal influence.
He already had a half decade of experience as a digital conspiracy theorist. Lane’s first YouTube video, posted in November 2009, suggested that the US government deliberately exposed the population to swine flu. He was just getting started. A survey of Lane’s YouTube output over the next two years reveals a litany of tinfoil hat theories. Among those he touted: The Oklahoma City bombing was a false flag, the Rothschild family leads a secret global government, George H.W. Bush had a role in the JFK assassination, public drinking water is a vector for mind-controlling lithium, burning jet fuel can’t melt steel beams. He posted a clip of Alex Jones speaking at a 9/11 truther conference. And yet there was a sliver of self-awareness: Lane posted anti–conspiracy theorist videos as proof that there was a conspiracy against conspiracy theorists. The current age of crowdsourced, discursive, politically motivated, just-barely-winking misinformation could not have suited him better.
Lane was as gifted at creating new theories as he was at regurgitating old ones. His breakthrough came in the form of a three-hour, 20-minute video titled “#GamerGate: Actually, it’s about...” The May 2015 video, which cuts from talks at tech conferences to journal articles to Twitter screenshots, advances a mind-bogglingly complex theory linking the geopolitics of the late Bush and early Obama years to a plot by elite institutions to take control of the American education system through an open source gaming console called the Ouya.
This video put him on the radar of Ethan Ralph, a Richmond, Virginia blogger who was one of Yiannopoulos’s links to the aggrieved nerd culture that he rode to internet stardom. Ralph posted the Gamergate video to his site, the Ralph Retort, and shortly thereafter invited Lane into a Skype group, where friends and contributors gathered to gossip and share incendiary stories. Lane began writing for the site in October 2015, and he was good at it. The hundreds of hours he had poured into his conspiracy videos made him unusually adept at combing through Google results, academic databases, and social media for nuggets of information. Ralph immediately noticed Lane’s ability to find news stories and his “insanely good” research skills.
So did Yiannopoulos, who treated culture war nerve centers like the Ralph Retort as a farm system for cheap — or free — labor. By the end of 2015, Lane had been added to Yiannopoulos’s roiling Slack, Project Milo. In February, Lane invoiced him for work as a speechwriter and ghostwriter on Yiannopoulos’s book. Yiannopoulos encouraged Lane to send him tips, writing jokingly in response to one such email that he was aroused by good dirt: “I have a semi already.” He also got Lane part-time work for the conservative think tank the Capital Research Center, for which Lane produced a report on the political correctness of the MacArthur Foundation. (After the murder, the CRC removed Davis’s byline from the report.) In an email to his contact at the CRC, Yiannopoulos described Lane as “One of my most gifted researchers. Total autodidact...hugely smart.”
Yiannopoulos forwarded Lane’s email to Noah Dulis, his coeditor of the Breitbart Tech vertical, with a note: “Read this. I really fucking want this guy.” There was only one problem. “He’s the guy who said nigger on a live stream one time.” Racist views per se were not the problem; Yiannopoulos at the time was actively coordinating Breitbart coverage with white nationalists. But those views were supposed to be kept just below the surface. Lane didn’t get the job.
He was stuck at home, with no college degree, few marketable skills, and fewer prospects. “I’m not worth shit in today’s economy,” he had written Yiannopoulos previously.
Lane’s work history is murky. He dropped out of Washington State. In his late teens and early twenties, Lane told people, he dabbled in Islam, in Marxism, in street gangs, in party drugs, in Occupy, in clothing design. He even went through a phase of supporting al-Qaeda, multiple friends say. None of it stuck. He registered a business called Holla Back LLC in 2009 in Seattle; he later told friends online that he had been in the urban apparel business, but there’s no evidence the company produced anything. Lane wrote to Yiannopoulos and told others online that he had been earning six figures working at an aluminum smelter near until 2014, when he claimed he was laid off.
It’s unclear if losing his job is what forced Lane to move back home — but something did, and he was ashamed of his living situation, as he admitted to friends online, complaining that it was hard getting used to not having ample spending money. Lane clearly saw Breitbart as a way out. After the rejection, he told people that Yiannopoulos had not paid him for his work and that he was a lying carpetbagger; the trash talk got back to Yiannopoulos, who removed Lane from Project Milo.
(After the killing, Yiannopoulos put out a statement claiming that he had cut Lane out because he was “unhappy with his work.”)
“Lane was a proud guy,” a frequent writer for the Ralph Retort told me. “The Milo thing got him really, really down.”
It was around that time that he first emailed me.
Lane for several months spent less time in chats, telling online friends that he was smoking a huge amount of weed. Eventually, though, he turned his full energy to the Ralph Retort. Ethan Ralph couldn’t pay Lane to write for his site — he could barely pay himself — but it was a natural fit, a sensational publication where internet rumors sometimes outnumbered facts and the number one target was social justice warriors. The men bonded over their shared political trajectory.
“Before Gamergate I was a pretty standard liberal or even a socialist,” Ralph told me. “I’d write hit pieces on right-wing figures. It was a hobby. But when Gamergate broke out and I got an audience that happened to be more reactionary, I thought, It’s my job to do propaganda for Gamergate. The ethics in video game journalism stuff, I didn’t care about that.”
Ralph had stumbled upon a booming audience hungry for content. Voicey, vicious, and unafraid of publishing unconfirmed material, his site was modeled after an outlet that was, ironically, one of the Ralph Retort’s most frequent targets: Gawker. And if you were creating a Gawker for young internet reactionaries, your perfect contributor might look something like Lane Davis: internet-obsessed, prolific, fluent in the culture wars, and with a strong point of view.
Throughout 2016, Lane wrote dozens of stories for the Ralph Retort: about “#BLM Goons,” about assassins sent to silence Julian Assange, about Hillary Clinton’s failing health. He worked for long stretches, 24 hours, 36 hours at a time, peppering the Ralph Retort Slack with messages the whole while. And the more content he posted, the angrier he became about SJWs.
“He saw progressives as completely evil,” Ralph said. “He thought there might be a civil war and we might have to kill these people. He would get pretty gung ho about it.”
In September 2015, Lane put out a video titled “Progress: Pedophilia” with the caption “The shocking truth about the left's academic and political ties with pedophilia advocacy.” It starts with a Yiannopoulos article about an obscure Gamergate critic who claimed in a 2005 private chat to be a pedophile, then goes on to make a claim that promoting pedophilia was a “hidden tenet” of the progressive movement. Lane hadn’t posted previously about pedophilia, but the video got more than 8,000 views, 10 times what his uploads typically received, and the comments section quickly filled up with appreciative voices asking Lane for more.
“Friends, with exponential growth maximum degeneracy is just around the corner. Start prepping and organizing now,” wrote one commenter.
“Good video, appreciate the digging. Keep it up,” wrote another.
From that point on, liberal ties to pedophilia became a main thread in Lane’s conspiratorial tapestry, one that could completely set him off. Ralph hosted frequent livestreams, hourlong streaming bullshit sessions with contributors to his site. In a May 2016 stream, Lane got in a heated debate with another Ralph-world regular, CehBeachActual, about the future of gender-neutral bathrooms. Lane accused CehBeachActual of advocating for such facilities so he could spy on little girls.
“Pedo Marxist piece of shit!” Lane screamed. “I’ll stab your bitch ass if I ever see you.”
Ralph told himself that this was just Seattle being Seattle, possibly trolling at a very high level, a kind of half-crazed play-fighting that made for entertaining content and therefore a better site. And watching the livestream, it’s easy to understand how Ralph could have come to that convenient conclusion; even as Lane yelled about pedophilia, he was half smiling, nearly giggling, seemingly aware of how absurd the conversation was. The dynamic in the stream, with Ralph and others egging Lane on, then imploring him to calm down, is telling, and done with such a practiced rhythm by everyone involved that it scans as a performance.
Still, incidents like this one gave some in Ralph’s world misgivings, including one hardened troll who normally wouldn’t think twice about unhinged behavior on the internet. A member of the notorious troll group the Bill Waggoner Crew and a contributor to the Ralph Retort, WildGoose spoke to me on the condition that I not use his real name; he said he recognized in Lane signs of someone with a tenuous hold on reality.
“I talked to Ralph about it but he wasn’t really listening,” WildGoose said. “He told me Lane was writing all these cool articles and bringing in traffic.”
WildGoose never thought Lane’s anger and his conspiratorial flights of fancy were just part of a character — and worse, he thought that Lane getting rewarded for his antisocial behavior was causing him to double down on it. And it wasn’t just in the YouTube comments section. In Ralph’s Slack, Goose said, amused posters goaded Lane into conspiratorial freakouts, giving him more attention as his monologues became more elaborate and intense.
“I started to understand it was part of his personality,” WildGoose told me. “Crazy attracts crazy. And people feed each others’ delusions on the internet.”
Online, Lane had found a community that encouraged his flamboyant conspiracizing, giving him attention and approval for his wild outbursts. But offline, he lived under the roof of a man with whom he had seemingly nothing in common.
Chuck Davis was an outdoorsman from small-town Washington, a former merchant marine who spent much of his leisure time on boats, crabbing and fishing. His neighbors described a stoic leader who helped others without calling attention to himself. Lane was a loner who spent almost all of his time indoors, wore hoop earrings and designer sunglasses, drove around Samish Island blasting hip-hop, and spoke, as one neighbor said to me, like a “homie G.” Chuck was married for nearly 40 years to Catherine, a private woman and a dedicated runner. (They had run the Honolulu marathon together on their honeymoon.) Lane once bragged about dumping a woman because she wasn’t sufficiently anti-SJW. Chuck was a successful maritime attorney who moved his family from a large home in the affluent Queen Anne section of Seattle to Samish Island in 2000, when Lane was in his early teens. Lane had been unemployed for years.
Lane told friends the two men could hardly be in the same room without fighting, with each provoking the other and neither able to let a political argument go. Lane described to an online friend an almost unbearably tense atmosphere, in which every meal had the potential to turn into a screaming match. (Through two intermediaries, Catherine expressed to me in very clear terms that she does not want to speak about Lane.)
“They had a very rough, very contentious relationship,” the friend said. “If we happened to start chatting, he would often say, ‘Well, I was just screaming at my dad or he was just screaming at me.’” The friend said Lane saw his father as a very progressive leftist. “And Lane was outspoken against that and they would frequently clash at the table. The mother would be crying.”
The friend said Lane told him of fights that ended with Chuck Davis kicking him out of the house for days at a time, during which Lane said he would couch surf with friends — though he never specified which ones. Sometimes the fighting got so loud Chuck would walk sheepishly over to his neighbors’ homes to apologize for the raised voices.
Friends from the internet tried to get Lane, lamenting his joblessness and railing against his parents, out of the house. WildGoose offered to take Lane with him to Alaska to get work on a fishing crew for the summer. “He didn’t want anything to do with it,” Goose said. A Slack friend encouraged him to move to Seattle, where there were more jobs, but Lane said that instead the friend should quit his job and start a news website with him — or else leave him alone. A poster named Adezero had a flirty DM relationship with Lane but could not coax him into getting on a flight to come see her in Michigan. “I think he was pretty content to make YouTube videos and write all day,” she told me. “I don’t think he had any intention of changing what he was doing.”
But for all of his work, Lane wasn’t getting paid, and because he wasn’t getting paid, he was stuck in his father’s home. He made the family conflict sound dire enough that Ralph and his wife, Nora — also an active member of their group chats — begged Lane to calm down, to change the subject from politics. Ralph said he had gotten pretty good at defusing Lane, at least temporarily. But eventually he would come back into the chat, sputtering with anger at Chuck.
“He told me, ‘My dad is a piece of shit,’” Ralph told me. “He saw him as a subhuman type. He definitely had hatred for his father.”
Lane was quick to demonize people, including coworkers in the Ralph Retort Slack. “I got into confrontations with Seattle a bunch of times,” WildGoose said. “He really clashed with a lot of people. He had a hard time accepting criticism. The minute you go off track or question his logic at all, you’re dead to him, you’re the enemy of the week.” Lane had Adezero thrown out of the Ralph Retort Slack after she called him “crazy” for his extreme devotion to Donald Trump.
In September 2016, Ralph was arrested following a drunken scuffle with a police officer, and was sentenced to eight months in county jail. Nora, who lives in London, turned to Lane to help her with the day-to-day operations of the site. It was the chance he had been waiting for.
Although Lane was an unemployed 33-year-old living with his parents, he was, in a way, ambitious. He could do research and he could write clean copy, which, as WildGoose said, put him a cut above most of the conspiracy internet. His articles were getting picked up by Alex Jones’ Prison Planet website. He started to believe that turning himself into a culture war celebrity was the way not just off of Samish, but into a pile of money.
“He envisioned having his own internet empire,” a source who knew Lane well told me, and making “beaucoup bucks off of it.”
“He wanted to be his own Mike Cernovich,” WildGoose said. “He felt like he wasn’t getting the amount of exposure and clout that he deserved.”
With Ralph in jail and sharing the reins to the website, Lane picked up the pace of his contributions.
“We were keeping traffic up pretty high,” Nora said. “Infowars was picking up our stories every day — Lane would have gotten hired by them if he had stuck it out.”
Lane’s skills as a video producer had grown more sophisticated. He added “Seattle4Truth” preroll branding and slicker graphics. He delivered his scripts in a staccato monotone that sounded cribbed from the nightly news. He had gotten the hang of the conservative outrage cycle, learned to prune his videos down to 90 or 120 alarming seconds. He was building a brand.
As he worked more feverishly, Lane zeroed in on a single theme: the danger progressive groups posed to the nation through pedophilia and violent crime. In the first months of the Trump administration — about which Lane told friends he was ecstatic — his videos circled back again and again to the dual threats of antifa and Black Lives Matter. He posted several videos about stabbings he attributed to those groups, zooming in on gruesome close-ups of wounds. Another video, citing a Daily Caller piece that tied liberal protesters to NAMBLA, claimed to expose “Progressive ideology's deep ties to pedophilia.” In the world of Seattle4Truth, a violent, perverted culture war wasn’t just on the horizon — it had already arrived. And if you were good at looking for it, there was fresh evidence every day.
By the summer of 2017, Lane had started to find evidence of that liberal plot at home. On July 4, according to neighbors, Lane, a talented cook, had prepared all the food for the extended Davis family meal. Chuck and Catherine told neighbors it was a sign of progress: Lane usually stayed in his room when they had company.
And yet the same day, Lane took to Twitter to write, “If you have Democrat family members, never forget that they would prefer if you were dead and in the dirt. They hate you.”
Hours later he went back on the social network to add, “Democrats want us dead. Even your family and friends. Why bother with civility.”
Ten days later, the morning of Friday, July 14, Chuck Davis texted a neighbor to make plans to go out on his boat; the next day was the start of crabbing season. Lane, meanwhile, stewed in the Ralph Retort Slack over a Teen Vogue article in which he discerned further evidence of a left-wing pedophilia plot.
“It was message after message of Lane going crazy over this,” Nora Ralph said.
What happened next isn’t clear. Neighbors said that Catherine told them she and Chuck had given Lane an ultimatum: Get some kind of help or move out of the house. And at some point early that afternoon, Lane put a message in Ralph Retort Slack claiming that his parents had called the police on him, and that they wanted him gone.
At 3:37 p.m., Catherine Davis called 911 to report that her “adult son who lives in our home is screaming at us.” In a tape of the call, first obtained by the Daily Beast, Lane can be heard in the background. His voice was high and thin, panicky, distressed, desperate. “This is an actual fact,” he cried. “This is an actual fact.” The 911 dispatcher asked Catherine if Lane “has some mental history.” Catherine responded: “No, not recorded, but he’s not working and he just gets on these rants and he needs to move on or something.” Catherine told the dispatcher that they were trying to avoid Lane, but that he was chasing them around the house, confronting them. “He’s mad at something on the internet about leftist pedophiles,” she said. “And he thinks we’re leftists and he’s calling us pedophiles.” The dispatcher said that deputies were on the way. They hung up. Catherine called back.
“He stabbed him,” she moaned.
When Nora Ralph stopped hearing from Lane, she also assumed he had “fucked off.” It was the internet, after all, and Lane was wild, hard to predict. Nora was sitting in her apartment in London drinking tea when she found out about the killing. She spoke on the phone to Ethan, in jail in Virginia, the same day. He was near tears and she was sobbing.
“I was really upset,” she said. “I cried the whole day. I was so angry and sad. I felt grief. I know a lot of people will tell you he was unstable from the start, but that’s not true. He was a nice guy.”
Nora took all of Lane’s writing down from the Ralph Retort; she and Ethan said they didn’t want to sell ads against any of it. The Ralphs also published a series of statements about his arrest. Nora, with unattributed help from WildGoose, initially wrote:
“Lane Davis was a 33-year-old unemployed loser who lived with his parents and had no income to speak of. The man he murdered is the sole reason he was able to subsist at all. He had some volatile anger issues which are evident in the many YouTube streams he’s been present on. He’s also made threats and wild unfounded accusations against a lot of people over the past few years. I thought it was all in jest, but hindsight is always 20-20.”
This was followed by a more conciliatory statement from Ethan, which he dictated to Nora. It read, in part:
"This case is a reminder that sometimes we should take a step back, and remember that politics aren’t everything. Don’t let them ruin relationships with your friends and family. It’s not worth it. Hug those around you that you love a little closer tonight, especially loved ones that you disagree with politically. Lord knows I wish I could embrace my wife and mother right now. So, don’t take it for granted."
Lane was Ralph’s friend, and in the days and weeks that followed, he started to feel that he had let Lane down. Ralph, who had struggled with drugs, had issues with his own father, and hadn’t found a career outside of shit-talking on the internet — “I know I’m never going to be respectable,” he told me — couldn’t help but hurt for Lane. He thought, in dark moments, that he might have been able to talk Lane down the afternoon of the killing.
“It makes me sad,” Ralph told me. “I know what it’s like to be disconnected.”
If the Ralphs felt guilt over the killing, though, they felt an equal amount of anger and bewilderment. It astounded them that Lane had been serious all along. No one could really believe, they thought, in a Marxist plot to enforce pedophilia with antifa shock troops.
“He completely ruined his life with some stupid internet shit,” Ralph said. “He didn’t get the game.”
“I watch Alex Jones,” Nora told me. “To me, that’s entertainment. We don’t really think the frogs are gay. I don’t think the protein powder works. I never thought some people watch this stuff and are like, yes, this is hard-hitting journalism. I thought most of us could distinguish between entertainment and facts. I never really thought people were stupid enough to get caught up in this stuff.”
Ralph, who lost more than 75 pounds in jail, expressed to me before his release a desire to dial back the hyperbole and to exercise greater control over his site — to never let a person like Lane in his orbit again. Anyways, he said, more mainstream figures like Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson had harnessed the cultural energy of the 2016 alt-right and channeled it in politer directions. He knew he would have to find a new shtick.
But then in the months since his release, Ralph has turned much of his attention to his nightly Super Chat, a YouTube livestream with paid comments. It’s called the Killstream, and after a slow start, it’s now booming. In June, Ralph had Richard Spencer on as a guest. Meanwhile, WildGoose has in recent weeks appeared on a popular Swedish white nationalist stream advocating for victims of pit bull attacks, part of a campaign that others have used to paint minorities as predisposed to violence.
“You have to kill your empathy when you do this shit,” Ralph said.
Lane Davis pleaded not guilty to first-degree — premeditated — murder. Lane’s parents were his only source of support. Premeditation would mean that Lane planned to kill the person who kept him housed, fed, clothed, and connected to the internet. Chuck and Catherine Davis had threatened to take all of that away directly before the killing.
Though the Davis family is wealthy, Catherine Davis is not paying for her son’s defense, and a source in the Skagit County Public Defender’s Office, which represents Lane, told me that the family has disowned him. (Lane was not mentioned alongside the Davis family's other children in Chuck's obituary.) The same source told me the family has barely been in contact with the Skagit County prosecutor. Lane won’t accept a visit from me, either remotely or in person, on the advice of his lawyer. Though a trial is set for October, the case could very well end in a plea, a quiet end to a tragedy in a quiet place.
The source in the public defender’s office warned me that to link Chuck Davis’s killing too closely to online radicalization would be a mistake. This was a case, this person told me, about family dynamics and undiagnosed mental illness — no more, no less.
Those family dynamics were real. But the way Lane expressed them — calling his parents leftist pedophiles, of all things — was the unmistakably specialized discourse of his Manichean subculture. “History is 100% narrative, 0% truth,” Lane tweeted a month before the killing. The narratives of Lane’s material life were grim: dropout, loser, loner, stoner, failure, shut-in, punchline. Exposing the endless lies and schemes of the social justice warriors, he had written Milo Yiannopoulos, had given him a reason to live, a story in which he mattered. And in the moment Chuck and Catherine jeopardized Lane’s connection to that story, he flattened his parents into its villains. In the end, of course it would be liberal pedophiles who wanted to disarm — to silence — Seattle4Truth.
On a recent sunny day outside the Skagit County jail, across the street from a marijuana dispensary called the Bud Hut, a man who had just been released asked me for a lighter. He was carrying his possessions in a vacuum-sealed package and his face was covered in sores. I showed him a picture of Lane on my phone.
“Oh yeah, I know that guy,” the man said. They had been on the same cellblock. The man wouldn’t tell me his name, but he said that inside, Lane was a typical inmate, nothing strange about him. He played cards regularly with a group of guys who had been there for a while and would be there for a while longer. It struck me that Lane had probably experienced more consistent human contact in jail than he had in years.
I left the jail and drove northwest into the Skagit Valley, past potato farms and through a tiny town known for its artisanal graham crackers. At the lip of the farmland, Samish Island rises. I drove up into it, to the house where Lane immured himself: big but not quite a mansion, perched over a quiet rocky beach at the end of America. It was here that another neighbor told me she saw Lane once, hurrying by, so pale he seemed to shine. Sitting on the stones, I thought about Lane, who spent years seething about lies on the computer when literally right outside his window was this place, peaceful, glorious, and real.
Then I started thinking about the forces that kept Lane inside, seething on the computer, and realized how powerful they must have been: the fear, the hopelessness, the resentment, and the feedback loop more and more of us can’t seem to escape. I thought about all of the circumstances, structural, personal, and cosmic, that if changed, might have prevented him from destroying his family. And in the end, I wondered how many more lost and angry American men there are just like him. ●
This post has been updated to clarify the relationship between WildGoose and an anti-minority Twitter campaign.
Ethan Ralph was based in Richmond, Virginia, when Lane Davis came to his attention. A previous version of this article misstated the location as South Carolina, where had lived previously. And although he did dictate a statement to his wife, Nora, to post on his website, it was not the one originally mentioned in this article. That statement was written by Nora Ralph with unattributed help from WildGoose. Both statements are now included here.